Jon and I celebrated a milestone last week. On August 14, 2019, like a bashful but happy, coming-into-her-own teenager, our marriage reached a gangly, blooming, and substantial fifteen years together in Christ.
It feels substantial, this anniversary. In part, that substance is circumstantial. Numbers ending in zero or five get more attention from us, for better or for arbitrary reasons, and this one is no different. Why does fifteen seems more special than, say, thirteen or sixteen? Because it does. So there. (Hey, I said like a teenager, right?)
And, of course, the other substance that makes us cherish this anniversary is truly weighty and special.
That substance is a priceless combination of time, experience, and God-given perseverance.
In fifteen years together, we’ve moved seven times and lived in Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We’ve studied and completed graduate degrees. We’ve rented apartments and houses. We’ve bought and torn up a house and remodeled it over ten years. (Well, Jon remodeled. I watched and cleaned up drywall dust.) We’ve lived in another house that has needed little fixing, thank God. We won’t even count the cars we’ve gone through. Suffice it to say that we have fought and cried and kissed and made up, over moves and renovations and many other things.
We’ve grown together from husband and wife to father and mother, together. We’ve been blessed with six living children, their rambunctious energy and delight matched only–maybe–by our exhaustion. We’ve learned a lot from these gifts. We’ve learned humility and patience and stamina and frustration and unimaginable joy.
We’ve also learned suffering.
We lost our first child early in my pregnancy, just a few weeks after we learned we were parents, and only eight months after we said our vows. We learned to mourn together and to hope together. Three years passed before our now oldest son was born.
We have said goodbye to a mother, grandparents and other relatives and friends. Earlier in August, we said goodbye to our tiny son, Christian. We have learned, and are learning, what it means to live with pain and grief that, though it might subside, will never fully disappear in this life.
We have learned to appreciate God’s amazingly good gifts. Five churches have been homes to us, with scores of others offering us Jesus through the Word and Sacraments. There is no counting all of the blessings we have received through Christ’s Church and faithful believers in Him from all over this country and the world. We have learned how little we are, and yet how bountifully and thoughtfully God loves us. Our cup has truly runneth over.
We have gained gray hair and wrinkles, laugh lines and tear stains, heartaches and heart swells. We have most decidedly relished some silly moments.
Last Friday, we attended the wedding of a young couple. I choked and wiped away tears as we chanted Psalm 127 during the service. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. … Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Jon and I exchanged glances numerous times from opposite ends of the pew, me with the inquisitive and antsy two-year-old, he acting as pillow to a sleeping boy, with children in between us. We cherished the reminders of God’s faithfulness to us and to so many others, as He carries the crosses we bear.
Then we attended the reception, where Jon dealt with voracious and relatively mannerless children at the buffet while I recovered from our four-year-old’s missed aim in the bathroom and discovering he was wearing no underwear (there was no good explanation for this). 2004 Us would have huffed and puffed and resented the kids for cutting in on the party. 2019 Us laughed and knew that all of it, the poignant and the petty, the beauty and the mess, was the party.
As I sat and waited for Jon to return to the table, I admired my wedding ring. Such a small, really valueless token, in the whole scheme of things. But the fidelity and blessing it symbolizes is precious beyond price. With Christ’s guidance, the newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson, will learn how impossible their union is without their Savior and how glorious it is with Him. We’re still students at these marriage lessons, too. But after 5,482 days together, Jon and I are getting there. And God willing, we will share many, many more awkward, flourishing, and meaningful days, and years, together.
Tomorrow, my vocation of mother will include a task that no loving mother ever wants to complete.
Tomorrow, we will bury Christian. Our son. My son.
I know our children are not ours in the sense of proprietary ownership. We are merely temporary guardians of these precious souls whom God has created for His good purposes. But we never expect to see them die before us. We expect that they will bury us, not that we will bury them.
Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery, Jon and I, and our six living children; my parents; two dear pastors and their wives. We will commend our son’s body to Christ, confessing that on the last day, Christian will rise again, he and all the dead. And we will see him, and them, again, and live forever together with Christ in heaven.
I don’t want to do this. But I know this is what God has given us to do. As long as he lived, Jon and I strove to feed and nourish Christian; to take him to church so he could hear the Word and receive Christ; to care for him by acknowledging that God made him a unique individual placed in our family for a short time. We did this imperfectly, of course. Yet God gave us these tasks to love and serve our little Christian.
