Love After Loss
About the Guest
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Vaneetha RisnerVaneetha Rendall Risner is a writer and speaker who is passionate about helping people find hope in their suffering. Her memoir, Walking Through Fire: A Memoir of Loss and Redemption as well as her devotional, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering both encourage readers to turn to Christ in their pain. Some of her greatest joys a...more
Vaneetha Risner shares about the devastation she faced in divorce and how God used it to bring about something more wonderful than she could’ve imagined.
Love After Loss
Bob: As a divorced single mom with post-polio, Vaneetha Risner knew that being on a dating site was like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Well, when her needle, Joel, showed up and started to show some interest, she wondered, “Did he really understand what he was getting himself into?”
Vaneetha: I mean, I asked him so many times. He finally just said, “Stop; I get it. I know what post-polio is; I know that you might be in a wheelchair/might be a quadriplegic.” But he said, “As long as one of us can do stuff, we’ll be fine. If I get a disability, and I can’t do stuff, we can get somebody to do that. But what I love about you,” he said, “is who you are, not what you can do.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, March 4th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We’re going to hear a great story today—Joel and Vaneetha Risner’s love story—how God brought the two of them together. It’s wonderful. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I just feel like we have to have this conversation right here, because all week we’ve been hearing about one of the hardest journeys anybody we know has ever been on; right?
Ann: —ever! The suffering has been incredible. You’re hoping—
Bob: What we’re going to hear now is—there is a happy story here that we can zero in on. Vaneetha Risner’s joining us, again, on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back.
Vaneetha: Thank you! It’s great to be here.
Bob: Vaneetha is the author of a book called Walking Through Fire. We’ve talked about polio this week; we’ve talked about the death of a child this week;—
Bob: —we’ve talked about the death of a marriage this week/infidelity in a marriage relationship.
We haven’t talked about the fact that last night, before you went to bed, you had a square of Dove dark chocolate; right? [Laughter]
Vaneetha: I should have, but I was here; so I did not bring Dove.
Dave: I mean, this is something you do every single night.
Vaneetha: Every—I mean, this might be one of five nights I haven’t had one, so you know.
Ann: I love you! [Laughter] Yes! I need to incorporate this habit. [Laughter]
Dave: You filled it up today with a little chocolate pie—
Vaneetha: Yes, I did; so that was okay.
Dave: —I saw that!
Bob: We want to dive into—after all that you had gone through with medical challenges, and the loss of a child, and the death of a marriage and your husband moving out—you’re now a single parent with disabilities, trying to survive. At some point in this journey you said, “I’m going and putting a profile on an online dating site.”
Ann: Did you say that?
Vaneetha: That sounded like a nightmare to me. [Laughter] But my daughter said to me, after I was divorced—I remember she said—“Mom, I think you should think about getting married again.” I was like, “I don’t know how to meet anybody, honey.” She said, “You know, online dating!” I thought, “That sounds like a nightmare!”
I really thought it was a lot of psychos out there, and I told her that. She’s like, “There are normal people out there.”
Ann: Was she worried about you?
Vaneetha: She was. She knew I had loved our family; I liked being married; and I also had post-polio. The girls didn’t know what I was going to do when they left.
Bob: “Who’s going to take care of Mom?”
Vaneetha: Yes; so that was part of it. But they also said they just knew that I liked being married; so my daughter just said, “I think you need to try it.”
I thought about it, and it just felt really weird to me; but honestly, it felt less weird than going places and looking to see if people were married.
Vaneetha: I mean, I was all about looking at people’s hands, like, “Are you married?” That felt a little creepy at church; you know? [Laughter] I thought, “It’s probably a little easier to meet on an online site than checking out everybody’s left hand.”
Bob: Did you pick out Match.com or ChristianMingle.com, or what’d you do?
Vaneetha: Well, at first, I was on ChristianMingle, and then I got on eHarmony.
Vaneetha: For me, that was a really good site, because you got to tell a lot about yourself. I was on eHarmony, but even that was not working for me for awhile. After two years—
Bob: Okay; two years. I want to know, “How many guys did you connect with?”
Ann: Yes; and I want to know, “Are your girls in this with you?” [Laughter]
Vaneetha: Well, sort of. One of my daughters was in college through most of it; the other one was at home. It was just a lot of trudging through some profiles and thinking—I mean, people who can’t spell—I mean, there were some very interesting people I met; let’s just put it that way.
