A few weeks ago I was serving at a holiday dinner for our church staff. The dinner was being held at my pastor/future uncle’s home and toward the end of the evening he gathered everyone together to reflect upon the previous twelve months as well as to look ahead to the coming year. This is a pretty common activity during this time of year, and at first I thought very little of it. I took a seat in the back and prepared myself to listen to what these men and women of the Lord were going to share. Mark opened the floor up by asking a simple question: In what ways have you seen God move in our church this past year? With this one sentence, I felt tears flood my eyes and out of nowhere I was struggling to hold it together. Because the ways that I saw God move in our church this past year have been too great to number, because the ways in which God moved in my life this past year have been too great to number, and because the Holy Spirit just decided this would be a great time to totally wreck me out…. I was completely speechless for the next half hour or so as I quietly remembered.
To tell you what God has done in my life this past year will require me to tell you what he did in my life the year before that. This is my best story, and this is my worst story; and this is not my story at all.
Two years ago I was fooling a lot of people, and for the most part I was fooling myself. I had just graduated from UT, I had a job that I loved, a boyfriend that I was planning to marry soon, and two very adorable kittens. I was a youth minister at a local church, a regular attendee of one of the greatest teaching churches in the nation, and had a genuine passion for Christ. But my heart was in turmoil. It was time for me to start a new chapter of my life. I knew I needed to find a better job, to get involved at one church and move on from the other, and to generally make some adult decisions. I was also in love and ready to be married and so that became my plan, my next big move… my solution.
There were several problems with this path, the most obvious being that my relationship was spiraling out of control at that point, and getting worse by the week. We had quit seeking God together and he had quit going to church altogether. Within months, I watched his drinking go from occasional to social to constant. As the daughter of an addict, the high school sweetheart of a different addict, and now the soon to be fiancé of another recovering addict, I knew the warning signs. Although I couldn’t pinpoint the exact day when his drinking gave way to powerful addiction, I had noticed the shift. There was not a single doubt in my mind that this man I loved was an alcoholic, and I instinctively knew that destruction was not far off. But my conversations with him about it were met with strong opposition, anger, and denial. This was the “only thing” he had left and I was the jerk demanding that he give it up too. How unfair of me. I could never understand. Everything was FINE. Couldn’t I just worry about myself?
From December to June, we were on this roller coaster with hills of passion and love and bliss, followed quickly by plunges into despair so deep that it made you sick to your stomach and you were still dizzy when you finally reached the top again. The nights when I didn’t hear from him became more and more frequent. I can remember the feeling of lying in bed, forcing myself not to call him, only to finally give in and find his phone was dead. This would create a panic in me that required me to call over and over and over until I finally dozed into a fitful sleep. The next morning I’d wake up and pray for a missed call, a text, a sleeping boy on my couch. Every time I swore it was the last. And every time his justification was enough to keep me hanging on. We fell into this state of just existing with each other. He knew I wouldn’t leave, and I knew he wouldn’t stop, but we both held on to the possibility that one of us would be strong enough to end this cycle.
Paralyzed by fear, I clung to him as my one source of hope. And paralyzed by fear, he pushed me further and further away. Finally, in June of last year, we couldn’t hold on anymore. My fight and determination had at some point been replaced with a despairing resignation, and his affection for me had been replaced with a self-loathing so deep that I could not even begin to penetrate it. When he walked away, I begged him to reconsider, but even then I knew that it was useless. I had to let him go.
That same week, I received a phone call that my aunt was dying. They estimated that she had 3-5 months to live and as I was extremely close to her and her children, I quit my job and moved to Dallas to be with them. The next few months were the worst of my life. They were agony for me and for everyone around me. I was searching for some spring of life and joy to replenish me, one sip of fleeting happiness, but day after day I came up empty. My family was already mourning the loss of a woman who was still alive, and we watched as she went from independent to helpless within weeks. We all withdrew into ourselves to watch her suffer, and we suffered silently alongside her. It was the exact opposite of a healthy environment. We were broken individuals in a broken situation, and none of us could feel anything else.
Still, I was managing to laugh and smile and be helpful. I kept busy around the house and tried to believe that everything was fine. And that was working for me until I found out Brandon was dating someone new. That night, I shut down. Every piece of functionality I had been fighting for over the past month was shattered with the knowledge that I wasn’t really as important to him as I had believed. I was expendable, and I couldn’t bear it. The next three days were a blur of denial, acceptance, and defeat that I could not stop repeating. I was gasping for air every waking moment and fighting to stay asleep for as long as it would bring me respite. I was no longer strong, independent, or brave. With his betrayal, my identity was crushed and I realized I was not who I thought I was.
