You may want to pack a lunch for this one. Just sayin.
July 15, 2009. Noelle and I had just gotten to our seats at the Boulder Dinner Theater to “celebrate” our 9th wedding anniversary, as had been our tradition since moving to Colorado. As with all marriages, we had already faced some difficult years, and as with many marriages, had learned somehow just to get on with life without actually overcoming those difficulties. Looking back, it is pretty astonishing (to us at least) that we had made it to our 9th year. Our ship should have gone down much sooner.
Sitting at our table that night, I was really looking forward some time to renew our focus and commitment to one another. I figured we were pulling in for a quick oil change and maybe a couple of new tires. I was dead wrong.
I don’t remember much about what happened after we sat down at our table. All I remember is that most of the night involved Noelle telling me that she wasn’t sure we were going to make it, and wasn’t sure if she really wanted us to – while I tried to convince her that things really weren’t that bad. Not a good sign. We all know where things went from there.
I am a living illustration that pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Prov 16:180). There is one kind of person that I can find in Scripture who God says He actually opposes. It is the prideful man (Jam 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5; Cf Prov 3:34).
I had known for a long time that God has a way of bringing prideful men down. I just never thought that I was a prideful man. I had long taken pride in the fact that so many people figured me for a humble man. How could so many people possibly be wrong?
So, when I sat across that table at the Boulder Dinner Theater and listened to my wife explain to me in a very settled and strangely content fashion that she was “done” with our marriage; I figured that the problem was her, and that I was merely the victim. Again, not a good sign.
Fast forward a couple of months to the night Noelle shared with me that she had fallen to the sin of adultery, and asked me to “let her go.” You can guess what I figured the problem to be. It was obviously not with me.
Or was it?
Fast forward even further to the home of some good friends, who decided to sacrifice a good portion of a season of their lives to help me and Noelle through the most difficult season of our lives. They had invited me to dinner to talk about things. I figured I was going to get my chance to talk about how to walk honorably as a victim of adultery, gather some sympathy, get a few pats on the back, maybe some prayer, and then go home. Wrong again.
Within minutes, my good friend Ron began asking me what I thought Noelle was looking for, saying things like, “We aren’t going to be able to fix her. Let’s talk about you. How do you need to change? What have you done to make your wife feel unloved? What sins are you guilty of toward her or otherwise?”
I have no recollection of my answers to these questions. I only remember thinking that I thought he was missing the point.
Do I have to say it? Again, not a good sign.
A few years ago, some Christians down in Albany, Georgia decided to put out a movie about a firefighter and his failing marriage, called Fireproof. For a Christian produced movie, it wasn’t bad. I didn’t find it to have the same kind of life-changing and marriage-saving affect as some did, despite its high recommendations, but that’s neither here nor there. I bring up the movie because one of the prevailing messages seemed to be that if a wife commits adultery, it is ultimately her husband’s fault (or vice versa). That’s the case in the movie with Catherine, the firefighter Caleb’s wife, who begins searching out a relationship with a doctor she works with because Caleb is too busy looking at naked women on the computer and is completely insensitive to her life and her “needs.”
Though it certainly paints a fairly believable and realistic picture of what happens in many troubled marriages, I wish that more clarity would have been brought to bear on whether or not her search for a companion outside of her marriage was actually justifiable. I’m sure that Abraham Maslow would have no problem saying that such a thing is justifiable, as would many Christians it seems, but the Bible runs in a different direction. People sin because their own hearts are evil. They do not do evil things to get their needs met. They do evil things because they are rebelling against the reality that God is all they truly need. People do not want what they truly need, and that is their greatest problem. So then, I did not (and do not) buy into the idea that if a person commits adultery, it is because he has not received something he genuinely needed from his spouse.
But this is the focus of a young, immature, and narrow-minded man. Right as these ideas may be, they do not tell the whole story, and they are not ultimately helpful for a prideful man who is tempted to focus exclusively on the sins of his wife, like I was in the Fall of 2009. A man like this needs to feel the weight of his own sins. He needs to see how he has sinned against others. He needs the pain he feels from his lover’s betrayal to push him to explore the pain he has caused her by his own sins. Though her betrayal may not be his fault, this does not mean he has no responsibility in the matter, nor does it mean that he has nothing to do with the ultimate problem(s).
See, whenever a man’s wife (or a woman’s husband) commits adultery, although it may not be that man’s fault; it is completely naïve to assume that the man’s actions have had absolutely no influence on those of his wife. Somewhere in the mix of all the pain caused and experienced by a spouse’s adultery, there is some measure of responsibility on the part of the offended party as well.
Over the past couple of years, several people have asked me what I have learned through all of our recent difficulties – specifically whether I am aware of and repentant of my sins toward Noelle, which contributed to our fallout. Such questions are hard to answer on the spot, because there is so much I could say, so many sins I could point to, and hopefully a growing mound of evidence that I am in fact aware of and repentant of my own sins.
Its questions like these that I wish to answer here.
