Divorce is hard. I don’t know any other way to begin this. Once upon a time, an innocently precocious boy named Shaun was born. He had dreams. He had goals. He fell in love with Jesus Christ at 7 years old, and discovered his purpose as a freshman in college after attending a Tye Tribbett concert: I am called to invoke the people of God into a true worship experience; and worship is what he did. He preached his first sermon at 16, and began a 5am prayer meeting on Wednesday mornings at 17. He joined and directed a choir at 18, and began transporting his college friends to church every Sunday. During his first sermon, he made a public vow to remain sexually pure until marriage. Off he went to fulfil that vow. A virgin. A Pentecostal. A kid.
But even this kid was battling some unpronounced, unprecedented adult pain.
What do you want to be when you grow up? When do you want to get married? How many kids will you have? These were the reverberating questions asked of me everywhere—at church, in school, at parties with family, everywhere. Out of the many hopeful dreams and creative responses I had as a kid, divorce was nowhere on my 5-year plan. It wasn’t on my vision board. It wasn’t on my timeline. I didn’t have a back-up plan. For me, divorce was not an option. I knew it happened to others, I just never expected it to happen to me.
“A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there’s less of you.” – Margaret Atwood
This virgin named Shaun met another virgin named Ana on Seton Hall’s campus. She “had me at hello.” She had a testimony and would evangelize a dying spider if she wasn’t afraid of them. God had miraculously healed her of leukemia and it was clear she was a living, breathing, walking, talking miracle. We both received the same full-tuition scholarship, and we both were raised in Newark, but I moved out early to live in a more civilized dwelling—she, on the other hand, had survived graduating from High School in Newark—the second miracle among many. At most, we would become great friends. She was way too pretty to be saved for real. She must be a “Christian on Sunday but a hypocrite on Friday.” Yes, I thought it. But by the second or third conversation, I discovered that she, too, was committed to God for real. In fact, she and I attended the same church growing up on Clinton Avenue in Irvington, NJ—Christian Pentecostal Church of Christ—but we never realized it because she attended the Spanish service, while I attended the English service. 5 years later we would be saying “I do” to one another, at that very church, in front of 450 wedding attendees. At first glance, I thought to myself, “I don’t deserve her.” She was too smart, too nice, too pretty. I don’t deserve her. I had to have said those words to her and to myself at least twice a day for a few years. I didn’t know those words would become a destructive mantra which accompanied me at each turn, as I made dozens of unhealthy decisions that ultimately sabotaged the sacredness of our union.
By the age of 22, I was engaged twice. But the second time would be my last time. The proposal was hilarious, the wedding was a blur, the honeymoon was reality-TV-noteworthy, and off we went to live happily ever after. Off we went, to proclaim the good news of Jesus through books, Bible Studies, and marriage. Off we went to consolidate debt, open up joint accounts, launch websites, purchase furniture, merge our families, and prove the doubters wrong. By the end of the very first week of my marriage, I knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t know how I knew—but I knew. I thought about talking to friends and family but I was met with comments like “y’all must be swinging on chandeliers every night.” Truth is, we were sleeping in separate beds before our 6-month anniversary. I knew something was wrong, but it wasn’t her—it was me… Classic line I know, but it’s the truth. She was always willing to adjust, understand, pray, cry, and repeat. But I hid my pain behind publication and pedigree. I hid my stress behind success and sermons. I truly believed and do believe in the God of miracles—I just didn’t know how to separate the wheat of “I believe” from the tare of “help my unbelief.” It was hard. Very hard. I tried therapy for a few months after we said “I do.” I stopped eating for weeks at a time. Clinically diagnosed with depression, I was given a prescription for anti-depressants. I guess that helped a little. To the world, we were perfect. Inside our home, we struggled. I struggled. Marrying your best friend always helps because friends will stay even when everything else fades away. But friendship wasn’t enough to survive the rapacious waves and the inundating winds. A lot of those winds I created because I didn’t know how to enjoy “Peace be still.” I was in love with a kind of chaotic covenant. If it wasn’t bad, I’d find a way to welcome more wind in. The point is, neither of us knew how to swim in real life, but metaphorically speaking, we were drowning—slowly but surely.
“Taking a thing apart is always faster than putting something together.