And then came the worst night of my life. I believe very strongly in the reality of spiritual warfare. I do not think that demons are folklore or metaphors or the invisible counterparts to angels; I believe that they can show up tangibly, and I have seen them do just that. As I fell asleep one night, I could feel the presence of what I realized later must have been a demon. With my eyes closed I could almost make out the shape of it. It was not a foreign experience to me, but it was one that I would typically have fought with the name of Christ. This time, though, I didn’t command Satan to leave; I just gave in to his presence and was almost [sickeningly] comforted by it. And then I allowed my mind to be pulled into the haze of sleep. Hours later I woke up sweating and shaking and scared. I felt trapped in the bed and couldn’t bring my mind into full consciousness. Images that were so horrible they made me ill flashed before me and whispers of the things I most feared fell upon my ears and broke my already shattered heart. I writhed away from the voices only to find more on the other side of me. I struggled to make sense of my waking moments only to be sucked back into the haze. Until late into the next morning, there seemed to be nothing I could do but submit to the torture of lies and truths and whispers and dreams all tangled up into one impossible nightmare. And then, the voice of my Lord, breaking through like a life raft in the final moment of my strength. “Rebuke him, Lacy. Tell him to flee.” And I did. In an instant he was gone and in his place the comforting arms of my Savior, whispering to me with a sweetness that tickles and holding me with a grasp that sustains, casting away my feeling of panic with his gentleness. I breathed in deep and satisfying breaths that morning for the first time in weeks, flooded with relief that I was not alone and that I had power over the darkness and the fear. This was the day I forced myself to begin to heal, and it was also the day I heard the Lord’s voice two more times.
The first of these was at church that evening. As I moved through the motions of worship, sermon, worship I found myself repeatedly mouthing my new chant, “he’s not mine, he’s not mine, he’s not mine.” Juvenile? Absolutely. But it was a truth I was determined to make myself believe. It had been my habit over the past several months to go to church faithfully, but at some point I had stopped listening for myself and started listening instead for Brandon. It was always, “If he could have only heard this sermon things would be different” or “If he had been here for this song, maybe there would be a breakthrough” or “How can I get him to podcast this?” It was ridiculous, sinful behavior. So on the evening of my first day of forced moving on, I’m sitting in church thinking about how the message applies to Brandon while simultaneously telling myself “he’s not mine, he’s not mine, he’s not mine.” Then, clear as day, “NO. He’s MINE.” My chant was silenced and I was humbled by the depths of my arrogance.
I left church feeling drained, but also full. It was the first time I felt like things were going to be okay in many weeks. The first time I was forced to acknowledge the Lord at work since I had moved. I was feeling hopeful on the car ride back to my aunt’s as I cried out to God, hopeful as I screamed at Him, hopeful as I tried to submit; hopeful even, as I stepped into the shower still deep in prayer. I poured my spirit into praying for Brandon. I prayed for his brokenness, his addictions, his joy, his salvation. And then as my prayer tapered off to what I thought was completeness, the Holy Spirit broke in. “Pray for his relationship.” I felt the breath leave my body as I did a double take and shook my head. “Yes. Pray for HER. Pray for them. Pray for their sanctification as a couple. Pray for him like he isn’t yours.” I’m not sure how I ended up hunched over on the shower floor, or how long I stayed there. But I prayed for them. I prayed for everything He asked me to pray for with all the sincerity I could muster. I thought I would break under the weight of such painful submission, but I didn’t. I thought it would hurt as bad the next day to pray for her again, but it got easier. And slowly I began to love her, this woman that I hated. And I began to forgive him.
From that day on, the scriptures became my lifeline. I would sit on the couch for hours at a time with my Bible open, reading a few paragraphs every time I felt myself trying to give into despair. I studied the Old Testament and Acts with a zeal that I had never known, and I took great comfort in the stories of God’s power. I was able to live again, but just barely. I got out of bed every day, and I spoke when I was spoken to. But to say I was functioning would be a stretch. I had stopped eating. I took joy in nothing. And usually I was just sitting there with a vacant expression on my face. I was trying to move on in an environment where life and death were suspended as one, and I could not break free of my sadness. When my mom came to visit, she was floored by the drastic change in me. I had lost an unhealthy amount of weight, I couldn’t find my smile, and it took all my energy to have a conversation. She begged me to come home with her and as guilty as I felt for leaving, I did. I was desperate to get well and it was clear that I wasn’t accomplishing what I had moved to Dallas to accomplish. I was not providing more life; I was not proclaiming the gospel. I was barely even present.
