When we stood at a church altar 28 years ago and joyfully took the vows, "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health," we had little idea of how telling those words would be.
Robin had no idea that my struggles with impurity were leading me towards a full-blown sexual addiction that would almost destroy our marriage. I had no comprehension of Robin's deeply seated insecurities and how devastated she would be by my inability to provide the kind of security she longed for.
Beyond that, we certainly didn't expect prematurely losing people we loved, life-threatening health crises or even coming to the brink of bankruptcy. We couldn't have dreamed of struggles with our children or times of deep loneliness.
And you could have never convinced me that we would make a challenging career transition from the full-time ministry into secular careers – testing our love for each other and our security in God.
"… In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." – John 16:33, All references NIV unless specified.
We are both romantics at heart! As a result, we've created many wonderful memories together. But it's also made letting go of our fairy tale versions of the "perfect" Christian marriage a slow and painful process.
As we see it now, we've had to make one critical decision: to either overcome or be overcome. To overcome has meant fighting for our marriage – a relationship we both believe God called us into. It has taken coming into the light with our battles, while scorning the shame (Hebrews 12:2). And, it has required recommitting ourselves to true intimacy, so that our marriage could become a sanctuary instead of a battleground.
Most of all, we've both had to dig deep to follow Jesus' example of learning obedience through suffering, with loud cries and prayers to God (Hebrews 5:7).
Through all of this, we've had many vulnerable moments that have translated into hard-learned lessons, including:
Are you searching for renewed hope for the vulnerable spots in your marriage?
"Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." – John 3:20-21
I'll never forget that night over twenty years ago. After working late as the assistant manager of a grocery store, I locked up the store and walked toward the bus stop. I had noticed the nearby adult bookstore many times before and had chosen to stay away. But this night, the pull was relentless, and I yielded.
Emotionally reeling from losing my position as a youth minister, physically exhausted from a long day of work and tormented from the pressures of my unpromising new career, my soul was longing for comfort. My heart raced in anticipation as I opened the door and stepped in. Rational thought disappeared as I spiraled out of control into the darkness. Hopelessness and isolation pounded in my soul.
As I left that place of darkness, the cold Chicago air and a flood of fear shocked me back into reality. Instead of finding the comfort I was desperately seeking, I was sick to my stomach, and my mind was full of questions that I was afraid to answer.
"Did that really just happen?"
"What have I become?"
"How can I go home and tell my wife?"
The visit to the bookstore was the first destructive decision I made that night. But the second was far more debilitating to my marriage and my relationship with God. In my fear, self-disgust and shame, I decided that I could not tell my wife, or anyone else for that matter, what happened. For five lonely years, I chose to sit in darkness – held by the chains of shame (Psalm 107:10-11).
Like most men, I wanted to find a route out of this mess by myself. Ultimately, my secrecy left me powerless to overcome the "darkness" of sexual sin. It simply perpetuated what would become a 20-year cycle of impurity, followed by remorse and occasional confession.
Eventually, Robin reached her own breaking point. Devastated by my numerous breaches of trust, she began losing hope that we could ever enjoy a pure marriage relationship. Some of her friends even encouraged her to leave me. I didn't blame them. I was nearly convinced (through Satan's lies) that I could never change.
When we remain in darkness, Satan's lies enslave us. But when we come into God's light with whatever struggles we have, He helps us expose and dismantle Satan's deceptive strongholds:
Over time, I've realized that coming into the light isn't reserved solely for our conversion. On the contrary, this transparent lifestyle is the only way we overcome addiction or any perpetual sin (1 John 1:5-7). Light isn't just the destination, it's also the path out of darkness.
Thankfully, the darkness of my sexual sin wasn't too great for God to handle. When I finally committed myself to radical honesty before God and others, Robin and I were then able to move forward. Robin also learned how to live in the light by vulnerably sharing her needs and deepest fears. Living in the light, a lifestyle I once dreaded, turned into one I deeply desired; I reveled in the joy of a clean conscience.
Though it has taken many years – and tears – to get here, Robin and I now have a very specific plan for keeping our marriage in the light. Our covenant with one another includes:
By far, the most important step to continuing to walk in the light is moving past the shame that seeks to keep us in darkness.
"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." – Hebrews 12:2
My first big decision to divorce the shame of our marital struggles came just two short years ago. I was preparing to speak to 500 women gathered for a spiritual retreat. My newly penned book, Secure in Heart – Overcoming Insecurity in a Woman's Life, was at the printer. In my address, "Will I be rescued?," I was planning to share about Dave's sexual addiction and my determination to be rescued.
The first night of the retreat, I was called up on stage to be introduced before I spoke the next day. Instead of being encouraged, my heart was struck in panic. Although I had been extremely vulnerable in the pages of the book, this seemed scarier.
