Hope for a hopeless marriage

Another guest post by Angel Davis, my friend and collaborator in ministry. In this blog she shares how her marriage was transformed by her own decision to lean in and let God transform her life. This is Angel’s testimony:

Not much gets better after 36 years, but I’m happy to say marriage has.

That was my husband, texting with his brother on our anniversary. Those fourteen words are such a sweet gift to me. They are a testimony and a miracle, because there was a time when our marriage could only get better.

About halfway into these thirty-six years, I was ready to walk. Throw in the towel. Start all over with someone new who truly loved me. Someone who would understand me, invest energy in me and help me feel secure. I was sure I would never find these things with my current husband.

I had tried and he had failed.

What stopped me from walking? In a word, Jesus, who I now understand as the author of life and love. He gave me no easy out when I begged for one. He gave me no excuses when I manufactured plenty of them. “God, I’m a counselor. I help other marriages heal and thrive. I’ve tried everything in my own, and it hasn’t worked! The only solution is to leave.”

That argument made perfect sense to me, but True Love stopped me from walking out the door. Believe me when I say that isn’t how I defined it in those days. It didn’t feel like love to me at all. In fact, it felt more like punishment and it made me angry. “Fine, I’ll stay God, and now I’ll be miserable the rest of my life.” I felt bitter, rejected, unloved, dissatisfied, not understood — all fruits of a selfish spirit. I had no idea what True Love was or where it came from.

Oh, I thought I knew! I thought I knew what love was and what “fair” was and what I needed. After all, I’m a licensed counselor! I know all these things for other people. And I’m a student of the Bible. I ought to know for myself, too … right?

What I discovered was that while I knew a lot of things in my head, I knew almost nothing in my heart, where it counts. I had not had a transformational, personal encounter with Love Himself around the issue of my marriage. I had not surrendered that to the One who changes hearts, changes perspectives, changes lives.

Eighteen years later, so much has changed. I am still married to the same man I once wanted to leave, but inside this marriage I have experienced love I never knew existed. I have a sense of security and assurance I didn’t know before, and a deep peace beyond anything I could have hoped for. There is contentment. Satisfaction. Belonging. Acceptance. This was the payoff of staying in it and working the plan from God’s angle.

How did it change? You’d think (given my own vocation) we’d immediately get into counseling, but we didn’t. I went to counseling myself for a time and that helped, but I already knew the psychological truths. Mind you, they are good and some are very powerful and beneficial in managing life and making it more tolerable. But all transforming truth ultimately comes from God. He made the heart and only He knows how to care for the heart. So the real change was a heart change. As I leaned in and listened to the Holy Spirit, what I discovered was that I didn’t so much have a marriage problem as a heart problem.

Someone had to go first and in our case it was me. According to his plan and pleasure, God chose to call me first to step up and let him change my heart. As He lovingly hemmed me in, He took me on a journey of heart transformation that changed me permanently. And that change in me brought new life to our once dead marriage.

(Side note: Dead is definitely how I saw what we had. In the season before our transformation, I had diagnosed the marriage and pronounced it dead. As a trained and licensed counselor, you would think I had the insight for that and as a spouse the “right” to it. But guess what? Only the Author of Life can decide when there is no life left. Until then, we had a responsibility to live.)

Had I moved forward with my desire to run, I grieve to think of the tragedy, devastation and lasting effect that would have had on both of us and our children. If I’d done what my selfish heart wanted, today we’d be sitting on separate aisles at our daughters’ weddings, planning separate family holidays, splitting time with grandkids. Family vacations would be near-impossible, not to mention the heart damage — resentments, bitterness, and unresolved anger rippling through the entire family. I grieve to think of our children having to navigate new relationships with their parents, losing their childhood family, finding themselves as adults craving (just as I did) security and assurance.

Those hurts don’t end in adulthood. They are lasting. The world and the enemy of your soul (who cares nothing about your kids or grandkids) will convince you everyone will get over it and be fine. And in some small percentage of cases, that may be true. It is also true that in God’s economy, nothing is lost. In His mercy He redeems everything, even the worst hurts. He can make beauty out of ashes. Divorce is not the ultimate sin.

But dear friends, listen: only God can determine life. We don’t get to decide what is dead and what isn’t. We are not wise enough, smart enough or powerful enough to make that call. No matter how many degrees or how much experience we have, we are not the Author of Life nor the fountainhead of True Love. Only God gets to make that call.

Are you struggling in your closest relationships? Are you wondering if it is time to give something up for dead? Before you make that call, will you allow the Author of marriage and the human heart to have yours today? Will you surrender your expectations and allow Him room to do the deep transformative work only He can do? Here’s the assurance: he will do it, if you allow him, because he specializes in the restoration of things … even something as difficult as your marriage.

What learned from my experience is this: It only takes one person in the hands of a loving God …

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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Faithfulness breeds blessings.

If you are someone’s child (any age) but not yet a parent, you should know that your life has messed with your parents’ heads. Assuming your parents are at least in some way functional people, you have incredible power over them — power you may not realize you have. Yes, your parent will come after you like a spider monkey when you do something wrong but have the school counselor say you have behavioral issues, and your mom will come after her like ten spider monkeys.

Your parents will take a bullet for you without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. They will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch you up and take you home without breaking a sweat. They’ll leave you in jail, even if it rips their heart out over and over to do so, because they want so much more for you than you want for yourself.

