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by Elyse Fitzpatrick
Divorce, suffering, grace, and freedom
I’ll never forget where I was when I got the call. We were on I-95, heading south. After two years of living in Knoxville, Tennessee, my family and I were returning home to southern Florida to plant a church, and we were excited. It was not going to be easy, but it was going to be a lot easier there than it would be anywhere else. You see, in my hometown I was more than an anonymous pastor—I was a Tchividjian. My parents were well established in the community: my mother as a nationally renowned speaker and author and the daughter of Billy Graham, and my father a sophisticated European psychologist whose practice helped countless people in the area, not to mention the country. My pedigree would be a huge boost. So when I heard my father’s voice on the line, telling me that he and my mother were separating after 41 years of marriage, I didn’t know what to say. Little did I know that it was just the beginning of a painful journey that would turn my life and faith upside down.
Every time I acknowledged the divorce out loud, it felt like I was losing a part of myself.
Separate they did, and soon after they got divorced. It was an incredibly painful, confusing, and emotionally draining time for my siblings and me. The separation was a total curveball. Our parents had provided a very happy, healthy, loving, stable home life during our upbringing. There had been no infidelity or abuse—in fact, we are still scratching our collective heads, wondering what exactly happened.
The months following my father’s announcement were sad and awkward ones. My wife and I had just moved back to Fort Lauderdale, which meant I was constantly running into people who knew my parents. They would ask about them, and I would avoid answering. If pressed, I would respond by saying they were having a tough time, that prayers would be appreciated. But when the final blow came and the divorce was made public, I started to dread that question with every fiber of my being. Each time I had to answer, I felt like I was grinding the words out. And every time I acknowledged the divorce out loud, it felt like I was losing a part of myself. It felt like death.
Identifying an idol
You see, I had come to believe that, as long as I was the son of my parents, I was someone. So when they announced their separation, it flipped my world upside down. I began to question everything: who I was, what I’d been taught, even the validity of their faith. It was almost like the end of the movie The Sixth Sense—I had to go back and reinterpret my entire life through the lens of recent events.
What I discovered was that the pain I was experiencing had less to do with my parents sad and tragic divorce and much more to do with the fact that I had located my identity and my security and my worth in being the son of a well-known and respected couple. I realized that what was so devastating was the blow to my personal identity, which was intricately wrapped up in being their son. My parents had enjoyed good standing in society; they were devout churchgoing people, of national repute. I grew up seeing my mother on Good Morning America, so classy, so beautiful, so talented. Then there was my father: super smart, a tender lover of people, the most intuitive person I knew. As far as I was concerned, they hung the moon. Being their son gave me a sense of significance. I know this sounds crazy, but my pain was rooted in the fact that I had turned my parents into an idol.
Identity in the idol
What? How do you make an idol out of your parents? Idolatry, after all, conjures up all sorts of antiquated images of golden calves and prehistoric rituals. Yet while it may be an anachronistic word, it is far from an anachronistic problem. Idols are much more than statues that our ancestors bowed down to. Indeed, anything that we build our lives on, anything that we lean on for meaning or identity, anything that we hope will bring us freedom can be an idol.
Tim Keller has written insightfully about contemporary idolatry: “Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God.” I had enjoyed being a part of my family, which is fine and good. But the suffering I endured during their divorce revealed that it had become too important to me. It was one thing to enjoy being the son of my parents. It was quite another to derive my core identity from that fact.
Suffering itself does not rob you of joy—idolatry does.
This whole painful experience helped me to see that if the foundation of your identity is your things—the thing that makes me who I am is this position, these relationships, having this name, having this money, and so on—then suffering will be pulling you away from the uttermost foundations of your joy—and that will make you mad, bitter, and sad. But if your identity is anchored in Christ, so that you are able to say, “Everything I need I already possess in him,” then suffering drives you deeper into your source of joy. Suffering, in other words, shows us where we are locating our identity. Our response to suffering reveals what we’re building our life on and what we’re depending on to make life worth living.
This means that suffering itself does not rob you of joy—idolatry does. If you’re suffering and you’re angry, bitter, and joyless (which I was) it means you’ve idolized whatever it is you’re losing. Joylessness and bitterness in the crucible of pain happens when we lose something that we’ve held onto more tightly than God.
Grace always runs downhill, meeting us at the bottom, not the top.
As Paul Tripp so probingly asks, “How is your present disappointment, discouragement, or grief a window on what has actually captured your heart?” When we depend on anything smaller than God to provide us with the security, significance, meaning, and value that we long for, God will love us enough to take it away. Much of our anger and bitterness, therefore, is God prying open our hands and taking away something we’ve held onto more tightly than him.
Grace at the bottom of the ruins
The grief of my parents’ divorce brought me to my knees, and put me in touch with my need for God in a way that nothing else could have at that moment. Grace always runs downhill, meeting us at the bottom, not the top.
We may not ever fully understand why God allows the suffering that devastates our lives. We may not ever find the right answers to how we’ll dig ourselves out. There may not be any silver lining, especially not in the ways we would like. But we don’t need answers as much as we need God’s presence in and through the suffering itself. For the life of the believer, one thing is beautifully and abundantly true: God’s chief concern in your suffering is to be with you and be himself for you. In other words, our ruin may not ultimately spell our undoing. It may in fact spell the beginning of real freedom.
Over the next few months, Pastor Tullian will be speaking on the Glorious Ruin Tour about how we don’t need answers and explanations as much as we need God’s presence in and through suffering.