I just read a tweet from a man who has been in ministry with his wife for about twenty years. He was celebrating that two years ago, he finally surrendered to God.
Umm, wait…what? What about all those years before when you and your wife were serving and such?
I couldn’t help but wonder if the wife ever looks back on those years prior to the surrendering that fairly recently happened and thinks to herself, “Was all of that a waste? Did any of that actually count?”
I spent many, many years living in a difficult marriage, an active participant in our dysfunction and pain. And during that entire almost nineteen-year stretch, I served like nobody’s business. I co-led the youth group with my then-husband, I led women’s and co-led couples’ small groups, I began and led the women’s ministry for ten years, I held crying babies in the nursery, I watched my friends’ kids, I wrote notes, I prayed prayers, I wrote books, I spoke at women’s events, I went to three third-world countries, even leading one trip, I produced Sunday services, I was on staff at my church, and I’m sure I even made a meal or two for someone who was sick or just had a baby (okay, probably not).
But you get my point: I was a serving machine. I was taking hills and building the Kingdom, darnit!
And I was doing all of this while my marriage was falling apart, while I was battling my issue with anger, while I was being disrespectful, while I was doing almost everything wrong, while I was – for the most part – hiding everything, living a fairly inauthentic life (despite my desire for the opposite to be true).
Was every act of service during my broken, sinful marriage a waste? Because I was such a mess for so many years, did none of my ministry count? Did my service and ministry only really technically start to matter eternally when I started telling the truth, when I started asking for and getting real help, when I finally started doing things the “right” way?
(By the way, this thinking can be further solidified in our minds when our churches ask those of us who are separated or divorced to step down from serving if they don’t do so for our benefit, for our healing, but if they do so to protect others from us, which I sadly hear time and again.)
But here’s what I believe to be true:
For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago, that we should walk in them. –Ephesians 2:10-
…the LORD sees the heart. –I Samuel 16:7-
Which means, I believe this: dear sweet woman who is in a difficult marriage and for whatever reasons, you feel you must keep your reality to yourself, and dear sweet woman who is separated or divorced and you feel like you are benched… God sees your heart. He knows your motives. He knows if when you serve, you’re doing so because you love him and for no other reason. God created you as a work of art and he did so because he has set aside good things for you to do that only you can do, whether you’re in pain or not, whether your life circumstances are awesome or awful.
If we all waited until everything in our lives were just so, and if we waited until our hearts were one hundred percent void of impurity, none of us would ever serve anyone.
It all counts. Even in your pain, and sometimes most beautifully because and through your pain, it all counts. Not one moment of service poured out is wasted. God sees it all. It all builds the Kingdom. No matter where you are today, you can build the Kingdom. So as long as you have it in you, dear one, keep walking, keep serving, keep pouring out, keep building.
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Thank you for the encouragement, Elisabeth. It is far too easy to give more weight to our imperfections/trials than to God who sees our hearts and loves us still.
You’re welcome, Angela! -Elisabeth
Thank you for this Elisabeth! I am still “separated in the same house” for 15 months and surviving in a difficult marriage; however, the few years prior to this separation were tumultuous to say the least. I had been a women’s ministry leader, and I voluntarily stepped down due to our marital issues. No one had to ask me, I did it of my own accord, and frankly because I knew they would ask me to step down and I wanted to beat them to the punch. Months later, we were in a period of counseling and for the time were doing better. There was an annual women’s shopping trip to a nearby big city coming up, and I had always been the one to organize it. I didn’t want to organize it that year; however, since I had all the information from previous years on securing a charter bus and the expenses, I called the church to see if they would like me to get the bus reserved. Nothing more….reserve a bus. The secretary of the women’s ministry director was very happy that I offered to do that, so she gave me the date and I went ahead and made the call. Within the week, I received a very cold email from the women’s ministry director informing me that I was to have nothing to do coordinating that trip; however, she did extend an invitation that I was allowed to attend the trip. How nice that someone like me, a sinner in a difficult marriage, was “allowed and invited” to attend a trip that was open to the church. It was such a slap in the face, and it made it really clear that my service in the church was not wanted. Sadly, I never offered to help in that church again because I wasn’t even worthy enough to make a call to reserve a bus without chastisement!
I eventually moved and found a life-giving, grace-giving church that allowed people, despite their imperfections, to serve. I stepped out hesitantly to serve because my confidence had been SHATTERED whether I was worthy or not because my marriage was still damaged and broken. Unlike where I had attended, this church focused upon the fact that it was only by the grace of God that any of us stood, and that He used broken vessels to do His work. All of our work, if it was done to honor God and with excellence for the Lord, was effective and could be powerfully used by God.
Sheila, so very glad to hear you found a church home that pours out such grace over brokenness. -Elisabeth
I am so very thankful that I wasn’t shut out by our church. When I went to my pastor to tell him what was going on and that I felt I needed to step down from serving, his first response was “why?” He understood my heart and my reasons, but encouraged me and I am so very thankful for that. We’ve moved to a different state, but even our current church has allowed me to serve during this separation. 🙂
Carrie, I’m so happy to hear this! -Elisabeth
After going to our pastors twice for help, (and receiving none), over a 3 year period, I finally got a restraining order against my abusive husband. I was asked to step down from my leadership roles unless I was willing to reconcile with him. Boy was I angry! I eventually changed churches. But first, I made the effort to reconcile with the pastors of the church. I was happy I did that. I needed to forgive them before I could move on.