Love in the Darkness

I’ve talked a lot about my struggles.  But without my husband, I wouldn’t be here. For today’s post, I’ve asked Glen for his experience – and for what has helped him in the bleakest times.  He writes:

We have had an incredible marriage and I thank God for Emma constantly. We celebrate our ten year anniversary next year but have faced many battles including eating disorders and depression. Through it all I’d say our marriage is strong, deep and rich and I wouldn’t change it for the world. There are times when I haven’t felt like that!  But I think my reflections are coming from a good and optimistic place.

These thoughts are aimed at carers looking after loved ones.  I’m thinking mainly about husbands and anorexia here, so many observations may be entirely inappropriate for you.  But maybe one of these scatter-gun thoughts will hit a target somewhere.

The Priesthood of Christ is vital for you both – Jesus carries you both on His heart before the Father.  Despite your feelings (or lack of them) it’s His relationship with the Father that’s central, not yours!  That’s vital to know in the midst of the darkness.  You can’t trust your feelings, you can’t even trust your faith.  Just know that Christ has faith for you.

You are their vicarious hope-r.  Following from the vicarious faith of Jesus, you too have a role as a vicarious hoper.  When your loved one can’t see the future, you can.  They don’t need to know how things will all work out, but you can reassure them that they can simply trust someone else who sees the bigger picture.

You must believe in the bondage of the will.  Huh? you say. No seriously. This is nothing to do with passing a theology exam, you need to realise – contra everything the world tells you – that human beings are not decision-making machines, calculating costs and benefits and acting rationally.  We just aren’t.  We’re foolish lovers who abandon ourselves to bad relationships that only enslave. Your loved one is bound. Not bound against their will. They’ve chosen what they’ve chosen alright. But they are trapped. Really, really trapped. And they’re not deciding to be unhealthy to spite you. Neither are they able to choose their way out of this. If you think that, you’ll only end up hating them. You’ll spend your whole time resenting them for their wilful rebellion and/or beating them with the will-power-stick to make them better.  If you don’t believe in the bondage of the will you cannot love people through their self-destructive behaviours.

A theology of the cross is vital.  Martin Luther (who also taught about the bondage of the will (and who also suffered deep depression at times)) said there’s two ways to think about God and life. One way is a theology of glory – God’s up there and we ascend through our strength. The other is a theology of the cross – God comes down because we have no strength of our own.  In a theology of glory, suffering is a deviation from the glory-plan and if  you encounter it, you’ve transgressed somewhere along the line.  You’ll need to find a law or regime that will lift you out of the mess and you must drum up the powers to do so yourself.  In a theology of the cross, suffering does not take you by surprise – God’s way is the way of the cross.  It’s not a cause for self-condemnation nor for false hope that some programme will lift you out.  With a theology of the cross you don’t so much say, “There’s light at the end of the tunnel, keep going”.  You say “I know you can’t keep going, Christ is here.”

A theology of the cross is not the same thing as “Misery loves Company”.  Having made the last point, it’s possible to pervert this teaching.  I think I have in the past.  Jesus does not join us in the darkness in order to endorse darkness.  He comes down in order to judge and kill the whole realm of bondage, death, sin and hell.  The way of the cross is a way onwards beyond this hell-on-earth that you now feel.  It’s just that the onward journey does not and cannot by-pass the cross.

The goal is not getting back to how things were.  You know, and your loved one really knows, that they are not their old selves.  The great temptation is to think and even speak about getting ‘the old them’ back.  I’m not so sure this is wise.  It seems to me that redemption works differently.  The Israelites in the wilderness yearned for Egypt with its decent food and a roof over their heads.  But the Lord doesn’t take them back to the old place.  He takes them through the desert to a new place.  Their true home is ahead – a spacious land they haven’t yet seen.  This is the whole pattern of God’s dealings with us – from a garden but onto a city.  I think it’s a mistake to try to return to the way things were. It’s very possible that the way things were got you into this mess in the first place.

