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The scar of divorce: review of When Happily Ever After Shatters

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when-happily-everA review of When Happily Ever After Shatters: Seeing God in the Midst of Divorce and Single Parenting by Sue Birdseye.

The pain of adultery and divorce sits like a scar on the landscape of society. If you open your eyes you see the magnitude of the scar, the depth of the wound, the reach of the consequences. Dig a little, and you’ll find that divorce and adultery touches more people than you imagined.

As such, the importance of this short book cannot be overstated. Long has the Christian community been in need of a candid treatment of the topic of divorce, abandonment and adultery, and Sue Birdseye has delivered. In a candid retelling of her own story, she describes the revelation of her husband’s infidelity and his subsequent departure from their family home.

With brutal honesty, Sue walks us through the initial moments of her “own personal 9/11”, and the progressive revelations of the depth of betrayal. She retrospectively shakes her head at her own naivety in the face of being told lie upon lie. She shares her struggles in the early days to show love and kindness to the man who had wounded her so deeply. She has an obvious burden for her five children, all affected in different ways by their father’s departure. Your heart will break as you read of their responses to the initial announcement, and Sue’s subsequent attempts to love them and walk them through this crisis. Her inability to shelter them from the disaster unfolding around them is palpable. If you are looking for a book that sugar coats the deep grief of adultery and divorce, this is not it.

But this is not simply a story of one woman’s pain; it is the story of her journey through her pain to healing and hope. While she takes you with her into the pit of pain, she does not leave you there. Throughout this book, even in the darkest moments, Sue has an unshakeable hope in God. It’s the reason she can bear to ask the unanswerable questions: “I want a calm I cannot find: Lord, why did You call me to this?”, “Father, why does it have to be this way?”; and “Lord, could You please direct me very clearly? And where I’m missing Your leading, could You slap me upside the head so I’m aware of your plan and what steps I should take?”

There are neither illusions as to the difficulty of forgiving, nor any glib answers when it comes to the practice of it. Her starting place is unusual: ‘as we receive God’s forgiveness we’ll find hope and healing for the things we’ve done as well as the things that have been done to us’. The call to forgive in this book is simply an encouragement that doing it is essential to recovering wholeness. She tells her own story of deciding to forgive, and asking God to help her do it. Her words describing the process: ‘Difficult? Very’. If you find yourself in this very situation, her answers may seem quaint and lovely, but impossible for you right now. Take heart, this is her prayer for you:

Father, guard us against being prideful, bitter and angry. Soften our hearts, “renew a right spirit” within us, and give us compassion for our ex-spouses (Ps 51:10). Please help us be like Christ. It seems impossible at times, but you tell us that we “can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens” us (Phil 4:13), and we ask that you would give us strength to forgive. Not because anyone deserves forgiving but because forgiveness gives us the ability to move forward and enables us to be used by you.

Amen

If we get to this point of the book and are still under illusions that Sue has some kind of superhuman strength to be able to forgive and continue standing through such immense pain, that is blown out of the water as soon as she begins to speak about anger: ‘I did my fair share of stomping around and slamming things, and I even put a chair leg through the wall once when I put it down with a little too much force and a lot less aim’. This amusing anecdote masks a deep and heartbreaking pain that will not simply go away. Rather, she confesses, ‘it was really easy to be angry. Angry thoughts and actions felt good for about a second…maybe a minute…okay, days’. Very quickly, though, she dismisses anger as a useful emotion and once again urges us to pray, before offering several practical tips to deal with anger, such as finding appropriate outlets, surrounding yourself with people who won’t encourage it, and discovering the primary emotion that lies behind anger.

Not surprisingly, her message to readers is that with God, they can survive the nuclear disaster unfolding around them. No doubt this perspective comes from the precious gift of hindsight. Her conclusions are sound, but beware picking up this book, or handing it to someone who found out about a spousal infidelity last week, or even last month. For that person, this book could produce only more questions and even prove detrimental to their healing process.

It is hard to read this book without a tear or two filling your eyes. And that’s the right reaction. The devastation of adultery and divorce goes deep and not only for the person who experiences it first hand. Written no doubt with tears, but also with warmth, compassion and a little humour, this book is essential reading for anyone in pastoral ministry, or anyone who has walked with someone through the pain of adultery and divorce. Actually, it’s probably essential reading for every Christian, because even if you don’t know anyone affected by divorce at the moment, you will.

Tess Holgate is a freelance Christian writer and blogger. She is passionate about asylum seekers, thoughtful political engagement, and the way that the gospel transforms every part of human life.

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