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 broken-hearted, 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.” 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 20s and 30s 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 a freelance writer and a grant-writing consultant living in northern Virginia. This article has been excerpted with permission from Children of Divorce, Children of God (IVP Books, copyright @ 2008).