I got to hold Christian late Monday night, after he was born. He was so small, and his body was swollen from all the fluid that had been growing in him. But he was beautiful. Every cell on his head was intricate and flawlessly connected. The fine cuticles and nails on his tiny fingers were so detailed and immaculate. His wide-topped head was like his five-year-old brother’s. His deep brows were like his Dad’s, his long fingers like his mine. His button nose was just like his biggest sister’s.
I don’t know how God could have ever chosen us over His Son. When Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden, asking for His Father to take His cup away from Him; when He staggered up Golgatha, beaten beyond belief; when He hung gasping on the cross–I cannot fathom the love of God who would see and know His Son’s excruciating suffering and allow Him to die because He loved and loves the world so much. As a mother, if I had to choose between saving my son Christian and saving the rest of the world, God help me, I would choose Christian.
And God knows that, and He has given us this glimpse into His unfathomable love in this: that when we lay Christian’s body down to sleep in the earth tomorrow, when my hopes and dreams as a mother to love and to see my son grow up and thrive in this world are buried, I will still yet have hope. I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I will have this: Christ has made all things new. He choose us. He will raise our son from the dead, and He will raise us if He does not come again to the earth first. And we will hug our Christian, and bow before the pierced hands of Christ, and He will embrace us all forever.
Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home, That I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace, Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend, And I will praise Thee without end.
~”Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” Lutheran Service Book #708, vs. 3.
How should Christians struggle with the invisible cross of infertility?
This is not a question any of us want to address. Infertility can be an incredibly difficult cross to bear, for us personally and for those we love.
What is infertility? The general definition refers to the inability of child-bearing age couples to conceive or carry a child after twelve months of regular, non-contraceptive sex. Unfortunately, many people, including our brothers and sisters in Christ, bear this pain. According to the CDC, around 18% of child-bearing age women struggle with infertility, and men struggle with infertility, too. The most telling symptom of infertility is in absence: no pregnancy or no child.
This week–April 21-27–is National Infertility Awareness Week, one of the countless remembrance weeks marked on our stuffed secular calendars. While there’s plenty of commentary on infertility for the non-religious, Christians should approach this particular cross with care and caution.
I’ve written here before about our experiences with infertility, from our miscarriage and years of infertility, as well as our more recent molar pregnancy. We obviously share some experiences with those who currently suffer from infertility. After long thinking, I’ve come up with five ways Christians can rightly struggle with the cross of infertility.
Unfortunately, many Christians who suffer from infertility, and Christians who love the infertile, have also fallen into this kind of thinking. Teen moms bear children out of wedlock, a live-in couple “accidentally” gets pregnant, celebrities undergo IVF and pay surrogate mothers to carry their babies, and Christian couples pray fervently for children that God does not give them. As soon as we encounter such situations, our sinful minds automatically play a comparison game, deeming some cases “fair” and others “unfair,” even grossly so. Too often, such comparison thinking transforms the cross of infertility into a trial. If we just plan more, eat better, pay extra, undergo more procedures, and strain mightily in a thousand different ways, then we’ll rid ourselves and loved ones of the unwanted burden of infertility and gain the blessing of children. This is a lie.
Because the desire for children is good, Christians have mistakenly deemed any methods to conceive or bear children as good, too. But this is making a good into a god, a cross into a trial.
“You shall have no other gods before Me,” God told Moses and His people in the wilderness (Exodus 20:3). He didn’t just mean pagan statues of gold or other images. He meant any material or emotional possession that commanded our hearts and our time, energy, and affection. The desire for children can, and does, become an idol, and infertility can become a trial. This can lead us away from God.
A theologian of glory calls barrenness a trial to be overcome, a burden which can be revoked by some great act of faith on our part, a curse that can be lifted by true love’s kiss. (Works Cited: My Own Wishes and Desires: A Treatise, The Complete Works of Joel Osteen, and The Wisdom of the Disney Princesses).
A theologian of the cross calls barrenness a terrible brokenness of the flesh which results from Sin in the world, a cross to be endured joyfully in light of Christ’s promise to make all things new on The Last Day, a suffering given to us by God who loves us and molds us and disciplines us and shapes us and points us straight to Christ’s own suffering on the cross for our own salvation and comfort. (Works Cited: God’s Word as revealed in The Book of Romans).
God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The truth is that none of us deserve anything good, but God gives us all kinds of goods anyway. He gave us life when we did nothing to merit it. He sustains us in countless ways, even while all of us sin (Romans 3:23). We deserve only death, but Christ has given Himself to us to take even that away. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Christ is our free gift. He gives us all we need, and while we live and wait for our resurrection in Him, we will suffer. Crosses are not just about pain and grief, though; they point us to the Cross-Bearer, Christ Himself. We might not understand why He gives us particular crosses, but we know with certainty that absolutely nothing, including infertility, can separate us from Christ’s love. He knows exactly what we bear because He bore it Himself–all the grief, all the loneliness, all the hurt and pain. And He loves us with an everlasting love.