Dave: You’re not going to date a guy that can’t spell?—I guess. [Laughter]
Vaneetha: Well, he said he was a sweat-loving man. I didn’t know if that meant he loved his own sweat, or he wanted a woman who loved his sweat, or he was a sweet, loving man! [Laughter]
Bob: I just have to know if this happened to you during your online dating experience: I had a guy come up to me at the end of church one Sunday/a widower who had gone on a dating site. He said, “I met somebody.” I said, “Tell me about her.” He starts describing her. She’s almost 30 years younger than him. He shows me a picture; she’s a very attractive woman. I said, “It’s the age thing…” He says, “She says that’s not a problem for her.”
My spider senses started tingling a little bit; okay? [Laughter] I went home and I googled “May-December online dating,” just to see what popped up. All of a sudden, I saw there are people on these online dating sites, who are looking for lonely widows and widowers for financial—
Ann: —for money.
Bob: Yes! Sure enough; it wasn’t long into this relationship that my friend at church got an email saying, “My mom is in England; she’s about to die. I’m due to inherit a whole bunch of money, but could you lend me the money for the airplane ticket?” He recognized this was a scam.
Ann: Well, thanks for just scaring all of our online dating people! [Laughter]
Bob: I’m warning all of our online dating people! There are folks—did you experience anything like this at all?
Vaneetha: Nobody 20 years younger than me was after me; I’ll have to admit! [Laughter]
Bob: You were just getting poor spellers—is all you were getting.
Vaneetha: Yes, I was getting sweat-loving men. [Laughter]
Bob: Did you have a two- or three-month correspondence with some people?
Vaneetha: Yes; I mean, there were some people that I got to know, and went out with some, and thought they were fine; but nobody that really had the depth that I was looking for. It just seemed like a lot of people were just in a very different place, spiritually, than me.
Bob: Okay; two years in, I’d be at a point, where I’d say, “Tried it; didn’t work.”
Dave: “I’ve tried it”; yes.
Vaneetha: Right; that’s exactly where I was. I just said, “I’m going to deactivate from everything that I’m on.”
I got on eHarmony to deactivate; but the way eHarmony was back then, there would be five slots telling you what had happened with people you had matched with. On my eHarmony profile, right when I was going to deactivate, it said: “Joel has uploaded new pictures.” But each slot said: “Joel has uploaded new pictures,”—five of them.
I thought to myself, “Joel is a narcissist. [Laughter] But Joel must be extremely attractive, that he wants everyone to see his new pictures!” [Laughter] So I went in to see what this Joel was all about. I clicked on Joel’s profile; and Joel seemed like an amazing guy, which shocked me. The first question on eHarmony was: “What are you most passionate about?” Joel had answered: “I’m passionate about Jesus Christ, because there’s nothing else to be passionate about”; whereas, a lot of people, honestly, said, I remember: “Country, God, and family,” and not necessarily in that order. [Laughter] I was like, “Okay; wow.”
I was not really sure about most of the people that I met; but with Joel, he was so clear on his faith. He talked about his late wife and how she was this amazing influence in his life. I remember getting off, thinking, “I wonder why Joel uploaded so many new pictures.” I mean, they were nice pictures; but I didn’t think anything else about it.
Then, that afternoon, I think, I got a smile from Joel. I was like, “Oh my word!” I smiled back at Joel. [Laughter] And that’s when it all started. Joel started—you know, eHarmony has kind of some set questions—so we went back and forth on those. The first free-answer question, where you could ask anything you want, I asked, “Who are your favorite authors and pastors?” That was my favorite question, because that really showed what this person was about and who they respected.
Ann: Who he is; yes!
Bob: Here’s what I have to wonder—if, in the back of your head, you had any little voice saying to you—“Alright; this is foolish, because I’m disabled with post-polio. Who’s going to pick me out of the eHarmony lottery?”
Vaneetha: Yes; I totally said that. When I was in counseling after my husband left, I remember talking to the counselor, saying, “What’s the point of being on a dating site? I mean, I have a disadvantage to everybody else out there.” She just said, “Somebody with depth is going to see past all of that.”
