Opinion | former TCW issue

How 21 Days Changed My Marriage

I was desperate, so I turned to God in total surrender.
How 21 Days Changed My Marriage

My friend Stefany refers to her treadmill as the “dreadmill.” I think that’s the perfect name for it; running endlessly and going nowhere is certainly dreadful.

Several years ago I found myself in a season of life where I was running on a “dreadmill” of my own making. I was scrambling to hold myself together, and instead of pushing pause, I frantically dashed through painful life occurrences.

My inability to step off the machine was an enormous factor in the collapse of my marriage. My husband, Jeff, and I lost our way on the path of marital unity. We married young—the month after my college graduation—and I had a lot of growing up still to do. In this season of stress, I questioned if I was really “in” this marriage. Was there some other life out there that I was supposed to be living?

Complicating all of this was our struggle with infertility. After medical intervention (and the loss of a baby) we eventually welcomed our two beautiful children. Even so, I desperately wanted more and felt that if God were truly good, we would either experience a spontaneous pregnancy or we would adopt. I waited each month for God to do the miraculous while at the same time we became stuck in the quagmire of an adoption process that ended up taking seven years to complete. To top it off, the precious church community that we’d helped form was going through a season of rough transition, and many of the relationships that we held dear were in tatters.

Learning to Surrender

I was a mess. I ranted and spewed toxic nonsense to anyone who would listen. I didn’t own my part in any of the relational tatters, nor did I acknowledge how amazing my husband was to be such a rock and source of stability amid the waves of my volatility.

One day, I reached the end of myself. I saw the dreadmill I was on for what it was: a dead end. If I kept relying on my own strength I wasn’t going to make it.

For many of us, when disaster strikes—self-made or not—our vantage point becomes myopic. Mine certainly was. I was howling at God and the world to fix my life, but I took no responsibility for it. I realized I had to do something radical in order to reorient myself to truth, life, and the reality that I had a loving Father, as well as a loving husband.

When I truly hit bottom, I dialed the Divine and begged, I will do anything!

The response was, Anything? Do you trust me with everything?


Discipline and Practice

Growing up, I was taught to pray and memorize Scripture (for which I’m eternally grateful), but practices like contemplative prayer, solitude and silence,lectio divina, and fasting were neither modeled nor taught.

As an adult, I explored a few of these practices, but I always avoided fasting. I had survived struggles with eating disorders, and I assumed I had a “hall pass” from God on this discipline.

I was wrong.

It became clear that I needed to create space through fasting. I needed to eliminate the crazy voices that surrounded me (my own being the loudest) and dive deep into a way with the Lord that would bring the healing I desperately sought.

Many of us need to do this, but we never seem to have the time. We are spinning and buzzing around with a head full of noise, wondering why we can’t seem to hear a word from the Lord. Stopping and creating space for God to work in us is not convenient. This takes tremendous effort and commitment.

Maybe for you it’s not fasting, but rather a weekend of solitude or incorporating fixed-hour prayer into your practice. Or maybe you need to set down your phone, turn off the TV, and stop checking Facebook.

The journey I embarked on with God opened my heart and brought tremendous healing.

Fasting with John

The Book of John has 21 chapters. I figured that if I fasted for 21 days (no solid food) the Book of John would become my sustenance. I studied one chapter for each day of the fast, and before my feet hit the floor in the morning I would pick a phrase from that chapter to become my mantra for the day. On day one, I encountered “You will see greater things”—a promise I held onto with all my strength (John 1:50, NIV).

On day two I clung to the words of Mary, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5, NIV). I knew I’d been instructed, and the call for me was to simply obey.

By day five, I was struck between the eyes by the question Jesus asked the suffering man by the pool at Bethesda: “‘Do you want to get well?’” (John 5:6, NIV).

Did I truly want to be healed?

For many of us, our dysfunction works. Sometimes it’s the sheer adrenalin or the attention our problems bring us. Other times our pain is simply not great enough to bring us to this place where we want to be well.

In a marriage like mine, where we’d forgotten how to relate to one another, the relationship becomes, somewhat comfortably, about what you don’t have. But I discovered on day five how much I wanted healing.

Taking Marital Baby Steps

One issue that kept surfacing in our marriage was our infertility. I held onto this with deep resentment. Why would God keep this “blessing” from us? Why wasn’t Jeff consumed by the injustice of it?

At the start of my fast my husband and I were virtual strangers. Our anger and frustration created a barrier between us that seemed impossible to scale.

I remember waking up one morning and finding Jeff on the white chair in our living room. We hadn’t spoken for so long that I almost hesitated to approach him. With trembling hands, I sat down by his feet and asked to start over. I told him I was done—not with him—but done living my life without him actively in it. We embraced and, little by little, we learned to be partners again.

Slow But Sure Transformation

As I consumed the Book of John and the words of Jesus through the rest of my fast, unusual things happened:

I spoke less, as if my words and the volume of food I ingested were connected.

I extended grace to others when I normally would have judged them.

I opened up to the perspectives of others. I realized that the church drama may have had nothing to do with me, and that, possibly, there was a much greater story waiting to unfold.

I pried my white-knuckled fingers from the idea of a third baby. I didn’t fully release this dream, but I slowly opened myself up to the idea that God might truly be doing “greater things.”

Phrases like “Love one another” (from day 13) took on new meaning as I regarded Jeff and my church brothers and sisters (John 13:34, NIV).

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” became an inspiration to me as I acknowledged the struggles I was facing (John 16:33, NIV). I’d previously bought into the lie that God was removed and distant—but in truth, he was intimately concerned with my infertility and marriage.

By obeying and trusting, I faced some painful truths about myself. In so doing, God did transforming work.

God's Transforming Power

Those three weeks were a catalyst for change. I faced the areas I needed to surrender to God, and I gained a perspective—not only on the problems I had been wrestling with, but also on how to be in the midst of them. Not only did Jeff and I find our way back to each other, but we also found an incredible therapist to aid us on our path to healing. We also had the joy of experiencing our miracle third baby, welcoming our son, Kagiso, home from South Africa in 2012.

I stay off the dreadmill now, both figuratively and literally. On a crystalline snowy morning as I run by the lake in our town, I am reminded of how God met me in my season of fasting. As I feasted on his Word, I truly experienced his power and transforming glory.

Ruth Bell Olsson is a founding member of Mars Hill Bible Church, a writer, speaker, Bible study leader, wife to Jeff, and a mom to three kids. She has been engaged as a global HIV/AIDS activist for more than a decade and is both a champion for family-based care for orphans and an adoptive mom.

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