A Beautiful Disaster

Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness

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Interweaving biblical insights and personal narratives, this eloquently written book shows how God often uses suffering and desert experiences to form us into Christ's image. Marlena Graves shares her experiences of growing up poor in a house plagued by mental illness as a means to explore the forces God uses to shape us into beautiful people in the midst of brokenness.

This book offers a window into suffering through the motif of desert spirituality, revealing how God can use our painful experiences to show himself faithful. While no one welcomes suffering, God often uses desert experiences--those we initially despise and wouldn't wish on anyone--to transform us into beautiful souls who better resemble Jesus. Graves shows how God can bring life out of circumstances reeking of death and destruction, whether those circumstances are crises or daily doses of quiet desperation.

Readers who have experienced suffering and question God's purpose for it will benefit from this book, as will counselors, pastors, professors, and mentors. It includes a foreword by John Ortberg and Laura Ortberg Turner.


Part 1: This Wilderness Life
1. The Way of the Desert and Beautiful Souls
2. Who Am I?
3. To Your Cell for Goodness's Sake
4. Loved into Resurrection
5. Testing and Temptation
6. Careless in the Care of God
7. Waiting around for God
8. The Death of a Dream
9. The God Who Sees Me
Part 2: Wilderness Gifts
10. Weak and Wise Athletes of God
11. Trembling in Fear and Adoration
12. Children in the Kingdom of God
13. A Human Being Fully Alive


"A Beautiful Disaster is an extraordinary debut from one of today's most promising new authors. In the tradition of the prophets, Marlena Graves sings a wilderness song, seamlessly connecting her own story to both the biblical narrative and the questions, struggles, and joys of all who travel the wilderness road. With a voice that is gentle and strong, passionate and mature, Graves invites the reader to pay attention, to be still and know God. Let those who have ears, hear."

Rachel Held Evans, author of Faith Unraveled and A Year of Biblical Womanhood

"In A Beautiful Disaster Marlena Graves explores the spiritual wilderness with a host of fellow travelers from biblical persona to the ancient church to present company. She mines their wisdom about getting through life's deserts and eloquently shares lessons she has learned through her own brokenness. There is something here for everyone who has at one time or another wandered in the wilderness and asked 'Why?' or 'How long?'"

Dennis Okholm, professor of theology, Azusa Pacific University; author of Monk Habits for Everyday People and Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins

"To move through brokenness, we need to be both gently reflective and boldly courageous. Marlena Graves combines this unusual blend of necessary pursuits so that we don't simply 'get through it,' but move into a transformed life of flourishing daily in the Kingdom of God."

Jan Johnson, speaker and author of Invitation to the Jesus Life

"Marlena Graves's gentle wisdom, pastoral tenderness, and graceful conviction strengthen my soul. Meditating on Scripture and the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers, she offers a balm to the hurting, and hope that our dry and weary times will, with God's help, bloom into something beautiful."

Rachel Marie Stone, author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food

"A Beautiful Disaster offers up a rich blend of theology, devotional, and memoir--and at times breaks into sheer poetry. Marlena Graves is one of the most gifted thinkers and writers of her generation."

Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More--Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist

"Marlena Graves writes with freshness and a clear, cool sense of authority as she guides us through Christ's wilderness, one metaphor at a time. She speaks as one who knows the consoling, challenging presence of God firsthand. Let her gentle willingness to meet you where you are lead you through dark places until you find comfort in the Jesus who teaches and strengthens us on the way."

Emilie Griffin, author of Wilderness Time and Souls in Full Sail

"Marlena Graves has walked through many wilderness experiences and periods in her life. And in this wonderful book she helps the rest of us understand both the blessings and perils of the spiritual desert. Marlena has experienced God's promise of making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert to comfort and train those he loves. There is hope, help, and encouragement for each of us in these pages."

Joe Moore, national co-director for spiritual formation and prayer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

The Author

  1. Marlena Graves

    Marlena Graves

    Marlena Graves (MDiv, Northeastern Seminary) is an op-ed writer for Christianity Today's popular Her.meneutics blog. She is a member of Ink: A Creative Collective, the Redbud Writers Guild, and the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Institute...

