Pressing Into God’s Word
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Together Through the Storms: Biblical Encouragement for Your Marriage When Life Hurts (2020, The Good Book Company). They have four children 13 and under and are members of the Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, IL. Sarah is also the co-author of the award-winning book ...more
By the time Sarah Walton was diagnosed with Lyme disease, she and her husband, Jeff’s emotional, mental, and physical reserves were at their breaking point. They tell how the Bible became their lifeline.
Pressing Into God’s Word
Bob: Jeff Walton was facing a difficult dilemma: his job made it possible for him and Sarah to live a comfortable lifestyle, one they both enjoyed; and yet, increasingly, his job was taking him away from his wife and his family in times when she really needed him. Jeff found himself wondering if his job would somehow cost him his marriage and his family.
Jeff: We had been planning how to remodel our kitchen; we had plans for renovating the basement in this home—and growing old—and seeing the kids grow up in this home. Then, after four short years in that, all of this came to a screeching halt; and now it’s a “Y” in road: “Are we going to go left and try in our own strength?” or “Are we going to try and follow the path of Christ and save our family?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, June 23rd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. The dilemma Jeff Walton was facing is not uncommon. Many of us have to figure out how to balance work, life, marriage, and family. How do we do that? We’ll talk more with Jeff and Sarah about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I remember a night—Mary Ann and I had been married for almost five years at this point—and it’s the spring of 1984. We were out walking our daughter, Amy, around the neighborhood; she was in a stroller. The sun was setting; it was a beautiful spring evening. We had just moved into a house that we had built; we had worked with the builder and gotten the house just the way we wanted to.
I remember, as I’m walking around the neighborhood, and I’m thinking, “Life is pretty perfect”; and I had this thought hit me, “It doesn’t last like this for people.” That’s an unusual thought for me to have, because an optimistic guy, going, “This is how it’s supposed to be/life’s supposed to go,”—right? I remember it hitting me, going, “Where did that come from?”
Well, within the next two weeks, I went in on a Monday morning, and my boss said, “We’re letting you go.” Two weeks later, I was out to lunch with some friends; and Mary Ann calls and says, “I just got back from the doctor; I’m pregnant.” [Laughter] All of a sudden, I’m watching everything that had just seemed perfect start to—it was piling up on top of us—and it led us into the most stressful season we were in in our marriage. But it was almost like God had whispered ahead to me.
Everybody’s going to have these seasons. Now, when the season becomes years upon years, that can get tiring/that can get exhausting. That’s where you go, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?” and start quoting Psalm 13 over and over to yourself.
We have a couple joining us on FamilyLife Today this week who have been through a prolonged season of one thing after another in their marriage and in their family. Jeff and Sarah Walton are here. Welcome, guys.
Jeff: Thank you.
Sarah: Thank you.
Bob: Jeff and Sarah live in Chicago; they’re parents of four kids. We’ve been hearing their story this week and hearing about how marriage kind of started off in a semi-idyllic start, and then your son was born, and there were health challenges with him that doctors couldn’t diagnose. It was kind of regular acting out on his part; you didn’t know what was going on physically, or spiritually, or emotionally with him.
Then, in the midst of this, you have additional kids. You have a job, Jeff, where you’re on call and having to be in and out of the family. Then, Sarah, you start to experience health issues that ultimately get diagnosed as Lyme disease.
You’ve written about this in a book called Together Through the Storms, and you’ve looked at the Book of Job in Scripture and said, “We see some parallels with what he went through and what we’ve gone through.” Take us to the point that your sickness/what you were feeling, Sarah, was ultimately diagnosed and you realized you have a progressive illness that there’s no cure for.
Sarah: Yes; it was after my fourth had been born. I had seen several doctors at that point. I had gotten various diagnoses, but none of them really seemed to do much. I’d try treatments that they suggested, and it didn’t really help that much. At the time, I met a girl who had just been diagnosed with Lyme disease; and she was actually the one I co-authored Hope When It Hurts with at that time. She was the one that suggested I go see her Lyme doctors.
I said: “I don’t have Lyme disease. That doesn’t sound like it fits what I have.” So she said: “Just go anyway. They look at everything. They’ll be able to tell you kind of what’s going on.” I ended up doing that, because honestly I just didn’t have any options; I didn’t know what to do. The first day I got there, they looked at my symptoms, they did a bunch of tests; and they said, “Well, we can’t give you a diagnosis on paper right now because we don’t have test results; but clinically, you have every symptom.”
I left that day really a mixture of glad that I had some kind of answer, maybe, but terrified that: “I don’t know what this means. From what I’ve learned and what I see, it doesn’t exactly seem like something I should be happy about; because there isn’t any clear answer as to what will get rid of it, if it can be healed or cured, or how to manage it best.” I really didn’t know a lot about it, other than knowing that it can affect all sorts of parts of your body; and it will probably stay with you for all of your life.