They will go without food if it means you will get a better education. Any ER nurse will tell you there is no wrath like the wrath of a mama whose baby is sick. You can make the worst possible mistake — forget to call on Mother’s Day, lie about the person you went on a date with, tell us you hate us — but the next time you cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us we’re the best mom/dad ever, parental amnesia sets in.

The slate wipes clean.

In a way, parental love is like being possessed. It is a fierce love. And while parental love isn’t always biologically bound, it is definitely not the same as the love we have for all children everywhere or even for the other people we love. A parent’s love is different. Fierce. Strong.

So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what faith requires of us when God asks us to have no other gods before him. Because Abraham is possessed. He has parental insanity. He is a one-hundred year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. There is no other story that more accurately and starkly paints what God means when he tells us to love him with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength.

Abraham’s love for that boy is surely a fierce love yet, knowing what he is asking of this man, God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into a great nation and you will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together, the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

“Abraham,” God seems to say, “This is what faith means. It is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it.”

Can you imagine what that offer must have felt like for a man who would take a bullet for his son, who would walk into the thick of a violent mob to pull him out, who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Isaac was probably not a child at this point. Some say he could have been as old as thirty, certainly old enough to know that wood for a sacrifice needs a lamb to go with it. Isaac says to his daddy, “I see the wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham, with the full weight of mature faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and replies, “The Lord himself will provide the sacrifice.”

At the top of the mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together and Isaac allows Abraham to lay him up on it. Isaac didn’t have to do this. Surely he could have muscled his way out if he’d wanted to but Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God, not on personal tastes.

We wonder how a man can lay his child up on a pile of firewood but as it turns out, this is how it is in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To save our children’s lives, we have to be willing to put God above them at any cost. To save our families, our marriages, our reputations, our country, our you-name-it, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

This is what Abraham’s story shows us about the Kingdom of God: Faithfulness breeds blessings, the kind that pour out over your children and your children’s children. The kind that raise dead things, that redeem relationships, that restore purpose and health. The kind that change the world.

The blessings of God will always run through a fire fueled by faith. Make no mistake about this: anything else that looks like blessing is merely a cheap imitation.

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Churches are Not McDonalds Any More

How do you choose a church? Does the label matter? UMC, PCA, SBC? Is it style that does it for you?  Or do you focus more on what they teach and believe?

In the world before denominations began to disintegrate (and they are, but that’s not the real point of this post), people largely chose their churches based on the label.  I am United Methodist (or Presbyterian, or Primitive Baptist), so that’s the label I’m looking for. To a much greater degree, we could count on a church with a given label to look like all the other churches with that label. Sort of like McDonalds, which (at least in the U.S.) serves the same hamburger, no matter which state you buy it in.

That was then.  This is now.

In this post-denominational culture, two churches with the same label can be radically different in style and theology.  While we may grieve the decline of a more predictable world, this might actually be a good thing.

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again?

Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. Rather than trusting the brand to be exactly what we expect (like at McDonalds), we will engage each individual church culture discerningly, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

Dr. Joe Dongell, one of my all-time favorite professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, has assembled what he calls twelve essential features of a Wesleyan mind. After making this list, Dongell concluded that he’d still missed what Wesley himself might call the defining mark of a Methodist: love of God and people (both neighbor and enemy).

Acknowledging that love is the prize, I offer his list here for those who want to better understand what it means to live with an emphasis on holiness of heart and life:

  1. Wesley was a man of one book. He called himself at one point a Bible bigot (someone focused upon and devoted to the Bible). For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of all truth. In contemporary circles, the Bible has been devalued to the point of being called “a valued resource.”
  2. Wesley did value reason, tradition and experience, but scripture has final authority.
  3. Wesley was Arminian, which means he was convinced we were created with a measure of free will.
  4. Wesley viewed the process of salvation optimistically. God can do amazing things, and can do them in you and me. God’s grace is so vibrant, so rich, that we can be changed in very real ways.
  5. Wesley viewed the human being as perfectible in certain ways.
  6. Wesley was convinced that all progress in the spiritual life comes through the means of grace. God has revealed pathways in which we walk, so we confidently embrace these paths. And possibly at the pinnacle of these means is the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesley believed all progress in the Christian life comes within the company of believers. We progress within the crucible of accountability and community.
  8. Wesley was convinced that every human being is desired by God to be saved, and God is constantly at work pursuing every human being. God is at work reconciling the world to himself.
  9. Wesley insisted that poor and marginalized people be cared for and that their suffering be relieved in both body and soul.
  10. Wesley was convinced that God desired to ensure our trust in our salvation. We can know we belong to him, not only through rational confirmation but also through the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit.
  11. Wesley knew that the transforming grace of God works at the deepest level of my being — beneath intellect and choice to the place of our affections (the deepest set of inclinations we have). God has the power to affect us and reorient us at a deeper level than our will, at the level of our core. Can I come to love holiness and be sickened by unholiness? Can I discover a delight in the deeper things of God?
  12. Wesley believed we must always embrace a catholic spirit. “If your heart is with me, give me your hand.” We must find ways to cooperate meaningfully even with those with whom we disagree.

Of course, I’m unashamedly biased about all these things. I happen to think highly of this way of looking at God and the world. When it was preached in its purest form, this worldview spread like wildfire across the early American landscape. Sitting recently between two twenty-somethings at a conference focused on Wesleyan theology, I was so greatly encouraged to see that this way is still just as engaging today.

If you’re looking for a place to worship and call home, I can’t do better than to offer the above thoughts as a litmus test as you discern.

Because these days, the label doesn’t count like it used to.

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