The Trouble We Have Seen
BookTrends - Child of Divorce, Child of God
By: Kristine Steakley|Published: August 27, 2009 4:00 AM
Every summer I spent a couple of weeks with my dad’s parents, after they worked out the details and travel arrangements with my mom.
Beginning at age seven, that meant flying alone to visit Grandpa and Ponci (the name that had stuck with my grandma since my toddler years), who lived in central Illinois. I started a vast collection of plastic airline wings, became great friends with flight attendants and learned that the pilots had their own lounges with TVs. Those summer visits were always fun, and they kept me connected to my dad’s family. Because I was Ponci and Grandpa’s only grandchild, that connection was important both to them and to me.
Ponci and Grandpa lived out in the country in a perfect house that Grandpa built. He was a contractor, so every few years they would buy a different house, fix it up, live in it awhile, then sell it for a tidy profit. The country house was my favorite. It sat on five acres, nestled between fields of corn or soybeans, depending on the crop rotation that year. It caught every summer breeze through its tall windows. You could watch storms approach from miles away and hear the rain on the cornstalks long minutes before it soaked you. When tornado watches were announced, Grandpa and I would stand and watch from the doorway of the garage, just a few short steps from the basement stairs. We could see the funnel clouds form and dissipate, making the eerily green and black sky look like it was boiling upside down. At night, frogs croaked loudly from the pond in the middle of the property. The long, blacktop driveway was perfect for roller-skating, and I was allowed to make forts out of blankets and chairs in the living room.
A few mornings each week, we would meet up with some of Ponci and Grandpa’s friends and relatives—Audrey and Engle, Aunt Katie and Uncle Ray, Wayne and Sue—for breakfast at a little country diner, where I got hooked on biscuits with sausage gravy. But Friday mornings, if the weather was good, there was no time for the diner—we had yard sales to visit. I learned the fine art of bargaining from Ponci, a master saleswoman and negotiator. We would zip around town in her little Triumph convertible, looking for dishes, roller skates or whatever treasure someone else called trash. We would pause for lunch at Taco Bell and maybe stop at the bank to empty the loose change jar into my passbook savings account. But our goal was fixed: We were two cool chicks, Big Ponci and Little Ponci, in search of a twenty-five-cent deal.
I remember one of those trips when I was about nine years old. As we drove around looking for the promising sales we’d circled in the paper that morning, the topic of conversation turned to my mom and dad’s divorce. Ponci was gently prying, trying to find out if I was okay. I assured her I was. No need to worry about me—I was fine. I remember Ponci’s relief as she said, “Of all the people involved, you handled it the best.” Of course, she thought I did everything the best, but the pride in her voice sounded awfully genuine. It was echoed by the pride in my own heart at hearing this—not because I had handled things the best, but because she thought I had.
Ponci did not see the times that I woke up screaming and disheveled from violent nightmares when I was four. She did not see the times I cried myself to sleep at age seven because I missed my daddy—and because, as a new Christian, I worried about his salvation, afraid I would be separated from him for eternity. She did not see the gaping hole left in my heart by my dad’s absence and apathy. What she saw was a calm, well-behaved, resilient, well-adjusted child. And that is exactly what I wanted her to see.
I did not want to be a trouble to anyone. It was far better to go along, to do what I was told, to generally make myself as unnoticeable as possible. Clearly, it was working.
As proud as I was of having fooled Ponci, and presumably many others, I was also profoundly frustrated and disappointed. At our core, we all want to be understood. We want people to “get it,” to glimpse the true essence of us behind whatever mask we wear. I wore the mask so well that even Big Ponci could not see through it.
This is the story of many who have grown up and provided fodder for the “good divorce” theory. On the outside, we look like we have it together. We are not on drugs, we finished college, we seem like nice people. When I first read Judith Wallerstein’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness that God had drawn me to himself at the age of six and saved me from turning out like some of the women whose stories were told in the book. Their lives are a mess, I thought rather arrogantly, thanking God that I did not end up like them (though without Christ, I think I would have).
But that was not the whole story. A few years later Elizabeth Marquardt published Between Two Worlds, focusing on the lives of the seemingly fine children of divorce, and I saw myself written all over those pages. Doing well but not daring to hope or trust too much; wanting to protect everyone else while feeling vulnerable and alone; not wanting to cause trouble; being a capable, strong, independent woman who was really doing quite well, thank you very much, please help me.