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Embracing infertility as a cross doesn’t mean we or our loved ones have to hide our grief or pretend to be happy. But we can, and should, take comfort in our cross, that Christ knew emptiness and loneliness on Calvary, and He keeps and sustains us throughout our struggles.
Third, the cross of infertility can prompt a variety of feelings, and that’s okay.
The most vocal sufferers of infertility tend to be those who desire and pursue parenthood passionately and often vociferously, as noted above. But many people who suffer from infertility experience ambivalence about their infertility, and others who are infertile live out their particular condition quietly, sometimes pursuing medical help, but sometimes not. Sometimes they cry openly and tearfully about not being parents. Often, they don’t. Usually, they live day to day as most of us do who have unfulfilled good desires: pushing through, both impatiently and patiently, with changing feelings and attitudes toward those desires. One book, He Remembers the Barren (affiliated link) and He Remembers the Barren: God Remembers You in Jesus, the blog for the book that covers many topics related to infertility and Christianity, particularly Lutheranism. Three other Lutheran women who have experienced infertility contribute to the blog, too. I highly recommend both the book and the blog to any Christian.
Katie and Scott Sanders, at Beautiful Pieces of Us: Support for Parents with Leftover Frozen Embryos, share their story of embracing life through their experience with IVF and giving their unborn, frozen children a chance at life. Their blog is one of the few places I have found that addresses the heart-wrenching quandary of Christians who have undergone IVF and now struggle to live out their responsibilities to both their born and unborn children.
All of these writers point to Christ, and they can help us understand and articulate the difficult cross that is infertility and the hope we and loved ones can find in Him.
Fifth, we should pray.
All Christians should pray for the infertile in our pews. We should pray for peace for them, for Christ to continually remind them that He will never leave them. We should pray that infertile couples carefully consider their choices, learning about the huge financial market that is the infertility industry, weighing what their most ethical, God-pleasing options are and if and when to decide to pursue medical treatment. We should pray that we might help share their grief and struggle, that they bear with fortitude and patience the cross that they bear. We should pray that the cross of infertility, while a marker of time on this sinful earth, and the internal and external scars it leaves of our wandering in this wilderness, can be understood as signs pointing us to Christ. Infertility does not last forever, but Christ does.
Christians do well to remember that God does not give the same gifts to everyone, even good gifts like marriage and children. That knowledge can temper the pressure on all of us, infertile and fertile alike, to see all those suffering from infertility as losers or as desperate, no-holds-barred seekers. God loves all people, not because we loved Him, or because we are parents or not, but because He gave us Christ, His Son, to bear our sins (1 John 4:10). We should pray that all of us remember that blessed truth.
How can you say there are too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.
Spring has sprung, and with it will soon come flowers. And flowers make me think of children–mainly, the children God has given to Jon and I.
Next week our baby turns two. We’re shocked about this the way most parents are, that time has turned our helpless, fragile newborn into a thriving, talking, moving toddler. We love her so much. And I find myself wondering a little, too. A few months ago, we expected to soon hold another sweet baby. But another child was not in God’s divine plan for us in 2019. So this is the first time one of our children will turn two and we do not have another baby in utero or a newborn in arms.
That fact all by itself usually provokes a shocked response from people: “Wow.” And it is truly amazing. How blessed I have been by God to have the privilege of bearing, birthing, breastfeeding, and bundling up six babies, and all of them in less than ten years. It’s been a blur at times, that’s absolutely certain–there are periods in there that I don’t quite remember. But these years have also been overwhelmingly good. Jon and I are so grateful for what we have. Our family garden, so to speak, has abundantly multiplied and grown, and like good farmers, we thank the only One who has the ability to create and sustain life. We are merely receivers of His great generosity.
With our larger-than-normal family, we get questions sometimes. “Did you always want a big family?” “How do you do it?” and the niggling one that most people wonder: “Are you open to more children?” At least, that’s the tactful way questioners put it. Others phrase it as our cultural is wont to, in terms of choices and personal desires: “Do you want any more children?”
We can answer this with a short response, and we usually do. We say something like, “We’re open to as many as God wants to give us.” Another version we’ve shared is “We’ve left that in God’s hands.” Both of these answers imply our heartfelt feelings, hopefully, that we do, in fact, love children, both our own and the idea of more.
