I couldn't explain why, but for months, I had a gnawing sense that my life was off track. And I certainly never would have guessed the marital havoc I'd reap because of my misplaced priorities. Feeling unsettled, and with the thought that physical exercise would clear my head, one spring day I grabbed my shiny new ax and headed out to begin splitting wood.
Why is Maria* so unhappy? I wondered. She'd grown up in a violent home that ultimately exploded in divorce, but hadn't I rescued her from all that almost 15 years ago? She was now married to a successful doctor from an intact Christian family. Wasn't that enough to bring her the stability, security, and "normal life" she'd always dreamed of?
What Maria hadn't dreamed of was a husband whose medical practice kept him away from his family until long after the kids had gone to bed. During the little time I was at home, I was usually preoccupied with finances. I took big risks to achieve financial "security." So what if we occasionally bounced a few checks? We lived in a huge new house in an exclusive neighborhood.
Yet I felt empty. The harder I worked to give Maria everything she could want, the more a cold, deep chasm widened between us.
Finally, desperately, I lowered my ax and cried out to God. "There's got to be more to life than this. I want your best, Lord, no matter what the cost."
Instantly and clearly I felt his response: No matter what the cost?
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. But I was desperate. Even if this was a warning, it didn't matter; my life needed to get back on course.
I took a deep breath and affirmed, "No matter what the cost."
Nothing changed for several weeks. Then out of the blue, Maria said the words every husband dreads: "We need to talk."
She told me she'd become romantically involved with our kids' soccer coach, Kyle. No matter how much I reasoned, scolded, or preached, I couldn't change her mind.
"It's been five years since I've felt anything for you, or even anything from you for that matter," she spat. "I've found someone who doesn't take me for granted. I feel loved again. It's too late. I don't want the future I see with you!"
My heart sank. I was speechless. I decided to move my stuff to the guest bedroom, but I wasn't ready to give up on the marriage.
Within a week Kyle had the audacity to call her at our house, even when I was there. I was furious when she'd talk to him for hours. It was as though she were taunting me, knowing I couldn't stop her. Finally, I could take it no longer. I demanded she move out.
"If you don't like it, you can get out," she exploded. "I'm not going anywhere. This is my home and my children's home. You're barely more than a stranger here."
Her words felt as if she'd stabbed me in the heart with a dagger. But I knew she was right. I would have to go.
The next day I found myself in a cheap apartment, working out child custody arrangements for our two children. The child and spousal support she demanded crushed any hope of honoring my enormous debts.
I felt alone. My parents were a great encouragement to me and prayed for me daily. Yet I couldn't look to them for any financial help since a lot of my debt was to my father. And I didn't have anyone to turn to at church, since I hadn't gone to church in years. The only one I could turn to for help was the priest at the Catholic church my wife occasionally attended. I think part of my reason for choosing him, though, was to ruin any chance of her seeking his help.
I couldn't sleep and I couldn't stop crying. Day and night my mind raced as I frantically tried to figure out how to put things back together. While I wanted to place all the blame on Maria, I couldn't escape my responsibility in what was happening. With self-loathing, I thought about all those times I'd chosen work over my family. Because I hadn't been there, Kyle was.
I found out Kyle had a reputation of preying on unhappy married women. Maria had become an easy target. With this new information, I felt a deep anger and hatred I'd never felt before, and at times it scared me. While I knew I'd never go through with it, I was filled with thoughts of wanting to kill him, to watch the last spark of life fade from his evil blue eyes.
On my bad days, suicide became an attractive option. Three things kept me from killing myself. I knew from my earlier conversation with God that he was doing something with me, and he wasn't finished. I knew I still loved Maria and desperately wanted her back and my family restored. And if all other reasoning failed, I knew I could never let Kyle have my wife, family, and home without fighting to my last breath.
The only good thing I had going was my faith in God. We were growing closer than I could have ever imagined. I'd started going to a church where a few of my physician friends were elders. They knew my situation, and the church began praying for me. On days I felt the most hopeless, I'd whisper a simple, "911," and he'd always respond with comforting Scripture, such as, "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
A year into this mess, my life was still a wreck—my work suffered, I was facing bankruptcy, I still couldn't sleep or eat, and my anger continued to bubble just under the surface. Although we weren't yet divorced, I knew our relationship was beyond repair. So one weekend, I drove up to a cabin my parents owned on the coast of northern California. More than 16 years earlier on those same rugged cliffs, I'd asked Maria to be my wife. At sunset I went to the spot where I'd proposed to her.
"Lord, I'm done. I can't fix this. The way it's been going, I just seem to make things worse by trying. I don't know where you're taking me, but it looks like you're taking me there alone." I choked back tears. "But Lord, that's okay. You alone are enough for me. As long as you're with me, I'll be all right. Watch over Maria; I love her."
