I started this post a couple of weeks ago and never finished or published it because it got too hard and I started second guessing whether to share it or not. Then yesterday’s sermon at church prompted me to revisit it. The message included John 9:62, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” There have been times in my life when I’ve struggled to keep my hands on the plow and my eyes forward. I’ve committed but I haven’t stayed committed. Those are the hard parts of my story, the ones I’m the least proud of, but also the ones that point to my need for grace and a redeeming Savior.
When I wrote my first post on this blog almost 2 years ago, I was nervous. Being the center of attention is not my thing and the thought of people, possibly even people I’d never met, reading about my life made me feel more vulnerable than I imagined it might. Part of me wondered if it was selfish to think that people really cared enough to want to read about my journey. I’m certainly not the first person to ever fight breast cancer. Now I have realized a deep love for writing but I still sometimes have those feelings and have prayed often about what to do with them. I met someone for the first time this fall who said she had always followed this blog and had been inspired by it. Her words reminded me why I chose to write and share my words publicly; if God can use my story to point someone else to His faithfulness, then it’s worth pushing through my insecurities.
One of the sweetest parts of last summer was having the opportunity to host a book study with a few girlfriends at our home. The first night that we met together, we intended to wrap things up in about an hour but ended up talking together for several more. We started sharing the hard things – the things that keep us awake at night, the insecurities, the deepest hurts that bring on the most tears. We didn’t judge one another and we didn’t offer a quick fix for anyone, we simply listened. As we said our goodbyes, we all agreed that the night had been so good for each of us. I realized that night how rare those types of conversations are. When we go to dinner with our closest friends or have girls’ nights we rarely bring up those hard parts of our stories. We think no one wants to hear about our struggles and we don’t want to bring down the mood, but I’ve realized how important it is to make a more conscious effort to be transparent and real with one another. I think the most valuable thing that we all walked away from that night with was that it was okay to have struggles and it was okay to talk to about them. We all left that night saying to ourselves, “Wow. She really isn’t perfect either. She doesn’t have it all figured out, and that’s alright.”
One of the hardest parts of my story, but one that I’ve begun to see as a tremendous opportunity to point to God’s grace and redemption, is the fact that I was married before. It’s common knowledge among my close friends and family, but it has often been something that is difficult for me to share with new people. When Adam and I met, I told him that I’d been married before the very first time we spent time together just the two of us. I just knew he was going to run for the hills so I figured it was best to go ahead and break the news before I got too attached. Obviously I was wrong on that one. I stressed out for weeks about telling his parents, and then the night that we decided I would tell them, Adam ended up talking for me because I started crying so hard. Looking back, there’s no telling what they thought we were about to tell them. We did a marriage book study last year with our Sunday School class and wouldn’t you know that the chapter we happened to be discussing the week we hosted at our house was the chapter on divorce. I seriously couldn’t believe that of all the chapters in the book, that chapter would be the one we would be leading the discussion on! I kept thinking throughout the night that I would find some opportunity to slip it into the conversation, but I never got up the nerve. I don’t know what exactly I thought was going to happen when I said it, but I was terrified. I didn’t think anyone would get up and walk out of our house, but I worried that they would think differently of me. The fear of being rejected can be incredibly strong. For years my face would get hot when someone would make comments about divorce and divorced people. As time has gone on, I’ve realized that my failed marriage doesn’t define me. It is a part of my story, and though God didn’t cause it, He allowed it and He also used it to bring me to Christ.
I was raised as a Christian and have always believed in God, but it wasn’t until my first marriage fell apart that I really “got it” and made the decision to follow Christ. When I was a child, we were members of a Lutheran church and went most Sundays. I always got a new dress for Easter and we took pictures in the front yard. I said my prayers every night. I was home schooled 8th-12th grade with a Christian curriculum so I took Bible history courses and memorized scripture verses, even in Spanish. During those years, we traveled all over the country in an RV as my dad drag raced competitively. I also raced for a couple of years. We traded church pews for the seat of a 4-wheeler as we attended the church service on Sunday mornings at the race track in whatever state we were in that particular weekend. The thought of my parents being disappointed in me was pretty much all the discipline I needed. I made good grades and finished college with a 4.0 GPA. I wasn’t perfect, but I sure tried to get as close as I could. I really thought I had it all figured out, and from the outside it probably looked like I did. Looking back, I realize that I thought of God as some distant power who was always watching me to be sure I didn’t do anything wrong. I thought as long as I followed all of the rules and was a “good girl” that my life would turn out perfectly. I never noticed a need for Jesus or grace in my life because I had it all under control on my own, or so I thought.
