The Day My Great-Grandmother Handed My Great-Grandfather Over to the Devil
She’s laboring over the stove to cook the children’s breakfast when he stumbles through the back door of their humble Arkansas home. Eyes bloodshot. Breath reeking. Shirt unevenly buttoned, as if done in darkness, and in haste. She doesn’t turn around to appraise his disheveled condition. No need to. More than once, more than twice, more times than she cares to remember, my great-grandmother has seen my great-grandfather looking, and smelling, like something the cat drug in.
He was a nocturnal animal, Albert was. Under the canopy of darkness he could live and move and have his fun. Transition from various bottles to various beds like an old pro. Never mind that he had fathered multiple offspring; never mind that he had a loving, godly wife weeping for him at home; never mind that the wild oats he sowed were the seeds of a dawning destruction. He did what he did, and if that disqualified him from winning husband or father of the year, there was always another beer, or another blonde, to make up for it.
“Well,” he said to Nancy, “go ahead.”
“Go ahead what?” she calmly replied, her back still turned.
“Go ahead and start your yelling and scolding and Bible-thumpin like you do every morning. ‘Where ya been? Who ya been with? What ya been drinking?’ Go on. I’m a waiting. Let’s get it over with.”
But Nancy only spooned some eggs and bacon onto a plate, poured a glass of milk, and smoothed her apron. She turned and walked slowly toward the table, her husband a few feet away, eyeing her suspiciously.
“Ain’t you gonna say nothing?” he asked as she eased by him.
She stopped and turned around to face the man to whom she was wed. She did love him. She’d been faithful to him. She had worn out her knees in prayer for his soul. She had yelled and pleaded and begged him to change, year after year, to no avail. Locking eyes with her husband that morning, Nancy calmly and clearly said, “I won’t be yelling at you to change anymore. I’ve tried. Lord knows I’ve tried.”
“Albert, I’ve handed your soul over to the devil.”
Chances are you’ve tried, at some point in your life, to be a reformer. Who was it? A spouse, child, friend, colleague, fellow church member? Something about them troubled you, maybe just irked you, so you made it your mission to get them cleaned up, to de-alcoholize them, or de-drug, or de-affair, or de-something. They were so engrossed in their pet evil that it had become a lifestyle. But you were going to change that by changing them. You’d point out the error of their ways, prophesy the looming doom that would befall them, and shepherd them toward the straight and narrow.
Maybe it worked. Praise God if it did. But maybe it didn’t, at least not when and how you wanted it to. So perhaps you supposed that if you increased the volume, he’d hear you. So you went from begging to yelling, from praying to threatening. You issued ultimatums. You pulled out the big guns. You enlisted the help of friends. But, alas, short-lived improvements notwithstanding, nothing really changed.
That is where my great-grandmother found herself. An intensely religious woman, pious and god-fearing, she knew that her husband was on a path that would end only in everlasting misery. She’d done and said all she could. She had tried to be a reformer, to make Albert change, but, stubborn as a mule, and seemingly intent on self-destruction, he had dug in his heels. So, in her own unique way, she said what she needed to say. We may agree or disagree with her; I certainly wouldn’t hold it up as the example for what women should say in troubled marriages. But, in her own way, Nancy was simply acknowledging what was true. Her husband had already handed himself over to the devil. He had plunged headlong into the darkness. She wasn’t so much giving up on her husband as giving up on herself, that is, giving up trying to be the person who changes another person. It was going to take more than her to reform the man she loved.
My great-grandfather died, many years later, a Christian man. After that fateful morning at the breakfast table, when his wife told him she had handed his soul over to the devil, something seemed to stir within him. Over time, he abandoned the booze, he quit the women, he helped tuck his children in at night, then crawled into bed with his beloved wife. No doubt he still struggled against his demons—don’t we all?—but, by the grace of God, he was rescued from the devil’s clutches and passed from this life into the kingdom of the blessed.
By the grace of God. By the gracious action of God in Jesus Christ. My great-grandfather did not change himself, nor did his wife. Jesus did. But he didn’t do it simply by issuing threats, frightening this sinner into a moral life. No, Jesus, this friend of sinners plunged himself into living death of Albert’s sad existence. On his own timetable, and in his own way, Jesus brought Albert into communion with his own crucifixion death, and raised him to newness of life in his own Easter resurrection. That is the way people are reformed. Not by making them better, but by making them dead. Dead in Christ, dead on his cross, dead in his baptism. For only when they are dead are they candidates for life. And life they have in the one who raises the dead, who himself was raised from the dead, Jesus the Christ. He entered the hellish prison in which Albert was trapped, overcame the demonic jailers, and pried open the bars to bring his child into the freedom of forgiveness and the light of life.
Then he whom Nancy had handed over to the devil, the Christ handed back to her.
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