What’s to come is my attempt to be as honest and as transparent about my role in the downfall of our marriage as possible. The reasons I want to do this are several-fold. First, it is good for me to recount the grace that has been poured into my life and our new marriage. Though there is darkness in our past, the good things God has done in the midst of our difficulties continue to humble me and encourage me deeply. Second, there are many good friends and loved ones in my life who would like to know some of these things but are either afraid to ask, or just aren’t sure it is their place to do so. I’d like to at least try to knock down at least some of the walls that continue to stand in between us. Third, I want my life to be a warning for men who are not loving their wives well, to help them see the damage they are causing to their wives, their marriages, and their homes; all the while encouraging them with the fact that change is truly possible by the grace and power of God. And finally, I want to serve as a visible testimony to the life-transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is simply no other explanation for the restoration of my and Noelle’s personal and married lives.
Here are the questions I am going to try to answer to those ends: First, what sins did I come to see? Second, how did I come to see them? Third, what have I done about them? And fourth, what are some of the most important things I have learned from this battle against my sin? Seems like a logical enough order to me. So, off we go.
What sins did I come to see?
I’m going to stick to sins within our marriage, since expanding it beyond that would require countless volumes of very large books. I’ll spare you at least some of it. Here, are some of the big things I began to see in my life as it related to my role as a husband:
I thought of myself far more highly than I ought to think (i.e. pride).
I strongly desired for people to agree with my high view of myself (i.e. the fear of man).
I regularly demanded that Noelle meet my desires, rather than seeking to meet her desires (i.e. selfishness).
I consistently reacted in anger when Noelle did not stroke my ego (quick-temperedness, anger, more pride).
I did not make her feel secured in my love for her (i.e. self-centeredness).
I did not pay attention to the warning signs of our downfall (laziness, more fear of man, more pride).
I did not seek help until much too late (i.e. ditto).
I pursued personal aspirations over the good of our marriage and family (i.e. selfish ambition, more of the other things).
I led us into serious financial hardship (i.e. same, same, same).
I did not protect her from harmful relationships (i.e. fear, insecurity, self interest).
On top of all of this, my pride had blinded me to much of these things. For the longest time I couldn’t even see this stuff.
No, I was not physically abusive. I didn’t have a girlfriend on the side. I was not (and am not) a porn addict or even a casual porn consumer. I didn’t keep Noelle chained up in a closet in the evenings or restrict her access to our finances. Compared to Homer Simpson, I was a pretty good husband. Compared to God’s standards however, I was a miserable failure for the simple fact that I loved myself more than I loved my wife, and I demonstrated it every single day.
I’ve become far more acquainted with my sin in the last two years than I had the previous twenty-eight, and it has been good for me. Painful at times, but very good. My precious wife was not the only guilty party. I had a very prominent role to play in the breakdown of our marriage, but in some ways I feel I needed to be betrayed just so that I could see it.
How did I come to see these sins?
I came to see these sins through personal betrayal.
It may sound strange. Saying it actually does feel a little awkward. But, the statement is true; being betrayed helped me see my sin. I know that Noelle did not intend to communicate this, but her sins against me communicated loud and clear: “You are not as good of a husband or as godly of a man as you think you are.” As much as I did not believe that I pushed her to do what she did, I knew that if I had truly been a godly husband, she would have had far less reason to leave our marriage. There was no way to escape that fact. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have had problems, it just meant that if I had been a better husband we could have dealt with our problems much sooner and with much greater skill.
You don’t have to be Homer Simpson to be a bad husband. You don’t have to beat your wife to be an oppressive influence in her life. You don’t have to keep her locked up in a closet for her to feel trapped. You just have to love yourself more than you love her. All you have to do is be more interested in your own desires, than you are in her desires. Care more about your interests than you care about her interests. If you want your wife to be unsatisfied in her marriage, that’s all you have to do.
See, the world’s standard for husbands is pretty low. Okay, it’s ridiculously low. The standard of the world for husbands is simple: “Don’t be a complete idiot all the time!” It’s hard for me to understand how some guys actually have a problem meeting that standard.
God’s standard for husbands is much, much higher. Paul puts it like this: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Do you hear that, guys? We are called to lay our lives down for our girls the way Jesus laid his life down for us. That’s a high bar.
The crazy thing was that if you would have asked me at any time before July 15, 2009, when Noelle and I debated whether our marriage was in peril or not; I would have thought in my heart that I actually had been loving my wife as Christ loved me. I now see this attitude as a cancer that needed to be cut out of my heart. Noelle’s betrayal then, was simply the knife in the hand of a merciful God that cut to the source of my disease of pride, exposing my failures to the world, but more importantly, to me.
I came to see these sins through the loving scrutiny and criticism of godly men who loved me.
Proverbs 27:5 and 6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. ” One of the sweetest expressions of God’s grace to me throughout the time of our separation and divorce, was the presence of godly men around me, who did not fear me and were not impressed with me, but who loved me very deeply. Friends like that exceed any price. They are more valuable than gold.
I had worked for so long to make people think of me as a humble godly man, and for a long time I believe I had succeeded. When our marriage crumbled, however, the gloss quickly wore off. Within a matter of a couple of weeks I had gone from well-respected pastor, counselor, and teacher, to a jobless, penniless, fallen and broken man. My faults and sin patterns quickly became visible, and the guys around me did not let me off the hook.
