God Is In the Messy Places: Nicole VanderDoes

Luther Memorial Church is experiencing a “Big Messy Summer” of renovations to the building. To go along with that, we are doing a series of stories shared by members called “God Is In the Messy Places”. Read more Messy Stories here.

My messy story is about marrying a man who made me feel worthless, my stepmother’s death, and how God’s grace and God’s people helped me survive and eventually remember just how loved by God I am.

A little over 5 years ago, I moved to Chicago for a new job just 10 days after I got divorced. Since then, God has filled my life with all that I need, according to his perfect timing. So there is a happy ending, I promise.

But, the year before I moved to Chicago was the worst year of my life. And the 2 1⁄2 years before that were pretty bad, too.

Even on the first date, something was off. But he was smart and liked to talk about the law and seemed to like me. Soon, though, he started criticizing me, getting angry, and making me prove I liked him. Before I knew what was happening, I was doing things I didn’t want to, crying when he yelled at me, and apologizing constantly even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Things only got worse. And I only tried harder.

While we were dating, I lost my job as a lawyer, had to work at Macy’s for about $75 a week, and eventually had to sign my house over to the bank. He encouraged me to seek forms of employment that were, let’s say, degrading.

Almost a year after we met, he proposed. And, unfortunately, I said yes. A few months later, I got a job at a law firm in Cleveland. (The one good thing that happened during this time). Which meant we lived apart for 8 months of being engaged, and the first 7 months of being married. His hurtful behavior continued to escalate, but I told myself it would be better when we lived together as husband and wife.

I was wrong.

Within a few weeks of him moving to Cleveland, I wanted to die. Truly. Because it immediately became clear exactly what the rest of my life was going to be like.

He criticized virtually everything I did and everything about me. He controlled the tiniest details of my life. He was addicted to activities that were not healthy within a marriage. He yelled a lot. And, because of the way his brain worked, he was mostly incapable of understanding how his behavior affected me, or how I might be feeling in general.

None of this was new, but living together meant that from the moment I woke up until I finally fell asleep at night, I lived in fear of setting him off and was made to feel worthless by the person who was supposed to love me.

I was so unhappy that he reluctantly gave me permission to speak to the very conservative minister who did our premarital counseling. I told my husband and the minister that I wanted to figure out how to be a better wife. Thankfully, that minister knew I was asking the wrong question, and instead asked many tough questions of me.

I also reached out to the minister at my new church in Cleveland, who became a source of wisdom, humor, and encouragement.

During discussions with them, I began to admit how unacceptable some of my husband’s actions were. But I didn’t know what to do about it yet. I was crying every day, and living in fear of my husband’s next tantrum. Somehow I still trusted God loved me and was with me.

I slowly began to recognize my life revolved around my husband in a way that often excluded God. I knew that was not the way I was called to live, but I felt powerless to live any other way and survive. And because of the messages I was receiving every day from my husband, it was very hard not to see myself through his eyes, rather than God’s eyes.

In September 2011, my stepmother had a heart attack and died. As I was writing what I would say at her remembrance, my husband decided to discuss how to “save our marriage,” because if I wouldn’t make certain changes… he was going to have to see other women. I tried to tell him it was not an appropriate time to have that conversation, but that only made him angry at me for being selfish. He told me he was hurt I hadn’t thanked him for the sacrifice he was going to make by attending my stepmom’s remembrance, because it would partly conflict with an Ohio State football game. He demanded that I both apologize and thank him.

In that moment I finally had clarity. In the midst of intense grief, I could finally see his expectations and demands and treatment were not at all okay, and I deserved a better life than was possible with him.

Soon after, I followed up with both ministers, and a third minister who knew me well enough that I had not asked her to do our premarital counseling, because she would have known something wasn’t right. I also went to a Christian counselor, who was great despite my apprehension about counselors, especially religious ones.

All three ministers and the counselor essentially told me to end the marriage as soon as possible. They were barely even gentle about saying it. They commended me—kind of—for my stubborn commitment to the marriage covenant. But told me that, although God intended marriage to be for a lifetime, it’s a covenant made between three persons. In order for it to be the way

God intended, all three must play their part. And my husband wasn’t capable of upholding his part, nor was he willing to let God be an active part of it either. They told me God cared more about me and my happiness and my health than he did about “marriage” as an institution. And, if my marriage was separating me from God, as it was, it was not the kind of marriage God intended.

All of this was confusing to hear, because I expected the “Christian” advice to be that I needed to be loving, patient, and forgiving, keep trying to be a good wife, and pray. But instead I received a consistent message that made me feel valued for the first time in a long time—a message that reminded me I was valued by God.

My minister in Cleveland said something that stuck with me. He said he’d never liked the practice of using two candles to light a single candle in a wedding ceremony, because the individual candles are then extinguished. He thought it was important for each person’s light to continue to shine on its own, even as they become one and create greater light together. Then he said, in my marriage, rather than the two of us lighting a new candle together, it was like my husband had simply blown out my candle. He told me I needed to find a way to re-light my candle and then let it burn so brightly that no one could ever extinguish it, because that light comes from God.

That fall, as I was grieving the death of my stepmother and trying to figure out how to end my marriage, I felt God’s presence more intensely, more tangibly than any other time in my life.

I felt him holding me close, trying to lead me, trying to heal me. I felt peace that was stronger than my fear and even my grief. I felt him with me in those ministers who I was so fortunate to receive loving, wise guidance from. And I actually felt prayers. I felt so many people praying for me. I felt lifted up and loved by God and by God’s people.

When I emailed my minister in Cleveland to tell him I was moving here, he wrote back:

Just imagine what God has for you in Chicago. There is an amazing church that God has just for you. God’s grace is already there and you just have to live into it. Thank you for giving me the privilege to walk along side you for this time in your life. I truly hope that I was exactly what God wanted me to be for you and your difficult journey. I look forward to seeing you this Sunday but I do not look forward to saying goodbye. You are an amazing person and you shine with the light of Christ. Don’t let anyone ever get in the way of your light shining in the world.

I’m glad I trusted that minister’s counsel during the most painful, messy time in my life so far. And I’m glad I trusted God, and was able to cling to his love even when I felt so worthless, because he was with me and loved me all along, and the peace and hope he gave me carried me through and brought me here.

Nicole VanderDoes first visited LMC in December 2012 and joined as a member in November 2013. At LMC, Nicole particularly appreciates the contemporary worship band, her small group, and the friendships formed here. Outside of LMC, Nicole is an avid baseball fan, regularly tearing up at no-hitters and a player’s first hit or home run in the majors. But don’t put ketchup or yellow mustard on her hot dog. She’ll bring her own stadium mustard!


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