To a Greater Freedom
I told you that this lesson in unmerited rejection would prove to be a critical one for a crisis yet to come. Ten months after my first taste of Dad’s rejection, I found myself confronted with another, this one with someone far closer to home.
I returned from a twelve-day trip to the east coast to discover to my absolute horror, that Sara, my wife of forty-six years, had moved out of the house, split up our belongings, and was pursuing a divorce, leaving me a note telling me how painful our marriage had been and that we would never speak again. I was completely blindsided.
I thought we had a great marriage. She had always loved me well and I thought I had loved her well, too, but her letter said otherwise. It made no sense to me. We hadn’t had one conversation about her unhappiness in our marriage, and yet, her letter was filled with accusations. She wrote that she was so miserable that she was either going to commit suicide or leave me. She chose to leave; so great was her pain.
Good choice was my first thought. That’s the only way this situation could have been worse, and I texted her to tell her so, not knowing if she would read it or even see it. But I was heartbroken and completely undone.
The first night, I lay wake all night in a half-empty house, in agony and sorrow. Unable to sleep or communicate with her, I poured out my pain on God. As devastated and shocked as I was, I came to realize I had space in my heart to walk through this. I was not angry with Sara even for one second, not for what she had done nor even how she had done it. My concern from the start was for her. Something happened to her, and I was worried that she’d had a psychological break that others around her weren’t recognizing. I didn’t blame them, either. It would be far easier to think I am a jerk than that Sara would do unnecessarily do something like this.
Clueless as to why this happened and having no access to her, I had no choice but to entrust her to God. That was familiar ground now. God and I talked a lot in those days. I must have read her letter a dozen times in the first twenty-four hours, trying to own what I could and understand what she was going through. If her letter was true then my entire life had been a lie, and if it was, it was time for me to find out. I could recognize what was in it as well as hold before God those parts I thought weren’t true or fair. Too many things in it didn’t sound like Sara. .
Of course, I’ve had moments of insensitivity and made some stupid mistakes over 46 years, but I didn’t think I was this guy. Something seemed off about it, but I didn’t trust my own conclusions. Again, I sought counsel from others as to whether I was completely blind to my own faults. Those who knew both of us best were all as shocked as I was.
It took weeks to unravel all that had happened here, and Sara and I share this story in some detail in the Redeeming Love Series that were part of The God Journey podcast. Early on, God assured me that this was not what it appeared to be, and he would bring her back to me. I was afraid to believe that simply because that’s what I wanted to be true. I did find the grace not to fight my way back into Sara’s life. I assured her I loved her deeply and would make any changes necessary for me to be a safe place for her heart. For days, I heard nothing back, but as I lay on my bed each night I spoke to her as if she could hear me, telling her how much I loved her and how special she was, asking God to somehow communicate those things to her heart.
He brought someone alongside me who suspected some kind of trauma had caught up with Sara, and that turned out to be true. Because I hadn’t come at her angry or trying to manipulate her, Sara began to reconsider the conclusions she had made. Later she would say that because I had not responded in any way like her therapist told her I would, she was more open to reconsider her decision to leave me. As we found our way back to each other over weeks, Sara let me in on the PTSD that had surfaced in her life.
Embarrassed to admit it to me or anyone else, because there was seemingly nothing in her life that painful, she had sought out a therapist who concluded Sara must be trapped in an abusive marriage. Her therapist never met me or spoke to me, and even when Sara tried to tell her that she loved me and thought I loved her, the therapist was dismissive. She helped Sara rewrite every moment of our marriage in its most negative light and scripted her departure as if I had abused her. One trauma consultant told me that because of how Sara left, we had a less than one percent chance of ever speaking to each other again.
I began to realize that this was not dissimilar to my dad’s situation and what I had learned there served me well here. I had been through this pain before; I knew God was able to hold me through it. The same inner voice that helped me navigate my family circumstances for almost two years now guided me through this one, albeit in different ways.
From the start, my concern was for her. I knew something was horribly wrong for the woman I loved, and I could only entrust her to God’s care by not trying to control the outcome. I wholeheartedly let Sara set the pace for any communication she wanted to have, even if it never came. I fit myself to any door she opened and didn’t try to push any further than she wanted. I didn’t worry about how this would impact my reputation or what it would cost me. I was going to hold space for her as long as it took and protect her every way I could.
To make a long story short, as we got back together after a few weeks she found a different therapist. It only took that one three weeks to identify the real source of her traumatic pain. She had been sexually abused by her grandpa and members of her extended family from the ages of four to eight and for 64 years had complete amnesia about it all. Over months, Jesus allowed her to process vivid memories that had overwhelmed her as a child and explained the deep pain and self-loathing Sara had battled, especially in the last 15 years.
Now we could both see it. Through the actions of a well-intentioned therapist, she had come to believe lies about me. Those lies ganged up on her until it was suicide or divorce. That’s how much pain she was in. It has taken a while to untangle the lies and find our way to a deeper love than we’ve ever known and are excited to begin this season of our lives sharing her burden together instead of Sara carrying it alone. Her trauma is my trauma and whatever it takes, I’m alongside her to support the journey.
If I hadn’t experienced this tragic circumstance with my dad, I don’t know how I would have been prepared to face this crisis. I knew how to grieve and love at the same time. I knew the voice that would lead me to a deeper journey and to win Sara’s heart again. I didn’t have to force anything on her, and I could treat her with tenderness until she opened her heart again. I’ve watched her take on the trauma with an unrelenting passion for freedom, and the horrible circumstances I went through the night I got home are just a blip on a distant horizon.