There was my good friend Ron, who I mentioned a little bit ago immediately pushed me to examine my own life and would not let me dwell on anything that Noelle had done. Then there was my pastor, Ron, who in the early days was on the phone with me nearly every day asking me how I was doing, challenging me to look for a job, pushing me to get my house in order. My good friend, Adam, did the same, encouraging me to be honest about my life, urging me to stop hedging when it came to my sins, pushing me to be a man, even examining my budget and holding me accountable for my spending habits. Eric was a good friend (and still is) during that time as well. I spent several nights sleeping on his couch after long nights of encouragement and brotherly counsel where he’d remind me of the Gospel and encourage me to press on.
Then came regular phone calls from my brother-in-law, Tommy, who did all he could do from a distance to make sure that I had men around me, challenged me to consider and take to heart the value of reconciliation and walking humbly through the whole ordeal. As soon as I’d get off the phone with Tommy, I’d get another phone call from my buddy Steve in Indiana who would refuse to accept my logic when it came to separation and divorce. Never did I question his love for me, yet when he disagreed with me he made it known; often with force and great passion.
I could go on and on with a list of the guys that came around me. I could mention Jim, Kyle, Jeff, Jeff (another one), John, Rich, and all of the other guys that I’m forgetting right now. These are guys who not only encouraged me, but who at different times and in different ways wounded me for my good as my friends. Their wounds were faithful, and they helped me see all kinds of sin in my life; sins that I would probably not have seen without their honest words.
I dare any man to submit himself to that kind of scrutiny. You want to see your sin? Go get some godly men and give them the freedom to hit you between the eyes for your good.
I came to see these sins through the experience of loosing many things I cared about.
Let me see if I can break this down simply. In an extremely short amount of time, I lost my wife, daily time with my children, my home, and my job. Those were just the physical things. In addition to these things, I lost respect, income, financial security, health insurance, my plans for the future, and some relationships.
You may not understand; I found my identity and personal security in many of these things. Everything on this earth that I took confidence in, I lost in a rather short period of time. To boot, the only job I could find for a while was a job cleaning toilets and dumping trash at Costco. I failed to take the cleaning toilets class at Bible College. It would have done me some good. There aren’t too many employers out there looking for people trained in biblical studies and biblical counseling. I pushed all my chips in on those things. I never had a plan B. And in an instant, plan A had failed.
Cleaning up people’s crap (both literal and figurative) all day for just enough money to scrape by made it pretty hard to convince myself that I was a big deal. I needed to be brought low to see that I wasn’t the big stud that I thought I was. I had to loose everything to figure out who I really was. I say now what the psalmist said long ago: “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psa 119:71).
I came to see these sins as the Spirit of God spoke to me through the Scriptures.
Some of the sweetest, deepest, most challenging, encouraging and convicting times in the Scriptures came during that season. I studied the Bible more seriously than I’ve ever studied the Bible; because day after day I was coming to it as a desperate man; a beggar, just looking for enough bread to make it through the day. As I did this, I found two things growing within me at rapid pace; an awareness of my terrible sinfulness and an appreciation of the greatness of God’s grace in Christ.
In many ways I believe these are the two great messages of Scripture. We are repugnant, self-absorbed rebels and God is a magnificent and faithful Savior. I had learned these messages in my years at Bible college and while working on my Master’s degree, and while studying for sermons and preparing for lessons and counseling sessions. But the weight of these two messages had never fallen on me like they did during the time of our separation.
I am so thankful for the Scriptures, because through them God spoke to me, breaking this prideful self-loving heart of mine and then forming a genuine appreciation for His grace, and an increasing awareness of my need for it.
What did I do about these sins?
I practiced honest confession of sin, and repented of whatever sins I saw.
I resolved not to make things worse by adding more sins on the pile of things to deal with.
I resolved not to make decisions that I would regret 10 (or more) years down the road.
I didn’t run from my church family.
I searched the Scriptures for a truer and deeper knowledge of God.
I focused my search in the Scriptures on the grace of God and the Gospel; rather than secondary doctrines.
I invited criticism from godly people that knew me.
I fought for joy as I cleaned toilets.
I submitted to godly counsel, whether I agreed with it or not.
I deliberately remained under the weight of my trials.
I resolved to pursue holiness, no matter my earthly circumstances.
What have I learned or am learning?
I’ll mention the big things…
I have learned that I am a great sinner, and Christ is a greater Savior.
I have learned that I am not a big deal that I thought I was. My life is a mist that appears for a little while and then completely vanishes (Jam 4:14; Psa 102:3; Job 7:7). God doesn’t need me. The only good in me is Jesus Himself.
I have learned that I am truly loved by a gracious God, not because I am good, but because He is good.
I have learned to become more worked up about my own sin than I am about the sins of others.
I am learning to love my wife more consistently with the way Jesus has loved the Church (sacrificially, genuinely, for her good & pleasure).
I have learned a lot about true forgiveness. Both of the forgiveness I have received, and how to extend it to others.
I have learned that God is truly able to do far more than we could ever ask or think.
I have learned that God is truly, truly, good.