Our answer, and our life, is weird to most people. That’s why we get questions to begin with. Our culture doesn’t understand our family or our perspective on children, because our culture idolizes control and autonomy and definitely–definitely–human ways to avoid children at almost any cost.
Because of this, our short answer isn’t really enough to explain to people where we’re coming from in terms of children. If we had time, we’d sit down and chat for a few hours about God’s gift of fertility. That’s not possible in a grocery store checkout line, but it is possible on a blog! So if you’re curious and want to know the extended version of why we’ve welcomed children so readily into our family, read ahead.
The Typical Marriage Start
Jon and I have been blessed with nearly fifteen years of marriage. In the last ten, we have become one of “those” families—one that people smile at in parks, gawk at in stores, and probably run away from in airports and other confined spaces.
But in the first few years, we looked like many young married Americans. We didn’t have kids.
This wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned growing up. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted a big family. The play “Cheaper By the Dozen” and a number of books influenced my thinking, as did my loving, supportive parents who cared for me and my two siblings and made a wonderful home for us. I am also sure that God gave me a natural and good desire for a Godly husband and children during numerous babysitting jobs and summer camp counseling. Before Jon and I met, he, too, hoped God would give him a Godly wife and children—though he didn’t quite visualize a half-dozen children in his future. But on one of our first dates, when I mentioned I’d like six sons, he said, “That’s enough for a basketball team and a sixth man.” And he meant that in a good way! Suffice it to say that I was relieved that I hadn’t scared him off.
But in 2004, Jon and I were influenced by cultural norms, even among many Christians, regarding birth control. In particular, I was pretty sure we weren’t “ready” right away for children. I thought that we needed time to “get used to one another.” I was sure I needed to work at least a little bit to use my expensive undergraduate education and help out with the bills. I was confident of any number of popular ideas about early marriage that circulate, most of which involve materialistic acquisition and experiences, like saving up for a house and all the trappings and traveling. Mostly, I was sure that I should use birth control at least in the beginning of our marriage. I didn’t feel extremely dogmatic about it, but I definitely felt like it was something we should do–because that’s just what people did. And it just made so much sense, given all of my preconceptions going into marriage. Jon agreed with me in this. My gynecologist encouraged me, of course, and the example of countless friends and relatives silently supported it.
So just before we got married, I got a prescription for a birth control patch that I would stick on my skin and change once a month (I never remembered to take vitamins every day, so I figured the patch was my best bet). I immediately started using it.
In those first few months after our wedding, Jon and I didn’t really think much at all about God when it came to preventing conception. Despite both of us being raised in Lutheran churches our entire lives, we had no clear understanding of how God intended marriage, including our marriage, to be blessed by children. We had swallowed the cultural norm, hook, line, and sinker, that while children are great, responsible, educated, married people always plan for them, and they usually don’t have more than two or three, maybe four at the maximum. Those days of thinking of a basketball team and a spare seemed naive and heedless.
But after about six months, I was ready to stop using contraception, and Jon was supportive. I didn’t like the mood swings or the feelings I had when I used it. I didn’t like the discoloration on my skin and the tight stick of the patch. I also think both of us had pricked consciences. We felt like something was missing from our marriage, and I think we’d realized that most of our rationale involving contraception revolved around fear rather than trust—hardly the way to build a Godly marriage. I wish we’d had a thorough theological conversation about it, but we didn’t–not until later. Instead, we simply realized that we wanted to be open to children instead of trying to prevent them. So I stopped using contraception. And a month or so later, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive.
A Brief Life
Those of you who are parents can understand the joy we felt at learning that new life was growing inside of me. We were thrilled. We were also kind of terrified. I began to feel exhausted and nauseated right away, and while questions about our ability to parent and provide for our child began cropping up in our minds, we were extremely thankful for our child. We told our parents and some close friends, and I bought a little book with flowers on it to record questions I had for my first prenatal appointment.
Just a few weeks later, we got a chance to really consider how precious God’s gifts are. I began bleeding, and after several doctor visits, ultrasounds, and a hospital run, we were told a blood clot was pressuring our baby’s placenta. Shortly after that, I began cramping intensely, and we knew. On April 26, 2005, our daughter died.
