Read an Excerpt
Playing with Fire
I loved my new church. It was vibrant, exciting, and contemporary. When the pastor preached, the Bible came alive to me as never before. He was like no other speaker I had ever heard, and my excitement held no bounds. I felt like I had won the lottery just to be able to attend this extraordinary church.
In addition to his marvelous preaching, this pastor could compose and sing music beautifully. I remember how sometimes during the Sunday service he would spontaneously walk over to the piano and begin worshipping the Lord in song while running his hands over the ivory keys. He would bring the congregation along as he led the way into astonishing worship.
My husband, Jeff, was starting a new job, so we had just relocated to this new city. Although he was not a Christian at the time, Jeff was supportive of my desire to get involved in a new church. I quickly made friends and started serving in different areas of church life, such as planning retreats for the ladies, helping in the nursery, and eventually even preaching and teaching on occasion.
This period in my life represented a wonderful awakening to the presence and reality of God. There were days when I literally could not stop smiling as I went about my daily chores. God was so real to me. He was making His Word come alive to me…and I was being changed. I was falling more and more in love with Jesus. I was also beginning to get a glimpse of my future, which clearly seemed to include a call to the ministry. Like a brilliant sunrise, Christ took my breath away with His presence and promises. My new church and my new pastor were being used by God to facilitate these remarkable changes in my life.
I was a happily married woman, a doting mom, and a strong Christian. That’s why nothing could have prepared me for what came next.
A Too-Close Friendship
Over time, I developed a close relationship with the pastor and his wife, along with several others in the church congregation. My new friends and I would get together regularly for picnics while our kids ran around and played together. What fun we had discussing the things of God, enjoying mutual excitement over our wonderful church and what God was doing there. We planned for the future and anticipated many years of exciting and productive times of ministry together.
Jeff was seldom a part of these get-togethers, as he was working during the day. But during this time he was accepting of the amount of time I was spending with my new friends.
One of the most exciting events at our church each week was the Sunday night service. The worship team was let loose, and without the constraints of time, the sounds of adoration and praise would fill the sanctuary for as long as an hour. After that, the congregation was invited to take turns sharing what God was doing in their lives. The pastor would then preach for a while, and we would end the service with prayer.
These Sunday night meetings would go on for hours. The presence of God was so real. God was manifesting Himself, and nobody wanted to leave. We would eventually take pity on the poor nursery workers and end the meeting somewhere between 10 and 11 p.m.
Who wanted to go home after that? I sure didn’t! So a big group of us would then head over to the local Denny’s restaurant to enjoy each other’s company and have some lively conversation. We would laugh and talk, and relive the extraordinary church service that had just taken place.
There were many evenings that winter when I would call my husband just before we went into the restaurant, to see if he minded my going. Now, my conscience minded my going… the Holy Spirit who lives inside me minded my going…and even my common sense minded my going. But no, I had to call to see if my husband (who had now been alone for the last five hours) minded my going.
As I stood outside Denny’s in the darkened phone booth, I could hear in his voice that he did mind my going. His voice said okay, but his tone whispered no. I chose to ignore that. It was one of many red lights that I eventually drove right through.
More Red Lights
Over that winter and into early spring I found myself spending more time socializing with the pastor and his wife. Sometimes my husband would be included, such as at dinner parties or sporting events, but many times I would just hang out with the pastor and his wife in their home without him. Jeff was being increasingly isolated from my new life.
As the spring days grew warmer, the pastor’s wife and I began spending a lot time together. She was such good company, and our friendship grew steadily. She seemed to have no awareness of the developing flirtation between her husband and me.
Many times when the pastor’s wife and I were having lunch at her home, her husband would drop by for a few hours and we would chat. Our personalities were similar, so of course we found each other charming, witty, and irresistibly funny. We could laugh and talk for hours.
I received great pleasure and validation from my relationship with the pastor. I was flattered by his friendship, feeling a type of approval and affirmation that I had never known. The inordinate amount of attention I was receiving swelled my ego, causing me to become somewhat self-absorbed.
By the time summer arrived, we had begun talking on the phone regularly, expanding our relationship beyond the already too-loose boundaries. He began calling me each day while his wife took an afternoon nap with their children. Of course Jeff had no idea that the pastor and I were chatting regularly–this was something I was hiding from him.