Change has always been scary and uncomfortable for me, so after high school, I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of going off to college. I lived at home all 4 years, attending a small campus in my hometown for 2 years and then commuting over an hour each way for the last 2 years. My parents divorced shortly after I began college and my mom and brother moved 2 hours away while I stayed behind and lived with my dad while finishing school. It was a very difficult time for me, for all of us, and I struggled to accept that we weren’t a family anymore. That still wasn’t enough to turn me to Jesus though. Instead, I chose mostly to blame, be angry, and wallow for several years in how unfair it was that things were never going to be how I wanted them to be. And then I just kept pushing forward, determined to keep striving and making my own perfect life that would make it all better.
I met my first husband when I was 15 while working at my family’s Piggly Wiggly grocery store. When we met, I wasn’t even allowed to go on a date yet and had to wait until my 16th birthday. We were your typical high school sweethearts and after I finished college, we took what we both thought was the logical next step and got engaged. We had been dating for 8 years by the time our wedding date arrived. We had a huge wedding in Charleston and I stressed over every last detail. It had to be perfect, too, of course. What I didn’t stress over or pay much attention to at all was my relationship with Christ or our need for Him in our marriage. In my mind, dating for 8 years was more than enough to guarantee a successful marriage. We weren’t even married 2 years before we separated. How did we last 8 years dating and not even 2 years married? Hadn’t we done everything right? There was a part of me that always thought because we’d been together for so long that it was a given that we’d always be together. There was no work we needed to put into our marriage or conversations we needed to have. I wasn’t interested in learning how to communicate better or addressing any of my shortcomings. When your own personal happiness becomes more important than your marriage vows, it is a slippery slope. When you start focusing solely on yourself and not your spouse, it’s easy to start thinking you’ve fallen out of love. Little things become huge things and your perspective shifts. If it was meant to be, it would be easy. Before you know it, you think surely you’ve married the wrong person and you’re pinning or sharing every quote you can about following your heart and deserving to be happy. Counseling? No way in the world are you going to sit and let some stranger convince you otherwise of something you are already so sure of. That was all me the first time I tried, and failed miserably, at being a wife.
I did eventually realize my selfishness and then I wanted God to help me fix it all. It wasn’t easy for a hard-headed girl like me to admit to being wrong, so when I finally did, I just knew if I prayed hard enough that He would fix my marriage and we’d live happily ever after. But He didn’t and we didn’t. For a while, I was only angry at myself. But later I realized that no matter what had happened, He was God and He had the power to fix it if He wanted to. So then I got angry that He didn’t fix it and I turned again and did my own thing. Living on my own became too difficult so I decided to rent out our house and I ended up moving in with my cousin and his wife who so graciously opened their home to me. I went from being a 26-year-old with a loving husband and a beautiful house to a divorced 26-year-old sharing a bathroom with her 9-year-old cousin. There were a lot of days I had to be forced out of bed. I wasn’t sure how I felt about God anymore because I’d prayed so hard and didn’t get what I wanted. I had let so many people down and I was absolutely broken.