What could we do? Nothing. We could do nothing. Jon felt helpless. I felt like a murderer. Doctors told me that sometimes the mother’s body attacks an inutero child as something foreign. That was bad enough to hear, but some of what I learned also pointed to my recent use of the patch as a likely reason why the blood clot appeared. But regardless of the “why,” we were both overwhelmed with grief, loss, and guilt. We had been so glib, assuming we were in charge and taking life for granted. Both Jon and I, like Peter, could only plead, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
God in Christ gave us comfort during that time. When I was miscarrying in the emergency room, a gentle nurse leaned over me to check my heart rate. A gold necklace around her neck slipped from beneath her uniform and swung just before my face. On it was a crucifix. Seeing that was a lifeline for me. I knew God was with me, despite my pain and anguish, and that He fully understood physical suffering and loss.
Our wonderful pastor arrived soon after that and prayed with us. A few days later, he held a private memorial service for us at church for our child and read Martin Luther’s “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage.” Both Jon and I were deeply gratified to be reminded that our child had received Christ through me when I had received His body and blood in the Sacrament. God had formed our child, and He had taken care of her. Someday, we will see her again.
The Waiting and Hoping
Months passed. We learned to grieve alone and grieve together. Jon’s seminary studies caused us to move several times, and we prayerfully weighed big decisions involving schooling and housing. And we waited. Several years went by. We no longer used birth control, but God chose to close my womb. I didn’t recognize it at the time, probably willfully, but we were experiencing infertility. Thankfully, our desire for children gave us opportunities to learn.
Those years of wondering and waiting, praying for children, taught us many things about God and His goodness. They were hard. Doctors told us everything was normal, and so we did not pursue any special medical treatment. Every month I wondered if this month, we would be pregnant again. And every month that we weren’t, God will still reassure us of His eternal love and mercy. “Be content with what you have,” His Word reminded us. “I will never leave you nor forsake you… Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” No matter what happened, we knew this was the Truth that would sustain us.
God blessed me with greater insight during that time. I learned not to judge so quickly when I saw married women without children. I learned to be more patient and trusting of God’s will for me, for my husband, and for our marriage. I especially learned that my worth is not bound to my ability to conceive or bear children. My worth is bound in the blood of Christ, who died for all of my sins. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16).
Answering the Question–and Trusting in God’s Provision
exactly did our views on family change?
By the time our oldest son arrived in 2008, both Jon and I were so thankful to more deeply understand that he, and every child, is a gift. As the years passed, and God added to our family, we learned through long nights and busy days that He knew exactly what He was doing, even when we didn’t–and we usually didn’t, and we still don’t. By now, we have learned countless more lessons in understanding and receiving children as a gift. God knew, in our case, that we needed to suffer before we began to grasp how precious life really is. We’d heard this countless times in pro-life circles, at church, and in the Bible, but we’d been influenced by our culture into thinking about children as acquisitions, as planned, as ultimately items and objects that we could, and even should, control.
In these full days, when I’m often frazzled, the thought of more children makes me pause. I know I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy right now, and for years. I know what pregnancy is like, and all the risks and dangers involved, especially as I get older. I also know in my marrow that regardless of how exhausted or overwhelmed or frustrated we might get with our brood, we are neither in control of creating life, nor do we want to be. We’ve sailed that ship, and we have no desire to do so again. And I am so reassured to know that my subjective feelings on the subject are moot, because God knows what is best.
So when people ask, “Do you want more kids?” my immediate, heartfelt thought is “Yes, but my wants don’t matter. Only God can give life.”
We also know that what people are really asking is “Will you do anything to prevent the conception of more of your children?” And our answer is an unequivocal “No.” In fact, when people ask us, testing our clairvoyance, “Will you have any more children?” We can say with frank and candid honesty, “We don’t know.” God might bless us with more children. He also might not. Either way, we trust His provision for us, both if He opens His hand to grant new life and how He will provide for that life. He’s got us either way. We are not God, and we do not know the future. But He does, and He knows what is good for us.
(And I’ll be honest: Jon is much more willing and adept at turning the tables on curious questioners. Once or twice, he’s said, straight-faced, “We really like sex, and that’s not ending any time soon.” So be careful what you ask! :))
What Our Children Learn
Awhile back, Jon and I played the board game of Life with our older sons. On their own, the boys both chose to follow the route labeled “Family” rather the route labeled “Life.” And both were extremely excited when they “won” a son or daughter, little blue and pink pegs. “Mom!” our oldest yelled. “I had so many kids, I had to get another car!” He was thrilled at the abundance he’d been given.
The boys’ excitement and genuine joy at having a family, even in a game, was so gratifying to us. Our children are young, and they have so much to learn in terms of the great responsibility God gives to fathers and mothers. But we are so thankful that they are already learning to view children as a priceless gift.