This seemed wrong…I knew it was wrong. But there I went, speeding through another red light.
Then came the dream.
In my dream I saw the pastor come around the corner of a building. As he approached me, I heard the voice of the Lord above and behind me saying, “You are spending too much time together!” I sat bolt upright in bed, knowing I had just had an encounter with God. I was literally shaking with fear.
I called up my trusted friend Debbie, who was a mentor and older sister in the Lord. She listened as I told her all that had been happening in my life. I held nothing back, doing my best to be as transparent with her as possible.
Her counsel was that I leave that church immediately. During our long, tearful conversation, she literally begged me to get out of the pastor’s life that day, and to run to a different church–as if my life depended on it. She rebuked me in no uncertain terms and corrected me like a mother in the Lord.
I vowed that I would obey. I promised to do exactly as she said. I pledged to extract myself from this man’s life quickly.
But I did not. I chose not to.
You see, at first I was convinced that Debbie’s advice was 100 percent correct. Then, little by little, I decided that I could handle the pastor’s escalating attention. Leaving a church I loved so dearly seemed too drastic.
I would make a concerted effort to put some distance between the pastor and myself. How hard could that be? I loved my husband. In my heart of hearts, I knew that I would never betray his trust. Jeff was a wonderful man–hard working, kind, so good to our son. So what was the problem here? Nothing, really…just a little harmless flirting, that’s all.
So on I went, careening recklessly through another red light.
All hell broke loose one hot July afternoon. My little boy was napping, and I was having my daily chat on the phone with the pastor…when he revealed his interest in me as more than just a friend.
Thus began the worst season of my life. I had played with fire, enjoying the attention and flirting shamelessly, and now I was getting burned. I had no intention of leaving my husband. I had no intention of having a sexual fling with this man. I was just enjoying a little harmless flattery, a perk of being the pastor’s favorite “sheep.” But now I was in deep trouble, and I felt guilty for not following Debbie’s advice from weeks before.
I didn’t know how to get out of the mess I had made of my life. There were many times when God had tried to stop my descent. So many times He had tried to correct me. But I chose not to give up my relationship with the pastor…or his wife…or the many church members that I had grown to love so deeply over the years. I chose not to give up all the fun and fellowship that came with attending the church.
Bottom line, I chose not to relinquish the emotional attention I received from my inappropriate friendship with the pastor.
Exposure: The Ticket for Running Red Lights
The church was run by a board of three elders and their wives, in addition to the pastor and his wife. By late summer the elders got wind of the fact that there was a too-close friendship going on between the pastor and me, and they took action to see that it went no further. At the elders’ request, I met with them and was asked at that time to leave the church permanently.
The thing I remember most about that meeting was the unconditional love I felt in the room. It was the tangible love of God. I knew the elders were doing their best to prayerfully handle this uncomfortable situation, and God in His love confirmed their decision.
You may wonder if the pastor was also asked to leave the church. Yes, eventually the elders decided that this would be the best course of action for all involved, and the pastor and his family relocated to a different city.
The church survived, but it was never again the same. The damage was irreversible, the breach irreparable; many people were deeply wounded as a result of our actions.
Shortly after that meeting with the elders, I came clean with my husband about the whole ugly situation. To say he was disappointed would be an understatement. Jeff was understandably hurt and angry, but he forgave me. And ultimately, he took comfort knowing that nothing had happened physically between the pastor and me.
From Gossip and Despair to Forgiveness and Healing
The church members responded with a range of emotions: sadness, rage, and concern, to name a few. Some reacted by gossiping; others, by praying.
I understood all these reactions. In a way, I felt I deserved the ugliness being directed toward me…but that didn’t make it any easier.
It was at this time that the most incredible thing happened. As I began focusing on the relationships in my own home, my husband became my best friend. While blame, accusations, and rumors were being tossed around our small town like grenades, my husband was a shelter for me, a steady source of comfort and forgiveness.
Why had I never noticed this side of Jeff before? He was gracious, loyal, merciful, and exceedingly kind. The enemy had tried his best to turn my head with the attentions of another man, and all along I was missing the depth, worth, and desirability of the man I already had.