Bob: How long ago was this diagnosis?
Sarah: That was probably maybe five years ago, and that was at the time that was really probably the pinnacle of our trials going on. There was—the intensity with our son reached a point, where we were having to seek wisdom about whether we would admit him to the hospital, because—
Bob: This is your son, who had been acting out with behavior issues, and had physiological issues along with that, and still undiagnosed at this point; right?
Sarah: Yes, we had seen several different doctors. Really, it got the point where, for the safety of him and our family, we just didn’t know if we were able to keep him in the home—which, if you’re a parent, you’ll know how heart-wrenching that is—to even think about. It felt like we were giving up on him in many ways. It felt like: “At what point do you feel like that’s the right decision?” I mean, there is no really clear answer to that.
We sought the counsel of some pastors; and at the same time, things had gotten so bad with his job, where he was gone so much, and he wasn’t actually really being compensated for how much he was working; so it was stressful for him as well.
I was getting sicker, and sicker, and sicker. At the same time, our medical bills started to skyrocket, because a lot of the doctors we were seeing didn’t take insurance; so we’d pay a lot out of pocket. My son’s doctors that we were seeing—we were trying all sorts of supplements and things like that—that we would have to pay out of pocket for. Those started to increase, and the pressure just started to build, and build, and build.
We had some of the elders from our church come over just to pray with us and to give us counsel. I think, before that, God had already begun to work in our hearts—on: “Are we willing to walk away from the comfort we have for the sake of our family?” We had already been starting to feel some of that leading—didn’t know what that would look like—but I think God had already been somewhat bringing that to our attention.
Interestingly, at that meeting, we decided, “Well, let’s wait on admitting right now.” We decided, instead, to start trying some medication to see if that would alleviate anything. But the main takeaway was—I think one of our pastors looked at Jeff and said, “I think I would rather flip hamburgers than to lose my family right now,”—basically making the point that “Whatever you lose financially, it will never be worth the cost of losing your marriage and your family, and spiritually honoring the Lord in this situation,”—I think that’s what we needed.
Dave: He was saying, continuing in the job you were in, was that dangerous?
Sarah: I think they saw, from the outside perspective, how dire of a situation we were in. We were so backed up against a wall that—we knew it; we knew it—I mean, we were hanging on by a thread on every level you possibly—my mental health, my physical health, my emotional health, and our marriage—and even our kids. I mean, they were suffering, at this point, with everything that was happening in our home.
Jeff: I think a lot of what was going on, also, is—for so long, we had been kind of that team that was just addressing and focusing on our kids’ challenges—and now, we were at a stage, where that was starting to bubble up to the top. Tensions that had been moved on from one day to the next, and the challenges of being able to communicate that—because I was in and out of the home so often, we didn’t really have the time or energy to really walk through that appropriately—so now, that was the stuff that was really swept underneath the rug.
We lifted up the rug and that was seen now—and all the ugliness, and all of the hurt, and things that had transpired over the last decade—we were now wrestling with in front of us: “How do we move forward?”
Bob: When a pastor says, “I think I’d rather flip burgers than to lose my family,” were you at a point in your marriage where losing the marriage was something on the table?
Jeff: No; not from a standpoint of walking away from each other; and by God’s grace, that did not ever come to our minds in the form of acting on it. During this time, it was the first time that I think we both saw, “Wow, this is where couples get to where they truly can walk away.” While we didn’t have, maybe, the best of relationship, we were constantly in God’s Word, and pressing into His Word, and trusting solely in Him.
Dave: So there was never a time you thought about walking away from God?
Sarah: Oh no; no—Ahhhh! [Laughter]
Dave: —or faith, or—you know, how was that?—was the faith a struggle?
Jeff: I think, from the standpoint of wrestling with God and not to the point of denying who God was. I think one of the biggest things that—you know, we address this in the book, of really getting into lamenting—something that I’ve, not until recently, really understood what that truly means. When you look at Job—and when you look at, certainly, the Psalms, and Lamentations, and throughout the Bible—of “What does that really mean?—to bring your pain and your confusion, and appropriately ask the ‘Why?’ questions and the ‘How long?’” Job does this, incredibly, throughout much of the book. Lament truly has to bring you to the point, where it’s coming full circle back to the trust, and “What do I believe about God and the promises of God?”
To answer your question, Dave, I don’t think it was ever a point, where I was ready to pack it up on God—not go to church, never open my Bible again—and only by His grace and mercy did He give me the strength to wake up and to open His Word. I thank Him for that.