When Jeff’s parents divorced, everyone expected him to keep quiet—about the divorce and about his own feelings. He learned the lesson so well that he was married for ten years before he finally learned to communicate his feelings to his wife. Shortly after his own breakthrough, Jeff found himself in a conversation with a recently divorced coworker. He asked her, “How are your kids doing?”
“Oh, they’re doing great,” she assured him. “I sat down with each one of them, talked to them about the divorce and asked them how they were feeling. They are all great kids and handling it really well.”
“Baloney,” Jeff said. “Your kids are lying to you. They’re just telling you what you want to hear.”
Jeff’s blunt reply shocked, even angered, his coworker. But later she sought him out and thanked him. After their last conversation, she confronted her children again and found that Jeff was right. They had been hiding their true feelings, not wanting to hurt her. She immediately signed up the whole family for counseling.
We children of divorce often felt pressured to pretend everything was okay. Sometimes that pressure was overt, but often it was no more than an unspoken hope in the hearts of the adults in our lives. Still, we sensed it and felt the weight of it. Adults want to believe that kids are tough, that they can handle the strain of divorce. Popular psychology reinforced this idea for a long time—and some psychologists still do—for the same reasons that doctors tell parents that their young children cannot feel the pain of a medical procedure: it is too painful for us to hurt a child and not be able to explain or ease the pain, so we pretend they cannot feel it. Some of our parents may have felt that same kind of helplessness and anguish, particularly if they were in a violent marriage or if they were abandoned. Some knew it would be painful for us, but they believed it was also the best thing. Only a third of divorces are the result of high-conflict marriages in which violence was likely, but since the 1970s, when no-fault divorce became the norm, one spouse cannot make the other stay. A mom or dad who is left behind like that tries to make the best of a bad situation, often while blindly groping through their own fog of emotional pain. And as the children of such parents, we wanted to protect them and make them believe they were succeeding. Elizabeth Marquardt found that more than half of us, compared to just a third of children from intact homes, felt a particular need to protect our mothers. Judith Wallerstein observed similar patterns, telling parents that even very young children will “do anything to not rock the boat because they love you and want to take care of you, and they realize that this is a crisis for at least one of you.”
We did such a good job pretending to be fine that everyone believed us. Alison Clarke-Stewart, coauthor of Divorce: Causes and Consequences, remarked, “That was one of the surprising things in the literature and also in our conversations with the students taking our class, that parents don’t seem to realize how much their children are suffering.”
Now that we are adults, we are supposed to be long over the split that happened in our family so many years ago, or old enough to realize that these things just happen. One young woman wrote to advice columnist “Dear Abby” about her parents’ divorce, announced two weeks before her own wedding: “I am 28 years old and should be able to handle the news but I cannot. I have been devastated by the end of a marriage that I thought was a good one until only a few months ago.”
Divorce is heartbreaking. As children, we were often caught in the middle of our own emotions and the hopes of our parents and other adults around us. Many of us felt overlooked and misunderstood, and many of us still feel that no one is aware of the sadness we carry around from our parents’ divorce. In one sense, we are right. No human can ever really know or fully understand the wounds on our souls. But God can. He created us, and he is very aware when we hurt.
Psalm 56:8 says, “You keep track of all my sorrows. / You have collected all my tears in your bottle. / You have recorded each one in your book” (NLT). Some biblical commentators think the psalmist is alluding here to lachrymatories, tear bottles that were popular in Roman times. The bottles were used to collect the tears of funeral mourners, which were then stored with the body, showing how precious and loved the deceased person had been by how full the tear bottles were. Sometimes people would use the bottles to catch and store the tears of a loved one who was suffering and near death, commemorating the deceased’s final anguish.
Other commentators, however, including the nineteenth-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, discredit this theory. They contend that there is no evidence of tear bottles being used in pre-Roman Jewish culture. Instead, they suggest that the allusion is to fine wine. In fact, the NIV offers an alternate translation that reads “put my tears in your wineskin.” The image here is of a vintner who plants vineyards and takes vigilant care of his tender vines; when the harvest time comes, he removes the grapes from their vines and places them in a winepress. There they are squeezed until they have released every drop of their juice, which is then stored in wineskins (leather bottles), to be poured out at a later time.
