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When I Lost (and Found) the Good Life

Divorce sent me into survival mode, but thankfully God wasn’t content to leave me there.

Matt Woodley March 29, 2024

The writer Pat Conroy once claimed, “Each divorce is the death of a small civilization.” If true, then my small civilization died in January 2011. I received a legal document stating that my 25-year marriage had officially ended. This is not the story of my marriage and divorce. That involves too many other people’s stories. Instead, this is the story of how God, by His surprising and powerful grace, healed, renewed, and restored me in ways I could never have imagined.

Illustrations by Patrick Leger

Twelve years ago, I didn’t expect anything good from the Lord. My post-divorce life felt broken and bleak. I resigned from my job as a pastor—a role I had held for over 22 years at three different churches. With no new career strategies, I started working at a Long Island deli and a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. My dream of the “good life” had shattered. I felt like a moral and spiritual failure, and in terms of self-improvement, I didn’t have a plan or a prayer (literally, because I had quit asking God for things).

After I finally landed a job in publishing and moved to Chicago, I focused on a few low-level, survival-based goals: Don’t get hurt again, never dream again, never be a pastor again, and maybe ditch the church altogether. C. S. Lewis once observed, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”
Yes, I thought at the time, Lewis got that right! So, fine, I’ll shut down, lie low, and avoid hurt, failure, and what Lewis called “entanglements”—like getting close to people again.  

Apparently, God had other plans. You know, those “clichéd” Bible verses about how God works everything together for good and He has plans to prosper you, and all that? I didn’t believe them, but God still did exactly that.

The healing process started where I least expected it: during Sunday morning worship, which was bizarre because most Sundays I didn’t want to be there. For 22 years, I had to be there, but now I could stay home, sip dark roast French press coffee, and read The New York Times like all my sophisticated unbelieving friends from Long Island. Yet for some reason, I kept dragging myself to Sunday morning worship services just to show up and watch.

To my surprise, the weekly liturgy not only drew me in, but it also took me on a journey. Every Sunday, reciting the same prayers with the same set of dramatic actions and embodied ways of praying, led me to new vistas with new views of the triune God’s beauty and plan to redeem the world.

As a kid, my family would take summer trips down a river on inner tubes. I merely had to enter the water, sit on the tube, and let go, surrendering to the river’s flow, and it took me somewhere. I didn’t go fast. I traveled faster when I kicked—nothing wrong with that—but I needed only enough faith to get in the river, and it could do the rest. The liturgy became my Jesus-filled, Spirit-flowing river.

Certain parts of our liturgy still split me wide open. At the end of the prayer before the Lord’s Supper, the pastor holds up a large piece of bread, dramatically rips it in two, and exclaims, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!” The people roar back, “Therefore, let us keep the feast. Alleluia!” Then the pastor holds up the bread and wine and says, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on Him in your hearts, with thanksgiving.” In my cynical-free moments, I told friends, “I’d show up just to hear and watch that.” To know that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, became broken for me and my sin, and that He was, week after week, offering to feed my soul—that was enough to start stitching me back together again.

Then there was also the community aspect of Jesus’ healing work in my life. I joined a men’s small group—the first time in over 20 years that I belonged to a church small group I wasn’t leading. I’ll never forget that first night. I arrived 30 minutes late because I had to change a flat tire in the pouring autumn rain. With my soggy shoes and dripping coat, I looked pathetic, but the other men didn’t care. They embraced me the way the father kissed the prodigal son. We didn’t share last names or vocations. We talked, listened, prayed with and for each other. I was feasting on grace.

I had been so busy doing things for Jesus, or so I thought, that I’d forgotten how to be with Jesus. But now I was revisiting the beginning of my walk with Christ. One of the guys, evidently a new believer in Jesus, started enthusing about a song he’d recently learned. He told us, “I’ve written it all on this scrap of paper,” which he meticulously unfolded and read to us: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found …”

I thought, That’s your “new song”? I’d heard that old hymn hundreds of times in dozens of settings, and this guy thought that it was hot off the press. At the time, the words and melody bored me, but he was enthralled. Suddenly, God’s grace came crashing like huge waves onto the stoniness of my heart. I couldn’t have felt weaker or more abased, yet for the first time in years, God flooded me with the reality and the power of His grace. It was all God’s work—the God who justifies the ungodly, the One by whose grace I’m accepted as I am, while He works through these fellow broken men, my new teachers (Rom. 4:6; 1 Cor. 15:10).

Then I met another cadre of fellow strugglers who also became my teachers in finding faith again—a group of 12-year-old refugees who lived in unsightly government housing tucked behind pleasant strip malls near my posh Chicagoland suburb. Somebody had the ridiculous idea of asking me to coach these kids in the local rec soccer league. Most of them had never played; I had never coached. Even so, I fantasized that we’d win the rec league, and someone would make a movie out of it all—Miracle on the Pitch, or something like that.

Instead, we lost every game by staggering margins. The kids’ parents never watched the games because they were all working. Our pregame routine involved scrambling to replace someone’s missing cleat, socks, or shin guard. (“How did you just bring one shin guard for the third game in a row?”) Two Sudanese brothers—Sunday and his younger brother Monday—had blazing speed but no ball control. One kid—Danny, a recent immigrant from Mexico—had soccer skills. The three Burmese girls had never played an organized sport in their lives. Kicking the ball terrified them, and my effusive “way-to-go, best-kick-ever, you-deserve-a-medal” sideline coaching elicited loud, tearful, midfield pleas like, “Mr. Matt, Mr. Matt, stop yelling at me!”

Then, the next season, we got better. We positioned the unexpectedly stouthearted Burmese girls to form a nearly impenetrable defensive line. Sunday and Monday learned to use their speed to create scoring chances. Danny played at a whole new level. We still didn’t win a game, but nobody creamed us, and we had three ties.

I admired the players’ tenacity and grit, their willingness to start from nothing and nowhere and not give up. Despite their tears and failures and epic routs, they kept learning and growing. I remembered a quote from the writer Thomas Merton: “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!” If these kids could merrily claim beginner status at soccer, maybe I could revert (or advance) to beginner status in my walk with Jesus.

In his tender book The Power of the Powerless, Christopher De Vinck, describes what he learned from his brother Oliver, a boy with profound physical and mental disabilities. “Oliver breathed the same night air as we did, listened to the same wind, and slowly, without our knowing, Oliver created a certain power around us, which changed all our lives. I cannot explain Oliver’s influence, except to say that the powerless in our world do hold great power. The weak do confound the mighty.” God used this ragtag team to become my teachers and preachers in the way of being more like Jesus.

So, God’s surprising plan to rebuild and restore my life started when it felt as if everything had come to an end. And seven years ago I did something else I never thought possible: I became a full-time pastor again, overseeing our local ministries to the poor and marginalized and our global partners working among unreached people groups. I can’t imagine a better role with a better team of people. My understanding of what the “good life” means has been changed for the better, and thankfully, so have I.

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