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My Wife’s Favorite Day

How a pastor’s confession changed the culture of a church

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My wife will tell you that one of the greatest days of her life was when I told our church I had an addiction to pornography. On March 27, 2011, in a sermon entitled “Getting Unstuck,” I shared the following statement with our church body:

Let me take a minute and tell you why Romans 7 is so important to me and why I have the ability to bring to it some unique perspective. Today, I am not simply talking about addictions through the lens of others and their experiences. I am not merely telling you about the hope and healing that others have discovered. Today, I have been sharing through the lens of my own addiction and in the joy of hope and healing that I have found.

Yes, I did say my own addiction. For some of you, it may be incredibly disconcerting to hear your pastor use that word of himself. For others, it may be incredibly freeing to hear that your pastor is a normal human being. But no matter your reaction, the truth remains. I was an addict. In my late teens, I began regularly viewing pornographic magazines. In college, access to the Internet took this obsession to a whole new level. I loved Jesus and was even preparing to serve Him in full-time ministry, and yet this battle raged on in my soul. The emotion finally bubbled over during those college years into confession to a good friend who became my accountability partner. Finally, I thought, now that it’s in the open, I will be free of it.

But the opposite actually proved to be true. Because I did not have sufficient resources to truly change in a deep way, the behavior continued with more shame and guilt than ever before. So began a painful cycle of acting out, hiding behavior and living in shame, until I could bear it no more and confession would occur. This binge/purge cycle of sin continued into my marriage and into ministry. Mistakes would be made, and so more promises and commitments would be given to those who loved me and trusted me. And though some growth occurred and periods of abstinence were observed, the addiction continued.

In this system of sin management, I convinced myself that I was doing okay. Sure, it crops up from time to time, but surely I’m not as bad as others, I would tell myself. I was certain that if I just kept believing and praying, sooner or later it would go away. Well, it didn’t. Fourteen months ago, I was still stuck. But at this time, God gave me a tremendous gift—the gift of pain. He opened my eyes to see how my behaviors, which I thought were minor, were subtly yet steadily destroying my wife, my ministry and even my faith.

For the first time in my life I realized that sin management was not enough. Real change—deep change—had to occur, but I didn’t know where to begin. At the time, God brought another precious gift to my wife and me through our district office. At our annual conference, they announced a partnership with Ted Roberts and his ministry, Pure Desire, near Portland, Oregon. In May 2010, we began an intense and intentional process with Ted and his wife, Diane—pastors themselves and also experts on addiction and recovery. We sat with counselors who loved Jesus, who understood the human heart and the human brain and who knew a path to freedom. We began attending a weekly support and recovery group in a town 30 minutes away—me for sexual addicts and my wife for those who had been hurt by them.

For the first time I was able to process my life’s journey and find that pornography was not the real problem to be dealt with but was a symptom of much deeper issues in my life. Because of deep needs I had for finding my value through performance and my identity through success, I became hooked on the false promises of pornography as a way to medicate my pain and disappointment. Making this connection took me from behavior management to deep heart change.

For the first time, I was able to face the lies of Satan that were operating in the background of my life. Because of this addiction, I had believed myself to be a bad person, someone whom God tolerated because of how hard I worked for Him. Through the patient love and grace of the Robertses and others, I have discovered the awesome and life-changing reality of God’s love. What was once just words has now truly become the cornerstone of my life.

While I must forever be on my guard against sliding back in this direction, I do want you to know that without a doubt I am healthier than I have ever been. Our marriage is stronger than it has ever been. And I am a better pastor than I have ever been, not because of growth in skill but because of change of heart. I no longer have to serve God to find His approval and love; I am finally free to serve Him, and you, because He already loves and approves of me.

So I stand before you today as a recovering addict. I know that as your pastor, you have called me and anointed me and asked me to lead you well, but in this area of my life I have failed at that. I am a human being who has struggled, and I am sorry that I allowed this addiction to overcome me. I seek your forgiveness for that. And I invite you and give you the freedom to approach me to process this with me. I know that some of you don’t want that, won’t need that, and that’s okay; but as others of you do process this, don’t hesitate to talk to me.

I realize that some of you don’t know me well, or you might be visiting here this weekend and probably weren’t expecting this level of honesty. But I hope you do see in this the real power of the gospel—that Jesus loves us not because we are religious or holy, but He loves us in our humanity and in our weakness—and we want East Hills to be the kind of place where that can be lived out and experienced by everyone, including the pastor.

What I am confident of, as Paul tells us in Romans 8, is that God is at work in this situation for His good and for His glory. What has happened in my life and in our marriage is not for me alone, but it is also for you. The freedom I have found is no credit to me; it is because someone who knew the way showed it to me and walked the path with me in order to help me truly find Christ. And now I want to do the same for you. God is at work in this, and He is at work in our church to bring freedom to you and to men all over Cowlitz County.

The Sunday I delivered that sermon was my wife’s favorite day because for 10 years of ministry, my secret addiction had been her greatest burden. Only for her, it had a wicked twist. Since it was my secret, I could make the choice to share it with trusted friends or colleagues when I felt safe enough to do so. But she did not have this liberty. She felt she couldn’t talk to anyone because it wasn’t her secret to tell. Pure Desire had finally given her an outlet and a place to talk. This was a big step. But when I confessed openly, she no longer had to hide. She was finally free.

The results were overwhelming. She received numerous cards and e-mails of support and encouragement. And unbidden, half a dozen women came up to her and asked if she would start a group for them, just like the one she had been attending. In a single day, a ministry to men and their wives was launched. In the three years since that time, we have seen many, many lives changed and marriages saved as groups continue to launch.

For me, the public disclosure drove home the point I had been learning through times of honest conversation with my wife: When we are real about our issues, people who love us do not run away. They run toward us with the grace and mercy of God. On that weekend, I was loved, hugged and affirmed like never before.

This, I believe, is part of the mystery of Christ in us: We can’t help but move toward the repentant heart. Countless people told me it was my best message ever; the day I confessed what a wretch I had been was their favorite message of all! That day, my wife and I both learned through others a central truth about God: He runs toward the broken.

Adapted from the book Setting Us Free by Nick Stumbo, available at www.booksnbibles.com.

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