One of the things no one told me when I was going through a divorce was that I was about to experience multiple divorces. Not only would my wife and I be torn asunder, so would many friendships. And not only many friendships, but also a long list of future plans, dreams, securities, and peace. By the time all this chainsawing in two of what had once represented my unified life was over, I was a man divided and divorced on the inside as well.
People complain about how easy it is to get a divorce these days. Yes, legally and formally that might be true. But personally, spiritually, and psychologically, it’s an absurd lie. Divorce is anything but easy. It was for me, as it is for many, the most gut-wrenching, life-altering, pain-filled experience one can endure.
Yet it does happen, of course, as do many terrible events in the lives of sinners trying to live together with sinners. So as with other terrible events, we must learn how to live on the other side of them, to find beauty once we’ve crawled through the ugliness.
One of the first steps in that recovery is to find ways to heal the divorce that’s happened within our own souls.
As a guidepost for that journey to recovery, I suggest we turn to what might seem a rather odd place: to a wisdom saying of a famous rabbi who was an old man when Jesus was a young boy. His name is Hillel. And his well-known proverb is this: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self only, what am I? And if not now, when?” Let’s look at each of these phrases in turn.
If I Am Not for Myself, Who Is for Me?
In the months (and even years) following my divorce, there was no trouble pinpointing my worst enemy. It wasn’t my ex-wife, her lawyer, or the friends I’d lost. My worst enemy was me. Divorced on the inside, divided in my own soul, I seemed unified only in my propensity to choose actions that only worsened my condition.
I’ve seen firsthand the same tendency in others, especially in the immediate aftermath of a divorce. For some, hooking up with a string of people becomes the drug of choice to dull the ache of loneliness. Others seek solace in rapidly emptying bottles of liquor, venomous daydreams of revenge, brainwashing children against the other parent, starving themselves or gorging themselves, and a long list of other destructive and dangerous actions that lead only to more hurt—not to mention a deepening cancer of the soul.
“If I am not for myself,” Hillel says, “who is for me?” Your parents, good friends, siblings, fellow Christians—they can offer you advice, try to steer you away from such behavior, but eventually it comes down to this: if you’re not for yourself, as Hillel says, who is for you? If you’re so hellbent on being your own worst enemy, then you'll constantly be undermining other people's attempts to help you.
The most crucial step to recovery, in other words, is the admission that you can’t recover yourself.
To be “for you,” however, does not mean engaging in self-centered behavior. It’s the exact opposite of selfishness. To be for yourself, especially following a divorce, means facing the cold, hard truth about yourself head-on. Admitting that you’re screwed up on the inside. That you need help from outside. That your soul is in a million pieces. And there is no do-it-yourself program to glue the shards of your broken life back together. God and God alone can do that.
The most crucial step to recovery, in other words, is the admission that you can’t recover yourself. That confession is the best way to act “for you.” But the Lord can—and will. In fact, he works best with broken people, who have come to realize that the Savior broken on the cross is the one who stands ready and willing to heal them into wholeness again. His strength shines brightest through the cracks of weakness in our souls.
But If I Am for My Own Self Only, What Am I?
When the Lord brings us to realize that we are our own worst enemies, that to be for ourselves is to face the truth of our brokenness, and to turn to him for healing, then he also begins the crucial process of turning us toward others, even those who have hurt us. Divorce from a spouse, and the divorce within our own souls, all too often creates a deadly three-way marriage within us between Me, Myself, and I. We say, “I’m sick and tired of living for others; it’s high time I live for myself.” That very modern, American-sounding philosophy might seem like a welcome change, but it was coined in the pits of hell itself.
If you are for yourself only, what are you? A narcissist. A worshipper of your ego. And, in the end, a sad and lonely sinner whose only companion is his own sin.
So, God goes to work on us to bend us outward. He forgives us, and in that forgiveness, teaches us how to forgive others. To forgive those who walked away in our darkest hour. To forgive fair-weather friends. And, yes, to forgive our former spouse. This doesn’t mean a full restoration of those relationships (though that might happen in some cases), but it does mean letting go of the oozing, rotten corpse of anger and resentment we’ve been cradling in our bosom. It means that when we look at the crucified Christ, we don’t see just the man who died for us but also the man who died for them. We didn’t deserve that grace; and neither did they. But that’s the whole point of grace, isn’t it? It can’t be earned. It’s a gift given not to the deserving but the undeserving, those whom God dearly loves.
We find in each other a blurry but true earthly icon of the God who is love.
And the Lord bends us outward to others, as well. He places hurting people in our path that we can help, just as others have helped us. We show each other our scars, weep together, and find in each other a blurry but true earthly icon of the God who is love. The Lord employs us as his hands to wipe away the tears of others, his eyes to see those in need of mercy, and his feet to walk with them through the darkness.
If I am for others, what am I? I am the one in whom the Spirit is at work to be the conduit of his love to others. I am, what is often called, a “wounded healer.” Freedom will be found not in a life revolving around oneself, but in a life entrenched in responsibility for others.
And If Not Now, When?
I don’t care if you just got home from court, if you and your spouse split up a week ago or a year ago, the best time to take that first step toward healing is today. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is uncertain, but today is the day the Lord has made for you. If not now, when?
In my life, years went by as I wallowed in self-pity, indulged in destructive passions, and made horrible decisions that worsened my condition and radically slowed my healing. I missed a thousand “todays” as I kept saying “tomorrow.”
Today the Lord is by your side, with a hand of healing stretched out. Note those hands. See the marks of the nails. That is the only resumé you need of his will to save, to rescue, to forgive, to heal, and to bend you outward into a vessel of his love for others.
Take that hand. The crooked and winding path of healing he will lead you on will hurt, yes, but will also make you whole. It will be long, yes, but the destination is worth the journey. And you will lose yourself, yes, but you will find the Lord is hard at work recreating you into an image that reflects his own. And all along the way, you’ll find that the God by your side is the one and only sure and lasting treasure that gives meaning and purpose to your life.