    Continue reading about Marlena Graves


"[Graves's] text exemplifies how God's grace reaches into the hearts of the youngest believers, transforming their thoughts and lives in the same measure as adults. . . . She transparently shares numerous life-altering events that compelled her to seek Jesus more intimately. . . . Graves digs deep into her faith. Readers will value the themes of this wilderness life and wilderness gifts. Both parts of this lovely, thought-provoking book engage readers' emotions as well as their minds. . . . Graves tenderly opens the deepest of her own heart's wounds while demonstrating that God is always present in our pain, always attending to us in our troubles, and always at the ready to provide us the strength and grace to endure."

Von Mitchell,

CBA Retailers + Resources

"What I love about Marlena's book is that it proposes no pat answer to the troubles of life and faith. . . . There is, however, the wisdom of a deeply gracious soul who knows suffering from the inside, and who manages to celebrate the blessings that come through suffering while never suggesting that suffering is in itself a blessing; to find comfort in a God who may allow affliction for a time but who is our constant companion in and through it all."

Rachel Marie Stone,

Finding Faith, Finding Home blog (Religion News Service)

"God has gifted us with Marlena Graves . . . as a sort of literary spiritual director for our souls. Through her debut book, A Beautiful Disaster, she generously shares the rich treasures she has discovered while nomading through the wilderness, or deserts, of her life. . . . As a skillful spiritual guide, Marlena gently, yet firmly, walks us through the ways God brings about beauty through the ashes of our lives. . . . Marlena is a gifted writer and keen observer of the world in which she finds herself. Her poetic words, careful observations, and child-like faith give hope to the wandering reader that life isn't over. God's not done with us yet. . . . Marlena has a depth about her that is only made possible through the streams of living water. As for me, I will keep this book close to my nightstand for those times when I need reminding of the hope that can be found in the wilderness."

Tiffany Malloy,

Englewood Review of Books

"Marlena Graves [is] one of the wisest, gentlest people I know. In her book, A Beautiful Disaster, Marlena reflects on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus amid the beauty, wonder, and tragedy of this God-haunted world."

Haylee Gray Scott,

blog (hgscott.com)

Best Book of Spiritual Formation by a First Time Writer for 2014, Hearts & Minds Books

"I greatly admire this down-to-Earth author who has put herself bravely into this wonderful book, her first. . . . [Graves's] fine way of blending good memoir, fine writing, and good biblical teaching with her own journey learning the classic spiritual disciplines makes this a refreshing, edifying book. . . . Is this a self-help book about enduring hardship? Is it a book about how the Bible can sustain us during dry times? Is it a book about how a young woman grew up amidst rural poverty and racial discrimination? Is it about how spirituality can form us to be people of care and goodness and justice? Yes, yes, yes, and more."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog

"Marlena Graves [is] a deep-souled woman whose wisdom and genuine kindness is a gift to all who know her."

Micah Boyett,

found grace blog

"Graves has written a terribly good book, gentle and prosaic, full of a pastoral nature that often fools you into thinking you have been given something small to work with, but bends and shifts into a great and vast landscape of belief and endurance. A Beautiful Disaster bucks against the traditional narratives of suffering and God's silence. . . . Graves has offered here a happy and theologically astute alternative, in which suffering of every kind is being actively and profoundly redeemed by God for the delight of God's creation, from which God's glory is known. . . . Refreshingly, Graves exercises a deft use of Scripture, connecting passages with insight and wit and personal reflection to render a compelling engagement with the Text and engagement with the reader. At times direct, at times poetic, A Beautiful Disaster surpasses previous efforts that have far too often relied on moral-of-the-story frameworks to deal with the problem of pain. Here, you're invited to sit in the thick of it. You are invited to hope, but you are not shunned for the grief. You are invited to want redemption, but you are not disparaged the outcry. All said, it's one of the best books I've read so far this year and I cannot recommend it to you enough as not only a good read but also a good read to keep on hand."

