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overcoming the shame of divorce X2!

Updated: 3 days ago

This is part 3 in a multi-part blog series about being ashamed, embarrassed, or accused by your past. Learning to accept God's grace and trust Jesus to change us as we follow Him.

If you missed parts 1 or 2 in this series you can find them here:

Overcoming Divorce Graphic

If you've ever been divorced you may be able to relate more than others to this post. If you've never married or are currently married to your one and only I hope what I share will help you glean some insights into what others around you may be going through or recovering from.

Marriage & divorce. Marriage & divorce. Marriage. In this post, I am going to share in uncomfortable clarity about my first 2 marriages. Next week will be all about redemption and God's AMAZING grace. But first the hard stuff. This part of my story stirs up more internal conflict, doubt, and thoughts about being disqualified than any other. It's also become an area where I've come to see God's amazing grace and steadfast love for me.

If you've read the first couple of blog posts in this series you know that I grew up largely unsupervised and lost. I felt unwanted and unloved and tried all sorts of things to fill those gaping holes in my soul. By the grace of God, I didn't succumb to alcohol or drug addiction but I did find a different drug of sorts, girls. Wanting to be wanted or needed is a very unhealthy place for an immature teen to pursue relationships from. But that's where I operated from. In high school I dated a few girls, to this day I can't remember most of their names. There were a couple that lasted longer than others and one, in particular, that was a constant on-again, off-again relationship. I think even as teens we knew it wasn't healthy but that didn't change the fact that we kept ending up back together. That carried on after high school and the logical next step was to move in together. We both came from broken homes and grew up surrounded by dysfunction. We had no idea how to be a husband or a wife but when you're 18 and 19 you think you know it all. After about a year of playing house, getting jobs, and eating dinner together occasionally we thought we had it licked. She wanted to get married. I didn't. I thought it was probably not a good idea and honestly didn't see how it would change anything. My peers told me it was a terrible idea and told me about the horror stories of marriage. Being tied down to the ol' ball and chain. No more sex. All she wants is your paycheck and on and on the awful advice would go. I ignored all of their advice. I also ignored my own gut feelings and agreed we should get married.

As much as I knew it was wrong there was something I wanted even more. To be a family. The pull of this desire far outweighed my gut feeling that this was not a good idea. And so, in my mom's front yard in the early 90's we were married. It was a nice day with friends and family and it played well into the fairytale I was chasing. We were already living together so little changed after the I-do's. And it didn't take long for us to fall back into many of the same problems we experienced in our immature high school dating days. We didn't know how to communicate with each other. We didn't know how to fight. We didn't know how to forgive. Neither of us was following Jesus. What we did know how to do was hurt each other. After fighting over something she stormed off to go to a friend's house for one night. That night turned into more until finally, I got a phone call from her asking me to come to pick her up. The gut punch was that she needed to be picked up at an old boyfriend's house. Yes, I drove and parked in the driveway of my wife's ex-boyfriend's home to pick her up. I can feel my pulse quicken and my body tense up right now as I write about this almost 30 years later. From that day on things were never the same. We didn't trust each other. We didn't respect each other.

About a year later we got pregnant and welcomed an awesome baby boy followed by a beautiful baby girl about a year and a half after. The kids were a bright spot in what was a messy, immature, marriage between two young adults who weren't ready to be a husband or wife.

We were married for 5 years and during that time I cheated on her, and she cheated on me. I think we were drawn back together out of a mix of obligation and fear of failing. Both of us being from divorced families didn't want to become what we experienced growing up. We did try to make it work but we had created a relationship that was doomed to fail. Eventually, she set her sights on someone else and began pursuing a serious relationship with him. That led to the eventual discovery of their affair and the last-ditch efforts to save something that wasn't worth saving. In a bit of Shakespearian tragedy, the man she fell for was one of my closest friends since childhood. I know it's cold and perhaps harsh to admit it but I didn't grieve the end of the marriage. I didn't grieve losing her at all. The thing that hurt the worst was the betrayal of a friend. Knowing that one of the few close friends I had since childhood was gone forever.

