Does God believe in restoration? Part 1
I was five years old when my mother abandoned me. No, she never left me physically, only emotionally—and I am sure she never intended to make such a deep wound on my small heart. She herself had been damaged by sexual molestation. Along with that, her own fears that she would never be accepted by a holy God added to her anxiety. Suffering from manic depression, she spent most of my first years in a mental institution or lying in bed. Because Mom could not take care
of us, we kids were shipped from one family to another. I still remember waking up in the middle of the night and being moved from one home to another, never understanding why I was “rejected” again.
Later, when I first discovered I was a sexual being, I learned that God “rejects” those who struggle with impurity. If I continued to masturbate, I would not only be lost, I would go crazy, and no good girl would ever marry me. These words from my mother were emotionally charged for a boy just entering his teens and would forever imprint my relationships with women. Because I never had a normal love from my mother, I would try to replace it with pictures of nude women. The ill-clad women in the magazines would become the elixir that would satisfy my curiosity and need for love.
Tangled in the Web
Over many years, I would become deeply entrenched in a cycle of victory and failure. Boredom, guilt, and shame would lead me to crave another sexual fix. Added to my inner temptations was my distorted view of God. My generation spoke of a soon return of Jesus and an investigative judgment that demanded near perfection. Deep inside, I knew I could never please God or be good enough to go to heaven. Why, then, try? Nevertheless, after the excitement of fulfilling my lust, I would repent, determined never to participate in this evil again. Yet, like the apostle Paul, the things I wanted to do, I didn’t do, and the things I didn’t want to do, I did (Rom. 7:19). Months would pass with me getting victory after victory against lust. Then failure would raise its ugly head again. As I grew older, my journey would take me from occasional fascination with pornography to more intoxicating paths.
Early in college, however, I experienced a radical conversion and had a desire to witness to others, even though I still did not know if I would be or even could be saved. Even after finally understanding grace, I still had this secret sin that would not go away.
A couple of years later, I graduated from college and became an intern pastor. Little did I realize how unprepared I was. A well-known author and psychologist, Candace Benyei, wrote that 91 percent of clergy come from chronic dysfunctional homes,1 and, as did so many others, I sought to heal by helping others. In the process, I learned that Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted. Nonetheless, mine was still a gaping wound. I was not a “bad” person, just a damaged and inconsistent one. I had no idea that I had a sexual addiction; all I knew was that I did not have victory all of the time.
The hidden persona
After seminary, I would seek to help others understand God’s love and have a relationship with Him, yet my own life was up and down. I would pray for victory, and experience it for a time, but then I would find myself falling back into the same sins. Failure seemed to be etched in my very being. This was not noticeable to my colleagues or employers. My problem was something known only deep inside. In fact, on the outside I was quite successful. I was on my way up the ladder of recognition.
On occasion I would try to talk with my wife about my issues, but this would only wound her more deeply. Furthermore, I blamed her for my lack of success in overcoming. “If she would just change, I would have no more temptation.” I even risked talking with a counselor or two, and though they sympathized with me, I did not continue my sessions. I prayed, but my conversations with Him often seemed to mock my sincerity and efforts to overcome. At one point I shared my journey into impurity with a colleague in ministry, and this helped me stay away for about eight years from the joints I infrequently visited.
Nevertheless, sexual addiction had its steely tentacles fastened around my mind. When I was repentant and free, I would feel I had victory, only to find myself obsessed again. The cycle was uncanny. But I found hope after failure by reading stories of biblical characters like David and Solomon. At the same time, I knew that if I continued down this same road, I would lose my own soul.
Fear and the keeping of secrets
For pastors, sharing these kinds of dark secrets with anyone is very risky. Those who struggle, struggle alone. We fear speaking to anyone about our problems because the consequences may be dire. For some pastors, the problem may be pornography only, and a kind of boredom in marriage. For others it may be more serious. Any addiction tends to strengthen over time. Our fears are that we may lose our jobs and the only support we have for our families. Two pastors expressed it this way: “We are afraid to go to a counselor for fear our problems will leak out.” Or, “I wouldn’t tell a fellow minister my problems in this area. My denomination would forgive murder but not impurity of thought.”2 For this reason, we are very likely to go underground with our hidden lives until we are either caught in a public scandal or we wash ashore in a sea of guilt and shame. We rationalize that we know God’s love and believe that He can forgive us and those like us. We think that, if we can finally win, we can encourage those who fail because we ourselves know the agony of defeat.