Preston Yancey,

blog (prestonyancey.com)

"There is a kind of person whose childlikeness belies a deep internal fountain of wisdom; whose easy spirit was forged not in easy times but in valleys of all sorts. Marlena Proper-Graves is that kind of person. . . . [This] is a gorgeous book, full of thoughts about the God of the desert, which is a place we will all find ourselves throughout our lives. Marlena is a good guide, a keen observer, and driven by a deep love of God, God's word, and God's people. I can't recommend this book highly enough."

Laura Turner,

blog (loturner.com)

"One of the first things that struck me about Marlena Graves's writing was how very grounded she was. . . . Hers is a voice worth listening to if you are in search of a writer who is willing to ask hard questions about church and culture from a position of deeply rooted faith and spiritual practice. It is this rock-solid commitment to nurturing spiritual formation in the lives of her readers that led her to write [A Beautiful Disaster]. . . . I commend Marlena's book to you if the 'Five Easy Steps' formulae in which Christian principles for self-improvement have left you impoverished and frustrated. A Beautiful Disaster is about leaving simplistic approaches behind and following Jesus out into the wilderness of the broken parts of your own life and discovering that he has been waiting there for you all along."

Michelle Van Loon,

Pilgrim's Road Trip blog

"Marlena's metaphorical desert wandering provides guidance to those willing listen. . . . Marlena's insight is a deeply biblical perspective proven by the way her prose engages Scripture on every page. . . . This is not a proof text for a Godly perspective on suffering; rather her engagement with scripture has to do more with mimicking scripture--living into the Story of God and allowing it to shape the pattern of her life and her way of being in the world. The book is well-written, filled with anecdotes from her life experiences alongside analogies meant to inspire imagination drawn from observations around her. Marlena's thoughts are shaped by God's story but they are also informed by leading spiritual guides of the past and present."

Joel Willitts,

Euangelion blog

"Pulling from the lives of Biblical figures and monastics and adding to that canon her own painful childhood experiences, Marlena writes hopefully about the loss and suffering of the desert. . . . There is so much profound beauty and wisdom in Marlena's book."

Jen Pollock Michel,

blog (jenpollockmichel.com)

"[This book] is a Christ-centered look at our journeys through the wilderness. I've been reading it as I walk through my own season of wilderness, and it's been a perfect mix of godly comfort and chastening truth. . . . [Marlena's] thoughtful, loving character--as well as the influence Dallas Willard has had on her life--shines through her writing. She is the real deal, folks. . . . For the Christian who earnestly desires to grow in God, who does not want their pain to go in vain, this is the book for you."

Sharon Hodde Miller,

She Worships blog

"Graves didn't have the option of avoiding the desert which turns out to be a blessing for anyone who reads her new book. . . . After much suffering and many rounds in the ring with God, she has emerged as a prophet, sage, and guide for the rest of us. . . . A Beautiful Disaster will become a classic, read for decades. Graves is wise, warm, and oh so generous in sharing what she has learned during her walks down the wilderness roads."

Dorothy Greco,

Words & Images blog

"I am thankful for [Marlena's] words on the way God uses difficult life circumstances for our good and His glory. And Marlena's encouragement to regular solitude, of leaving the crowd and seeking my Lord, is a reminder I need again and again."

Megan Hill,

Sunday Women blog

"A Beautiful Disaster is not the kind of book you can speed through. It's gorgeously written and full of wisdom, and it's meant to be read at the pace of sabbath."

Katherine Willis Pershey,

any day a beautiful change blog

"With great awareness of the trials of life and the challenges through various life stages, author and spiritual director Marlena Graves plumbs the depths of the wisdom in ancient spirituality to shed some light on what it means to bring hope amid brokenness and despair. . . . In spiritual formation, how one begins is critical. Graves does it the best possible way, by asking the one pivotal question: 'Who am I?' It strings together thoughts and memories of whose she was and is, her background, her identity, her flaws, and the constant reminder of the discipline to remember who she is. She shows us ways to answer that question. . . . Graves concludes the book with a refreshed understanding of her identity, encouraging readers that they too can embark upon a journey of spiritual formation."

Conrade Yap,

Panorama of a Book Saint blog