Morbid Exercise…Or Pathway to Healing?

As this is being published, my wife Shelly and I are smack dab in the middle of facilitating our sixth semester of DivorceCare at The Crossing. As usual, we are confronted each week with a decidedly mixed bag of emotions…not just from the class participants, but welling up within our own hearts as well. For example, we are deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet people wherever they are in life, but always aware of the fact that – whatever else might be true – we would probably all have much preferred to meet under vastly different circumstances.

Over the past three years, I have come to develop a great deal of respect and admiration for the thought, sensitivity, diligence and fully-biblical worldview that have so obviously gone into creating the DivorceCare curriculum, just one of several series produced by the good folks over at Church Initiative in Wake Forest, N.C. True, I have been exposed to the video segments a sufficient number of times now that I have been able to pick out a few weak spots and/or comments that I flat-out disagree with but, overall, the advice given is spot-on. In fact, we have been offering the program long enough now that we have seen how things play out for various participants who choose to ignore the wisdom contained within the program. (In a nutshell? “Not so good.”)

Three years ago, one of the bits of DivorceCare wisdom that I initially found hard to swallow was, “Sit down and write out an inventory of all your losses.” For someone reeling from the gut-wrenching pain and betrayal inherent in a divorce situation, this advice seemed to me to be a bit, well, morbid. Almost as if you were asking a mourner at a funeral to write out a list of all the positive things that the deceased had brought to their life. “Isn’t that perhaps asking just a bit too much right now?”

As the semesters have passed, however, I can clearly see the difference in how quickly a person recovers, and – you guessed it – those who early on begin to identify, grieve and ultimately accept their losses fare much better.

Conversely, those who resist the idea of tallying their losses tend to get stuck in what Dr. Les Carter wonderfully describes as “mythical thinking.” Their lives are consumed with finger-pointing, endlessly playing the various “What if?” games and looking under every rock and tree for a suitable person, place, institution and/or political party to blame for the destruction of their marriage. The unfortunate side-effect to all of this, of course, is that we can become so consumed with “justifying ourselves” or making sure that the exact measure of appropriate blame gets affixed to the proper party that we get “stuck” in our grief, unable to move forward or, worse, carrying that tangled emotional mess into yet another – almost certainly doomed – relationship.

Tallying up one’s losses in the wake of a destroyed relationship may indeed seem morbid, but following this one simple piece of advice can actually protect our hearts from further damage as the long-term realities begin to set in.

For example, just starting off with something as simple as, “At best, I will from this point forward only be a part-time parent to my children,” greatly helps us to reset our expectations such that we stop thinking of our parenting in terms of “what ought to be” and “what might have been” and instead lands us solidly in the realm of “what can now be reasonably expected.” A person who refuses to accept this simple, obvious reality – that they will no longer have 24/7 access to their own children – runs the risk of wasting years of their life and untold amounts of emotional energy in hatred toward their ex-spouse, becoming instantly angry at every situation that sheds additional light on their loss and bitterness over “what should have been.”

Similarly, I have come to appreciate how making an inventory of one’s losses has the none-too-subtle side-effect of demonstrating that – whatever the circumstances surrounding the break-up of the marriage – each party bears at least some measure of guilt for the relational havoc being wrought. Where the world’s means of coping with loss is typically to blame, vilify and/or demonize the other person, the measured response of listing out all of the losses will surely bring to light areas where both spouses failed to cooperate and/or live out the marriage covenant in the most God-pleasing manner. Even where one party clearly brought things to a tipping point – say, through an adulterous relationship – the listing of all associated losses will invariably bring to light areas where failures could rightly be reckoned to both sides, without in any way exonerating the guilt of the other person.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a strong biblical component to all of this as well. First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Just one verse prior to that, 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” While I can readily identify with those who may view themselves as having been horribly wronged (for whatever reason) in the wake of a divorce, I can also appreciate the honesty and ongoing confession that must go into any itemized list of losses, should the person be willing to confess those areas for which they should rightly shoulder at least some of the blame.

Admittedly, it’s tough to confess our failures and seek God’s forgiveness – let alone anyone else’s – when we feel we’ve been “more greatly wronged” than the other person. Making matters worse is the biblical truth that the proud human heart instinctively resists the idea that it has done anything wrong. This sin-soaked attitude can be – and very often is – greatly reinforced by the enemy of our soul by continually calling our attention to the things that have been done to us, rather than by us. I want to guess that minimizing our own guilt by highlighting that of someone else is probably one of “Satan’s Greatest Hits” for effectively separating the hurt and the broken from true communion with Jesus.

Making a list of our losses in the wake of a divorce (or any seriously-broken relationship), however, forces us to take a step in the direction of forgiveness. Sometimes we must work to forgive someone who has stolen much from us – our dream of a future with them, half of our time with our own children, a life of covenantal faithfulness. Sometimes the one we have the hardest time forgiving is ourselves; whether that is because we are the one who brought such destruction to our marriage or whether it is because we refuse to accept the blame for any of the destruction, we are the ones who suffer.

So what’s the alternative to listing out, grieving over and ultimately accepting our losses? The point is best made by another DivorceCare expert, Dr. Jim Talley, when he states flatly that there are two ways to go through a divorce: “If you do it right, it will be agonizing. If you do it wrong, it will be excruciating.” Elsewhere, Talley helpfully reminds us that if we do it wrong, we more than likely will “get to go through it all over again.” To that rather-sobering assessment, I would only add that forcing ourselves to confront an inventory of our losses – and our failures – is a strong first step toward a more honest and healing relationship with the only One who can fully and finally give us peace.

1 John 1:5-10 (ESV)
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

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