As I scanned the crowd, I saw many who knew me but who didn't know the depth of our struggles. What would they think of me now? Late that night, I called Dave for reassurance that we were both ready for this big step, and we prayed together on the phone.
The next morning, minutes before I was to speak, I fell on my knees in a lonely hallway and surrendered our story to God. By the time I walked onto the stage, my heart was at rest. And, after I opened my heart (and our battles) wide, the response was nothing short of amazing.
Numerous women found me throughout the weekend to confess hidden struggles – ranging from parental anguish to emotional affairs. But, something larger had happened. I had found the conviction to begin letting go of over 20 years of marital shame.
"… I cannot lift my head, for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction." – Job 10:15
When Dave and I married 28 years ago, we had every reason to hope for a great future of loving each other and serving God together. What we didn't understand was that we brought shame from our pasts into marriage.
Dave brought shame that traced all the way back to being exposed to a stash of pornography at a friend's house at the age of 11. When he tearfully confessed to his parents years later, they listened but had no answers or suggestions. Their silence left Dave feeling even more shame, unsure how his parents (or God) felt about his struggles.
I brought shame tracing back to the tender age of six when I was sexually abused by a visiting relative while my mother was out. Its grip strengthened in my preteen years when my father began his downward spiral into alcoholism.
But it wasn't just the large traumas that had left a mark of shame. Little traumas did too:
When Dave and I came together, we unknowingly had a language of shame that found its way into our communication in the most volatile of moments:
That shame had a way of amplifying my hurt and pushing my husband into isolation. This served to only increase my insecurity and fuel Dave's fear that he could never truly meet my needs.
The Bible tells us that the power to move past shame comes through the cross. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to look to Jesus' example of scorning the shame of our sin. The word scorn comes from the Greek kata and phroneo meaning "to think against or disesteem." Other versions translate this word as "despise."
What a tremendous gift I can offer to my husband when I despise the shame, reminding him that his battle with addiction does not define him. And what a gift Dave gives me when he tenderly reminds me that my insecurities don't mark me either, but rather make what I have accomplished more inspirational.
By making our marriage a shame-free zone, we've both found the grace and strength to make difficult changes. We do this through:
By routinely draining "pockets of shame," Dave and I are learning that together we can be victorious, no matter what the struggle – as long as we engage the battle together.
"If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up… Although one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." – Ecclesiastes 4:10, 12
I vividly remember the day I first caught a glimpse that healing from Dave's impurity might come as a couple. On our weekly drives to meet with a church counselor, we read Harry Schaumburg's book, False Intimacy, out loud together. On one of those days, his words jarred me:
"If you are dealing with your marriage partner's sexual addiction, it's my prayer that you will examine your heart, challenge the fortress of self-protection and evidences of false intimacy in your own life, and allow yourself to be drawn closer to a personal relationship with God." – p. 129
Anger flushed through my body from head to toe. How dare Schaumburg insinuate that I contributed to the heartache in our marriage. After all, I was the innocent one – the one sinned against. It took a great amount of self-control not to heave the book into the back seat.
But in reality, these words revealed my own coping mechanisms:
Not too much later, convicted by the Holy Spirit's continual nudges, I committed to a recovery program for wives of sexual addicts. And, as I started attending groups, reading books and talking to other women going through similar hardships, a critical transition occurred. Recovery had now become our journey. A battle we would win together.
When I began making difficult changes in my own life, Dave's respect for me soared. He felt freer to open up about his battles – victories and defeats. Discussions that previously erupted in anger now turned into a discussion of each other's feelings and needs. And, I began to see a new look in his eyes, a tender hope that I've since seen grow into a deep spiritual confidence.
"Now, however, it is time to forgive and comfort him. Otherwise he may be overcome by discouragement." – 2 Corinthians 2:7, NLT
Whether a spouse is fighting an addiction, depression or even a deeply engrained character flaw, we sometimes find ourselves in one of two extremes. We either seek to control, cover-up or compensate (becoming over-embroiled in their battles), or we distance ourselves from their struggles, communicating by our words and actions, "This is your battle. You fix it!"
The balance is found in understanding God's commitment to bring good to your life and to your marriage (Romans 8:28) through whatever difficulty you are facing. From my personal experience, this might include God's work of:
I finally realized that by refusing to help defend our marriage (and insisting that I'd wake up one morning and the fairy tale would be back and thriving), I was leaving my husband and brother in Christ more likely to be overcome by discouragement.
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." – Isaiah 43:2
If I had refused to acknowledge my own need for help, I would have missed a journey that wasn't just Dave's to take. God was standing by, lovingly holding out His hand, beckoning for me to follow. Were there rivers of tears and fires of pain? Absolutely. But true to God's Word, I didn't drown. I wasn't even burned. Rather, as Christ led us on our journey of recovery, He gave us gifts we couldn't have imagined.
