I remember the before and after of my conversion to Christianity. I remember before being married and after—before having children and after.
There is one before and after that stands out among them all. Though it has so profoundly changed me, I have yet to speak of it publically, and rarely privately. Before this event, I was busily going about my life, studying theology, teaching Bible studies, raising my children, counseling many women in the church, serving in the preschool ministry, and evangelizing drug addicts at the local rescue mission. I had a firm understanding of what my life of obedience to Christ should look like as a wife, mother, and church member. I felt like I was doing a pretty good job of not only keeping the New Testament imperatives, but also encouraging others to serve and follow my lead. I’ll admit I was exhausted, but that was part of it. Paul toiled to the point of exhaustion for the gospel. I had been taught, therefore, that I should, too. After all I had not yet toiled so as to shed my blood. I felt it was my duty to live out the gospel for others to see. I believed they would see it most clearly through my strength. I was wrong.
My husband and I have always enjoyed taking long walks together. He is a very good listener and the exercise helps me get some of my angst out. One day, we were on one of these walks. I was chattering through the issues of my latest counselee whose husband had struggled with pornography throughout their marriage. I told my husband that this woman just would not forgive him. If she would forgive him, I reasoned, and not put so much pressure on him to stop, but love him through it and give him more sex, I bet he would stop. I was so frustrated with her. Why couldn’t she just try harder to forgive him and move on like I told her to do?
It was at this moment that my husband, my best friend, MY counselor cut in.
“Marci, maybe this would be a good time to tell you that I too have struggled with pornography. I have not looked at it in the last few years. I believe the Lord has given me victory over it, but you should know that not even happily married men like me are immune to it. Many men have been in bondage to it for years. They don’t know how to stop.”
Though I kept walking, numbness descended over my body like a blanket of snow that is freezing at first and then just heavy. I now understand that I went into shock—what one of my friends calls, “God’s natural anesthesia to help us face painful things.”
I felt as if I had cement blocks tied to my feet, or like I was trying to run and scream in a dream but couldn’t. We walked in silence. I realized if I was to continue being impatient with my counselee for not forgiving her husband, I had to make sure my husband knew that I was strong enough to handle this—just like I was strong enough to handle anything that came my way. Yes, I would carry it for him, though I would get to the bottom of it and make sure he was “cured.” No one would find out except for a couple of “accountability” partners. Our reputation in the church should not change—I would continue in my positions of leadership as before. After all, this was not my sin; this was his.
I asked a few questions I did not know if I wanted answers to.
“Why? Was it some inadequacy in me that drove you there? Is this my fault?”
“No! No! Honey!”
“If I am honest, about ten years”
Memories started flooding my mind—every good thing that happened in those ten years became poisoned by his betrayal. How could I have been such a fool? Our children were little. I was struggling to be a good wife and mom. He was picky about how he wanted things done around the house. I tried and tried to do better to please him, and he had been doing this!
“That whole time?”
“I’m so so sorry. I wish I could take it back. I wish I could go back.”
“What do they look like?” I asked.
“Honey, don’t do this.”
“What. Do. They. Look. Like?” I demanded.
He answered my questions as best as he could so as not to injure me further. He could tell that I wasn’t going to take this news the way I had required my friend to just a few minutes prior.
It was a Wednesday night. This meant we had to pick our kids up from church and see people. I can do that, I thought. I’ll power through. We pulled up to a parking lot full of activity—parents and kids and happy families everywhere. Our pastor’s book had just come out and he (being one of our closest friends) greeted me warmly, hugged me, and gave me a signed copy. I felt like a rag doll in a fog of greeting and smiling and hugging, but the anesthesia was beginning to wear off. My soul was hemorrhaging and I couldn’t breathe. I needed to get out so I could go somewhere to lie down and die.
The next day God’s natural anesthesia was gone. Tears had escaped me the night before but now they flowed freely. I let it out good and hard—an indignity that I, as a strong woman, rarely allowed myself. I lay on my floor and poured my heart out to God. This was the knock-out punch in a long line of blows. I was determined to force myself back into the pillar of strength I had been, but the referee was counting and I couldn’t get up.
Over the next year, I tried to conduct as many activities as I did before, but I found myself falling apart over even the smallest things. Little by little, I pulled out of most of the ministries I was involved in. I developed social anxiety.
I could not hear advice on forgiveness that I had given to others. I could not bear platitudes or crappy advice or invasive questions that blamed me in some karmic way. I could not stand to be around either of our families who regularly communicated their belief that I married up, and how lucky I was to have such a handsome and godly man. I turned into a zombie—sometimes going through the motions of life, and sometimes having a few glasses of wine at 7:30 and going to bed.
Even though pornography had already broken my marriage and I hated it, I feared my husband would reject me altogether if I did not force myself to return to what now seemed like a duty. I tried to find racy movies to watch that would appeal to some base desire in me. If I could view it as a merely physical act, maybe I could get through it. It didn’t work. It only made me feel more shame and more disgust. I fell into a deep depression. I remember lying on the floor crying and pointing at my husband, and seething: “I am done carrying you. You were supposed to carry me!”
I didn’t care if God healed our marriage or not. I just wanted to be alone with Jesus all the time. “I’ll be over here with Jesus,” I said to my husband. “If you want to get to me—you gotta go through Him.”
My husband is (was) a perfectionist. I had strived to live up to his standards of cleanliness, fitness, good behavior in public, appropriateness, pleasing other people, and money management. All the “tips” I had learned about how to be a godly wife now made me so angry at those women who alluded to the promise of a godly man, if I did these things. I never stopped loving my husband, but I did stop trying to earn his love for me.
I don’t know how to describe what happened in my marriage except to say that I gave up. I cried “Uncle!” Through the crap-storm of our sin, both my husband and I gave up our own lousy righteousness. All along I had been hiding behind all sorts of facades of strength—external things to convince people of my good standing with God. The Lord had been chipping away at my pride. He reached me by taking away every human source of comfort that I might turn to instead of Him. We were exposed. Our false religion of earning love from each other was crumbling.
My husband picked up the slack around the house. He handled our parents and parented our kids like he never had before. He sat on the bedside, afraid to even hold my hand, and prayed for me day after day. He cried out to God to heal our marriage. I refused to pray with him. It was too intimate an activity, but I would listen to him pray. The wall of ice around my heart slowly began to melt.
Darkness was my companion for a long time, but no amount of spiritual discipline or good behavior would make it lift, so I stopped trying to rush it off. Nothing could take us back to the before. We were stuck in the after. I came to accept that God would lift the darkness when it was done doing its work in me. His presence was there with me—I sensed it more then than I ever had before or since.
There, even in the darkness, I was truly known and truly accepted because Jesus had paid for my wretchedness on the cross, and gave me His perfect record for free. Little did I know that through the valley of pride and pornography my husband and I would discover that marriage is not a place for obligatory need-meeting, but a picture of grace—of Christ and His bride. It is meant to be a place of such intimacy that you can be truly known and fully accepted for who you are and not who you should be.
This is the part where I am supposed to tell you that we lived happily ever after. No, our sin is still with us. Therefore, my heart still freezes over with anger, depression, and selfishness and so does my husband’s. We no longer turn to do-better, try-harder techniques. When sin takes over either of our hearts, it is a reset button back to the cross—our reminder that we are dependent upon Christ in faith, not in ourselves.
“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6