“Well… okay, so I guess that’s it then. We’re not dating anymore.”
The words felt heavy as I voiced the mutual decision. I fiddled with the string of my teabag, folding and unfolding the piece of paper on the end. My dining hall mug had been far too small and the tea was long gone.
He apologized, I mumbled something incoherent about grace. The crease in my tea bag label began to rip. God, I’m really trying to trust that you’ll be sovereign in this, I thought as I left the dining hall in a daze.
And He was.
For the entire semester, I struggled to understand exactly why we broke up because we didn’t have a super concrete reason besides feeling and thinking that it was the right thing to do. It was a decision that made little sense for a relationship that seemed to make so much sense. Both of us were actively seeking the Lord. Both of us were on leadership in our Christian fellowship. Both of us wanted to go into missions. It all seemed to add up.
But what I’ve learned is that God’s ways rarely make sense at the time. I wrestled with the breakup for the rest of the semester– even as my heart healed, as life moved on, as we gradually transitioned into being friends. I eventually just accepted that I’d have to trust God when nothing made sense. And truly, none of it made sense until months later when I went through training at the best missions agency and arrived in Ethiopia for the most intensely wonderful, earth-shattering summer. It’s hard to explain how everything rolled out, but Ethiopia wouldn’t have been on my radar screen if I hadn’t dated him and heard about his childhood as a missionary kid there. I ended up joining my missions agency because we broke up (long story), and I can’t imagine what being overseas would have been like without the agency’s support.
Five months later, I look back on that night in the dining hall and I’m filled with deep, Holy Spirit joy because I see how God used the worst part of my Spring semester to do incredible things. Only once I entered a summer of unexpected blessing did I see that the break up wasn’t for “no reason.” It was God who had brought us into intersection; it was God who prompted us to step away from dating. All of the painful wrestling was for my good and His glory. Seeing how God used every part of that relationship– including the breakup– to get me to Ethiopia has deepened my faith that He is always sovereign. Even more, I saw how trust grows best when things don’t make sense, because it’s there that His work is most powerfully seen.
As life would have it, most people go through a breakup at one point or another. The fact that they’re common doesn’t seem to make them any easier, though. With all of the wonderful emotions of starting a new relationship comes the weighty pain of unpairing. I think everyone can agree that breakups are hard.
I’m not here to offer superficial platitudes or to say that God will make sense of every heartbreak you experience. But as I look back on my past few months and see how God is so sovereign, here are a few things that I’ve learned and hope are encouraging to you.
God can use a breakup for your sanctification.
Sanctification is the process in which believers grow in faith, maturity, and Christ-likeness. In times when we are hard-pressed, hurt, or disappointed we are in a unique position to grow in dependence on God. In my life, the seasons where I’ve learned the most have often been seasons that were really, really hard; life events like a broken relationship can do so much to grow your faith in God’s sovereignty and goodness. As you see Him redeem your circumstances, work all things for your good, and draw near to Him, your faith will blossom.
Let yourself be sad and give yourself time to heal.
One nuance is that real, deep learning requires that you let yourself pain without searching for deeper meaning. So often, we immediately try to read into hard circumstances and console ourselves with what we think God is trying to teach us. But when we keep ourselves from really feeling the repercussions of a broken relationship, we prevent real growth, because God is able to use our emotions to ingrain truth into our hearts and minds. The joy I feel when I think about how God redeemed my break up is intensified because I remember how hard it felt to wrestle with dashed hopes and to trust him when nothing made sense.
Ultimately, sanctification and growth of faith only happens by the power of the Holy Spirit, who knows your heart better than you know it yourself. 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” Trust that the Holy Spirit will redeem your emotions and teach you in His own timing; allow yourself to be sad, because even sadness can be used towards greater Christlikeness.
As an aside, I believe that giving yourself time also means not jumping into a new relationship too soon after a breakup. This isn’t Biblical wisdom, but it is common sense. Rebounding is often not healthy because it impedes complete healing and growth– much of which come through depending on God alone for satisfaction. Rushing too soon into another relationship can create an emotional reliance on other people for the security that only Jesus can provide. After a breakup, choose to see your new season of singleness as a chance to press into your relationship with the Lord. It doesn’t always feel great, but singleness is a gift from God– an opportunity to give Him and others your undivided attention.
God may or may not reveal why a break up was His best for you, but trust that it is regardless.
Genuine trust involves clinging to His sovereignty, goodness, and promises when things don’t make sense or are unclear. For any broken relationship, God may bring things full circle (like he did for me in Ethiopia), or He may not. We are not promised any understanding of why God does what He does in our lives, but we are promised that He is our good Father. This goodness was demonstrated by the sacrifice of His Son on the cross, given for us.
Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Even if you never understand how God worked good out of your breakup, cling to this promise.
In moments of pain or hurt, draw near to Jesus and he will draw near to you.
Throughout my life, God has spoken to me through His word and through others, but I’ve never heard Him audibly nor seen visions. And yet the one time I clearly felt the presence of Jesus was the night of that breakup. When I lay alone in my dorm and actually allowed myself to feel bad a few hours later, I sensed His nearness in a way that I never had before.
James 4:8a tells us to “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” Remember this in the aftermath of a broken relationship; draw near to the God of all comfort.
If it’s necessary, forgive and be forgiven for any hurt; repent of sin that may have played a role in the breakup.
Breakups are rarely mutual, and in the case where someone gets hurt it is so important that forgiveness occurs. One of the great blessings of human relationships is that the act as mini-models for our relationship with God. Forgiving another for how they’ve hurt you or humbly asking for forgiveness can do a lot to help you understand God’s forgiveness. Colossians 3:23 says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Repentance is the act of turning away from sin and intentionally running toward godliness. Christians have the great joy of facing the ugliness of sin without fear of God’s rejection because His love was already sealed for us on the cross. His affection is a gift that we have despite our undeserving nature. Therefore, when we confess and repent we can do so without fear because God has already seen our sin and has loved us anyways.
Understand that the fabric of that relationship has been fundamentally changed.
One piece of wisdom that my mentor gave me was that dating changes the nature of a relationship, and this change takes time to be undone. It may not be realistic or healthy to be friends with a guy after dating and breaking up; every situation is different.
The guy I broke up with those many months ago is now one of my best friends. We didn’t date for long and had pretty good emotional boundaries when we did, so this made it much easier to relate afterwards. This didn’t happen right away, though; friendship took time and honesty and self-awareness.
Breaking up doesn’t mean the relationship was a failure or a waste of time.
As we’ve mentioned in other Gray Space posts, we’ve written from the idea that dating is a process of evaluation towards marriage. With this understanding, there are two ways a dating relationship can end– with the conclusion that two people are called to marry one another, or with the conclusion that they are not. Our culture tells us that the only successful relationships are the ones that persist. I firmly disagree. To date and break up does not make a relationship a failure, but a success that simply had a different outcome.
As my experiences have shown, no relationship is a waste of time because God can use everything to sanctify. Of course, it can be disappointing to look back at the time, effort, and emotional energy invested in a relationship that ends. But we can be confident that God wastes nothing that happens in our lives, and the Holy Spirit is good to use all kinds of experiences for our good and His glory. (For more on this, see this post)
Every breakup is different, but all are hard in some way or another. Praise God that in hurt, sadness, or loneliness He promises to draw near and be our all-satisfying comfort. He is sovereign, and we can be confident that He uses everything from victories to heartbreaks for our good and His glory