It took time, but my marriage recovered. Eventually it grew stronger, happier, and more genuine. I realized just how much I loved Jeff–really loved him. In time we moved to another city and found a new church, and that was when my husband became a Christian.
I came away from that time in my life convinced of two truths:
Truth #1: Many women grow cold to the wonderful attributes that first draw them to their husbands.
Familiarity, the cares of this life, and the enemy can obscure the qualities women once admired in their husbands. As a conference speaker, I minister to women who are blindly trudging through marriage, thinking maybe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. But the reality is that sometimes there’s a garbage dump on the other side of the fence.
After my flirtatious and destructive friendship with the pastor ended, I ran for the safety and security of my husband. It was as if the clouds had parted on a deeply overcast day and the sun shone brightly for the first time in months. With complete clarity I comprehended my admiration, desire, and love for Jeff–and it has only deepened with time.
Several years ago at a conference, I counseled a young woman who was growing disappointed in her marriage. She wasn’t sure she had married the right guy, they weren’t getting along, and she was regretting her choice. I happened to know this couple, and I knew firsthand what a terrific guy he was. I reminded her that although she did not see her husband as a “prize,” other women might very well be looking at her life with envy, seeing the wonderful, handsome, smart guy that she had the privilege of marrying. I counseled her to wake up and appreciate the man she was taking for granted.
Think about it this way. For the divorce rate to be as high as it is, we basically have well-intentioned but deeply flawed men and women switching partners for their own personal happiness. The sentiment seems to be, “I’ll divorce my imperfect and annoying husband and marry the imperfect and annoying husband of my friend.”
Since there is no perfect person out there, and exchanging partners doesn’t fix the problem, what is the answer?
It’s recognizing the truth that the man you always wanted is the man you already have, that the big lug lying next to you each night really is your Prince Charming. And I believe this truth best becomes a reality in our lives as we are invested in an engaging and joyful relationship with the Savior.
Truth #2: The approval we long for will be found only in our relationship with Christ, not in the acceptance and favor of other men.
I began that arduous season devoted to Christ and my husband, but I was drawn away by my pride and a refusal to obey the Lord’s warnings. Every disobedient step led me further from Him. And every time I turned a deaf ear to God’s rebuke, I wandered a little further down the path of destruction. By the end of the ordeal I was actually faking the presence of God, “playing church”–just going through the motions when it came to ministry.
In the same way that I returned to the safety and security of my marriage after the inappropriate relationship with the pastor, I also ran quickly to the protection of my first love, Jesus. It was in that place of repentance and prayer that I remembered God is my “all in all.” He is more than enough.
What I discovered about that ordeal is this: It’s only as I am found in Christ that I can be content in my relationship with my husband. If I’m fulfilled, it’s not because Jeff came through the door last night with a dozen long-stemmed red roses, a love poem, and a box of candy. Rather, I’m fulfilled by the ultimate Lover of my soul.
This leads to great contentment. And because I am deeply contented in the quietest and most secret places of my heart, by the love and approval of Christ, I can then reach out in love to my husband and receive his love freely. Best of all, I can put my expectations where they properly belong–on the shoulders of the Lord.
How about you? Are your expectations for a happy life and fulfilling marriage placed squarely on the shoulders of God? If you’re anything like me, you may be tempted to make your husband responsible for your personal happiness; or the lack thereof, his transgression.
But there are really only two viable sources of hope for your marriage. The first is prayer: taking your concerns daily and laying them in faith at the feet of Christ. And the second is you. While you can’t control your husband’s actions, you can control your own. That should greatly encourage you, because with it comes hope! Change is possible. Change is imminent. Change is coming…do you feel it?
As you journey through the next nine chapters, you’ll be faced with some choices. Honesty…transparency…forgiveness…surrender…discovery…revelation…faith. These are just a few of the responses that must come. But I promise you, it will be worth it. Think of the time you spend reading this book as a well-planned-out and exciting pilgrimage. This journey will have moments of insight, sparkling brilliantly like ocean waters on a clear day. Other moments will be rocky, dislodging deeply embedded negative thinking.
On this journey you will encounter the sweet fragrance of memory, recalling the reasons you fell in love with your husband in the first place.
And in the end, the pilgrimage will return you to the beginning, to the place where your marriage started–first love.
From the Trade Paperback edition.