Johnny and Hannah (names changed) had twelve years of marriage behind them when his secrets came out. He’d humbly told Hannah when they were dating that porn had been a struggle since his teens. She took the news in and faithfully tried to learn how to help him, and their relationship moved forward to marriage. What Johnny hadn’t disclosed was that in high school, he’d fathered a baby and had caught an STD from his girlfriend. He brought that STD into his marriage. And there was more. Johnny then committed adultery with two women early in their marriage.
Fast forward twelve years. Johnny and Hannah had two kids and a busy life of parenting, jobs, and financial stress due to the pandemic. Hannah’s mysterious health problems and a trip to the doctor forced Johnny’s hand to come clean about his past, including how it had brought sickness into Hannah’s body.
Yet Hannah’s heart was sick, too. She was devastated to learn that her husband had kept so much history a secret from her. Even worse, it crushed her spirit to come to grips that her husband had endangered not only their marriage but her very life by giving himself sexually to others. To top it all off, he had another child out there somewhere!
An initial, helpful pastoral response is not enough
Hannah insisted that Johnny call their pastor when she learned all this heavy news, and, thankfully, the pastor responded quickly and compassionately. Within two days, the three of them met in his office, and out tumbled a sad, painful story of sin, suffering, and secrets. He wept with them and acknowledged the severity of their situation.
This is good news, right? Wouldn’t we want a pastor, church leader, counselor, or friend to respond this way? Yes! I celebrate when hurting wives share with me that their pastors respond with empathy, loving engagement, and personal availability. There are so many hurting couples in our churches who are alone and silent in their pain, so when I hear of a pastor’s office providing a warm and safe landing place for a couple, I truly am encouraged.
However, it’s what happened next that is sadly common for wives in particular when a husband’s infidelity comes out into the light. Don’t get me wrong: Wives can be sexually unfaithful, too, but, in my fifteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I’d say the calls from wives who have been hurt compared to husbands responding to their wives’ sexual sin is roughly 90 to 1.
An unfortunate yet typical scenario
Hannah and Johnny left the pastor’s office exhausted, brokenhearted (her), and ashamed and angry (him). But they did have a plan. Johnny would meet with the pastor weekly for the next month for some initial accountability, prayer, and encouragement. The pastor offered to try to find a mature woman in the church to connect with Hannah. Hannah was hopeful about having at least one person to open her heart to, even if she was deeply embarrassed and overcome with sadness. Counseling wasn’t an option, as there just weren’t finances for it, and, anyway, they lived in a community “where everybody knows your name,” so Hannah was terrified of others finding out. She arrived back home, got dinner on the table for her kids, and waited to hear from her pastor.
And she continued to wait. He emailed her three weeks later, apologizing that he hadn’t gotten back to her; he’d been so busy with trying to help Johnny, not to mention sermon prep, urgent church business, and caring for a congregant who was on hospice. He said he’d keep praying and working to find a woman she could meet with. Hannah read the email, wept, and then got up to attend to her kids.
Hannah was very thankful for her pastor’s care for her husband. Johnny had always been the gregarious kind of guy who everybody loved, but he really had no true friends. He’d come home upbeat, hopeful, encouraged from his meetings with the pastor and the spontaneously set-up support group for other guys in the church who were battling porn addiction. And he’d actually resisted the temptation to look at porn for three weeks—a first!
Johnny said, “Hannah, I finally feel like I’m beginning to change! The guys in this group just totally get me, and I’m sharing things with them that I’ve never told anyone. It is amazing… I love this church!”
But what about Hannah? Sure, she’s not the one battling sexual sin, but she has needs, too. She needs to be seen, known, loved, comforted, and journeyed with, too. What about Hannah?
Bring the gospel of love, comfort, and healing to the “other” spouse, too
Friends, Hannah’s situation is actually a good case study to depict the many wives who reach out to Harvest USA for help. As I’ve written before, I recognize that so many church leaders are busy and pulled in many directions. However, something is off when a repentant or unrepentant husband receives 90% of the pastoral energy, care, and attention, while a devastated, often traumatized wife is left on her own to navigate world-rocking circumstances.
Let me offer several ways you can live out the gospel with hurting wives without sacrificing the worthy time and energy that husbands need in their battle against sexual sin. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say again that women, whether single or married, are also in need of gospel care for their sexual sin struggles and infidelities. I am writing primarily out of my experience of walking with wives and coaching pastors regarding how to care for them in these circumstances.
First, learn how sexual betrayal affects a wife. The devastation is usually multilayered, and one of the most important things to understand is that many wives experience PTSD symptoms after the disclosure of their husbands’ secret sexual sin. CCEF helpfully explains, “PTSD identifies painful experiences that don’t seem to fade but intrude into daily life. This kind of trauma often leads to someone feeling numb, depressed, and hopeless, or feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”¹
When Hannah showed up at her pastor’s office, she was tearful, then angry, then too paralyzed to speak… all in the course of a two-hour appointment! Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
Next, remember that for every married man who battles sexual sin, there is a wife and perhaps kids who are impacted. It’s beautiful when churches uphold God’s good, biblical design for marriage, discipling their people that husbands and wives are to love each other as unto the Lord, to serve one another selflessly as a way to show devotion to Jesus through faithfulness in all areas.
However, we must also uphold God’s compassion for wives when marriage vows are broken. This is what Paul is speaking about, in part, when he exhorts husbands to “…love his wife as himself” (Ephesians 5:33). When husbands need help loving their wives, the Body of Christ steps in to counsel, correct, and provide compassionate care. The gospel urges us to walk intentionally with husbands who need help repenting and wives who are broken because of their husbands’ sin.
Finally, equip your saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11 has everything to do with gospel care for hurting wives. A ministry of mercy, counsel, and, yes, exhortation—because all of us respond sinfully to the sin done against us—to wives impacted by sexual betrayal is in view here as Paul explains how churches are meant to function.
Brothers and sisters, God loves his Bride, so I commend you to the worthy, faithful ministry of compassionate care for wives devastated by broken marriage vows. These brides are seen, loved, and defended by our gracious Father, and he has shared this ministry with us, his people.
This blog is inspired by our new Harvest USA resource which will release in July 2022. Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort in Christ is a discipleship resource with participant’s and leader’s guides that will be offered as a no-charge digital download from www.harvestusa.org.
¹https://www.ccef.org/ptsd-and-trauma/. Last accessed March 15, 2022.
Ellen Mary Dykas
Director of Equipping for Ministry to Women
Ellen joined Harvest USA in 2007 as our first full-time women’s ministry staff. Ellen received her MA from Covenant Theological Seminary and a graduate certificate in biblical counseling from Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF).More from Ellen Mary Dykas