In either case, the implication is the same. Whether our bottles of tears are lachrymatories, bearing witness of how loved and special we are, or whether they are wineskins, storing the meticulously cultivated and purposefully pressed out fruit of our lives—God is in the process. He is taking special, tender care of our pain, and he is careful not to waste it or regard it casually.
He keeps track of all your sorrows. Not just some—all, the psalmist says. What a precious thought! This is no mild brushoff, but a “tender concern” as seventeenth-century English pastor Matthew Henry noted in his commentary on the psalms.
I tend to keep diaries only when I am sad or distressed. When things are going well or even just okay, I have more important tasks than pouring my heart out on even the prettiest of journal pages. Life is to be lived, not simply recorded. But when I am sad, I cannot wait to let loose every raw feeling within the pages of a diary, where I feel free to express myself. Yet my journals do not capture all my sorrows, but only those I felt burdened with, when I had time on my hands and the energy to write and a pen nearby. At best, my journals represent only a haphazard collection of woes. But God has been carefully keeping track of each one. I can imagine him saying to me in heaven one day, “Do you remember the time when you cried about ____?” And I will reply, “No, I don’t remember that one. Did I really cry about that?” According to the psalmist, all he will have to do is turn to his record book and say, “See? I wrote it all down right here.”
Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the suburbs of Chicago, talks about this passage in his book The God You’re Looking For:
Even when it seems that no one else knows what we are going through or cares about our sadness, God knows. Our tears are precious to him because we are precious to him!
Is it okay to be sad?
There is a story in the Bible about a woman named Hannah who was unable to have children. Her husband’s other wife had a full brood and liked to make fun of Hannah; Hannah, having kept her girlish figure and sweet temperament (I like to think), was their husband’s favorite. Poor Hannah was heartbroken and miserable. In a culture that defined womanhood by motherhood, Hannah was seen as abandoned by God, and she felt that way herself.
Hannah was seriously depressed. The Bible says she could not eat because she was so miserable. Her husband, Elkanah, who loved her dearly, tried to cheer her by asking, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam 1:8). But even a doting husband was little comfort. Hannah was inconsolable. When Elkanah went to the tabernacle to worship God, Hannah accompanied him. There she poured out her heart before God, weeping in “bitterness of soul” (1 Sam 1:10). Her display of sorrow was so uninhibited that the priest, Eli, actually thought she was drunk!
Children of divorce face subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle pressure to move on. Mom left Dad for an exciting new life, and your sadness puts a damper on her newfound enthusiasm. Or Granny and Gramps disapproved of your father, that bum, and think everyone should be heartily glad he is gone. Your teachers worried that you should see a counselor. And now that you’re grown, people wonder why you can’t just get over it already. Sometimes you wonder that yourself.
Few of those people would have made you climb the jungle gym still sporting bandages from a fresh concussion around your head, and few would have expected you to run the fifty-yard dash on crutches. But the wounds of a child of divorce are not wrapped in visible bandages. It is easy to forget the wounds are there—even for the child who has them! It’s easier to sweep them under the rug, to suck it up and appear heroic.
All too often the church gives us this same message. If you have Jesus in your life but you are still hurting, still reeling with pain, still aching in some dull spot, you obviously do not have enough faith. After all, Jesus came that we might have life, and more abundantly! That is the message a lot of churches dole out, and it is a very unsatisfying answer for those whose hearts are still broken.
Yes, Jesus has come that we might have abundant life, but that does not mean all our problems will go away. In fact, Jesus promised his disciples that they would have trouble. One translation is even more direct: “You will have to suffer” (Jn 16:33 CEV). We still live in a world filled with sin and all its consequences—illness, death, war, poverty, heartbreak—and divorce. There is a reason the Bible talks about heaven as a place where “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17); until we get there, we will always be dealing with sadness and pain and disappointment.
Hannah, the disconsolate wife crying in the Temple, was not condemned for her emotions. The priest, after realizing that she was drowning in sorrow and not booze, compassionately said, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (1 Sam 1:17). He did not tell her to pull herself together, to act like a good Israelite and pretend everything was okay. Instead, he blessed her, acknowledged her pain and joined with her in praying for God’s merciful relief.