I spent the next month drifting between home in Valley Mills and my friends’ apartment in Austin. I looked for jobs, went to church, started counseling, embraced community, and fought to remember that God was for me. Before I left Dallas, I received a card from a woman whom I greatly respect and she had shared with me this quote: Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God. This became my new chant. Trust was my new goal. I turned off the secular world. I quit watching TV and listening to the radio, and in my two hour drives between Valley Mills and Austin I listened to sermons, I worshipped, and I prayed. Every day I got stronger. But every day my body deteriorated a little more. I hadn’t eaten a full meal in almost a month. I had dropped 15 pounds and 2 sizes, and there was no end in sight. Even on my best days, food was hard for me. I was afraid to be alone because I was so weak and dizzy all the time that I never knew when my body would give out on me. I tried to force myself to eat, but after a few bites I couldn’t choke any more down. It was never a conscious decision for me to stop nourishing myself. I guess it was probably rooted in a need for control, but I never knew that at the time. All I knew was that I had stopped eating and I wasn’t sure I could start again. Finally one morning I was so weak and so sick that I could barely stand. I told my mom that if I didn’t eat a full meal that day I wanted her to check me in to the hospital, knowing that they would put me under psychiatric care. I was terrified of that, but I still had the presence of mind to know that I was in serious trouble. I went to breakfast with her and began the arduous process of trying to eat. Half a banana and three bites of omelet later I ran outside and threw up in the bushes. It took time for my body to stop rejecting food. I had to retrain myself to eat day by day, by taking a few bites every few hours until I could handle larger portions. It was every bit as much a mental battle as it was a physical one, but finally I was eating three meals a day again. I felt my energy returning and with it a little bit of new life.
I had a new job and a new apartment and had some semblance of normalcy returning to my routine. As the weeks went by, I continued to pour myself into church and the Word. Finally I was in a position to learn from this, and God was not short on things to teach me. First, through worship at the Austin Stone, he revealed to me that my pain was a direct result of sin. Not just Brandon’s sin, but my sin too. Specific moments of my own failure came to mind, and with them came greater forgiveness for Brandon. I was in anguish over the consequences of my sin, but I have a patient Father who showed me that his discipline is good. It took many sermons and many songs and many quiet times at home, but one by one the chains of my idolatry were loosed and then broken. To all the places of my heart where I had been relying on Brandon to make whole, Jesus romanced and won affections back to himself. He loved me tenderly, but with great jealousy. And I was amazed by my own rebellion; incredulous that I ever could have sought another lover.
During these months, I read a great deal of scripture. I studied the Old Testament, rejoiced in the New, and meditated on the Psalms. But most of my focus was on the Exodus. This story had always been a favorite of mine, but it had never been a personal one. This time, it was like reading about myself. The more I read of the Israelites, the more I realized I was just like them. Enslaved in Egypt, they were desperate for God to intervene. When he did, they were constantly found doubting him, angry with him, demanding more from him, and eventually worshipping things they created rather than their creator God. I began to laugh out loud at their stubbornness as I saw how it mirrored my own. I was able to praise God for his sovereignty and his refusal to let me stay enslaved to my sin. I saw how I was still lacking trust even in light of his provisions and blessings. But most of all, I clearly saw his faithfulness and his promises fulfilled. It was a grueling journey for the Israelites. They wandered in the desert for so long that they saw generations before them pass away. They returned to their sin time and time again and even begged God to let them return to their enslavement because they didn’t want to be uncomfortable. But each time they turned away, God called them back to Himself. He dwelt among them in the Holy Place. He led their way as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And in the end, he brought them into the land that he had promised them. The God who treated his child Israel with gentleness and discipline, I realized, will surely treat me the same way. In my sin, God is still good to me. He still claims me as His own. And a good Father never forsakes His own.
With this new understanding of the character of God, I decided I could really trust him. And my faith became alive as it had never before been. I was able to believe with confidence that God is who He says He is. His promises are real. And His word to me is more powerful than my feelings. My experiences are defined by what he says about them, rather than how they make me feel. With this knowledge, my situation shifted into something I could handle. It was no longer “This feels impossible and I feel like I can’t take it another day. I don’t want my aunt to die and I want to be with Brandon and I don’t want to hurt anymore.”