That feeling of impotence is inevitable, it’s good and it’s bad.  Perhaps the overwhelming feeling of the carer in these situations is powerlessness.  It’s horrendous to see the person you love hurtling towards an early grave.  Many times I felt I would become a 20-something widower and yet… what could be done?  Emma would express her own helplessness – she had no idea how to stop the madness.  But if the sufferer can’t stop it… how does the carer feel? Completely out of control.   This feeling of impotence is inevitable, but it can be turned to good.  Because, guess what, we can’t help anyone at their deepest level through the efforts of the flesh. Only the Spirit can truly change people.  Allow your impotence to turn you to prayer.  But also… at points you’ll need to challenge your feelings of impotence.  Because there are things you can do.  That’s the next point…  

You will need to change.  Those who deal with addictions will tell you that most addicts have an enabler somewhere in their life.  There are all sorts of dynamics that come into play when destructive behaviours flare up and if you’re close to the sufferer then it’s quite possible that you are some part of the problem.  Not everyone is ready to hear this and if you’re a carer at your wits end and this paragraph just makes you angry, skip it.  I know for myself though that I enabled Emma’s downward slide in a number of ways and the patterns we fell into took two to tango.  Can I suggest talking to a trusted Christian friend about the details of how you’re handling all this?  Don’t just get your friends to tell you There, there it must be so difficult – of course its difficult and of course you need sympathy and care.  But give friends permission to challenge you on how you’re handling things.  If you’re a sinner – and you are – then there are ways you’re exacerbating the situation.  This is not meant to condemn.  Actually it gives great hope.  It means a certain release from impotence!  There are ways that you can pray and move towards that spacious place too.  Additionally, as you begin to repent it will help your loved one to know that they are not “the problem.”  This struggle is something you’re fighting together.

Giving an addict what they want is not love.This video is a chilling example of how an enabler can give the addict everything they want in the name of love.  Yet such “love” can kill.  This point follows on from the last. When Emma and I got married I basically thought that love meant saying “Yes” to my wife, no matter what.  If she wanted poison… well, what’s a loving husband to do but give her poison?  That’s a stupid analogy but only because it highlights the stupidity of what I was doing.  I took no lead in casting a vision for what healthy desires and directions might look like in our marriage.  In the absence of this Emma demanded more and more of her own way and I conceded more and more to drives which were ultimately self-destructive.  I had – and at times still have – immense difficulty saying No, especially to desires that come from the desperation of addiction.  Part of recovery meant me discovering a voice in the marriage and convictions on where we needed to go.

Firm, buoyant love is the tone to strike.  When your loved one is begging you for poison how should you respond?  Well not by giving it to them – that was the last point.  But also not by slamming them down – which is the other natural temptation.  Instead, meet your loved one with firm, buoyant love. What do I mean?  I remember about 5 years ago reading Genesis 18 and the LORD’s response to Sarah hit me between the eyes.  Sarah has just laughed at the LORD’s promise of children.  The LORD says “Why did you laugh?”  Sarah said “I didn’t laugh.”  The LORD replies “No but you did laugh.”  And that’s the last word in the scene.  I love that.  “No but you did laugh.”  The LORD is not threatened by Sarah, nor does He threaten her.  He is not trying to stand against Sarah or stand over her, but He does stand for the truth.  If your loved one is struggling with an addiction you’re going to have a thousand opportunities to display firm, buoyant love. You’ll stuff up 990 of them – either caving in or slamming them down – but occasionally you’ll give a taste of the LORD’s own character: a love that won’t let us destroy ourselves with lies.

Don’t do it alone.  You can’t have this spiritual buoyancy by yourself.  And the temptation will be to cut yourselves off, even if only as a reaction to a church family who don’t necessarily “get it.”  But beware of creating a world of your own.  So quickly crazy can become normal when you try to manage by yourselves.  Far too often I coddled Emma in the darkness when I should have been moving her into the light of community.  That’s a hard judgement call when she becomes afraid of others and when she needs to know you’re safe.  But you need to be committed to life in community and to moving in that direction.

Headship means being a prayer warrior.  This one’s for husbands but it has implications for others…  There are few other things I’d articulate as implications of headship, but it seems to me that prayer is top of the list. The LORD thunders at the head of His people (Joel 2:11) and husbands make war at the head of their wives.  When I’m prayerless Emma suffers.

This is not a distraction from real life, this is it.   It’s always tempting to think that this is a departure from the trajectory you’re meant to be on. Emma and I were a couple in ministry and surely we should have been on some upward movement towards…  hmmm…  That’s a theology of glory isn’t it?  No, Jesus is at work right here and right now and is able to redeem all of this in a manner of His own choosing.  We’re not meant to sidestep or outwit this ‘departure’ from some ideal life-plan.  The Lord knows how to redeem the years the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25).  Maybe you’ll be able to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received in your affliction (2 Corinthians 1:4).  But whatever happens, you can let the Lord handle those details.  Right now: receive from Jesus, get in community, look at your own sins, love your wife and pray, pray, pray.  He redeems the mess, you’re just called to engage it.