At the time those were very real and honest feelings. But the truth is, looking back from where I sit now is that I was no different than him. I had pursued other women when I was married. I had even been with another woman who was married. His betrayal cut the deepest because it was like God holding up a mirror. Not unlike what the prophet Nathan did to King David as he pointed out his sin with Bathsheba and her husband. 2 Sam 12:7 Nathan said to David, "You are this man..." Unfortunately, I didn't respond with repentance as David did. I poured into work. I tried to cover my sin and shame for what I had done with righteous anger toward my ex-wife and ex-friend. I focused on cleaning up my outer appearance - getting my act together as they say. But through it all I was hurt, angry, resentful, ashamed, and most of all, lost.

Not long after our divorce my ex-wife got remarried to a different man. A man that turned out to be a very, very bad man. His influence over her along with his actions led me to pursue full custody of my kids when they were only 3 & 4 1/2. It was an excruciating process. A process that I was just wading into when I met the woman who would be my 2nd wife.

After only about a year of being officially single, having my 2 little kids half-time, and working a full-time job I was getting a big dose of reality. This was tough, I was lonely, exhausted, and I was struggling. This was the dawn of the internet and as I learned about it there was only one thing I was wondering about. How do you use this internet thing to meet girls? I replied to an ad in something called geocities - If you're old you may remember this archaic social networking site. The girl responded and we began emailing back and forth. Emails gave way to phone calls and letters and built up to the eventual first meeting.

Many of our conversations with each other in the beginning were about our desires to change, to be different. We had similar stories and both had 2 young kids and failed first marriages. We were both genuinely seeking God at the time and were just learning how to talk about it but neither was doing anything beyond talking.

We met in person and eventually had all the kids meet up which went well. They were 3, 4, 5, and 6 at the time. I had a boy and a girl. She had 2 boys. We had a whirlwind 9 months of dating long-distance as she finished up her final year in college. Lots of road trips and weekends back and forth. In the beginning, we agreed we didn't want to have sex before marriage, we wanted this to be different, real, grown-up and done right. That lasted a couple of months before we caved in and crossed lines we said we wouldn't cross. After that, there was no looking back. She graduated college with honors and moved her and her 2 boys out to live with me. We both had a sense it wasn't right but we rationalized that it was cheaper to live together and we were already engaged.

Our first several months of living together were rough. She was unsure. She was all in one day and threatening to pack her bags and leave the next. We certainly had some good times early on and we kept coming back to that desire to want to do it differently.

Not long after moving in together, she went away for a weekend to visit her family and I had no kids at home and an old party buddy over for a couple of days to visit. I hadn't really changed much even though I was a bit more polished up on the outside. He and I decided it would be fun to connect with some girls he knew. We used AOL chat on my home computer to connect with these girls and make a plan. Then we called them from my home phone to nail down the details and we were off. I cheated with some random lady I had never met. A friend of the lady that he knew. I didn't have sex with her but crossed lines I had no business crossing considering I was engaged.

This was the final straw for God. He had heard my prayers. My words that said I wanted to know Him. I wanted to know if He was real. I wanted to know how to do life differently. And like the good dad that He is, he answered and put all my sins right out in the light.

My then-fiance returned home from her trip and all seemed fine. She went to the home computer to check her email (you couldn't do it any other way back then). When the computer screen came on there it was. Our whole AOL chat thread was still open. She read it all. Then walked upstairs and hit redial on the home phone and I bet you can guess who answered. What followed was horrible. It was horrible for her. And it was horrible for me but for a different reason. For the first time in my life, I honestly felt something besides anger. It was a deep pain and sadness. It was a kick to the groin, sick to my stomach kind of pain as I watched this woman I cared so much about being so hurt by what I had done.

I was sure it was over. She was sure it was over. God had other plans for us both.

Several days of no talking went by, complete avoidance, locked in her room. Then, one night she called for me and asked me to come sit down. What happened next changed the course of my life forever.

She told me she had been praying and reading her bible and asking God for help. She said she wanted to leave but felt like God wouldn't really let her. She said that as she was remembering what God had forgiven her for that it struck her. How can I accept God's forgiveness for all the things I've done and not forgive you for this thing that you've done? So she looked directly at me and simply said, "I forgive you." I felt a thousand pounds lift up off of my body and inhaled a breath of air as I'd never breathed before. I hit my knees beside her on the bed and we hugged and prayed and vowed to figure out how to do things differently. I promised before God that I would never cheat and hurt her in that way again. By God's grace, a promise I was able to keep.