Vaneetha: I asked Joel who his favorite authors and pastors were, and he said John Piper, Paul Tripp, and Kevin DeYoung. That showed me, “Theologically, we’re on the same page.” I was writing then for Desiring God, so that really meant a lot to me.
We just started corresponding, and we started talking on the phone. Then, the weekend before we met, I saw my sister; and she told me, “You’re going to marry this guy.” I said, “I haven’t even met this guy!” She said, “I know, but you’re going to marry him.”
Ann: Did it feel too good to be true? Were you scared? Was there a part of you that was like, “Could this be happening?”
Vaneetha: Yes! I could not believe it. Joel was everything I ever thought I wanted. He was so kind and so deep. Joel’s a widower and was so caring of his late wife. Before we even met, he made me call his late wife’s best friend and said, “You need to talk to her.” I first said, “I don’t want to do that; I don’t know her.” He said, “I’m not coming/I’m not going to meet you, because I could be anybody. Somebody on the internet could be anybody, and you need some kind of verification; so ask her anything you want.”
Just in talking to her, I fell in love with Joel before I even met him.
Dave: And then you saw he looked like Brad Pitt; and you were like, “Wow!” [Laughter]
Vaneetha: Yes; I was like, “Sign me up!”
Ann: What did your girls think? Were they scared? Were they excited?
Vaneetha: They were excited, but think they weren’t sure at first. You know, when you go through trauma like that, I think it’s hard. It’s hard for them to trust; I think they were worried for me.
They were excited for me, especially Katie, who had wanted me to start dating; and yet, when it becomes a reality, there’s: “How is this going to change our life?” I think they were excited, but hesitant and worried for me; but they ended up loving Joel.
Bob: What did your ex-husband think when he heard you were on a dating site and that you’d met somebody?
Ann: —and was he married by then?
Vaneetha: He was married by then, and he said he was really happy for me. I think he really felt bad about the way things had gone. He had sent me a text, really, I think probably a week or two before I met Joel, and said, “I keep praying for you Joel 2:25, that the Lord will restore the years the locust has eaten.”
Ann: Did you/where did you meet?
Vaneetha: Joel drove from Knoxville, which is where he was living, to Raleigh. We went out to dinner the first night.
Bob: Did you feel like you were in high school again? [Laughter]
Vaneetha: Yes, I totally did! All my friends wanted to meet him—
Ann: Of course!
Vaneetha: ——including our pastor. [Laughter] The first weekend he was there, our pastor—I was supposed to have coffee with him and his wife—and he’s [Joel] like, “No.” I called to cancel; and he [pastor] said, “You and Joel are coming over to our house.” [Laughter] I was like, “I haven’t even met him yet!” He was like, “Ah, it’s perfect! We’ll all meet!” [Laughter]
Bob: You said you were in love with him before you met.
Bob: When he shows up, did you run into his arms, or—
Vaneetha: Oh, I would have; but he was playing hard to get then. So then he’s like/it was so funny; the second night he came over, we were going to go to Tom’s and Carol’s—our pastor’s—house for dessert. I said, “We have to hurry getting dinner ready.” I wanted to put candles on the table; he’s like, “Oh, no, we’re in a hurry; we don’t have time for candles.”
To me, it was like, “How do you not have time for candles?!” [Laughter] I thought he was basically telling me, “No, I’m not that interested.” Then, that night, he said, “I’m really tired; so after church, I think I’m going to just drive straight home.” I was pretty sure we were/you know, he just wanted to be friends.
Bob: He had a nice weekend, but…
Vaneetha: Yes, that was it; so I was so sad that night.
The next day, though, he said: “I can’t wait to see you again,” and “When can I see you?” Yes, so we saw each other almost every weekend after that.
Ann: You talked openly about your disabilities: about what that could look like and what that could mean.
Vaneetha: Yes; I mean, I asked him so many times. He finally just said, “Stop; I get it. I know what post-polio is; I know that you might be in a wheelchair/might be a quadriplegic”; but he said, “As long as one of us can do stuff, we’ll be fine. If I get a disability, and I can’t do stuff, we can get somebody to do that. But what I love about you,” he said, “is who you are, not what you can do.”
