“This is the dark night of my soul.” These words are scrolled out in jagged black cursive across the page, pen pushed so hard nearly through the next three sheets of paper. The next 20 or so pages contain raw prayers, followed by angry strings of profanity, all intermixed with more self-evaluation than any other piece I’ve written.
As I flip through the back pages of one of the most shocking chapters of my continually unfolding life story, the brushstrokes of the divine (and pierced) hand can be seen on everything from the moment I took back my promise to love one woman for the rest of my life, all the way through the excruciating 112-mile bike race that returned me to wholeness.
I recently re-read “Empty Alter, Broken Heart,” (published a year ago) and realized that it was an incomplete thought. Although the original article generated more than 70 responses (including two engaged couples who realized that marriage would be a terrible mistake), the true story of how God works in the most traumatic periods of our twenties is not in the pain but in the spiritual growth and development as a more fully complete human being. Your “perfect storm” experience in this decade of transition and discovery might not involve walking away from a relationship when you’ve promised to walk down the aisle, but rest assured, your test is coming. Be it a loss of a parent, a financial crisis or shattered love, your response to personal tragedy will shape the coming decades, not years, of your life.
The following is a rough spiritual guide to getting through hard times from a fellow traveler who just barely made it through.
Have the courage to stand alone. Too much reasoning mixed with a tendency to “go with the flow” put me on the path to a marriage that could have only ended in divorce. No one, except for Christ, could walk into my fiancée’s basement with me as I hung my head and uttered the most difficult sentence of my entire life. I shared the news of my failed relationship with the audience of my radio shows in Chicago and Michigan, totaling more than 100,000 people, some of whom called me an “immature coward,” a liar and a fake. Going through with the marriage would have been much easier in the short term, but only the choice to act alone saved me from the incalculable personal, spiritual and financial ruin that comes with every divorce. Walking into a living room with a fiancée and out of it with a ring to return may have been very hard, but not nearly as hard as walking into a courtroom with a wife and walking out with divorce documents.
Cherish that friend who sticks “closer than a brother.” Marc is one of my very best friends from college. His attempts at planting a house church fell apart at the same time that my entire life did. He thought I was doing him a favor when I offered to let him move in with me, but I was the one who was truly in need. During February and March, two of the bleakest months to endure the biting cold of Chicago’s south suburbs, Marc helped me fight away the numbness in my soul with over 100 matches of Halo 3 online, two seasons of Friday Night Lights, and a dozen or so late nights of sitting in the dark and listening to me choke on tears as I put the pieces back together. From David and Jonathon through Paul and Timothy, God has a track record of providing the heartbroken with one unbreakable friendship. Don’t get so caught up in the agony that you miss yours. It’s a vital lifeline.
Discover a new outlet of worship. A beginner triathlete before the breakup, I threw myself into training as a form of escape. In a mere eight months, I beat my body into the best shape of my life, and competed in the “Aquabike” (2.4-mile swim/112-mile bike) race in northern California. I endured a sprained ankle during the race, severe dehydration and more than 3,000 feet of brutal climbing to cross the finish line. Over the course of this summer, I logged more than 1,000 miles on my Trek Madone road bike. The long hours of solitude helped me discover that I could worship my Creator by slamming down the pedals to the backdrop of a Midwestern sunset.
Go to a Christian counselor. Yeah, you don’t need it, you’re doing OK, it’s weird, somebody might find out, blah blah blah. Just go. The person you are five years from now will be grateful not to be carrying that baggage.
Embrace community. The night I spent researching the “Samson Society” in Nashville stands as one of the most influential evenings of my entire life. The movement was started by a lone preacher looking for healing from secrets and sex addiction. It has attracted everyone from prominent church leaders to felony convicted drug dealers, bringing fresh light to the Gospel through building a community where no sin or shame is too “bad” to seek support for. I met with 20 or so members of Samson and I received a night of spiritual and psychological healing. No matter how “smart” or “spiritually mature” you are, there’s no way to see your own blind spots without help. Find the time to seek out community, and then find the courage to live vulnerably with those people.
Share with others who have been there. After a radio conference one night, I got dinner with a friend who had been through an experience very similar to mine. Over greasy enchiladas, we shared our stories of broken engagements (which had happened just days apart). Because of the healing that had come into my life through Marc, the Samson Society and my time in counseling, I was able to share some much needed truth that lay in my friend’s blind spots. Tears were shed on both sides of the table, as we realized the comfort that comes from the support of another believer who’s lived through a similar trial.
I got up from the table that night, bursting with the quiet joy of sharing God’s love with a friend. I felt peace knowing that this unfathomably painful and complex experience was somehow now complete. And somehow worth it.