I walked out of the bedroom to the kitchen, grabbed a phone book and flipped to the yellow pages, and looked up the word, C-H-U-R-C-H. I'd never been and had no idea where to find one or what to look for. All I knew is if we were going to really follow God then I needed to find someone that knew Him well enough to show us the way. I scrolled through several ads until I found a simple posting that said, "Church of Christ". That seemed like the right place to start so I dialed the number. A man answered at 7 o'clock at night and I stammered on about how my fiance and I were in a mess and I didn't know what to do next. He invited me over right then and there. I spent a couple of hours that night spilling my guts to a pastor in sweatpants and workout gear who had just happened to swing by his office to pick something up after leaving the gym. That was the first day down the road to my new life. And solid proof that God was at work in my life.

That pastor baptized me and married my fiance and me in our backyard. He and his wife became dear friends and faithful guides for us as we started learning about God. It was there that we first started actually walking as disciples. And a couple of years later it was there that I first sensed God calling me to ministry.

About a year into our marriage we welcomed a new baby boy and became the hodge-podge family of his, hers, and ours. It was never easy. We had custody battles with both of our exes at different times. We struggled as step-parents of each other's kids. But the constant through it all was our sincere desire to keep pursuing God. Our church friends played a huge role in helping us through our many rough spots. Helping us grow and mature along the way.

In time I was able to move into full-time ministry as a middle-school youth pastor in a Christian church. That's another story for another day! And a good one.

My wife at the time suffered an incredibly hard blow when we lost full-time custody of her two boys to their dad. They were supposed to go back and forth, one year with us and one year with him which was a terrible plan. Knowing the boys wanted to be with their dad and knowing that going back and forth would not be healthy for them she made a huge sacrifice and offered that he would have them in the school year and we would have them summers and longer holiday breaks. She was really never the same after that loss. Parenting her stepkids became harder and harder and she grappled with anger and regret. She regretted ending up where she did. She resented me as a dad for having my kids when she didn't have hers. She tried to stay faithful in church and keep chasing after God but she was battling some things inside that began to win more and more over time. She battled depression and bouts of anger. I did the best I knew how to do at the time and tried counseling, books, and marriage retreats along the way. And I also didn't do the best I knew how to do at times. At times I was tired, lonely, angry, and felt unloved. I never cheated or even considered it and have never again after she forgave me before we were married. But I wasn't the best husband I could be - sometimes on purpose, more often out of ignorance or exhaustion.

We managed to hold it together and had so many great times but she ultimately regretted marrying me and didn't like the life she had ended up in. She never wanted to be a pastor's wife. She wanted to have more money and we most often lived paycheck to paycheck in full-time ministry. In time she started to do things that were destined to sabotage our marriage. Rather than just leaving outright it felt like she was on a mission to make me leave. The problem was that after my first marriage failed I had some sort of inner promise that I couldn't let this one fail no matter what. So, I endured. I loved and gave gifts and honestly dug in and tried to make her happy. Over time my compass heading changed from following Jesus first to trying to make her happy and then following Jesus after. It wreaked havoc on my faith and didn't produce the results I tried so hard for with her.

She drank too much which evolved over the years into an addiction. That addiction opened the door for her to be in places she shouldn't have been, doing things I don't believe she would have been doing without drinking. About 10 years into our marriage I discovered she was having an affair. I was working in ministry full-time as a youth pastor and we were very involved in our church. It was devastating on so many levels. But perhaps worst of all was the feelings of humiliation. That so many people knew. I didn't want a divorce. I didn't want to quit. I honestly felt a sense of loyalty and obligation to her for the way she forgave me in the very beginning. We got counseling. We worked on our stuff. We made new commitments. We made sacrifices. Which for me meant stepping out of full-time ministry and taking the pressure off of her that she said she felt as a pastor's wife. We did what lots of people do after a bad affair. We moved to a new place to start over. Back near her hometown and closer to her boys and family.