Do I know what God has in store for us regarding family size? No. I also do not know what God has in store for us regarding earthly wealth, health, opportunities–you name it. Not surprisingly, I don’t know exactly what God has in store for us tomorrow. I can guess, but I don’t know. All I know is that He promises to provide for us and care for us, and He is faithful even unto death. I know he will open His hand as He sees fit, and we will receive what He gives.
And this is our hope as individuals, as parents, as a family, and as pro-life, proliferating people: that our children will live out the thankfulness of God’s gracious, giving hand in regards to family, freedom, and faith. We hope that they will be brave enough to live the lives before them, making choices to serve their neighbors near and far, not in the hope that their choices will save them or anyone else, but trusting in Christ, who has promised to hold each of them in His hand–guiding them, blessing them, and taking care of them.
An excellent resource for questions about Lutheranism, problems with contraception, and the blessings of procreation can be found at Lutherans and Procreation.
All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.
“O Lord, We Praise Thee” vs. 2
To say that the student debt crisis in America in 2019 is bad is a gross understatement. The numbers themselves are staggering. Over forty-four million borrowers. Over five million of that group in default (no payments in over a year). Over $28,000 owed on average from 2017 graduates. Over $1.5 trillion–that’s with a “t”–owed cumulatively. That’s mind-boggling debt.
As an older millenial, I recognize many of the depressing and destabilizing realities faced by borrowers with seemingly insurmountable debt. The ironic shame of being an educated adult with such a terrible financial burden. The guilt of choices past, even long past. The queasy feeling just thinking about the four-, five-, or even six-digit financial hole. The not-wanting-to-think-about-it thinking about it that happens practically every day, if not every hour.
Much of the recent press about student debt has addressed the convoluted problems of the public forgiveness program or the limited life choices that borrowers face. But there are other stories out there, stories that borrowers and society alike need to hear. While appeals for debt forgiveness or funeral orations for unfulfilled, seemingly impossible dreams are important, they do not comprise the entirety of those of us trudging along with student debt. Like most burdens, student debt impresses its bearers with weight–but that weight can be borne and felt in entirely different ways.
A Debt Snapshot
Jon and I have carried substantial student debt for all of our married life. While his undergraduate education was mostly paid for, his seminary education for his Master’s of Divinity degree was not cheap. I graduated with my B.A. from a private university, and though I had substantial scholarships, I still finished school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I then earned my master’s degree in English from a public university where I taught undergraduate courses for a stipend. So that degree was cheaper than it otherwise would have been, but tuition still added up. In all, by the time I graduated with my M.A. in 2009, the last degree between us that we have earned, our student debt cumulatively stood in the low six figures. It was a horrific amount to fathom, especially for a young couple heading into non-profit ministry and teaching (and eventually full-time homemaking when the kids arrived). So basically due to sheer terror and the nausea the debt triggered, we tried not to think about it much. The total was too big and overwhelming to contemplate.
Then we were given The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. It shocked us like ice water dumped over an unsuspecting coach. Basically, the book’s messages forced us to actually look at our debt and our choices, and what we saw wasn’t pretty. That was a hard but necessary wake-up call for us, that we couldn’t just pretend our suffocating debt away. A year or so later, we attended Financial Peace University, the financial equivalent of a health and diet program. FPU taught us through deliberate, incremental steps how to eventually and actually reach our best financial state: debt-free with solid savings, a funded retirement and education savings for our children, a paid-off mortgage, and the ability to give to great causes we support. It was more financial planning encouragement, like the Makeover, but with more thorough and meticulous practical helps for us.
In all of Dave’s exhortations about getting out of debt, he reiterates something he calls gazelle intensity as a necessary ingredient to success. Basically, it’s a no-holds-barred, work-like-crazy, eat-rice-and-beans life until the debt is gone. I think he’s right that that’s the absolute best way to go. Maybe I’m excusing us, and he’d probably say that I am, but we were not gazelle intense. Let me clarify: at first we were, getting out of the credit card debt fairly quickly and getting down to the student debt in less than a year, but the student debt mountain really daunted us. We fell into the “it will take you five or six years of crazy living on nothing to get out of debt” category, and frankly, we weren’t willing to eat rice and beans for that long or give up visiting family far away–the only vacations we took. I remember thinking how awful the next ten years could be, counting pennies constantly, but I also knew that once the debt was gone, we would have so much more financial stability and flexibility. So it was frustrating for us, especially me, when we got a few months into the process because Jon’s income just wasn’t a lot, and I couldn’t make much in part-time work from home while taking care of our children. And that’s part of our journey, too.