17 thoughts on “Love in the Darkness

  1. Beautiful. This is so good to hear. Even though I’ve been one with a lot of “issues” including eating disorders/depression/anxiety my husband too is a mess. We end up being the caregivers for each other, as no one knows you like a spouse. We have been together since teenagers, and because of that mystical “oneness” stuff, most of our troubles are in someway connected to our other half. A tango is a perfect picture, but the dance is also the good part, another step on the path to healing and a stronger marriage.
    “…spend a lot, go to pot on your own…there’s lots of things that you can do alone…but it takes two to tango…two to really get the feeling of romance…two to tango…do the dance love…” -Louis Armstrong

  2. Kind of reminds me of this Bonhoeffer quote:

    Many christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the ‘righteous’. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners.

    How much moreso does this apply within the marriage unit – to both parties at all times.

  3. There is a way in which only those who have been through the difficult times can understand how true this post is. But also “There is a joy that can only be known from the other side of pain” (John Piper I think wrote this) One day He will wipe away every tear from our faces.

  4. Thank you all, very kind. Great Bonhoeffer quote Tim.

    And Caroline, I think it’s probably good to have a healthy dose of Barn Dances (church!) as well as Tangos for two. Community keeps us from coupling up and dancing in the dark!

  5. Really helpful – thanks. Would be interested in your thoughts on how the headship aspects work out when it’s the husband who is suffering.

  6. Hi Michael, great question. I’ve written here on marriage roles:

    Essentially I’m saying there is a flow to a marriage but not every shap-shot of that marriage will show an active husband and a passive wife. Not at all.

    If a husband is in a low season, his wife might well need to pick him up in a thousand ways. And that’s good and right. In fact it’s necessary for the flow God intends. “Submit to *one another*” is how the Ephesians 5 passage begins!

    It’s true that men will experience depression (and their perceived husbandly failings) in a way different to how a woman will experience it (and her perceived wifely failings).

    But that’s why I began with point number one – the Priesthood (and I might add Headship) of Christ. None of us fulfil our marital roles properly – no matter what the configuration of husband/wife/healthy/unhealthy. Even healthy husbands can’t *really* carry their wives. Only Christ can carry us both.

  7. Thanks Glen, this is really helpful. I especially liked the bit about this being real life, not a distraction. I so often fall into the trap of thinking I have to get back to some kind of normality whereas really the normality is that I have issues, and God can work through them rather than some imaginary perfect life in my head. God bless you both.

  8. Oh yeah, church…is THAT what it’s there for! I knew there must be some reason…(joke)
    So much potential for good, and yet it can be a dangerous place for some of us. Outside a very small trusted few, I’m more hesitant to share troubles with the “church” than with a perfect stranger.
    I won’t even mention a headache to certain people, simply to avoid them trying to find some secret hidden sin or deep demonic influence. I try not to be this kind of Christian to people, but I’m sure I’ve done my share of missing the point in other ways.
    It can feel very disloyal to involve others when an issue is about my husband. Any insight from the clergy on how this actually works?
    (By the way, I’m married to a preacher’s kid. We can play the church game really well)

  9. Hey Caroline,

    I don’t know the history or complications involved in your situation, but I do know that Ephesians 4 comes before Ephesians 5 and I think that’s significant. We belong to the body in baptism even before we belong to our spouses in marriage. I know that that sounds *crazy* in our modern age when, according to the world, “coupling up” is the reason for being and, according to Christians “focussing on the family” is the be all and end all. But I really think that the letters of Paul and Peter focus on church relations *before* marriage relations for a reason. For all its failings, church is meant to be the truth-in-love people who give us perspective on the lies we tell ourselves when we’re on our own (that’s all of Ephesians 4). And I think that the prelude to the marriage bit in Ephesians 5 has us “addressing one another” (v19). I don’t know how any of this works out in your situation, but seeking help from the church for your marriage is not betrayal – or at least it certainly doesn’t have to be. by “the church” I don’t mean making an announcement on Sunday. But perhaps there are wise Christians somewhere in your lives who can, at the least, pray with you. And in time you can give them permission to speak truth in love.

    I say this, knowing there are no easy ways forward and knowing also the deep scars that come from brothers and sisters in the past who should have known better. Praying for you both.


  10. Thanks Ma Belle. Yes I forget that truth too, every day! It’s so easy to run off into “what should have beens” and “what might bes”, but Jesus is right here in the mess.

  11. Thank you Glen, I see that does make sense. I’ve been reading Larry Crabb’s “The Safest Place on Earth”, I think that’s what he’s getting at as well. We do have a few individuals who are good friends of the “carrying one another’s burden” type who have been very helpful, even while they might not be aware of all the little details. The world can get really small and lonely when our ‘Troubles’ get all the focus. Thanks again for this post!

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