Ethan received the note that nobody wants to receive.
Years later, he called it the “note from hades.”
After arriving home from a hard day at work he found a note on the kitchen table that read:
“You’re right. We can’t go on this way. I have left. I’ll call you this weekend.” – Jillian
Seventeen little words.
Terror, shock, fear, guilt, shame, and anger collided at the intersection in his heart.
It was more like an explosion of the soul.
His mind was racing.
He had no idea what to do, so he slunk down into a kitchen chair and stared at nothing in particular as the numbness began to creep over his entire body.
Life, as he had known it, was forever altered. That much he knew. But what he was supposed to do next was eluding him.
In the days and months to come he cried a lot.
One year later
During the next 12 months Ethan lost 40 pounds. His friends who had not seen him in awhile and had no idea what was going on in his life thought he looked fantastic. They wanted to know his weight loss “secret.”
Sometimes he would tell certain people what had happened. Other times he would just say, “It’s the grace of God” and go on. While both statements were technically true, there were times he really didn’t want to talk about it.
Finally, after several appeals from his close friends, he decided to get some help. He went to see his pastor.
After a few insightful and probing questions it became apparent that Ethan did not want to get better. Initially he did not “sign off” on his pastor’s assessment. He persisted in presenting himself as struggling, anxious, fearful, shame and guilt ridden, depressed, and sometimes angry.
While all of these things were true, the pastor’s assessment was also true.
This did not stop Ethan from blurting out, “That’s idiotic! Why would I want to suffer like this?”
In hindsight, his protest was somewhat weak and he was actually pleased that his pastor discerned the real situation. At some level of his heart, Ethan wanted to be exposed. He wanted someone to figure out the mess he was in and walk him through the complexity of his heart struggles.
The irony of pain, suffering, and a regretful past
He was torn between the two worlds of suffering and freedom. While suffering was his constant friend, there was also a hope that he would be free from the pain of his past. But fear, born out of unbelief in God, ruled his heart and that kept him from fully pushing forward into the freedom that God offered in His Gospel.
Therefore, he measured a fain protest to his pastor because he felt compelled to, though his heart was not fully committed to his own protestations. Mercifully his pastor did not let it go. He continued to carefully, compassionately, and accurately press into Ethan’s heart.
What he found out was that Ethan was “using” his personal suffering as a way to bolster himself up through his separation and divorce. And that he had become so comfortable and efficient at using his pain and suffering that he did not want to let it go. In a twisted and gnarled kind of way, Ethan saw his pain as his servant.
Listed below are a few of the ways that Ethan perverted the Gospel by resting in his own self-reliant means for survival. Though he knew he was manipulating the truth (Read: lying), he honestly did not see how complex and exacting his heart was when it came to his true motives.
Pain was his only connection with the past. Ethan loved his wife. Though his motives for loving her were not completely pure, he did authentically love her to a degree. His separation and the accompanying pain was the closest thing he could feel regarding the relationship.
From his perspective, to walk away from the pain was one more degree of separation from his wife, which was one more nail in the coffin of his marriage.
To let go of the suffering was an admittance that the door was officially closed and that he had moved on. He was unwilling to make that admittance. He was not ready to trust God, embrace a new life that God was holding out for him, and move on.
Pain allowed him to receive sympathy for what he was going through. Suffering became his new identity. Many people rallied around him during this time. While it was the right Christian thing to do, Ethan slowly began to twist their compassion into a means of gaining attention.
He lived alone and it was an isolated nightmare for him. He believed that if he moved on then people would forget about him and they, too, would move on. Therefore, from his perspective, he could not move on. To move on meant to lose the sympathy of his friends and the attention he craved.
Pain said the past mattered…a lot. Somehow he construed in his mind that the pain was the context that told everyone that what she did mattered. If he embraced the freedom that God offered through the Gospel, in Ethan’s mind, it meant that the pain and suffering that he went through did not matter anymore.
He lost sight of the accumulative effect of the story that God was writing for his life. The truth was that he was not moving on to the next scene in his life, totally disconnecting himself from the last scene. God’s plan is always to use the last scene to build upon and influence the next scene.
God does not waste pain, but if we are unwilling to move forward, allowing God to use the pain in our lives for the benefit of others and His glory, then we have wasted the pain.
Jesus could have stayed in the grave and received the sympathy of many people. Or He could have walked out of the grave into a new venture that would radically alter millions of people. Thankfully, He chose the latter.
Ethan did not want to leave the grave.
Pain was a twisted way of continually condemning and judging his wife. Though Ethan would not initially admit this in the beginning, he used the pain as a way to hold onto his bitterness, anger, condemnation, and un-forgiveness of Jillian.
He felt that if he walked away from the suffering and embraced the hope and restoration found in the Gospel, then he would be releasing her from what she did to him.
Ethan was not interested in her being forgiven. He was interested in himself receiving attention. He was a lonely man. At the core of his being he was struggling with a deep-seated fear, born out of an unwillingness to trust God.
He could not see the yearning Savior calling Him to a better life than what he could ever contrive through his manipulations of the situation.
Bringing the Gospel to bear
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:21-25 (ESV)
His pastor began to reorient Ethan’s heart to the Savior (the Gospel) rather than what his wife did to him or how he had suffered. He began to see that the love of God was actively working in his heart and life and that God had some very different plans for him. What appeared to be broken, was actually part of God’s work in his life.
He was able to “make the leap” from the pain he suffered to the pain Christ suffered on his behalf. He knew that he would never be “healed” by groveling in self-pity and self-absorption. He needed to trust God by returning to the Shepherd and Overseer of his soul.
As the pastor walked him through the “points about pain” above, Ethan’s idolatry was exposed. This was the first step for Ethan: to be honest and transparent about what was truly going on in his heart. From there he began a process of daily repentance. He shared with a few close friends what was really going on in his heart.
He asked them to not only forgive him for how he used them, but to help hold him accountable. He was bitter at Jillian and it was not going to go away anytime soon. The hurt was deep. But he began to think less about the hurt she caused him and more about the hurt he caused Christ.
That was a huge key in how he worked through his problem with pain.
Anytime we can bring the cross into our problems, it will drastically alter how we see our problems. Once we get that right perspective we are not only able to see more clearly, but we are able to respond to God and others more biblically.