Jesus is not about sound bites, platitudes and feel-good talk shows. I suspect that Christians who like to hand out slogan-style assurances either have never experienced real pain or, more likely, never faced their pain and allowed God to begin to heal them. Jesus is not afraid of our sorrow. Isaiah called him “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Is 53:3).
That famous verse “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35) occurs in the context of Jesus’ sorrow over the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus knew as soon as he heard of his friend’s illness that he would raise Lazarus from the dead. He hinted of his plan twice to his disciples. But because they were always slow to grasp the miraculous in the flesh-and-blood man they saw before them each day, he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead” (Jn 11:14), and he made it clear that he would raise him from the dead. Yet when they arrived in Bethany, Jesus cried real tears.
Perhaps these were tears of pity for the sorrow of Lazarus’s sisters and friends, who did not yet know that their loved one would soon be alive again. John says Jesus’ spirit was troubled when he saw his friends Mary and Martha crying for their brother, and all the relatives and neighbors mourning along with them. Perhaps these were tears of anger over the injustice and tyranny of death itself, a result of humanity’s fall into sin and Satan’s stranglehold on this world. John says Jesus was again “deeply moved” (11:38) as he neared the cave that was Lazarus’s grave. Whatever the cause of the tears, the fact is that he wept, plain and simple.
In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mt 26:38). That night, Christ wept, pleaded with God and sweated drops of blood. The One who is called the Life, the Bread of Life, the Living Water, the Everlasting—the One who had always lived—was about to die. Death, the antithesis of everything Jesus is, was about to consume him. His sorrow was real, so real that we shy away from it. We do not like to picture Jesus prostrate and weeping. It is uncomfortable and untidy. The most popular artists’ renditions of this scene show Christ bathed in an aura of golden light, kneeling by a rock, hands folded primly, eyes lifted beseechingly to heaven. But Scripture shows us our Savior stretched out on the ground, a posture of total abandonment, a broken, forlorn figure (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:35). God gives us this vivid picture of our Lord to remind us that he knows the messy, broken, unbeautiful reality of our own sorrows.
There is another reason we are given these glimpses into our Savior’s sorrow. Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb 2:17). Jesus felt deep pain, and not just the physical pain of dying on the cross. He felt deep emotional pain as well. His heart was troubled and broken, and he cried.
If Jesus can cry uninhibitedly, then so can we. There is no shame or guilt in feeling sad. God honors our emotions and does not ask us to hold back. He knows we are hurting, and he wants to use our times of deep emotion to teach us about himself, to show us that he is faithful even when our hearts are full of grief.
God is not afraid of our sorrow. He does not expect us to sweep it under the rug. He knows about it, and he wants to see us through it, not around it. The psalmist wrote, “Even though I walk / through the valley of the shadow of death, / I will fear no evil, / for you are with me” (Ps 23:4). We do not like valleys; we want to find an alternate route. Our culture is all about avoiding pain. Turn on the television and see how long it is before you see a commercial for a prescription medication to treat depression or anxiety. Of course, there are legitimate cases when medical intervention is necessary for mental and emotional pain. Chemical or hormonal changes can make a person feel despondent or stressed for no external reason, and this kind of imbalance needs medical intervention. But when something terribly sad has happened to us, it is only logical that we will feel pain. Dr. Neil Kalter pointed this out when he wrote that children of divorce “will not be ‘unnecessarily’ sad or distressed, they will be normally sad and distressed.” God does not promise to take away our pain—at least not immediately—but he does promise to walk with us through our pain.
Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted /and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted / and binds up their wounds.” When we feel wounded and crushed, we can be assured that God is gently laboring over us, healing our brokenness, binding our hurts. Like a mother kissing away the owies or a nurse gently cleansing a wound, God knows what our broken hearts need for healing to come, and he himself is the salve.
I used to work at a Christian ministry where we often received books that publishers or authors wanted us to promote or review. At one particularly low point in my life, when God seemed distant and my situation felt hopeless, a copy of a new book landed on my desk. It was intended for people who were unfamiliar with the Christian faith, and it examined the character of God. It was not especially deep or hard-hitting. But at a time when I felt brokenhearted, that simple and gentle reminder about God’s presence and character was just what I needed. As I read that book and remembered what God was really like, I began to see past my present situation and feel the tattered edges of my heart start to heal. God’s character was the bandage that held me together.
