I was afraid to write this article for several reasons. I didn’t want to write out of self-justification, trying to set the record straight that my divorce was not my fault. I didn’t want to fall into the spirit of the age that glibly airs private grievances publicly. I didn’t want to glorify my own self-pity. I didn’t want to tempt readers to gossip or slander.
But I’m writing my story because I also know that divorce is both horrific and also far too common, that sin is real, and that we need honest portrayals of divorce in the church and in pastors’ lives in a way that exalts the mercy of Christ in its savage beauty.
Hopefully, my story will help you to feel less alone in your own story or to better love someone who is grieving a divorce.
The basic and public facts are that my wife of 12 years and mother to our three children left the faith and subsequently decided to pursue a divorce. Having left the church already, she did not feel obligated to provide biblical grounds. Though her departure from our marriage didn’t come as a shock, and I know I failed in many ways to be a Christlike husband, I was committed to pursuing the union. Unfortunately, however, our divorce was finalized last year.
This is my story of what God taught me. I’ll list six lessons.
1. I had to learn how to grieve.
Even though Christians more than anyone else should know how to lament (the suffering and death of God incarnate is at the center of our faith, after all), I had been largely shielded from much personal suffering. My grieving process took many forms. It wasn’t linear, and I often didn’t know when I was actually grieving, nor could I anticipate the next wave of sorrow.
The loss of my life’s dream, the death of the future I had planned on, the loss of so much time with my kids—oh, my kids! The heartache is great.
I can’t imagine surviving my unpredictable grief without God mightily using the Psalms and some precious hymns, such as “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” “Jesus I My Cross Have Taken,” and “I Asked the Lord.” Some days, I could acknowledge their truth. Other days, lying face down as those songs blared over me, I would sing wanting them to be true, hoping them to be true, or, when I didn’t have the faith to believe them, just to needing to hear that others believed them to be true. In the darkness of my grief, I never so desperately needed God.
2. I had to accept unjust suffering.
Having lived my life awash in privilege, the divorce was my first real encounter with suffering and injustice. As I groaned under hardship I had not asked for and could not change, volumes of African American literature piled up on my bedside table. I rediscovered Toni Morrison and James Baldwin—writers with whom I may not agree on every point, but whose experiences helped me to feel less alone. Although the African American experience of suffering obviously has contours and depths unlike my own private grief, I found a balm of solidarity in these writers’ assumption that suffering is part of life.
We never have to pursue suffering, but if we are following after the Crucified One, it will find us. As I experienced unjust suffering, I needed to learn from and be comforted by others who had been forced to walk a hard road.
3. I had to let go of bitterness.
I was bitter and angry for a long time. It still comes and goes. But, eventually, I was able to replace anger with compassion and love, which began freeing me from self-pity. How could I harbor bitterness when the holy and innocent One cried out on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)?
As the Spirit has worked in me, I can now, in good faith, pray for my ex-wife. Though I am far from perfect in extending her goodwill, God has powerfully softened my heart.
4. I had to face my own deep sin.
One church father reputedly said, “He who chooses himself as a spiritual mentor chooses a fool.” Another observed, “I do not know of one fall that did not come because he trusted his own self.” I am part of a wonderful church community and have meaningful accountability that is truthful and gracious, yet too often I fell into sin’s deceitful schemes when I isolated myself. For example, I was naive to sin’s power when I started to consider new romantic feelings. God continues to expose my fragility, vulnerability, and desperate need for him.
My experience does not determine truth.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners! . . . But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; he does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone. “My son, give me thine heart” (Prov. 23:26).
If the divorce has convicted me of my sin, and has enabled me to give more of my heart to God, then I can praise him for it.
5. Marriage remains a beautiful drama of Christ’s love for the church.
I recently had the wonderful privilege of performing my first wedding ceremony since my divorce. I was encouraged that the couple did not see my personal situation as a barrier to premarital counseling or officiating their wedding. More than that, I was blessed to witness their public promise of love, mirroring Christ’s love for his own bride.
My convictions around marriage have not been shaken by my experience. Healthy marriage is still possible. It is still a blessing from God. My experience does not determine truth.
6. During my worst year I often felt closest to God.
Once the divorce was finalized, I hated hearing, “Now you see it was for the best. You’re both much happier, and kids are resilient anyway.” I will never agree.
The gospel demands us to hold two hard truths at the same time: sin is terrible and deserves punishment, yet God can and will use sin for his glory and the good of those who love him. I would not wish divorce upon my worst enemy. I have also experienced the truth that God is sovereign over divorce. He is sustaining me, showing me more of himself, and making me more like Jesus through it.
I would not wish divorce upon my worst enemy. I have also experienced the truth that God is sovereign over divorce.
I hate so many of the repercussions of our divorce. Yet I’m also learning how to say, with the psalmist, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps. 119:71). Having cast myself on “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Cor. 1:3–4), I realize that I am more spiritually alive than perhaps I’ve ever been before.
As your weary soul takes refuge in him, I pray that you too will be comforted.