That was huge for me, just even with the post-polio, realizing I can’t do what I want to do—I can’t serve people—and yet, Joel really reaffirmed that it was me.
Bob: Having been married to somebody you thought would be faithful—you thought you knew who he was when you got married—it didn’t work out. Here, you’re meeting a guy and you go, “He seems wonderful, but what if…” Did that little voice ring in the back of your head?
Vaneetha: It did; so I was would just pray, “God, show me. If Joel is too good to be true, just show me.” It really was reassuring, talking to his late wife’s best friend; I mean, having somebody that really knows the person, when it’s somebody online [you’re meeting]. She said, “Joel’s the real deal. He walked through his late wife’s cancer with her, by her side, every minute. He was incredible.” She said, “He knows what suffering is, and he knows what he’s walking into.” Just having that reassurance was huge to me.
Bob: How did he propose?
Vaneetha: We were at my sister’s house; and Joel pretended that he didn’t have the ring, but he actually did. Then we’re sitting in the dining room after Thanksgiving meal, and everybody’s gone all of a sudden! Then Joel said, “You know that book we’re doing in our marriage counseling, The Meaning of Marriage? Maybe we need to go look at that.”
I walked back there, and then I turn around. Joel is on one knee, with a diamond ring, and I couldn’t believe it! It was pretty incredible. I was surrounded with my whole family.
Bob: How long from the first smile on eHarmony to the ring?
Vaneetha: The first smile was the end of June, and the ring was Thanksgiving, so four months?—five.
Bob: How long from Thanksgiving to the altar?
Vaneetha: That was in February, so three months.
Bob: That’s quick.
Bob: But you know what? I have friends, who just recently got married. Their online meeting to their wedding was about a four-month period. They’re older; they’re both widows—
Ann: There’s a maturity to that love that you know what’s ahead.
Vaneetha: Oh, yes; I mean, I really could have married Joel in September.
Ann: Then you blended your two families.
Vaneetha: Yes, we did.
Ann: How has that been, and how did your daughters adjust?
Vaneetha: It’s been incredible. I feel like Joel has laid down his life for them, and he has been so thoughtful and kind. He does that for all four girls; he’s just very caring and attentive. I think they really feel loved and feel known, and I think that’s really important.
Dave: Okay, is there anything that’s been hard? [Laughter] It just sounds like this—and it is—it’s awesome.
Vaneetha: I mean—
Ann: I’m just think, “The girl deserves this.”
Bob: But you had to have some adjustments that you had to make—things in the first six months to a year of marriage—where you’re going: “Oh, I didn’t know you did that,” or “…you thought that,” or “…you acted this way,”—some of those things that just took you/they blindsided you a little bit.
Vaneetha: Yes; I mean, I think in every relationship, there’s always that—you know, waiting for him to see how perfect I was—and he didn’t see that right away, so we had to give him lessons on that. But yes, there’s certainly always, just even mundane things, like: “How do you hang your towels?” There’s always this adjustment with people. I think we all think of ourselves first and how we do it, and I tend to think the way I do it is right.
Vaneetha: You know, just blending families is always challenging; and yet, I think, with the Lord, we’ve been able to really pray about it and talk things through. I’ve really appreciated that.
Bob: But never a “Did I make a mistake?” moment.
Vaneetha: Not one second; not one second.
Bob: You know, with all we’ve talked about this week—polio, post-polio, death of a child, loss of a marriage, infidelity—good for you! I mean, all of us are kind of like, I’m glad Joel 2:25—you’ve tasted a little bit of that—some of the years that the locust had eaten you’ve seen God restore; haven’t you?
Ann: I’m thinking back—as I read your book—at one point, you said to God, “You must hate me.” That’s a low point when you feel like God must hate you. Then I’m recalling your time in the car, listening to worship music and feeling God’s presence, feeling like He’s holding you. What do you feel now?
Vaneetha: I feel like God has taken me to really dark places, but He’s never left me. You think about Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” I feel like God has been with me through the valley of the shadow of death.
It’s taught me not to be afraid; because I think that’s what we all think about suffering—is we’re afraid—we’re afraid that the next phone call is going to bring us something that destroys our world. It may destroy our physical world—but it’s never going to take away the love of God, and it will never take away the presence of God, and it will never take away the purposes of God in our life—because those will all stand forever.