Instead it became empowering:
This SUCKS. I hate what’s happening. It sucks that my aunt is dying, and it sucks that there’s nothing that can be done for her. I hate that Brandon left and I hate that he’s with someone else. I don’t understand why these things are happening to me and to my family and to the man I love. But I TRUST YOU because the Bible says I can. I have seen your promises fulfilled and I believe that I won’t feel this way forever. I know you are working in ways I cannot see, and there is joy in that.
I said that every day. And my heart changed. Eventually I reached a point where I would be unwilling to trade all the growth I had experienced with Christ even to take away all my pain. The pain was not gone, but it was something I could now endure. It was full of purpose.
A little over a year ago, God brought Brandon back to me. I honestly always thought that he would. I prayed for the ability to move on, to quit loving him when it was time, but that day never came. When he came back into my life it was messy and painful and confusing, but it was an easy transition. I never had to fight for forgiveness. I looked at him and found it was already there.
Somehow God gave me the strength to see him through an ugly breakup with a girl whose very existence triggered my desire to shut down. He gave me the heart to take Brandon to church and show him love and grace, but the patience to step back and let God be the one to redeem him and pull him from the pit of self destruction he was living in. And He gave me the joy of getting to watch Him do this. I stood next to Brandon as the truth of the gospel began to resonate deep in his heart once more. I saw tears pour down his face as he heard and truly understood that he is broken and God loves him anyway. That he has been adopted and saved and it’s not about him, but about God bringing Glory to himself. And I watched him fill with joy as he realized that NONE of his salvation depends on his own worth, but that it is all about Jesus. He would never deserve grace, and because of that the Savior’s love is magnified. A huge burden of guilt and shame was lifted from his shoulders as he transformed from a man who lives in darkness because he’s not good enough, to a man who rejoices in the daylight because he doesn’t have to be.
2 days from now, Brandon will celebrate one full year of sobriety. 60 days from now, I will become Mrs. Jarvis. Marrying Brandon is not just something that I am girlishly excited about doing, although I absolutely am. But this is a calling on my life. It is an act of obedience and submission, yet it will be an easy step. This is a decision that was not made lightly, but for every seed of doubt I’ve had the Lord has given me reason again to trust Him. He has not allowed me to deviate from this path no matter how many obstacles I see ahead. Because for all the thorns, there are more flowers. I am certain that the joy of this journey will outweigh every moment of trial or pain.
We are imperfect people. But we are two people who were drastically changed by the worst year, and who have been molded in unimaginable ways throughout the best. This past year, Brandon became the man I had been praying for since our first date. He has not only led me into ministry opportunities, better communication with him, and a deeper relationship with the Lord, but he has also led me out of sin. He has been persistent in spite of my stubbornness. He has loved me like Christ loves me. And that is a love that will be easy to follow. This year I found a new home in a church I did not want to come to. Leaving the church I loved was a decision that Brandon made and I did not trust, but I have found what I needed all along. And looking back, I am able to see the sovereign hand of God leading me to this point in moments where I thought he was ignoring me.
THIS is how God rescues. This is not my story, but His alone. I am unworthy of the grace that he has shown me. I was content to dwell in sin, and when he pulled me from it I even begged to go back. But my God is jealous for my affections. And he was not content to leave me there to die. Christian: this is the love of your Father. It is fierce and powerful and not at all affected by what you do or don’t do. But He is kind and gentle even as he breaks you. Someday, I promise, even the very bones that He has broken will rejoice! Believe this because the Bible tells you to believe it, NOT because you may or may not feel like it is true.
THIS is how Christ redeems. This is not Brandon’s story, but His alone. Brandon is unworthy of the grace that Christ has shown him. He was content to dwell in death. He could never be enough and he was weary from trying. Non-Christian, hear me: this is the way of the cross. While you were DEAD Christ came to save you. He lived the life you couldn’t and died the death you should have because only His blood and His righteousness are enough to cover your shortcomings. But HE is MORE than sufficient for those who trust Him. He did not come to fix you or to patch you up. He came to make you whole. This is the only way to joy and the only way to life. Trust him because he has proven himself faithful. The same God who led Israel out of slavery and into a land of abundance will do so for you also. And even in the desert, He will not forsake His own.