The move didn't cure her inner turmoil. Not being a pastor's wife didn't cure it. Making more money didn't cure it. I started a business and in a few years, we were making more money than either of us had ever seen in our lives. None of it mattered. And her drinking increased, more often, more friends who drank, more comfortable with more. Until there was a time when she never went a day without it. After some close calls driving and the kids beginning to point out how they thought she should quit there was a moment when she seemed to realize it too. She had some dark times and seemed to truly want to change.

About that time I got a phone call from a pastor friend asking me to pray about coming back into ministry. Only not in youth ministry, but as a campus pastor that would one day become its own church. In my heart I wanted to go so badly - I knew with all my heart and soul that's what God made me for. But in my mind, I knew my wife and my marriage were in no shape to be in a role like that. I had almost dismissed it entirely when I mentioned to my 16-year-old son one day, "What would you think about me going back into ministry someday?" His response was eye-opening. He said something to the effect of, "I definitely think you should. That's what you're made for dad. You're better when you're doing ministry. We're better." His response prompted me to bring it up with my wife. Her answer surprised me as well when she suggested we consider it. I didn't feel comfortable even calling him back without coming clean about where our life was at and the things we were struggling with. I sent off an email I was pretty sure would end the conversation. He called me up a couple of days later and expressed that they really wanted us to come out and meet and pray. He expressed his heart for messy people honestly struggling and wanting help. And he invited us, messy people, to come and pray. We planned a trip and the three of us went and met with our pastor friend and his wife. Myself, my wife and our16-year-old son sat in a hotel room to talk and pray about the meetings we had. I told them there is no way I would go back into ministry unless we all 100% sense that this is what God wants us to do. And no pressure, if it's not, that's ok. My wife spoke up and expressed for certain this is where we should be. My son agreed. And we informed them the next day that we would accept.

I didn't know it at the time but my wife was having an affair. She was battling her inner demons and feeling torn apart from the inside out. Her agreeing to move and support me going back into ministry was some way she thought she could cut it off and leave it behind, get back on track. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to cut it off and she never confessed it either. Instead, she went into an impossible situation that was almost guaranteed to eat her up from the inside like a horrible cancer of the soul. She dove in with both feet, worked part-time at the church, volunteered with women's ministry, planned events, and started new programs - all things she was excellent at. All while simultaneously carrying on a long-distance affair that involved extravagant schemes to talk, and meets for rendezvous. As you might imagine it was a double life that caused so much stress that she was always, sick, tired, moody, angry, losing weight, and struggling to really make friends.

One year into becoming the campus pastor I discovered her affair. We called the pastor who had hired us and believed in us and shared the terrible news. I was put on leave or a sabbatical as they call it in the church world. The congregation was essentially told I had been working too hard and after the move and everything I'd done in the last year I needed a break to focus on my family. It was a tough pill to swallow. Everyone assumed I had been a bad husband, neglecting my family, and was being reprimanded of sorts. The theory behind that approach was not to throw my wife under the bus, not to put her sin on display, and to give her time to repent and see if she wanted to reconcile. We did counseling apart. She moved out to get time and space to determine if she wanted to reconcile. I was still involved at church but not preaching. Attending alone and trying to stay focussed on listening to Jesus and not letting my mind wander to worry about what everyone else might have been thinking.

She eventually came clean about another affair I didn't know about, apologized, and wanted more time to figure out what she wanted to do. Over the course of a couple of months, she determined she wanted out of it all. Out of the marriage, ministry, worrying what others think of her, out and away from it all. We filled out paperwork, and she filed for divorce, ironically on the day of our 20th wedding anniversary.

The church elders decided I should take an extended sabbatical for 3 months and then there would be further discussion about my future employment or role. Ministry is unlike so many other careers in so many ways. There are very few other jobs that if you go through a divorce it could also cost you your job even if you weren't at fault. (Don't misread that I know I played a part). Not only your current job but maybe even disqualify you from ever working in the field you're experienced in or feel called to.

So, as 2019 came to an end, I was beginning the next chapter of my life on a sabbatical from my job as a divorced, maybe employed pastor with an 18-year-old son at home, a mortgage, a car, and a boat payment, and what should have been overwhelming uncertainty. Instead, what I felt was peace. Peace like I had never felt. Calm. A quiet that allowed me to firmly put my eyes on following Jesus like I hadn't ever done before. And for the first time in my life, going all in trusting God one day at a time to guide me and teach me His ways. And God smiled...

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