Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Who doesn’t like a happy ending?

Many headline interviews and stories about personal challenges wind up with a happy ending, even if, along the way, they include suspenseful and sad developments.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, does it? We tend to forget that God never promises us happy endings until we get to Heaven, which is really more of a glorious beginning.

Until Heaven, meanwhile, what happens when we don’t get a happy ending to a story in our lives?

Back in August of 2010, here on crosswalk.com, we met patricia, a divorced, childless believer who decided to temporarily “adopt” her niece, Natalie. It appeared to be the start of a gutsy yet God-inspired journey that, despite some grim baggage coming along for the ride, was bursting with opportunity for both of them.

Almost three years later, the two should be preparing for Natalie’s graduation from high school.

But are they?

When she was quite young, Natalie witnessed the unexpected death of her mother, and both she and her widowed father struggled for years with unresolved grief from that trauma. Things weren’t getting any better as Natalie entered adolescence, and her father faced a losing battle with alcoholism. With a comfortable home and lifestyle of her own, Patricia felt the Lord leading her to try and provide some of the maternal support her niece was missing at this critical stage of her development.

Natalie’s father agreed to let his sister keep his daughter with her on school days, while Natalie stayed with him over weekends and holidays. Patricia hoped to introduce Natalie to her church, engage in some no-holes-barred girl talk, and help provide some female discipline as Natalie blossomed into womanhood. It all seemed proactive and beneficial, and God brought together a lot of details to make it happen.

That’s where we left the pair back in 2010, while things were still going well.  

“Sometimes we had great fun,” Patricia reminisced. “I was able to give her a little more in the way of ‘measured spoiling.’ I mean, I certainly didn’t want to ‘spoil her rotten,’ but I knew that her dad hadn’t been able to provide much in the way of girly stuff.”

Natalie saw it as a “big vacation” from her melancholy father and his arbitrary rules, and enjoyed experimenting with makeup and hairstyles with her enthusiastic aunt. Soon, however, she came to bristle against the expectations her aunt held of her.

“As we became more familiar with each other, I think it just became like any normal parent/teen relationship,” explained Patricia. “There’s going to be tension due to expectations on both sides that aren’t getting met. Me, expecting her to do her part as a student; her expecting to get her way most of the time!”

It also became apparent that sending Patricia back to the dysfunctional environment at her father’s home on weekends was counter-productive.

“We had very few weekends together, which I felt was probably part of our problem,” Patricia regrets. “I might make the proverbial three steps forward during the week, but then given the opportunity to go back to the unhealthy environment with her dad and unsavory friends, she tended to retreat at least two steps. Sometimes, four or five! Many Sundays, my stomach would be in knots. I would be waiting for her to return and I would just cry, or have a near panic attack, anticipating ‘who’ was I getting back that evening.”

Patricia’s singleness also posed more of a dilemma than she thought it would.

“Me being a working ‘mom,’ Natalie had to continue in the Latchkey Kid environment she’d grown up with,” Patricia laments, now aware of how much unsupervised time Natalie spent online. “In my naiveté to all she could explore, even with parental controls, this evolved into her ‘hangout spot’ and she started finding other friendships in cyberspace. I’d check in as regularly as I could, continuing the lectures about only talking to people you know in real life.  Alas…”

When she’s not careful, Patricia can sink into self-incriminating retrospectives about how badly she handled some things and how unrealistic her expectations were. One area in which she struggles is wondering whether or not she pushed Natalie too much with church and faith.

“In my overzealous desire for her to know the Lord, I would write encouraging scriptures on her mirror, try to read the Bible with her in the mornings, pray with her at night,” Patricia says, almost regretfully. “That was ok for a little while, but then she started really resenting it and the topic of God became a VERY sore subject. That really broke my heart.”

Evangelism isn’t supposed to be this painful, is it? But in real life, it can be. Yet it was in her despair over her niece’s animosity towards Christ that Patricia eventually learned more about God herself.

“I became very aware of my pressure for Natalie to embrace the Lord the way I know Him. Over the last year and a half since she’s been gone, I’ve done a lot of soul searching. I’ve learned that other people’s faith is not my responsibility and the more I ‘push’ God into conversations where He is not welcome, all I’m accomplishing is putting too much fertilizer on – basically, burning – whatever seeds He’s sown in their soil, when all they need is a refreshing drink of water.”

Okay, so now you know:  the experiment between Patricia and her niece crumbled a while ago, exacerbated by a variety of cultural variables that can undermine even the most conventional of families.

Then suddenly, Patricia’s father, who zealously guarded his privacy, announced he could no longer hide his stage four cancer. Immediately, Patricia and her siblings swung into action, moving frantically to investigate treatment options, and when those failed, comforting him during his rapid decline.  

Meanwhile, this emergency distracted Patricia and her family from Natalie and her own downward spiral. Suffice it to say that when the dust had settled, Natalie had proven that Patricia could no longer trust her in any way. Yet, as Patricia grieved not only the loss of her father, but also the failure of her experiment with Natalie, her niece was welcoming what she assumed was another release from responsibility.

Natalie moved back in with her father – and a young man she’d met someplace – full time.

Today, although Patricia still finds herself working through the aftermath of her experiment with Natalie, her father’s abrupt passing has encouraged her not to dwell too much on failures. Besides, it’s hard to tell who failed whom, especially since Natalie, despite her purported desire for independence, is now pregnant out of wedlock, and still lacking the GED Patricia tried to help her obtain even after she’d left her home.

Ironically, what Natalie pushed so hard against is what has given Patricia new confidence in God’s sovereignty.

“I’ve opened up in my view of people and my responsibility for them and their faith,” she affirms. “I mean, Christ did say that John 6:44' So, that has given me a lot of freedom that I wish I’d embraced when Natalie was with me.”

“I hope that eventually, the Lord will knock on her heart and she’ll see that even though my methods were imperfect, my heart was always for her to know His perfect love.”

From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.

Publication date: April 16, 2013