Suffering is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for people who have a hard time embracing Christianity. Why does a good God allow suffering? Even for believers, there simply aren’t any easy answers to that question.
Suffering was a foreign concept for much of my life. I come from a wonderful middleclass family, I always felt loved and supported, I landed my dream job early in my twenties, and so on. It was like God just kept dropping amazing gifts in my lap. He eventually allowed a gift into my life I didn’t want, but it proved essential to who I am today: the gift of suffering. In my story, that came through the long, slow death of my marriage and subsequent divorce. So, while I explore suffering from that perspective, I hope my story will encourage anyone experiencing suffering.
Pippin: It’s so quiet.
Gandalf: It’s the deep breath before the plunge.
Pippin: I don’t want to be in a battle, but waiting on the edge of one I can’t escape is even worse.
That poignant exchange in Lord Of The Rings - Return of the King perfectly describes my state of mind throughout the lengthy divorce process and the years leading up to it that made it inevitable. Anyone who has experienced a contentious divorce knows the utter destructiveness and insanity of it all. Good fathers who love their kids especially know the terror of a system biased against them from the outset. Through it all I was emotionally, physically and spiritually drained in every possible way - not to mention financially, but that’s really the least damaging in the long run. Despite the crucial support of family, friends, and counselors, it was agonizingly lonely. The uncertainty of it all was terrifying, and I lived with that day after day for several years. That amount of stress takes a huge toll: I lost weight and had heart issues, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and I lost my creativity among other things. Several people told me they thought I had cancer or some kind of disease. Despite incredible healing and restoration on the other side of it all, I’ve realized there are some deep scars that will probably cast shadows over a lifetime.
Divorce is a form of torture I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It may solve some problems when all other options have been exhausted, but it creates all new ones, and I now have a much fuller understanding of why God says he hates it. Apart from breaking the news to our daughter - a pain I could never describe - one of the most excruciating moments of my life was walking into a courthouse and seeing the girl I married sitting there, still my wife and yet now my legal adversary. Friends who were by my side that day know how that tortured me, and how I almost ran from the room in tears. There is no way to describe feeling intense hurt, anger, sorrow and compassion all in the same moment. I wanted so badly to help her somehow, but I couldn’t. Too much damage had been done. The system is designed to suck people into contention and drain you of everything, and it is disgusting. It is a hell of a thing - and I choose those words deliberately - to choose a dark, lonely road full of pain and uncertainty while knowing that road is the only one that might lead to eventual peace and healing. What horrible irony.
It has been said that pain can be one of our best teachers, and I certainly learned some valuable lessons. I learned a lot about human nature: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I learned how quickly people take sides, make assumptions and form opinions without any knowledge of the facts. I learned I can’t worry about what people think. As the saying goes, “never explain yourself; your friends don’t need it and your enemies wouldn’t believe you anyway.” What matters to me is that I did the very best I could in very difficult circumstances, and I can truly say I don’t wish anyone any ill will whatsoever. On the contrary, I still pray for those who were involved in that part of my life, and I believe conscious forgiveness has been a crucial part of my healing. Truly, to hold unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies from it.
One of the most important things I learned is that a popular cliché isn’t true – the idea that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” For reasons unknown to us, He does allow us to experience more than we can handle at times; perhaps because that’s when we find out just how much we need Him, and it is there that real growth occurs.
Philippians 4:13 is often understood to mean we can accomplish anything through Christ, but a look at context shows Paul saying we can endure all things through Christ who gives us strength we don’t have on our own.
Whether it’s a broken marriage, failing health or something else, very few of us get out of this life without experiencing suffering in some form. So, the question of the ages: why does God allow it? I’m no C.S. Lewis so I won’t even attempt an answer (his book The Problem of Pain is a great start). This much I do know: God hates suffering and evil, probably much more than we do: enough to enter into it, become intimately familiar with it, and put His son to death over it on our behalf. Two of my favorite quotes say this better than I ever could:
“The only ultimate way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like blood in a sponge or a spear thrown into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.” - Gale D. Webbe, The Night and Nothing
“For whatever reason, God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – and God has the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with this creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile. The gift of Jesus gives you a resource – a comfort and consolation – for dealing with suffering, because in it we see God’s willingness to enter this world of suffering with us and for us.” - Dorothy Sayers
When we pray for deliverance from suffering, sometimes God says “yes” in the here and now. Other times His answer, like the one He gave the apostle Paul, is “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In that case, keep hanging on; your story isn’t over yet.
In the midst of my journey, someone challenged me with a statement I will never forget: “let your misery become your ministry.” I know how much it meant to me when someone would say “I’ve been there and you will get through it” – and I can now say the same thing to you: you will get through it, and you are not alone.
