The week following Angel’s (her words will be italicized) confession of adultery I was in a state of shock. I was still trying to navigate the situation with my identity as a pastor intact. Even when we came to our Senior Pastor, I said that I could still preach Sunday (just a few days away) as I was scheduled. Fortunately, wisdom prevailed.
I was asked to take a leave of absence, which was difficult for me to accept. The next six months would be the most difficult months of my life. Angel’s confession of her affair would be peeled back. Her confession of one affair became confession of a series of affairs and I would have to come face to face with the ugliness of my own heart. From the time I was ten, my understanding of my identity was inextricable from my calling as a pastor. I was about to not be a pastor any longer.
Days after we met with our Senior Pastor, we met with the Ministry Director at the ministry where Angel was working. They graciously allowed her to shift her job and stay on as their book store manager.
Our church’s leadership was not only generous enough to support us with counseling, but they also brought in a conciliation ministry called Live at Peace. The partnership would initially be difficult for me, in particular, as our conciliators recommended that my leave of absence become semi-permanent, with a two-year reconciliation period. “How is that fair?” I questioned. “Why am I being punished for what my wife did against me?”
Counseling was really rocky as well. I thought we would be working to repair our relationship and work through the damage, but what our counselors quickly became aware of is that Angel had compartmentalized a significant amount of the previous two and a half years. Every session peeled back more hurtful layers.
I had not intentionally held back from John the layers of my infidelity. But in my self-hatred, I had compartmentalized swaths of sin that I wouldn’t be able to come face to face with until months had passed. Beyond my long affair with the man in our church, I had also been involved in a series of affairs: most of which were one-night stands over the two and a half years.
A couple of months in, we went on an intensive retreat to the Marble Retreat Center in Marble, Colorado. It was an important week away that incorporated intensive counseling along with group counseling and time together.
The layers of infidelity were not revealed all at once, but piece by piece over the course of several months. With every revelation, my world became more and more unsteady. I remember speaking with one of our conciliators and asking her, “when will we ever get to solid ground?” She replied, “you may never get to solid ground. You have to come to grips with that.” Getting my head around the idea that I might never know the full story or when more of the story would be revealed made me feel like I was lost at sea.
There came a time, when I knew in my heart I had shared it all. There was a moment in a counseling session that a final memory flashed in front of me. It was a moment where painful lament and complete freedom met. I heard in my spirit, "it is finished". But how was John to know more confessions wouldn't be coming? Why should my word mean anything to him? My hope was in God alone. It was his job to restore John's trust in me. It was my job to continue to pray and be completely honest and transparent in each conversation.
I kept asking Angel questions and she kept answering them, as painful as it was. With every revelation, there was the simultaneous reality of trust being built and the wound being reopened.
I wept constantly. I wept tears of grief, tears of anger, tears of sadness, tears of despair, tears of hurt. Sometimes Angel’s revelations would wash over me, other times they would crush me.
We learned to live one day at a time, one hour at a time, often one minute at a time. One thing we learned was to take each emotion as it came and meet each other in the emotion.
There were friends who drew close during these days and other friends who were absent. There were friends who offered careful and loving words and other friends who offered painful words. There were some at the church who said that I was unfit for ministry and some friends who said I should divorce Angel in order to protect my pastoral calling. There were some who brought over pancakes and played board games with us as we vacillated between tears and laughter.
My prayer life and time in the Word shrank and deepened at the same time. I found I often couldn’t pray my own words to God, and so I turned to the Psalms and lifted up prayers to God that I could not speak for myself. Words that spoke of my desperate hope in God, in my plea that God would vindicate me, in my need for rescue. The only other book I could read in these months was Hosea. As I read and re-read the Psalms and Hosea, I was reminded of God’s redemptive, rescuing power. God continued to pour into my heart a deep love for Angel and as I experienced that love, God showed me a glimpse of his covenant love of his unfaithful bride.
Our conciliators had the church gather around us mentors for our conciliation process, two for each of us. They provided encouragement and spoke hope into us.
One of the most significant moments came for me in working through the conciliators’ recommendation that my leave of absence be extended indefinitely – for at least a two year period. How many Christian leaders had only a month or two of absence for their own sexual failings? Why should I take an indefinite leave for my wife’s? I recoiled against the suggestion and doubly so because it felt like an admission that the few who said I was unfit for ministry were being given a stamp of approval. Who were they? I knew their sin!
But, in the end, the gracious and steady hand of God, helped by wise friends and counselors, allowed me to focus on what was most important – rescuing my marriage, not protecting my vocational calling. And, more important still, a life-altering juncture to wrestle with my identity which was unhealthily enmeshed in my pastoral calling. My own idols needed to be destroyed.
We began to prepare for a week of conciliation that would involve multiple parties in the church, from the elders, to the staff, to two couples who had been involved.
The week of conciliation was an incredibly taxing week. Meetings ran from early in the morning to late at night. Our conciliators worked masterfully through a slow process of conciliation with us and different groups. Most of those meetings were grueling, with more people injured from the shrapnel of the sin than we could have imagined. But through it all, God was graciously bringing about truth and healing.
The final day of conciliation came and we held close our conciliators who had become so dear to us in such a short period of time. God had graced these spiritual physicians with scalpels that painfully cut at our hearts, and yet brought healing only possible through the Spirit.
The next day we packed our bags for a family road trip scheduled right after this week of conciliation. As we drove that first night, I felt for the first time we were looking forward, not behind. We pulled into a comically ratty trucker motel in central Pennsylvania and entered a room decorated circa 1982 in puke-green upholstery and saturated in more cigarette smoke than an old bowling alley. Our eyes watered and we began to cough. The four of us looked at each other and through fits of coughing we laughed and laughed.
Somehow we were still together. Somehow God had turned tears of grief into tears of laughter. Somehow he had restored what was broken. Somehow he had sanctified us through each other’s sin by the power of the Spirit. Somehow we knew the days ahead would be filled with a new hope and a new grace.
And all of this was his work. Not a work we deserved, but a work we needed.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. To God be the glory.
Photo credit: Kalle Kortelainen/Unsplash