As a young woman, I told God I trusted Him to choose my spouse.
I desired to give that aspect of my future to Someone who was wiser and more well-informed than my own heart.
When I married, two days after graduating from university, it seemed God had clearly answered my prayers. I’d submitted my rational little checklist to Him, and He had written a name at the bottom. Innocently, I assumed following that neat and tidy little formula would equal a fairy tale ending of happily ever after.
A year after my wedding, I discovered I’d unwittingly married an addict. The next decade proved painful, destructive, and emotionally shattering as our family boomeranged on his cycles of addiction, denial, deception, and abuse. I learned more than I’d ever wanted to know about things like narcissism, gaslighting, manipulation, and how sexual addiction is more insidious and mind-bending than substances like cocaine or heroin.
I also learned just how much strength is buried deep in side a mother’s heart, when you have to make choices to keep your children safe, when you are faced with raising them in an abusive “normal” versus starting over alone in the middle of life.
If You loved me, how could You do this to me? I gave You my heart, and I asked You to keep it safe, and You handed me a dud. How could You let this happen, unless You simply don’t care? How could you apparently tell me to marry someone, knowing it would go so terribly sideways?
I never doubted God was capable of miracles. For years, I’d prayed. Waited. Hoped things would change. Clung to every last shred of belief that this time the promises of transformation were for real.
God was powerful. I didn’t doubt that. God could change things, certainly.
But would He?
Did He actually want good things for me?
Did God carry me in His heart and cherish me with supernatural affection?
That’s where my faith broke down. Sure, God has infinite capability. But my heart rebelled against the reality of His character. If God’s character was one of love, then He was supposed to care about what happened to me. And the evidence for that felt scarce.
I remember one tearful late night phone call with a friend, shortly after becoming a single mother. He pointedly asked, “Do you believe God wants good things for you?”
My mouth was frozen. Words would not come. I could not say it out loud, not even to repeat the words of someone else. In my heart, I no longer believed God wanted good things for me. The very idea sounded like childish delusion. A farce.
Guilt enveloped me — I should know better.
I should believe.
I’m supposed to believe.
Yet I don’t.
I’m a rational, logical woman. But in this reality I not only saw an intellectual absence of evidence that God cared, I also felt a deep emotional vacuum where it seemed God’s love would have been obvious — if it was true. I talked to my counselor about it, wrestled through the options before me. She reminded me that I was forgetting one key element…
There is no force. He does not require good choices, He merely asks for them. He does not insist upon transformation, he merely offers it. God never changes someone without their consent. The one thing tying His hands is our rejection of the process.
To experience total heart transformation, the person being changed must be willing to embrace humility, transparency, accountability, and restitution. Those rarely happen all together or instantly, but if you’re experiencing genuine heart change, those elements will be consistently growing. You’ll be choosing to consent to the gospel over and over in visible ways.
In other words, my years lived with an addict weren’t God’s fault. They were simply the result of someone choosing themselves and their addiction instead of God’s offer of freedom. Over, and over, and over again. And choosing to reject the purifying process of total heart transformation which would have rooted out his addiction permanently.
During the years of rebuilding from the ashes, God filled that emotional vacuum. He brought people into my life to demonstrate His caring and love in ways I couldn’t deny. He provided for the needs of my fragile little family as we found new footing. He protected us as we navigated the earth-shattering fallout of infidelity and deceptions I had no clue were happening right under my nose.
He filled in the cracked places and pieced back together the brokenness into a new whole. I learned to let go of shame that weighed me down from choices that hadn’t even been mine. To embrace the knowledge that I am cared for and loved, regardless of the destructive decisions others make. To accept that there might yet be happily ever after in my future.
Recently, I spent time immersed in the biblical story of King Saul, and it was as though God was closing in the final gaps of my own doubt about His identity.
Usually, when we talk about the anointing of Old Testament kings, we think of David. But the story of Saul actually has more detail and length than David’s. Five full chapters in 1 Samuel are dedicated to the story of how Saul became Israel’s first king (see . The story outlines Israel’s rebellious request for a human king, rejecting the governance of God in a theocracy. They wanted to be just like everyone else, not special. God told them it was a bad idea, but acquiesced to their request, and designated Saul as the best candidate.