Not until recently did I discover the significant numbers of clergy who struggle with sexual issues. Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, published in Leadership, indicates that 18 percent of the clergy go online to look at pornography occasionally, and one out of nine have committed adultery.3
Betrayed and abandoned
Several years of apparent freedom gave me a sense of victory until I moved to a large city, and the old temptations came back, stronger than ever. I became engulfed in failure and knew I must seek help. By then I learned of group meetings for those who are sexually addicted and decided to attend. I longed for freedom and decided to share my story with someone I trusted, someone who would hold me accountable. I felt if I could find someone in the church to encourage me, I could find ultimate victory. If I could not be consistent, I would let him know and hand in my credentials. I was fearful of sharing my secret life, but surely a pastor’s pastor would help me.
Reluctantly, I made the plunge, not expecting that the person in whom I confided would treat me as a leper. I needed to resign from the ministry, he said, and I might be able to return five years later. My other choice was for more people to know and leave my case in their hands.
I decided to share my story with other leaders. Weeks later my ministry was over; the church leaders simply followed polices. Not only that, the head pastor of the church I attended requested that my membership be withdrawn. I was devastated. Why was this happening to me? I had gone for help and my ministry was destroyed. After being terminated, I wished my friends and former colleagues would call to see how I was doing. No such care came from those who claimed to represent Jesus.
I began to attend another church and rededicated my life to Christ, but my heart was not in it. Weeks into my new church a guest speaker, a woman, shared the story of God’s unfailing forgiveness. I hastened to the restroom and wept uncontrollably. Did God really care? I had failed so often, how could He forgive? Somehow I finally learned that Jesus and the church are different. If no one else could restore, He could. With this hope, I did not remain bitter toward my fellow ministers. God forgave me and continues to forgive us when we struggle. How can we hold bitterness in our hearts toward those who walk the same human road? Years later I would find out that there are those in leadership who believe in second chances.
For about two years after my exit from ministry, I floundered in my addiction. I was without work for about six months, but my education had paid off, and I was able to find a job. It was an excellent job, but soon I came to the place where I was so far down that I had to look up to see bottom. My life was spinning out of control. I thought I might as well live out my playboy lifestyle. Why try to be who I wasn’t? Yet, if I continued down that course, I would be lost. In desperation, I cried out to God to change me. There was no human help available. No addiction recovery groups were anywhere near. I had pretty much become a deist by that time, but I prayed, “God, if You are there and You can help me, I can’t change myself. I’m too far gone. There’s no hope without You.”
That day was the beginning of a new life. Miraculously, within weeks my obsessive addiction was gone, and has never returned since. Praise God for the freedom. I cannot explain what happened because I had prayed for this healing before. Deep within, I know the change was a “God thing.” I can attribute the inner healing only to the idea that when we finally come to our end, God gives us a new beginning. His amazing grace is the only explanation. Not long after, my wife, who was experiencing her own healing, found out the full extent of my addictive cycles and, over time, was able to forgive.
Elated by the miracle, two years later we contacted our former church administrator to tell him of the miraculous change. He rejoiced with us in the newfound victory and let us know that if we ever decided to return to ministry, he would not stand in our way. He felt we could be wounded healers.
Sometime after that we decided to further our education. Returning to ministry was not in our thinking when we decided to go back to a church where we had been the pastoral couple. The people were in transition, looking for a new pastor, and they wanted us to apply. Someone else had been selected but the people’s interest rekindled a desire for us to explore the possibility of returning to ministry.
After two more years of teaching at a university, we contacted a few leaders in our denomination, asking if there were any pastoral openings. Our former administrator wrote a beautiful letter of reference; several church leaders who believed in restoration encouraged us. In spite of my past, which the leadership knew about, they, too, believed in grace. Miraculously, God not only healed our hearts but grace abounded in a new opportunity for service. That was many years ago, and we have never looked back. My story is one of God’s miraculous grace and of church leaders who believe in second opportunities.
I share my story because there is hope for those who fail. There is a new day of grace in the community of faith. Perhaps someday the entire church will understand that God intends to not only forgive, but to also restore.
(Part 2 will appear in the October 2013 issue.)
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1 Candace Reed Benyei, Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems: Scapegoating, Family Secrets, and the Abuse of Power (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Pastoral Press, 1998).
2 Richard Exeley, The Perils of Power (Tulsa, OK: Honor Books, 1988), 19, 20.
3 T. C. Muck, “How Common Is Pastoral Indiscretion?” Leadership (Winter 1988): 12, 13.