No words to pray
When we feel so burdened that we do not know what to pray, the Holy Spirit actually prays for us! In Romans 8:26, Paul tells us, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
I like to collect quotes. Whenever I read something that strikes me as profound, I copy it into a journal. One of my favorite quotes is from Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God. She writes, “There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”8 When our pain submerges to that “gulf of formless feelings,” we can feel helpless and impotent in prayer. But it is at these times, through the Spirit’s intercession in “groans that words cannot express,” that our most beautiful prayers rise to heaven.Sometimes it helps to have a friend praying for you, to know that another person is carrying the weight of your spiritual numbness when you are unable to do so yourself. During a dark time in my own life, my dear friend Deb committed to praying for me daily. I had broken up with a boyfriend, a man I had fallen hopelessly in love with. In the end I felt abandoned just the way I had when my dad cut off all contact with me. I was devastated. How could God let me feel the same pain twice? Couldn’t he at least pick a different pain to inflict on me? I spiraled downward, unable to eat, barely able to function, aware that I was holding on to my sanity by the thinnest of threads. I had been sad before, but this was different. It seemed to dredge up every hurt feeling I had ever known, all at the same time. In the midst of this struggle, I was unable to see God. I knew he was there, but that was as far as I could get.
Deeply depressed, I was at a point where many of us have been (or will be) sometime in our spiritual journeys. I prayed and felt nothing, heard nothing. I was worse than numb, worse than deaf. I felt like I was dead inside. And I knew that I needed prayer, but my soul was so overcome by this nothing that I had no words to pray, no thoughts, no feelings. So Deb took my life before God’s throne for me. Every day she prayed for me, and she reminded me often that she was praying for me. She did this for a full year.
Deb carried me through those dark days and darker nights with her prayers. Looking back on it now, it almost appears in my mind like a scene from John Bunyan’s classic Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. I was Pilgrim, half dead from a beating by Ruthless World, but mercifully being carried to safety on the back of beautiful Intercession.
If you are in a similar desert of the soul, ask a trusted friend to commit to praying for you, like Deb did for me. Someday you may return the favor for another weary soul. In fact, that is what Deb was doing. She had walked through that valley of depression and numb spiritual emptiness years earlier. Several women to whom she was very close committed to praying for her every day until the darkness lifted from her soul. Their intercession on her behalf enabled her to move beyond the valley. Today Deb has a reputation as a faithful and committed intercessor for those in need.
Blessings in sorrow
Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I learned that verse as a child. It was one of the “Be Attitudes” (a cute take on the Beatitudes), illustrated with a black-and-yellow paper bumblebee. And that is how Christians often approach these verses. We want to buzz into people’s pain, stick a Beatitude on them and hope they feel better. We are like the Christians James chastised with these words: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (2:15-16).
Matthew 5:4 is not a pat, “cheer up, tomorrow is another day” answer to sorrow. When we treat it that way, we are missing the point. It is a hint at the later revelation of a Comforter, a Spirit who will indwell us and bring peace to our battered souls. Paul explains the comfort we receive from God through the Holy Spirit—and what we are to do with it—in greater depth: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
We did not choose to be children of divorce, to have our families ripped apart, to have Mom and Dad living in separate homes. We would never have chosen this. But finding ourselves in this situation, we do have a choice to make. Will we allow God to comfort us? And will we offer that same comfort to others who are hurting?
Those of us now in our twenties and thirties are the first generations to reach adulthood since divorce became the norm in our society. We are just now finding our voices, expressing our hurts and helping each other heal. As God heals our hearts, he can use our sorrows and our stories to bring healing into the lives of others. Remember, he saves each tear in a bottle—that is not the work of a wasteful God.
God knows our sorrow intimately because he made us and knows everything about us. He has experienced great sorrow himself, and in the Bible he lets us see the depths of his grief. He promises to heal our broken hearts and be with us in the process. He prays for us when we are too worn out with grief to form words. He gives comfort to our souls through his Holy Spirit.
R. C. Sproul said, “If believers really understood the character and personality and the nature of God, it would revolutionize their lives.” Knowing that God cares for us means that we do not have to suffer in silence. We do not have to hide our sorrow or pretend that everything is just fine. We can acknowledge our sadness over the breakup of our family and begin to experience God’s grace as we begin to know the tender, compassionate way that our God cares for us and shares in our sorrow.
Kristine Steakley is author of Child of Divorce, Child of God.
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