I’d forgotten just how many dramatic signs and symbols God provided, showing Saul was to be king. It was unmistakable. Unforgettable. Undeniable. No one could argue that any one else was chosen. There were too many miraculous prophecies and signs pointing to his chosenness. If any man, ever, had reasons to humbly believe God had picked him for a special calling — it was the young King Saul.
So how exactly did Saul get from celebrated inaugural king of God’s special people to the end of his story, so filled with jealousy, narcissism, spiritualism and corruption that the only possible answer was for him to be replaced?
It wasn’t that God made a mistake by anointing Saul.
It wasn’t that He should have somehow chosen someone else, or that He failed to guide Saul effectively.
It wasn’t that Saul could have been forced to be a good king and remain the humble young man he was when Samuel found and anointed him (1 Samuel 9:21).
Saul was free to make whatever choices he wanted. And over time, Saul’s choices proved toxic. Over and over again, he chose himself and his own aggrandizement over obedience to his calling. He indulged jealousy and hatred toward David’s battle prowess. He fixated on destroying personal enemies instead of leading God’s people wisely. He let pride and narcissism rule his decisions.
It wasn’t that God chose Saul mistakenly, it’s that Saul lost all respect for having been chosen. He decided he knew better than God, that his own wisdom was more reliable. Like when he decided sparing the richest Amalekite spoils for the purpose sacrifice was better than God’s direct instructions to destroy everything in sight (1 Samuel 15).
And when Saul realized his poor decisions had placed him in a position of exposure and vulnerability — he cemented his rejection of God’s guidance in his leadership. Instead of turning to prayer with humility and asking God’s wisdom as Solomon did generations later, he sought answers from the occult (1 Samuel 28).
In essence, God allowing Saul to continue in kingship without experiencing the full weight of consequences for his pride, corruption, and lack of trust, would have equaled divine enabling toward sinful actions. God gave years of opportunities for Saul to change trajectory, until his narcissism and self-absorption were so complete that the only option was to be deposed by death.
Saul’s original state of divine chosenness didn’t eliminate his ongoing freedom of choice. Just like every other man and woman, his human choices received consequences.
God may give signs and show landmarks to guide our decisions, but He does not force anyone to continue giving their hearts to Him for a lifetime. We are each still free to choose self, addiction, pride, unbelief, shame, indulgence, sin.
It took years of healing for this cognitive knowledge to shift into my heart. To embrace the emotional healing of accepting that my survival through an abusive marriage, my experience of being tossed aside in exchange for sexual addiction outside the sacred covenant of marriage — was never God’s desire or intention. To release the anguish pent up against Him for not making my story turn out with “happily ever after”.
Because the promise of God leading two people together is not a guarantee of any fairy tale ending. Actually, there’s no guarantee of happy endings even when two people choose each other without including God, either. Regardless of how a relationship begins, we write the middle and the ending with the little choices we make every single day. The small, seemingly insignificant decisions that weave the fabric of truth or falsehood, trust or deception.
God doesn’t push ideal choices on us. He doesn’t force them. But he does make them available. He hopes we will take those available choices, and allow Him to create something beautiful. Too often we just gravitate toward the option of fastest thrill or greatest immediate gratification.
Some would argue that happily ever after is a fairy tale phenomenon. Something unattainable in real life, a dream existing only in made-up stories, the fluff of childhood naiveté.
Looking back on the reality that was, the life which could have been, the beautiful life ahead of me — I no longer doubt God’s character of love toward me. Now, I simply believe happily ever after is a choice.
A choice for two people to lean into each other as both lean toward God.
A choice to take notice of the small decisions every day that build up into either foundations of trust or walls of self-protection.
A choice laying the bedrock of all choices to follow — setting oneself aside in the service of those we love. Every day offers a fresh set of choices waiting to be made.
Fairy tales may not exist, but you can still choose happily ever after.
All the choices are yours to make.
Reprinted with permission from Sarah’s blog. You can purchase Sarah’s book here: ONE FACE: Shed the Mask, Own Your Values, and Lead Wisely.
Sarah McDugal is a branding strategist, leadership speaker and author. She's also a homeschooling single mom who never has enough time to do #allthethings, and sometimes leaves dirty dishes in the sink longer than she probably should.
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