One of these gifts was the transformation of our sexual relationship from a battleground to a sanctuary.
"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church." – Ephesians 5:31-32
After God selected the Jews as His chosen people, delivered them from slavery and gave them His law, He asked them to build a sanctuary where He would live (Exodus 25:8). This traveling tabernacle would be a holy place where God's people could find solace, fellowship and forgiveness. It was an object lesson pointing them to God as their true sanctuary.
But long before a physical sanctuary existed, there was another spiritual sanctuary that God instituted. It was between two people – a man and a woman (Genesis 2:22-25). This covenant was sealed by one, life-giving act – the two becoming one flesh.
In this intimate union, one man and one woman enter a covenant relationship where they give their bodies (and hearts) to each other and each other alone. In fact, sexual love in marriage is meant to be a refuge where unity is celebrated and shame scorned – a true sanctuary.
Fast forward to the 20th century. Television and other media advertise the world's false expectations day and night: Extend your pleasure! Enhance your sexuality and/or your body! Perform better, more often and longer. Sometimes, these messages even make their way into the hearts of Christians. Why should the world have it "better" than me?
Unfortunately for many of us, this thinking has twisted one of God's greatest gifts to married couples – sexual intimacy – into a bearer of pain. And since sexuality puts us completely naked and without defense before another human being, heartache in that intimate realm can be intense.
For many years, sexual intimacy was a place where Robin and I wrestled with our deepest insecurities. My long-time battles with pornography translated into pressure, manipulation and insistence on more and better sex. "Mark it on your calendar; I need sex every three days!" I told her in a heated moment. But, if Robin responded only out of duty, I felt emotionally robbed.
Likewise, Robin carried deep sexual insecurity and feelings of shame from when she was abused as a child. When I struggled with impurity, she alternated between using sex in an attempt to keep me pure and pulling back completely. She learned to respond to the physical act of sex, while holding her heart safely at a distance.
But, the truth is that Robin and I weren't seeking to hurt each other at all. The real attack was coming directly from Satan, as he sought to steal the sanctuary of our marital intimacy through:
"I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm." – Psalm 55:8
While Satan sought to discourage our hearts by tempting us to think that these storms were so scary that we could never change, God was holding out a place of shelter. That shelter is simply called "us." We needed to learn to make sexual intimacy less about "me" and more about "we."
As we've committed ourselves to growing in intimacy, sex has become a place of shelter, offering a confidence and security to help overcome a multitude of sins and struggles. To do this, we've needed to learn to replace:
In fact, many of our battles disappeared when I accepted that satisfaction would only come when I surrendered my desires to God. As a result, sex became about our connection, rather than about my own personal satisfaction. As Robin saw my heart change, she began working on her own intimacy issues, giving me back her heart and her body in ways that move me deeply.
Now we're beginning to understand what it means to have a bedroom that is a true sanctuary. But how do we bring Christ into every realm of our marriage?
"I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret place, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name." – Isaiah 45:2-4
In this series of articles, we've shared many stories of hard times, along with the "treasures of darkness" – lessons that God has taught us along the way. And although we've tried to give a vision of a vulnerable, intimate relationship where joy is much more prevalent than distress, it's important to understand that overcoming is not a straight road without bends or valleys.
Having an overcoming marriage is not something that happens overnight. It's not a destination where you can chart your arrival, say, in a matter of weeks, months or even years. And there's no magic milestone where you can say, "Now we've arrived at the perfect Christian marriage of our dreams!"
Rather, it is a commitment, a process, a hope that drives us to lift our heads and our hearts again and again to reengage. If we use the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23) as a paradigm for marriage, it's:
In an overcoming marriage, we understand that the cares of this life will always be there, but there's a bigger vision that sustains us and restores us after we fall.
That vision is Christ living in each of us individually and in the holy temple of our marriage.
What we've learned is that embracing the life of Christ extends to every aspect of our marriage. What does that mean practically?
As we follow Christ in marriage, we create fertile ground where God himself can come and restore hope, mend broken dreams and even redeem us from the depths of darkness.
No doubt this is a high calling. But here's the encouraging part. We're all in need of overcoming. Jesus came to model for us how to overcome the world. The book of Revelation tells us that Heaven will be filled with those who have overcome.
Please know that whatever you're going through that impacts your marriage – whether outward battles like addiction, financial struggles and parenting trials, or internal unrest like depression, lust, discouragement or anxiety – there is hope!
And whenever you choose to scorn the shame – and then for the joy set before you, firmly grasp onto your commitment to your mate – you've brought Christ into your marriage. And you've set out on the journey of having an overcoming marriage.
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." – John 16:33