The Rest of the Story
One of the most healing moments of my life was when my daughter came to me out of the blue one day and said “Daddy, I believe you deserve to find someone who will really love you.” In a remarkably mature and selfless gesture for a 10-year-old, my little girl gave me permission to live - and love - again.
After all I’d been through, I had reservations about dating but I’ve seen enough good marriages to know they are possible. So, I found myself on a dating website which was discouraging to say the least. After 2 weeks I was about to quit, but a new picture popped up that I couldn’t ignore. I sent an email; she responded. We started emailing back and forth and it was clear there was mutual interest. A first date followed and I couldn’t get through it without asking for a second one. I had never met anyone like Anita but I wanted to take it slow since I knew I still had a lot of healing to do. As it turned out, she had been on her own healing journey from childhood sexual abuse and the effects that had on her life. As only He could, God used us both in amazing ways to help in each other’s healing process. I never would have imagined things unfolding as they did, but 6 months after we met, we were engaged. We married on the one year anniversary of my asking for that first date, and are both constantly in awe of the things God has done in our lives. Truly He has ”restored the years the locusts have eaten” for us (Joel 2:25).
Having been rescued out of my life’s darkest valley and restored much like Job after all he endured (Job 42:12), I have a few closing thoughts and observations that might help others who are experiencing suffering, especially through the pain of divorce:
1. God really is who He says He is. He still heals, rescues, and restores. He doesn’t always do it on our timetable, but He does have a future for you. He’s in control in the meantime and He stands ready to walk through your pain with you. If anyone understands the pain of rejection or abandonment, Jesus does.
2. In his highly recommended book Necessary Endings, Dr. Henry Cloud talks about identifying and ending truly hopeless or toxic relationships, and the crucial need to process them afterward so you don’t repeat mistakes. And not just the other person’s, but your own as well - there’s a lot to learn about yourself before you can effectively move forward. In my case, my ability to trust had become severely damaged. Where I used to trust people easily, my life experiences taught me to be guarded, skeptical, and easily suspicious at times - constantly scanning the horizon for signs of betrayal or abandonment. That is really unfair in new relationships, and I’ve had to work very hard at overcoming that. It is NOT easy. It’s a necessary part of recovery though, because if “perfect love casts out fear” then it’s also true that fear casts out love. I continually pray for complete healing in this area of my life, and am so thankful for my sweet wife’s patience, understanding and grace!
3. Any good children’s counselor will tell you that the best thing you can do for them post-divorce is to build up their other parent and encourage their relationship. I’ve certainly found that to be true, and I believe it means the world to my daughter. I’ve made a point of complimenting & praying together for her mom, even with my new wife who is totally supportive of that. Every time we do, my daughter squeezes my hand as if to say “thank you Daddy.” She knows it’s genuine and I believe it has helped her own healing process. There’s no reason it has to be any other way, and it grieves me when kids get caught between their parents’ dysfunction - they deserve better than that.
4. If your marriage is in trouble, don’t leave any stone unturned. Get every kind of help you can. Marriage is sacred and worth every ounce of effort you can possibly give. If both spouses are willing to work on it with honesty and true introspection, there is hope. Even if there’s no happy ending, there is still hope for a very bright future. I’m living proof.
A broken marriage happens to be my path through suffering. Maybe yours is a different one; there are many. If that’s where you find yourself, don’t give up. Above all, don’t give up on God. Trite as it may sound, He hasn’t given up on you. None of us escape this life unscathed. In fact, we are told in John 16:33 “in this life you will have trouble.” Keep reading! The rest of that verse is the whole point: “...but take heart! I have overcome the world.”
He knows you by name, He knows your story, and He is with you in the midst of it.
You are not alone!
© 2015 Jim Daneker
To the many, many people who stood by me, prayed for me, encouraged me and supported me through my journey - my heartfelt thanks. I’m not being dramatic when I say I might not be here if it weren’t for all of you. Somewhat surprisingly, my chief encourager through it all has often been my daughter Caitlin, who continues to blow me away with her incredibly maturity, insight and selflessness. Smartest 11-year-old I know!
My new marriage to Anita has been incredibly healing on many levels, and not just for me, but for Caitlin; she has seen many examples now of what a healthy, loving marriage looks like, and she’s made lots of encouraging comments about it to both Anita and me. I give all the credit for that to Anita. From very early on, she has loved me in a way I’ve never experienced. She has nurtured me, encouraged me, prayed for me, laughed with me and shown me genuine care and affection that has often felt too good to be true. Because of her love for me and Caitlin, everyone who knows me has seen a huge change in me. I am eternally grateful for such an amazing wife!
Finally, two of my counselors both happened to recommend a book by Joni Eareckson Tada called When God Weeps. I highly recommend it if you find yourself in the midst of suffering and are tired of hearing clichés!
You can read Anita's Story HERE.