Ann: You had a sentence in your book, that I read last night, that kind of stopped me for a second. You say: “Satan’s mission remains the same. He wants to convince you to turn against God. His pathway to that can subtly lie in persuading you to turn against your spouse.” You guys were at that point, where you had a decision to make, whether you were going to turn against one another or turn to God.
Sarah: Yes, yes. You know, what’s really interesting—throughout those years that we were struggling with our son—there was clearly a very spiritual dynamic to it, which was very confusing to us. He would say things that no four- or five-year-old should know how to say. We would start praying, and he would start screaming at us. We would try to bring up conversations; and he’d angrier, and he’d throw things at us.
We went through a period of time of just praying, “Lord, we have to trust that You are in control of this boy’s life/that You are greater than any enemy.” It was clear he had a neurological disorder—we weren’t questioning that by any means—but it was clear the enemy was also taking advantage of it. When we would have times that we were struggling, we would see that intensify. There was clearly a spiritual dynamic that was going on. We have seen that clearly over the years. There were times, when he [Jeff] would be gone more is when I would feel more of that battle go on; things would get harder at home.
While I would say I agree that I didn’t ever think of walking away from the Lord, I have certainly come to points, where I have really struggled with wondering: “God, I have no idea who You are. If You would let this happen—I want to say I trust You, but I don’t even know who I’m trusting anymore.”
For example, after—so what we had done—after that pastor’s conversation, we ended up deciding that it was/the best decision was to have him find a new job that would allow him to be home; because I needed the help. I think we both knew that was clear; the Lord put us in a position, where there was really no ignoring it anymore. We couldn’t find our way around it, so he ended up searching for jobs. After a few months, he found a job. Not long after that—well, what they had told us he would be taking as a pay cut would be a 40 percent pay cut, which we knew would be substantial; we’d have to sell our home.
Jeff: At this time we were in our dream home, which we thought we’d be in forever.
Jeff: I think that challenge of really dying to self and something that we had been planning how to remodel our kitchen; we had plans for renovating the basement in this home—and growing old—and seeing the kids grow up in this home. Then, after four short years in that, all of this came to a screeching halt; and now it’s a “Y” in the road: “Are we going to try and muster our own strength and do things on our own condition?” or “Are we going to follow where we see wise counsel, and seek God, and change jobs?” I think that had to be done in order to restore our marriage relationship—take the steps back to putting family first—and not let that even go on one step further.
Bob: The physical challenges—I don’t want to minimize those at all—but the reality of selling the dream home, changing to a new job—there’s an emotional toll, for a husband and a dad, who’s thinking, “This is what I’ve wanted to do for my wife and my kids; and now we’re going to a rental house,” and “I have a new job—and it’s maybe not as prestigious a job and it’s certainly not the income that I’m capable of making—but I need to be here to take care of my family.”
I can see where I would, in that situation, start to go, “What’s going on here with me?”—right?—did you feel some of that?
Jeff: I certainly did. That even got greater by about a year-and-a-half into the job—so transition into a new job, take a pay cut, swallow my pride—and then the company went through a huge reorganization, and I was laid off. At that point, all the questions of:
“Why, God? We have sought Your purpose and Your will, prayed through this fervently—thought it was good and we had Your blessing going to a new job—and then, just a year-and-a-half later, the rug gets pulled out underneath us.”
That hit us both really hard—the reality of what that meant for our family—again, as just a guy, and now the sole provider of our family—we had no income. We had rising medical bills, the kids’ challenges were still there, Sarah’s health problems were still there. And now, where I could kind of escape and go to my job, I didn’t have that anymore.
Sarah: If I can jump in, too—throughout that year/prior year was when we started seeing increasing symptoms in our kids of other ailments. Our girl behind our oldest started having joint pain consistently, our daughter below her was too tired to even ride her bike around the block. Her legs couldn’t keep up with it; she was showing signs of fatigue; she was losing her hair. There were all sorts of things going on.
Throughout that year, eventually, each child was diagnosed with Lyme as well. We found out that I could pass it gestation-ally. Suddenly, we were hit with: “Oh no; it’s not just me anymore. Our entire family is now battling this,” which means our entire family has to do these costly treatments that insurance doesn’t cover. It was really not long after that that he lost his job.
To go back to what I was saying earlier, that is the point that I think I hit rock bottom.
Bob: —where you said, “Okay, God”?
Sarah: Yes; I was like, “I didn’t sign up for this!”
Bob: Yes; right.
Dave: Oh, yes. I don’t know if I would have lasted long as you did; but I can just be screaming at the ceiling, saying, “What are You doing?”
Sarah: Yes; that was probably the point where I dealt with the most anger. It was a combination of things. It was—once we were out of the intensity of the situation—meaning he was home more so I, at least, had his help for some of the basic physical demands at home—as that had happened, I was starting to have emotions surface—that I was like, “Where are these coming from?” All of a sudden, resentment started to come up, and anger started to come up. It was like, all of a sudden, I had enough of a break to start to feel what I hadn’t been able to feel for years prior.