Besides regular tithing, another one of our nonnegotiables as we got out of debt was that Jon and I weren’t willing to wait or plan our children around our financial goals. We miscarried not even a year into our marriage, and I hadn’t gotten pregnant again for over two years after that. That time was hard, but it taught us that only God gives life. We would not ever say no to children, no matter how inconvenient (re: expensive) their care and needs might be or how prenatal and postnatal expenses might slow down our debt snowball.
We read the Makeover when our oldest was a few months old, and we owned an older, cheap home, so our life already held some extra hurdles that, say, a single 20-something living at home working her first job didn’t have. So we took more of a turtle approach–the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind. We paid off some credit debt and stopped using the cards for things that we could budget for. We were blessed to be on an income-adjusted repayment schedule for our student loans from the beginning, so we made small, if manageable headway. So we plugged away, years ticking by. And the debt was still so big.
Almost three years ago, we sold our house. It had been on the market for over a year, but we knew if we could sell it, the equity could pay off a huge chunk of the debt. And it did. That was an enormous blessing.
After a few moves to rental houses, we now own a lovely home. Our vehicles are almost paid for (a topic for another post; suffice it to say I was not happy last year when our two teenage vehicles both lost their transmissions in a two week period). We have zero credit card debt. And our student debt is in the four digits. It will be gone in a few months. We can truly see the light at the end of the tunnel after all these years.
How to Avoid Debt Discouragement
I wish I could say that, in the last ten years, Jon and I have always presented a united front when it came to our debt. I wish I could say we cheerfully kept stiff upper lips, and unshakable devotion to our financial plan, in the face of more-month-than-money odds. I wish I could say we always knew we’d be in the position we are now. I wish I could say our faces and hearts constantly testified to the hope that is in us, despite our worldly financial circumstances.
But I would be lying, and you probably already knew that.
Like I mentioned before, though, there’s a need for stories other than laments about debt. I don’t want to downplay the hardship of it. It has affected our lives in ways I don’t think even we can fully appreciate, as John Thornton wrote in “A Debt to Education” in Plough.
Debt forms us just as radically as a university curriculum does. As bills mount, debt becomes a guiding force in our lives, directing our decisions about where to live, where to work, how to save and spend, and what we imagine possible. The anxiety, regret, and shame over one’s inability to determine one’s own life shapes our souls as well. In a deeply moving essay in The Baffler, M. H. Miller describes his working-class family’s struggles with the $120,000 in debt they assumed to enable him to attend New York University: “The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives.” If student debt forms us in this way, we’d do well to ask what kind of formation it is.
Undoubtedly, we hope and pray our children will not have to live with the kind of debt burden we have. We are teaching them about saving, about how they can earn their continuing educations, and about how debilitating and terrible debt is. Their formation will be different than ours. But even beyond the educational takeaways debt has given us–the silver linings of hard lessons learned–we have had another kind of formation during these years.
We have learned about the healing quality of gratitude.
Many times, we have lamented our inability to buy certain things or to travel due to our student debt. But mostly we have been overwhelmed by how gracious God has been to us in the last ten years. Rather than get stuck on what we don’t have, we have learned to focus on what we do have. We do possess degrees. We have owned two houses. We have owned multiple cars. Our home is stuffed with seemingly countless items, many of them not related to clothing, eating, or drinking (like books). But far beyond any material measure of blessings, we have been blessed with life. Our marriage is a wonderful gift. We have been given six beautiful, healthy, lively children. Our friends and family are supportive, generous, and loving presences in our lives. Our church family is unbelievably greathearted with their time and help and bounty. If we tried to count every good gift in our lives, we wouldn’t be able to number them. Christ truly has made our cup runneth over.
And the realization of the constant largess, the showers of items and food and time and affection and all the good people and things in our lives, has overpowered the debt discouragement that could have otherwise dominated our lives. Looking at our debt by itself was intimidating. Looking at it next to all the blessings we have is like looking at an anthill next to Everest. There’s no comparison. And the not-so-secret secret is that our blessings have always outnumbered our burdens, even when we couldn’t see or appreciate them.
Don’t be confused. This isn’t a backwards argument for student debt. Someone out there might be thinking, “See? Since your debt made you grateful, then the debt is good.” That’s bad logic. Gratitude is good. Debt is bad. The latter doesn’t cause the former. They exist separately. But yes, in a roundabout way, the sheer magnitude of our student debt made us humble and realize that we have far more than we ever need. We also definitely don’t deserve all the blessings we have. So we are grateful, knowing we do not deserve anything good, and we are made joyful by the riches we do have. I can say with full sincerity that both of us are awed by how good we have it.
