I met him at a national conference where I was on the welcome team. We were both 19 and church interns; I was on the worship team, as was he. We were a picture-perfect Christian couple.
We did things right too. We had all the right boundaries that they tell you about in all the relationship series at youth group.
We dated for a few years before we got engaged. In the years to follow, people would ask, “Were there any red flags?” I’ll say there were “blips”, like the time he had too much to drink and vomited all over himself. But nothing alarming . . . yet.
We completed our church’s 12-week premarital counselling, and even the discerning couple who facilitated the counselling suspected nothing.
Then we married in a beautiful ceremony—the climax of the fairy tale all Christian girls long for.
Only it wasn’t a Christian fairy tale.
The unfolding of my “Christian fairy tale” marriage
It took about a year before things went wrong. Stories conflicted; bank statements looked strange. Whenever I would challenge him on the worrying stuff others told me, he would dismiss them as lies, or things said with hidden agendas. Someone else was always the “bad guy”.
I was not allowed to question anything because that made me “crazy” and “controlling”. Slowly, I started to question my own sense of reality. I became anxious, isolated, a shadow of myself.
After two painful years, it all came to a head, involving substances and addiction. We couldn’t go on like this. He needed help. And I needed to remove myself and my child from the situation until things got better.
But he didn’t want to work on himself, or us. A few weeks later he was unfaithful, totally derailing my world as I knew it.
Suddenly, I went from that picture of “successful Christian woman” (married, with home and a beautiful child) to single mum, where people in church took one look at my child, another look at my ringless ring finger, and asked me if I just got saved.
Reaching for help was one of the hardest things I had to learn to do, and what made it possible was when I could no longer pretend everything was okay.
The hard and difficult journey out of my collapsed marriage
Journeying out of the collapse of my marriage was long and difficult, though mercifully made easier by friends and family who helped carry the load, and a very, very good counsellor.
Three years later, on my honeymoon to a genuinely wonderful man, I was collecting shells along New Zealand’s Omaha Beach, located north of the North Island, when God reminded me of a passage I’d been clinging to not long before.
“‘For the Lord has called you back from your grief—as though you were a young wife abandoned by her husband,’ says your God” (Isaiah 54:6).
You can never go back to seeing yourself as an abandoned spouse, I felt God say to me, You have to partake in your identity as a treasured wife.
At the time I was high off a beautiful wedding, in awe of the incredible faithfulness of God and of the man I had married, who not only loved me but adored my daughter too. So, I thought, No duh, why would I go back to seeing myself as abandoned and broken?
After we got home and the gifts had been unwrapped, the photos obsessed over, the truth of God’s warning finally sank in as married life began.
Anyone who has ever walked a season of suckiness will know that it is harder to get that season out of you than it is to get out of that season. The mindsets, the fears, the contingencies you’ve learnt to take to protect yourself and your heart, even when the worst is over.
For one, I had become jaded and would anticipate the worst in someone (it was a mechanism to protect myself). One time I was in the car with my now husband, who was telling me about having quit smoking years ago when I saw something in the centre console that resembled a vaping device. I reached down and grabbed it. “What’s this then!?” I demanded because I wouldn’t be fooled again.
A cologne bottle, as it turned out.
I’ve had to relearn to not think the worst of people. Helpfully, I have friends and a good professional counsellor, and they both would challenge me to ask the right questions; to listen to myself, not just what I say out loud, but the words I say within me.
And while it is not always easy, my husband has been incredibly patient with me, affirming me, and reminding me that where we are now doesn’t have to be like the last time.
It’s not easy to wriggle free from our past
Escaping the past, finally wriggling free of what has happened to us—it’s all about getting out of Egypt. By this, I mean the slavery and bondage to the stuff that is wrapped so tightly around us, we can’t tell where all that ends and where we begin. It could be a big, heavy, thunderstorm of a thing, abuse, addiction, or something else equally traumatic. Or it could be a continuous narrative of self-doubt, a friendship that brings you harm, an unhealthy relationship dynamic that is engrained within you that you just can’t seem to get out of.
This concept came to me when my counsellor recommended Chuck deGroat’s book titled Leaving Egypt. The Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land was an emotional rollercoaster. One moment the people were all “this is amazing, God is the best”, and the next minute, they were building golden calves to worship or blatantly asking Moses why he brought them out of Egypt only to let them die. Even though their bodies had left Egypt, their hearts were still there (Numbers 11:1, 4-5).
Leaving Egypt is hard. Getting out can be a physical thing, but more often it’s a mental thing. Practicing self-control over our thoughts can seem insurmountable. Because they are familiar. They are cages that, while uncomfortable and unpleasant, are known to us, and so feel more secure than the unknown that lies ahead.
The million-dollar question is: How do we leave the bondage of Egypt and enter with our new selves into the “Promised Land” to which God is leading us?
We leave our past by “re-membering”
There is a term in narrative therapy called “re-membering”. It is to reconnect with things that are disconnected, be it a memory or a person.
The person I’d been when I entered my first marriage was not the person I was by the end. Afraid that my “dirty secret” would be discovered, I’d isolated myself from everything I’d loved and been a part of—friends, ministry, passions . . . everything.I needed to “re-member” who I was. Who Scripture—God—said I was.
When we struggle with our past, we must “re-member” as the people of Israel did that they weren’t slaves, they were the people of God; the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as Moses frequently reminded them (Numbers 15:39, Leviticus 26:44-45). God too calls us out of where we are, with all the tattered scraps of our past, and gives us a new identity in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17).
What about you? Perhaps you find yourself falling (repeatedly) into bad relationships that often leave you empty and exhausted. Or you’re battling with an addiction that makes you feel ugly and awful every time you look at yourself in the mirror.
Remember, your sin does not define you. God has liberated you from that.
Within your own story, seek the “exception” stories, the ones you tend to ignore because they’re not “consistent” with the negative stories you’re so used to. Highlight these stories—was there a time you had a good relationship? Was there a time you won the battle over your addiction?
More than just passive thinking, this kind of “re-membering” involves engaging in activities that enable the new identity to really take root.
As the people of Israel partook in the Passover meal (a preview of Jesus’s atonement and salvation), as they gathered each day the manna in the desert, and as they presented burnt offerings, these activities—rituals—reminded them of who they were and who their God was.
I did my “re-membering” through journalling and being in spaces where I could be honest with my feelings and recalibrate who I was.
Worship was helpful in bringing in God’s truth to reframe my life. Songwriting was an outlet I used to connect with what God had to say about me and my situation. I recall the lyrics of a song I wrote the day after I discovered my previous husband’s unfaithfulness: I may bend but I’m never broken / I may stumble but you help me to rise.
Leaving Egypt was hard. I have days when the thought lets itself into the back of my mind uninvited. But by God’s grace, my past lessens its hold on me every day.
I am thankful for my marriage and the journey my husband and I have taken to get to where we are today. For the honest conversations that we’ve had since day one, and how it has taught me what it feels like to be truly safe. I am thankful for his patience and willingness to let me feel how I feel sometimes, and to not let that change his love for me. I am excited not only for the future we are building together but how the security of it has released me to take risks and step out further in who I am, and who God has called me to be.