There are times when you feel like a spectator who views in slow motion the demolition of your life. Mini-explosions rock the foundations of everything that gave you meaning and purpose. Maybe it happens when you stare at the surreal spectacle of a coffin descending into raw earth, or the X-rays of a brain tumor, or the officer standing at your front door serving you papers for divorce. At those moments, it’s not like something inside you dies; it’s more like all of what’s inside you dies. What remains is a thin shell veiling a rapidly diminishing life.
There are no funeral rites for the corpse of a marriage, no official way to lay it to rest. So most of us make up our own. I did. Mine was a liturgy of whiskey and promiscuity, alternately screaming and crying toward heaven, and seeking salvation in every new girlfriend. One step forward, two steps back…or three, or four. All the while I was sinking a little deeper into the quicksand of sorrow.
I wish I were blowing things out of proportion. But I’m not; I’ve really only scratched the surface. For some of us, following divorce there are a string of debaucheries, flirtations with suicide, and grisly plans for revenge. Others self-medicate, hole up and lick their wounds, shun the opposite sex. Everyone reacts differently, but most of us react in ways we later shudder to recall. And like so many of life’s heartaches, unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the pain and the foolish things you’ll do in your quest for relief.
Maybe you’re thinking that I’m going to tell you that divorce made me a “better Christian.” But I don’t even know what that means. Better than what? Better than I had been? Better than other people? Better how? I wish I could tell you that through divorce I became a stronger person, but thank God I didn’t. If anything, my perceived “strength” is what paved the way for the destructive decisions that caused my divorce in the first place. If the death of my marriage revealed anything, it was my profound weaknesses.
What I do know is that divorce was for me, as it is for most of us, a process of unmasking—a slow peeling away of various lies. Unlike a Halloween mask, I had worn these masks for years, so long in fact that they had grafted to my skin.
The mask of “thank God I’m not as bad as those people are.”
The mask of “I have a happy marriage.”
The mask of “I never have any doubts about God.”
The mask of “I’ve fallen short, but not way short, of the glory of God.”
And my favorite mask: “I have everything under control.”
As the truthful realities of divorce scratch away at the face we exhibit to the world, one by one the layers diminish. What I discovered beneath was what I’d always claimed I had but never really believed: the face of a liar and cheat, a face pockmarked with pharisaism, a face as dirty as the filthiest sinner. What others discover beneath their chosen masks are faces flushed with anger, eroded by the weather of worry, or gargoyle-like monsters of hate. Whatever we find, they are faces only a God can love.
I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. But divorce was for me a blessed destruction, a splendid disaster. God hates divorce (Mal 2:16), to be sure, but through it he revealed other things he doesn’t think highly of either: like a haughty spirit, hypocrisy, lust, self-reliance, and on and on it goes. It took time, long dark years, for this blessed destruction to have its way with me, but God is more of a marathoner than a sprinter. I was in a hurry to be healed but he was not.
Who I ended up being was not a better Christian (whatever that means), not a better person, not a stronger person, but simply this: a man who grasps more fully that, in and of myself, I am nothing. I have zilch to offer God. I have nothing of my own to claim, except my faults. I have no strength, no righteousness, no moral pedigree to wow heaven. I am Jonah, sinking beneath the waves. I am Lazarus, dead and decomposing in a grave. I am a corpse in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. I have and am nothing. And come to find out, once we realize that, be it through divorce or any other suffering in life, we are in the perfect position to gain everything.
In divorce God married me to the cross. I didn’t want it; indeed, I hated it. But upon my shoulders God laid it. The ring of nails. The veil of darkness. The kiss of death. When we are stripped of all the good we think we are and have, we come face to face with the evil within. We fight and wrestle and gasp and die and become nothing.
Then our Lord, who created everything out of nothing, says, “Now I have you exactly where I want you.” The only material that God really works with is nothing. He brings to nothing the things that are (1 Cor 1:28) that through this nothing he might show us that our everything is that one who is the source of our life, Christ Jesus, whom God makes our “wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1:30). He opens our eyes to see that we are not dead on a cross alone. We are part of a thorn-crowned Savior who became our everything. We die in him and life returns. We have no hope in ourselves but in him we receive hope of cosmic proportions. Our face, which only a God can love, the Father of love bends down and kisses. He bathes away our filth. He lifts up our downcast eyes. He gives us his own name. We are married to the cross, and there meet the bridegroom of our souls.
Like so many of the hardships in life, it is only in hindsight that we realize the hidden hand of God at work in our deepest woes. He is not making us stronger but is making us dead, that we might truly live in the strength that he provides. He is not making us better people but unveiling how bad we are that we may find in Christ the riches of our Father’s goodness.
Some people talk about life after divorce, but I prefer to talk about death after divorce: the death of self, the death of masks, the death of a sham existence in which we pretend we’ve got this life thing figured out. Unless we die, there is no resurrection. When we die to those things worthy of death, we find him who is the resurrection and the life. And we find in him all those things—and more!—that we searched for apart from him. Things like joy. Things like peace. Things like hope and healing and love and meaning and purpose. All these are in Christ, and they are ours.
If you are facing a divorce, going through one, or recovering from one, let me tell you the most important thing: Christ will not and cannot sever you from himself. The sun will lose its light, the water its wetness, the night its dark before that happens. He counts the hairs on your head, every tear you shed is so precious to him that he collects them in a bottle (Matt 10:30; Ps 56:8). Like Zion, your image is engraved on the palms of his hands (Isa 49:16), your name tattooed on his heart. You will not always feel his love, but his love clasps you in its strong arms. You will probably feel abandoned by God, but he will never leave you, never forsake you. As you bear this cross, you bear it not alone, but in him who is the crucified and risen Savior. He is for you. He is faithful. He has married you to himself with a love larger than heaven.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!