One of my favorite hymns is “O Lord, We Praise Thee.” The second verse always reminds me of God’s great and abundant outpouring of good upon us.
Thy holy body into death was given,
Life to win for us in heaven.
No greater love than this to Thee could bind us;
May this feast thereof remind us!
O Lord, have mercy!
Lord, Thy kindness did so constrain Thee
That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.
All our debt Thou has paid;
Peace with God once more is made:
O Lord, have mercy!
Lutheran Service Book, #617 v.2
“All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.” I do struggle sometimes with this line. After all, we’re still paying down our student debt. But if we died tomorrow, God would take care of it. In fact, He has already taken care of the biggest debts we ever had–the sin-full debts, the ones we could never, ever repay, not in ten lifetimes of toil. What greater gift do we have than this? Our worldly circumstances weigh us down, leaving us with insurmountable struggles and strife. But Christ has overcome it all–from student debt to sins. We are at peace with Him. This is our everlasting comfort.
Hannah’s Story of Gratitude
I have only met Hannah once, and then briefly. But her comment on Facebook in light of both her and her husband’s student debt as they raise their daughter is priceless. I reprint it here with her permission.
I had one of those “profound moments” while sitting in Chipotle yesterday with my daughter.
She was snuggled up next to me on our bench (she likes to sit next to me at restaurants, not across the table), and we were sharing a burrito bowl.
I was thinking about how grateful I was to have a Chipotle gift card because I got rid of our budget for EVER eating out in 2019. I’ve always been frugal, but Luke and I have been working our butts off trying to get rid of student loans (graduate school). We’ve also been working on being generous and giving what we can to people who need it even in the midst of paying off debt.
And then it dawned on me that I have never bought my daughter a toy.
At first, I thought that I must be forgetting something. “Surely you have bought your daughter SOMETHING to play with.”
I ran through all of her toys in my head. She has a lot. Her xylophone, her toy violin, her Fischer Price house and people, her Rose Petal cottage, her baby, her blocks, her puzzles, her tunnel…
“Ha! Her tunnel! I bought her that tunnel — no, wait. We bought that with a Walmart gift card from our landlords.”
Still not convinced, I resolved to go through Miri’s toys when we got home. Miri munched away happily on her chips. I made a mental note to feed my child vegetables at some point in the future.
I looked at my boots. A Christmas present from my parents. What else was I wearing that was a gift? My socks…present from a student. My sweater. My coat. My scarf. Holy cow.
It didn’t stop there, though. When I got home, I began looking at my furniture. Couches – gift. Lamps – gift. Bed – gift. Car – gift! The list could go on and on. I couldn’t find a single toy that I had bought for Miri.
God’s provision (above and beyond what we actually need) through the people He places in our lives is truly incredible, and I’m glad I got a chance to remember that yesterday.
Amen, Hannah. May we also continue to remember His good gifts–and give thanks for them–always.
Last night at supper I told our children, “Well, fourteen years ago tonight, your father and I were eating lasagna together.”
“And cheesecake,” he added.
“Why?” asked one of the boys.
“It was our rehearsal dinner,” he said. Just this past weekend, we all attended a rehearsal dinner and then a wedding, so the connection was bright and immediate. “Oooo!” They crowed, no doubt thinking of parties and chocolate treats, and little of the import of such surface adornments.
After fourteen years, I feel the most insight into marriage we might offer the world is what we bring to it. Words of advice come to mind, but most or all of it is known to you all. Show affection. Repent and forgive each other. Stay married.
Instead, we offer you this. A child staggering out of the bathroom with no pants, yelling, “I need some help!” Another handing over a chewed-over roasted chicken leg: “Here, Mommy.” Raucous laughter. Exuberant and passionate telling and yelling. Puddles of spilled milk. Baby grins. We make eye contact over the messy table, my husband and I, and we smile. We are exhausted and yet not used up. We are in life together.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” We read this in Genesis, and Matthew, and Ephesians. The words mean what they say and do what they say. Once bound together, we are bound. We fight our union by fighting each other, by wearying of the toil of our sinful flesh ever warring against the very one our soul has loved. And yet God gives to us Himself, over and over again, and rebinds us up. We are grateful, and we appreciate all He has given us, much of which we do not even recognize. Marriage is an unending struggle, and an infinite joy, and a deep mystery. It is a breaking and a healing, over and over and over again.