In the summer of 2012, a couple of months after I’d hit rock bottom, a college student from Michigan was in Charleston on a mission trip and she began working with me for the summer. She invited me to her weekly Cru college ministry events and I went with her a few times, but on the weekends I was also still out living the college days I’d never had. I never told her that I was in the middle of a divorce, I was way too embarrassed. She also invited me to go to church with her at Seacoast one Sunday and so I started attending with her regularly. I started to really listen and rethink the direction my life was going. On her last day at work in August before returning to Michigan, she gave me a Bible. In it she wrote a note to me that said it was obvious to her that God wanted to work in and through me and she couldn’t wait to see what He had in store. She also said that she’d be praying Ephesians 3:16-21 for me:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
I remember my eyes filling up with tears as I read that and truly realized how deep Christ’s love was for me. He loved me so much that He sent this girl all the way to South Carolina to tell me. I told her my story and how I’d been too embarrassed all summer to tell her what I was struggling with and what a failure I felt like. I continued attending Seacoast on my own after she returned home and I even joined a small group book study that met during the week. I realized that God loved me even though he didn’t give me exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t about that anyway. I needed to learn to love Him for who He was, not what He could do for me. I had been christened as a child, but over the past several months I had begun to hear sermons and read about the importance of baptism as an outward sign of a decision to be committed to following Christ. One Sunday during the morning service, I learned that they were baptizing people that same afternoon in the ocean at Isle of Palms and I knew it was time. No more excuses. I texted a few friends and family to let them know that I’d made this important decision and invited them to come. I knew that since it was such short notice that they wouldn’t be able to make it, but my friend Becky was able to be there and share that experience with me. On Sunday, September 9, 2012 I made the best decision of my life. I’d be lying if I told you that my life was all rainbows and butterflies after that; there are still hard times and there will always be hard times, but it is so much easier facing them with the hope I have in Christ.
Why did I write about all of this? The broken parts of my story definitely aren’t things I am proud of or that are easy to talk about, but I share them because I think it’s important that you can see through my story how easy it is to live your whole life going through the motions, certain you’ve got it all figured out, maybe even thinking that you are a Christian, when in reality you’re missing the single most important thing – a relationship with Christ. What does it have to do with my breast cancer story or this blog? A lot actually. I am certain that I would not have been prepared to handle a cancer diagnosis and its aftermath if it weren’t for that most special relationship. And that relationship was not formed until after the perfect life I built crumbled and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I have far too much respect for both myself and my first husband to share every detail of our marriage, but I did want to share the tough lessons that I learned through it in hopes that it might encourage someone who might be facing similar struggles or who feels as if they’ve failed one too many times. God can and will bring beauty from ashes. He can redeem even the most broken and ugly parts of our stories and use them for good, but you have to seek Him first. Even after I committed my life to Christ, I struggled for several more years with why divorce was a part of my story. I believed that God had a plan for my life since before I was born and I know He hates divorce, so why did he allow it in my plan? Then I also tried to analyze every part of our relationship and figure out exactly where it went wrong. Should we have gotten married in the first place? I thought being able to explain it and figuring out an answer would help me feel better about it all. It never did. Finally I realized that it’s something I’ll never understand this side of heaven. Some things we aren’t meant to understand. For a while I thought that trying to forget all about that part of my life was the answer. I’d get rid of all the pictures, the mutual friends, the places, the memories, and that would make my heart whole again. Some of those things are necessary in the beginning, but a decade of being together isn’t easily erased. You’ll always find something with your former last name on it or you’ll have to write all former names you’ve ever used. Your old wedding date will roll around every year, and of course Facebook will graciously have some sort of post from 8 years ago today for you. As the years have passed I’ve begun to realize that it’s okay. I can bring him up in conversation and it’s okay. I can look back on those 10 years and smile because they made me who I am today. Although God has given me an incredible husband and another chance to get it right, you will never hear me say that I’m happy that I got a divorce and that I think it’s a great option. You won’t hear Adam say he agrees with it either because that’s how he got his wife. I realize that I’m imperfect and I own my past mistakes completely, but instead of beating myself up for the rest of my life, I can learn from them and be a better wife now. I can choose to find my identity in Christ and not in my broken past. I can look at it all and see how marvelous God is and how he took a mangled up mess and made a beautiful life for all of us.
That brings me back to John 9:62, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” When you put your hand on the plow, stay committed. Stay committed to the person God called you to marry. Communicate, don’t be afraid to ask for help or to admit your shortcomings. Stay committed to Christ and to following Him. Surround yourself with other believers who can mentor and encourage you along the way. Keep your hands on the plow. And if you haven’t and you know you’ve really messed up this time, remember that God’s grace is amazing and He can redeem all those broken pieces if you will turn it all over to Him. I know because He did it for me.