Without enduring the unmerited rejection of my dad, and all I learned in that experience, I would not have been the person Sara needed when her world collapsed. If every betrayal I suffered throughout my life was to prepare me to be what Sara needed in this moment, then every tear and heartache was worth it. I will be forever grateful that I’d had a trust in God strong enough to respond to him rather than react with my emotions. Sara and I got to be part of that one percent that find their way through the ravages of trauma to a greater love.
But that wasn’t all. Learning to bear unmerited rejection would prove to be the gift that keeps on giving.
And to a Deeper Faith
A year ago, I woke up one morning to find myself holding all the pain of the previous two years—my wife’s trauma and the pain it caused me, its collateral damage with my children, my dad’s anger, and the loss of relationship in my extended family. It was overwhelming and I wanted to express it to God as I drove to an early morning medical procedure.
“Last year, I lost every family relationship I value to lies about me.” I said out loud to God, my heart racked with sorrow. Even though many of those relationships had healed, the awareness of what I had lost for a season produced intense sorrow.
I looked for a way to invite God into that, so I addressed it to him. I repeated the line and added, “… and you allowed it.” No that wasn’t quite right. I don’t believe God “allows” our pain in any volitional sense. We live in a world out of sync with its Creator, and horrible things happen because of how the darkness manipulates human hearts.
I repeated it again and added, “… and you watched it happen.” While true, that didn’t sound right either. I could feel the accusation in it that he was a detached spectator. That had not been my experience.
So, I tried again, “Last year, I lost every family relationship I value to lies about me, and you were with me in it.” There it was! I had never been alone; he had continually given me comfort, insight, strength, and friendships to hold me through all those storms and in the process deeply transform my heart and mind.
As I mused on that with gratitude, my sorrow began to mix with the wonder of his presence. After a few moments, a random thought raced through my mind, “Now, you’re ready to hold some of my pain.”
I’ll admit to being befuddled at the thought. It sounded like God, but what pain does he bear, and why would he want me to hold it? I pondered those words as I drove up a hill into the breaking light of dawn. All at once, I understood. He, too, has lost everyone he loves to lies about him, from the earliest days in the Garden, to so many lost children today.
That undid me in the best of all possible ways.
He not only had been with me in my pain and somehow; he wanted me to be with him in his. Prior to this moment, I had never thought about God’s agony for the delusion and suffering of his creation. He’s God after all, victorious above the heavens, able to do whatever he wants, and yet, the pain of his Creation wounds him. Is that what Jesus was looking for in Gethsemane, someone to watch with him in his agony? How often did Jesus offer himself to God with loud cries and tears that the writer of Hebrews referred to?
Paul wrote about knowing him in the fellowship of his suffering, and I’ve thought that was his empathy with our pain, having suffered himself while he was on earth. This was different. I had never considered that his suffering continues because of what his children do to themselves and each other and how he bears their unmerited rejection to this day. And he wanted me to share some of that with him.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I got much of it, a mere drop at most, from an ocean of grief that would crush me if I tasted it in its fullness. But it was enough to hold our agony together and to talk about his heartache at the state of the world. What an intensely tender time!
That day still stands as a major fork in the road on my own spiritual journey. As I’ve mined that thought and shared glimpses of his pain in the world, I am being changed in a way I never imagined. It has affected every human engagement I have had since, and I see God’s redemption at the end of the age in different terms.
Unmerited rejection borne with Jesus can open a wide door into a spacious place inside God’s heart that protects us from vengeance or bitterness and produces the fruit of compassion for anyone lost in the lies of darkness and the relationships it destroys. And that’s as much for those who claim to be his people as for those who don’t follow him because they have never seen him as he truly is.
I’ve shared with you my story in hopes that it will give you insight and encouragement for your own. Learning to rest in his love even when people treat you unjustly will not only help you navigate the darkness and chaos of life in this age, but also change you inside so that you’ll be more aware of Father’s working around you.
Every dishonest business partner, unfaithful friend, cheating spouse, or toxic family member provides an opportunity for you to find God’s love is more magnificent than you yet imagine. Find the grace to eventually pray from the heart, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” Let go of the need to control the outcome and then you’ll be free to follow the pathway love lights up.
Even the most destructive circumstance can become a gift in the hands of Jesus as it draws us into greater faith and freedom. This may be what James meant when he wrote:
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (1:2-4 MSG)
Once you can get through the pain and find the gift God is giving you in the unmerited rejection you’re facing, you too can discover how God takes our worst tragedies and turns them into unbelievable triumph.
I know this isn’t an easy read for many people; it invites pain from difficult family or even fellowship situations. I thought it was an important story to tell for those of you who listen or read the things I share. This is the context out of which I carry my passion in the world for Jesus’s kingdom to come and his will to be done. It is meant as a warning for all of us about how easily delusion can worm its way into our lives, especially if we listen to those around us who have little regard for what’s true.
More importantly, this story shows how God can take very tragic episodes in our life and turn them into great good. Every New Testament writer assures us that God can make use of sufferings and trials to tune us to his frequency and continue to shape our hearts in his love. I look back on this story with awe at how great good came out of immeasurable pain and how love and forgiveness can triumph over darkness, even if we don’t get the results we want. My hope is that this story will help illuminate his fingerprints in your own pain, and give you confidence in Father’s work that can overcome anything darkness throws at us.
For those who want more information on how to negotiate the attempts of other people to control us, especially those who mistakenly think they are doing God’s work, take a listen to the Friday, February 9 podcast at The God Journey: “Is Control the Opposite of Love?”