This is true of everything except marriage.” – Joe Hill
Please don’t cry for us, Argentina. All was not bad. My odes to Ana were heartfelt and factual— every single word. We had a LOT of great days—a lot of bucket list moments—thriving in business together, ministry together, having great vision talks and worship sessions together, traveling all across the country together—Hawaii, Dominican Republic, you name it—earning six figures and moving into a 5 bedroom home before we both turned 25—those were some great moments— and I will cherish those moments forever— and, OF COURSE, the greatest of our blessings came in 2012—Zinai Esther Saunders. Indeed, she’s the gift that keeps on giving. She is the reason I didn’t commit suicide. She is the reason I stopped whispering in prayer, “God I don’t want to die but I just don’t want to live.” Zinai Esther. GRACE on two legs. She kept me sane when there was no other reason to get up in the morning—and that was really helpful when our marriage escalated to Critical Condition. There are no quick fixes in marriage. It takes real commitment and a willingness to change—long after the hype moments end in church. So there we were, living and dying at the same time. Half dead but half alive. Like a broken faucet, the leak in our marriage would not stop. The more we prayed, the louder it got. The more counselors we turned to, the more difficult it became to express the inexpressible.
Filing for divorce was hard, but nothing prepared me for being “divorced on paper but married by memory.” Nothing prepared me for the random moments when I would habitually go online to pay a bill that was no longer in my name. Nothing prepared me for the first time our daughter called me a guest in her home. Nothing prepares you for the first time you look up and realize that the clothes didn’t just wash themselves for the last 7 years, or when you have to stand before people to preach in a church and not see your spouse cheering you on. Or, when you’re cleaning up to move on, and you pull out a wedding photo hidden between the folds of an old couch, and you stop to cry because you can’t pack anything else anymore. Nothing prepares you for the aftershock of a divorce hurricane.
But if I am honest, I secretly judged people who filed for divorce—even people in my own family. They didn’t fight hard enough. They didn’t pray long enough. They should’ve gone to counseling. He was selfish. She was unwilling to forgive and forget. They must not know God. God is able to do all things but fail. Leave it to life to make you fall flat on your face. The reality is, marriage is honorable in God’s sight, yes, but marriage is also a commitment between two people. Two broken people don’t make a whole marriage, and your spouse is not your savior. God is. I knew I was too broken to say yes, but I was too scared to say no. I was so concerned about what others might say if I didn’t go through with it; and I was so afraid that if I didn’t do it at that moment, it wasn’t going to get done. I have now learned that it is possible for God to be at the center of your life, and not be at the center of your marriage. And both people can be praying for God to heal their marriage, and both can watch it die on the deliverance table.
“Divorce is probably as painful as death” – William Shatner
I’ve endured a whole lot in my life—but no pain compares to the aftershock of divorce. It hits you out of nowhere. Last Wednesday, December 26th, would’ve been our 10-year wedding anniversary. Last week, we should’ve been on a cruise celebrating a renewed love, renewed joy, and a fresh commitment to faithfulness, fruitfulness and future. Instead, I am writing this note over a bed full of tears. It doesn’t get easier—It just gets different. We have been divorced for several years now, but Ana and I made a commitment to honor God and honor one another through each and every turn and chapter. I will never publicly or privately dishonor her. I will never share every detail of our marriage because I have learned, over time, to be honest with everyone but transparent with a few. I have one word of advice for anyone who is hurting in their marriage: pray before you post. Don’t allow the world or even well-meaning church people to dictate your decisions. Don’t believe the hype. Everyone smiling in a picture is not happy in the bedroom. Don’t give up on your spouse just because someone else’s marriage did not work out. God is able to blow your mind at the eleventh hour, and it is possible for you to be the exception. To those wrestling with the guilt and shame of divorce, I know that pain all too well. Ask God to lead you to the right voices and places that will help you to discern next steps. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Regret will ruin you from the inside-out if you allow it to. And everybody’s story is not the same. Just because the marriage ended doesn’t mean the friendship has to. Ana and I decided to be in control of our narrative a long time ago, and I am writing this note in full support of Ana’s declaration of independence. You don’t need my permission, but I freely give my support. Let God use you to help others find healing and wholeness. May God allow the lessons we have learned together and apart, to create and sustain new conversations and safe spaces for hurting women and men.
Shaun and Ana have grieved, we are healing, and we are growing. We will forever have each other’s back, and we will raise our daughter with God as our primary helper. Ana, I want you to know that I love you and I thank you. Thank you for your patience, your care, and your protection. Thank you for showing up even when you shouldn’t have. Thank you for not uncovering me even when you should’ve. Thank you for interceding for me. Thank you for speaking well of me to our daughter. Let’s glorify God together, forever—even in this.
John 9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents;
but it was that the works of God should be displayed in him.