I didn’t know what was going on. I was like: “Why do I feel so resentful towards Jeff all of a sudden? Why am I feeling anger towards the Lord over all that He’s allowed over these years?” I kept having flashbacks of really bad moments with my son that I just couldn’t shake. I would think about them all the time, and they’d reignite those scary feelings.
That came to the point, then, where he lost his job; and honestly, I felt like the Lord was cruel; that’s really what I struggled with. I believed He was in control; I really did. That’s where it caused me to struggle with His goodness; because I knew, “You could have stopped this. I know we saw You clearly leading us; and yet, You led us to a worse situation,”—that I struggled to wrestle with.
Bob: Is it still going on, at some level?
Sarah: Well, I think to some degree, yes; because we’ve continued to have layered trials that keep seeming to happen. But as I look back, I can definitely see how the Lord has carried me gradually to trusting Him at a deeper level, not by what I can see, but what I know is true in Scripture.
I won’t say—it certainly wasn’t overnight—I was digging into the Word more and more. I realized it became more of my lifeline. I needed to be in Scripture every day—it wasn’t just to grow in knowledge—it was purely because I needed to remind myself, every day, that the Lord was seeing me.
Ann: Was there any Scripture that really hit you/comforted you?
Sarah: Well, there were several of them. A couple that come to mind are hearing Paul talk about his losses and his gains in Philippians. Thinking about how Paul had had all of these incredible qualifications—you know, he had been revered; he had been so high up—and when Christ met him on that road and changed his life, he ended up getting to the point, where he was saying, “All of that I now consider as loss.”
As I started to think about that, in light of he saw Christ as gain, I could see that pattern happen in my life. The one loss after another—what it ended up doing is—every time I lost something, I had to come back to that foundational question, “Is Christ enough if I lose this?” It seemed that the Lord allowed that in every different area of life. It was my physical health: “If this is the condition I’m going to be living in the rest of my life, do I believe that Christ will carry my through this?” and “Do I believe that there’s still goodness in this?” Each time I had to wrestle with that, I think it dug those faith roots just a little deeper.
I don’t think you often feel it in the moment. You know, it’s usually, I think, when you look back and you see, “I don’t know how I survived that, but now I can see that the Lord was holding me up.” I have so many moments, where I look back and I think: “I can see how the Lord was with me in that room. He restrained me from reacting to something that I should have, in all fleshly reasons, reacted to.” Or I was able to keep my composure in a really terrifying situation—or even situations between Jeff and I—we had to work through things, of course; and it was really ugly at times, but you can even see how the Lord preserved our friendship with each other.
There were so many marks of His grace that we could go on, and on, and on about; but I think that has been a slow progression of that, as I’ve gone back to these truths over and over. And there are several more. We’ve loved Job, because he was in that for so long. I mean, we noted in the book that the Book of Job would be much shorter if God had answered him quickly. [Laughter] Isn’t that our lives?—most of our life is waiting.
Dave: Yes, and you hear your story—again, we’re sitting on the outside, looking in—you’ve lived it; you are living it—I hear it. Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of hard stories; this one just keeps going. Honestly, the passage that comes to me, because I think you guys are evidence of Psalm 34: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit.” As we listen to your story, we know the depth of the crushing of your spirit. Yet, there’s light here. There’s a Lord that is close, and that’s the beauty of why you’re letting people inside this story; because you’re going to give them hope.
Bob: A lot of people are going to find that as they get a copy of the book. In fact, we’re making the book available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners. If you’d like a copy, you can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; and if you can make a donation to help support this ministry, the book is our gift to you/our way of saying, “Thank you for your ongoing support of the work of this ministry.”
In fact, you think about this: the conversation you’ve heard today happened because another listener said, “This is important, and I want other people to be able to hear this.” We’re asking you to do the same for other listeners. If you would support the ministry of FamilyLife Today so that this kind of practical biblical help and hope for marriages and families can be more readily accessible in more ways—more platforms/more channels—for more people, we’d love to send you, as a thank-you gift, your copy of Jeff and Sarah’s book, Together Through the Storms: Biblical Encouragement for Your Marriage When Life Hurts.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to make a donation, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY; you can make a donation over the phone. Ask for your copy of Jeff and Sarah’s book when you make that donation. Thank you for your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We appreciate you.
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk more about how we can apply 1 Corinthians,
Chapter 1—how we can comfort others with the comfort we’ve received—how we can take the hard experiences of life and use those to be a help to others. Jeff and Sarah Walton will be back with us, again, tomorrow. We hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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