I feel like I’ve seen that. Joel is the most incredible gift; but if God had not given me Joel, God would still be as good; and I would still love God as much, because God has given me Himself; and that is better than anything in this world.
Dave: It’s interesting—you know, when we were walking down to the studio, and you had said you drank too much water on the airplane, I watched Joel wheel you toward the bathroom—I thought, “What a picture, not only of sacrificial love, but of the picture of Christ/of a man loving his wife like Christ loved the church.”
You know, one of the things you said—I don’t know if you wrote it in the book or not—I don’t know if I missed this, but you said it in one of the messages I watched—you said, “God will take the hardest things in your life and do something breathtaking in you and through you.” As I’ve listened to your story the last couple of days, I’m like, “That’s what He’s doing!”
Bob: I’m glad we got to tell this part of the story.
Ann: Me too!
Bob: Yes; thank you for being here. I hope people will get your book, and read your book, and grow and learn.
Ann: Vaneetha, I want to ask a favor—before you close, Bob—will you pray for listeners that are just struggling right now that are listening?
Vaneetha: Yes; yes.
Oh dear Lord, we just come to You. Lord, we acknowledge that life is hard. Just in the midst of the isolation, and the loneliness, and the pain that is overwhelming at times, Lord, You know. We collectively cry, “How long, O Lord?”
Yet, Father, we know You are good. We know that, even in this pain, You are drawing people to Yourself. You are showing us who You are, and that life with You is incredible; that You give us so much more in suffering than You could ever take away, because You give us Yourself. That’s what we’re created for.
I just pray for everyone listening here—that You would draw near to them, Lord—as they open the Bible: that You would come alive, that You would speak to them, that You would show them that they are not alone and they never will be; and that You will love them in this life, and You will take them to the next life with—no/not one moment do we need to be without You. Lord, I pray that that would sink into people’s lives—that there is nothing to fear—because You will be with them.
Lord, we love You; and we thank You for all the things You’ve done in our lives—things we’ve wanted and the things we haven’t—because we know that You will use them all for our good and for Your glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Bob: Thank you. Thanks for being with us.
Vaneetha: Thank you.
Bob: I want to just encourage our listeners; we’re making Vaneetha’s book available this week to any of you who would like a copy/any of you who can support the ministry of FamilyLife with a donation. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to donate, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Vaneetha’s book is called Walking Through Fire: A Memoir of Loss and Redemption. As we’ve said this week, it’s a beautifully-written memoir. It will be encouraging to you to read it.
Get a copy of the book when you donate to support the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today. What you’re really doing is investing in the marriages and families of the hundreds of thousands of people, who are listening every day to this program on the air, on this station, via podcast, all around the world—people streaming online, people asking Alexa® to play FamilyLife Today—so many ways that this program is connecting with people, and you make that possible when you donate. So thanks, in advance, for your donation; and we hope you enjoy Vaneetha Risner’s book, Walking Through Fire. Again, you can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, most of us have not gone through the kind of life challenges that Vaneetha has shared with us this week; but David Robbins, the president of FamilyLife®, is here with us today. David, all of us have experienced challenges in life; and there’s a purpose for that.
David: You know, these last few days help give new meaning to the words in James 1, when James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers”—and sisters—“whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.”
At FamilyLife, we are all about helping people grow more into the likeness of Jesus as you pursue the relationships that matter most in your life. But we all know that pursuing those relationships in our lives always occurs in the context of a lot of pain, and brokenness, and confusion, and perhaps doubt that we deal with in everyday real life.
Thank you so much for listening and putting a priority on your relationship with God and with your spouse, if you have a spouse; with your family; and for those God has placed in your community. Thanks to those of you who are Legacy Partners with FamilyLife by giving monthly. You are helping people become more like Christ and experience hope amongst the pain and trials of life. Thank you for helping bring the gospel where light meets the darkness.
Bob: Yes, I agree.
For those of you who are longtime listeners, think about becoming a monthly Legacy Partner and being part of the team that provides the financial stability for this program. You can find out more when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com.
We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to talk about how most people in our day are moving toward marriage by taking the step of moving in together first/you know, trying things out. Shelby Abbott joins us to talk about why that’s not such a great idea. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some help this week from Bruce Goff. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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