It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Best of Times
Charles Dickens fans may wince at my blog title. His iconic first line of A Tale of Two Cities says, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and I purposely misquoted it because it aptly describes the inner-wrestling I experienced for almost 40 years.
In all that time, I lived a double life—caught in a cycle of sin and shame, full of self-inflicted guilt, stuck in a rut that I thought was never going to end. But—praise the Lord! —God was working behind the scenes to bring something beautiful from it all.
The Poison of Hidden Sin
For 35 years, most people would have described me as a gregarious and friendly guy. My wife and I seemed to have a happy marriage. We were blessed with a big family. I had a good job. I was a homeschooling father, a leader in my church, lived in a nice home in a beautiful neighborhood, and was always quick with a funny story at social gatherings.
But what most people didn’t know was that I was fighting—and regularly losing—a battle with pornography.
I feared being exposed. I became good at lying to hide my activities. Protecting my secret became all encompassing, and after years of failure, it seemed impossible to overcome. I prayed time and again for forgiveness as well as for strength to win this battle over sin. But at other times I was apathetic, and placated my guilt by telling myself that my small personal sin wasn’t really hurting anyone.
I lived a double life—caught in a cycle of sin and shame, full of self-inflicted guilt, stuck in a rut that I thought was never going to end.
But that was an illusion. My sin wasn’t private. My family—and especially my wife—were affected by my “secret sin.” We kept up appearances of a well-ordered family life, but the reality was that our marriage was in trouble. Despite my wife’s many requests for us to get marriage counseling (which I deflected or ignored) we simply settled into a fairly soulless relationship.
God Steps In
Then, in a matter of months, God stepped in—in a way that was overwhelmingly confusing and disorienting, but which later became evident as his particular care for us. I lost my job, and less than a year later we had to radically downsize and move out of our spacious home of 17 years to a new city 300 miles away. Our new place was a compact church apartment, and my new job was the church custodian. I had been a busy traveling marketing manager, but now I opened and locked the church, mopped floors, changed light bulbs, scrubbed bathrooms, cut grass, trimmed hedges, shoveled snow, moved chairs and tables—and even dug graves!
We slowly began to realize that this devastating “subtraction” was God’s way of removing the things in my life that were holding me back from submitting myself more fully to his will. Up to that point, I had pretty much lost hope of changing the sinful patterns in my life. But in the heat of my sin, God didn’t let go of me. Instead, although I didn’t listen to his whispers and hardened my conscience to his shouts, he used this traumatic experience as a megaphone (as C. S. Lewis illustrates) to get my attention. We were isolated, basically starting over, and shaken to the core—but it provided a merciful opportunity to reassess our priorities and to hear the Lord’s voice anew.
My faith was weak, and I feared taking the biblical steps I needed to break free from pornography. But through it all, my wife never stopped praying and asking God to break through my stubborn heart. In hindsight, I can see how he heard my wife’s prayers and took pity despite my weak faith.
We were isolated, basically starting over, and shaken to the core—but it provided a merciful opportunity to reassess our priorities and to hear the Lord’s voice anew.
In an amazing series of providences, my wife met Ellen Dykas, the director of Harvest USA’s women’s ministry. And because their ministry offices were just a few miles away from our new apartment, they began meeting together so my wife could understand her own struggles (which mostly stemmed from the fallout of my sexual brokenness). As my wife shared with me about what she was learning, I finally took her advice, visited Harvest USA, and joined one of their discipleship support groups for men.
Healing and Hope
For the next two years, my part-time job and our simple living arrangements made it possible for both of us to study God’s Word deeply, assess our hearts, wrestle with past trauma and fears, and learn to trust God in areas where we had previously kept him at arm’s length. We slowly moved toward each other, working through our wounds, and reconnecting where we had lost trust.
The 22-month discipleship program at Harvest USA helped me in several ways. Each week we learned to become more and more vulnerable with each other, sharing personal failings, past wounds, and current struggles and calling one another to live more obedient to God’s will. We built transparency and trust and prayed for each other knowing we were dependent on God’s strength in our battle with sin. We also encouraged each other to develop a support network at our churches, recognizing how important it was to have others help us when the program was over.
Amid it all, God did not abandon my wife and me. Even when I cried for help while still unwilling to change my behavior, he was patient with me. I was a wandering sheep, but he was a pursuing Shepherd (Ezek. 34:12; John 10:11; Ps. 119:176). I was stubborn and recalcitrant, and he remained unwavering in his fatherly discipline. I didn’t know it, but when things seemed darkest and hopeless, he was at work behind the scenes.
Similarly, despite the hurt and loneliness my wife felt due to my sin, she held onto the promise that God would be a faithful husband to her (Isa. 54:5). When she cried out to him in prayer, she found him to be a comforter (Isa. 51:3; 2 Cor. 1:3–4) and counselor (Ps. 16:7).
Only Christ Satisfies
C. S. Lewis was right. God loves us so much that he will use painful experiences, even pain itself, to awaken us from being overly content with our attachment to worldly ease and the comforts of this life. He takes us through such difficult times not to punish us, but to make us more like Jesus. It is not easy, but we learn to love him more through it.
To bring about the deep and lasting change in our lives, God didn’t just change our circumstances—he broke the power of reigning sin by dying on a cross.
Such trials and times of testing are evidence of God’s undying love for us. In them, he reveals to us the folly of thinking that the transitory pleasures of this world will satisfy.
But we also learn how far he is willing to go to show us that we will only be truly fulfilled and happy when we seek him first. To bring about the deep and lasting change in our lives, he didn’t just change our circumstances—he broke the power of reigning sin by dying on a cross. By doing so, he set us free indeed! As the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:22–23).