On Lament, Hope, and Divorce
By Wendy Alsup
Lament and hope have become a theme in my life. I began to wrestle with the already, but not yet, nature of the kingdom of God in the aftermath of the destruction at Mars Hill back in 2007 and again in 2014. What happens when something good, of kingdom value, falls apart by the sin of others, and you are powerless to stop it? It can actually be easier to come to terms with such destruction when our personal sin is the cause of or major contributor to the destruction. The good news of Jesus equips us to wrestle with our own sin and destruction in its wake. It’s not easy, mind you, but if you can see the clear mistake you made, it is a help at times when you want to avoid the same in the future. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes by my own ignorance and selfishness. But I’ve also lost some things because of the sin of others, despite my best efforts to obey God in working to avoid the loss. Most reading this post have experienced some form of similar loss. A church, a marriage, a friendship, a ministry. Because we love God and His word, we grieve and wrestle with God deeply when the sin of others disrupts our relationships, our churches, or our homes.
We are all imperfect disciples of the kingdom of God, but I think most readers here truly love that kingdom and truly love our God. We sin. But the Spirit also convicts, and we submit to Him. And, yet, we can not hold God’s kingdom together on our own, and at times, things fall apart that we thought God would hold together. These have been the places that I have most deeply wrestled in my soul—when I’ve lost something despite obedience to God. Why does this happen, God?! What’s the point of following you and obeying you in hard places if it leads to such destruction anyway? Such wrestling takes us to a deep, dark place. Thankfully, we have passage after passage in Scripture, a whole book even, on lament. We are not left without guidance on mourning sin and its destruction. Yet we are not left without hope either. Love hopes all things, and any earnest lover of God and neighbor holds on to hope. Always.
Lament and hope. These have guided me as I’ve walked my own path, one I desperately sought to avoid, through divorce. I don’t speak of it publicly much, because it involves more people than just me, more stories than just mine. I have done my best to reach out to ministry leaders privately that I have worked with publicly and have shared similarly with numerous readers, many of whom have become personal friends. I am now divorced, which precipitated my move back to South Carolina to live on our family farm with my parents and sisters close by. God has blessed me deeply, in ways I can not fully express, through elders at my church in both Seattle and now South Carolina who truly pastored me through it, in every sense of the meaning of pastor/shepherd. God did not leave me an orphan to walk this road, and my faith has increased big time as a result. Interestingly, my convictions around manhood, womanhood, marriage, and divorce have only grown stronger as a result too. Also, convictions about Christian community, the authority of the Word, the incredibly important role of pastor/elders in a believer’s life, and well, a boatload of other things, many of which I write about here, have been clarified and solidified in the wake of my divorce.
I feel compelled to say something publicly here because for the third or fourth time, someone has approached me with a ministry opportunity and seemed blindsided when I shared details privately of my life, as I always make sure to do before engaging in some type of public ministry outreach with them. My best efforts to handle this off social media have still left some holes in communication.
I find two interesting reactions. There are many others, so I don’t mean to paint these as the only two options. Instead, think of them as two primary ones. You don’t have to choose between just these two.
The fear reaction is one I well understand, because I experienced it strongly when a dear friend went through a divorce not of her own doing about ten years before I did. In my head, at some level, she had to be at fault, though I now recognize that her marriage failed in the end simply because her husband didn’t value covenant commitment in marriage the way she did. He wasn’t willing to work on things the way she was. This fear, at least for me, came from a place of lack of trust in God’s sovereignty over all of life. It is the prosperity gospel that lingers over a lot of evangelicals that don’t know they hold to a prosperity gospel. Surely, if I obey God, I won’t have these types of struggles in my life. Surely, if I make the right decisions in youth group and Christian college, my children will turn out right, and I’ll have a happy marriage until “death doth us part.” One friend, before I went through my divorce, spoke to me of this fearful reaction she experienced from others when she went through her own. “It’s not catching, you know,” she said. She said others would hold her at a distance, like if they got too close to her their marriages and those at their church might catch “divorce.” It was sad to me, because I have found her and others like her friends with the most clear convictions against the kind of things that lead to divorce. Few have an understanding of covenant commitment quite like someone whose life was devastated because their partner did not.
Thankfully, what I have found most among serious believers as I’ve shared with them my story is solidarity, not over divorce but over suffering in general. I, too, when I was watching the slow moving train of destruction approach my family, unable to figure out a way to get us out of its path, found solidarity in stories of others’ suffering, but interestingly, they were not stories of divorce. Dee Brestin wrote The God of All Comfort about the lead up to her husband’s death from cancer and the time after as she mourned the loss. That book blessed me greatly, and I have recommended it again and again, a friend to walk with anyone during any kind of suffering. Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting had a similar effect on me as did Elisabeth Elliott’s These Strange Ashes. Both wrote about a totally different struggle than the one I was walking, yet I found solidarity with each and great comfort in the truths that comforted them.
I have found similar solidarity with parents of struggling teenagers. I’ve found it with wives withering in marriages in which divorce is not on the table yet the estrangement from their husband still runs deep. I’ve found it with friends who wrestle with same-sex attraction and others struggling to come to terms with the mental illness of a child or parent. I’ve found it with foster parents longing to minister grace to broken kids and with ministry leaders seeking racial justice in broken communities. It’s simply the solidarity or fellowship found in any kind of suffering, something dear and precious in the Body of Christ.
Though I wrestled for a long time with the path God allowed for me and my children, I have emerged from that season, broken yet confident, lamenting yet hopeful. I feel better braced for the hardships that face our world, globally and locally. I have no shiny vision of the good life I need to protect now. But instead of feeling cynical and jaded, I feel free and hopeful. I mean, when you are sitting in jail for attempted rape that you did not actually do, why not offer to translate a dream for the king’s taster? What have you got to lose?! Though my story is very different from both Joseph’s and Ruth’s, I have nevertheless found a lot of comfort and direction from them both.
If my story feels scary for you, remember what my friend said, “It’s not catching.” Divorce not of your choosing, or children who walk away from the faith, or cancer, or whatever the trial, isn’t a communicable disease. And it won’t manifest in your home just because you walk with someone else who experiences it. If you find yourself with that kind of gut reaction, I encourage you to examine your theology.
I have a book I recommend for that by the way, one I wrote at a very different stage of life, yet whose truths continue to sustain me. It’s an odd, full circle kind of thing. And, yet, in the walk of faith, that’s exactly as it should be.