As the last orange-red dot of sun snuffed itself out in the rolling gray Pacific, I slipped off my wedding band and hurled it into the dark, angry waters below. Wiping a tear from my eye, I felt a strange peace wash over me, a sense of calm and release.
Several days later the phone rang, waking me from the most restful sleep I'd had in months. I glanced at the clock on my bedside table and saw it was 2 A.M.
"I need to see you," Maria sobbed into the phone, her frail, desperate voice almost unrecognizable. "I can't talk about it over the phone. Can you come over?"
I raced across town to the house. My 12-year-old son, David, answered the door. His wide eyes and quivering chin gave me apprehensive chills. His 10-year-old sister, Rachel, stood behind him wearing one of my old T-shirts.
I gave them each a big hug and asked, "Where's Mom?" David pointed to the bedroom door without saying a word.
Through the darkness, I could barely make out Maria curled on the bed, softly crying. I sat beside her and stroked her head. I moved my hand down Maria's soft slim arm, but to my horror when my hand reached hers, I felt the hard, cold steel of her .38 caliber Lady Smith revolver. Her grip on the gun tightened.
Summoning all my professional, self-control, I asked as calmly as I could, "Did you want to talk?" "It's no use," she whispered. "I've torn apart our family, thrown away my faith, and deeply hurt you and our children. I can't live with what I've done, and I can't see any way out. I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry … and goodbye."
Panic struck. I'd seen patients in this state before, so I knew she was in real danger of killing herself. "Don't throw your life away," I pleaded. "Even if it's over for us, God can put your life back together. Our children still need their mother. We can still be friends. I still love you and God still loves you. Please … give me the gun."
She clutched the revolver to her chest as if it were her last hope of escape.
I offered a silent but frantic plea: 911! My upturned eyes welled with tears. Each moment an eternity, braced for what might next be a gunshot, God gently whispered into my mind the words from Psalm 23:4: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me."
Finally, slowly, she handed over the revolver.
"Thank you, Jesus," I sighed, then offered to pray with her. I stayed for a few hours to make sure she and the kids would be okay, and we both agreed to keep some space between us for a while to think about our lives and marriage. Then I took the revolver out to the car and drove back to my apartment. Although I didn't know what would happen next, I was sure God was at work in each of us.
A few weeks after that tumultuous night, Maria called me again with, "We need to talk." This time, however, I felt no dread, but instead hope from the warm tone in her voice. As I drove over, I wondered what God had in store for me now.
"Since that night you came to the house, I've put my life back in God's hands," Maria said with a warmth in her eyes I hadn't seen in a long time. "If you feel you can forgive me, I'd like to give our life together another chance. I want you to come home."
I hugged her and said, "Of course I forgive you. I just need to know if you can forgive me. If you'll take me back, I swear I'll be the husband you deserve. This time we need to put God first in our marriage every day."
It was difficult when I moved back in. I had to prove myself through my schedule at work. Kyle was out of the picture, but the feelings of betrayal still lingered. We had to continually practice forgiveness and rebuild trust.
To help undo some of the trauma to our kids, we became active members in a church with a strong youth program. We began to read the Bible and pray as a family. I set my financial sights lower and spent more time at home. Slowly our family was restored, and our marriage was better than I ever imagined it could be.
Still, I hadn't completely forgiven her. At times my emotions felt beyond my control. One day I'd be gratefully rejoicing that our family was restored. The next day pain and anger would eclipse the sunlight God had brought back into our lives. After almost a month of feeling torn in two, I sent up my last 911 prayer. I expected an answer in the Scriptures as had happened so many times before. But God had heard the cry of my heart and had prepared an answer I would never have expected.
Our home itself showed the effects of neglect, and I began to put things back in order. As I walked through the overgrown weeds beside the house, I stumbled across my ax. I'd last used it a year earlier, on the day I went outside to clear my head and ended up asking God to take control of my life.
That day I left the ax—shiny and new—on the fresh spring grass. Now, filthy and pitted with rust, the ax seemed useless. I was about to throw it in the trash but decided instead to put it to the grindstone. The metal screamed as bright sparks flew. It reminded me of what God allowed me to go through. As the corrosion vaporized in a wisp of blue-gray smoke, I sensed that God had a question for me: Will I ever hear you say your "no matter what the cost" prayer again?
I looked down at the razor-sharp blade glinting in the morning sun, showing signs of wear but now as sharp as the day I bought it. A lump formed in my throat. Still, a smile crept across my face. I whispered, softly and thankfully, "Yes, Lord. Every day."
John Davidson, M.D., is a pseudonym for a family practice physician who lives with his wife of 25 years in northern California. Portions of this article adapted from Focus on the Family Physician, September/October 2002.
*Names and some details have been changed.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.