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Perseverance for the Believer When There is Resistance to Reconcile

We want to be a tangible representation of gospel love.

Mar 3, 2021

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Tim Keeter. I am a lay elder, not on staff, at my church. My church family who I love is Grace Community Church in Huntsville, Alabama. I am a full-time engineer, so if you know anything about Huntsville, that’s not a big deal. There’s a lot of us there. It’s a pretty nerdy town, but there is a work-life balance between ministry and work, and I am so thrilled that I get to be a part of this type of ministry in our church. It is a part of how our church operates. Our leadership leads in this area, and our people understand and appreciate the role of counseling. It’s not just some separate thing that we do. It’s really a part of how we approach Scripture and a part of how we minister it to one another, not just from the leadership down.

I want to encourage you—if you feel like a voice crying in the wilderness where you’re getting this, but you’re not really sure, or if it’s catching on around you—be faithful, submit to your leadership, go to them in humility and encourage them to look into these things, and use what you walk away with here. If this is your first time here or you’ve been coming several times, use what you have and love people with it. Seek to be more faithful; seek to grow. I want to leave you with some things that you can use.

That’s my purpose today and I want to talk to you about those situations when we have relationships—especially close relationships—that are very meaningful and that become severely damaged, and through the course of whatever is going on it gets to a point where it just doesn’t look like reconciliation is going to occur. Like marriages that would end in divorce, close friendships, or maybe a sibling or even a child that has just gone off the deep end in rebellion and hardness of heart; or relationships inside the church that have endured for years and that have been broken. The believer is hurt deeply; perhaps not just from being sinned against, but maybe over grief of how they’ve even contributed to it over the years or over the moments that have led to this point.

Understanding at the outset that this is a marathon, not a 50-yard dash and that we need to be committed to love these individuals, be there for them, not go anywhere, and encourage them in that capacity. I’m assuming at this point, as you’re walking through these things with them, that you’re working with them to address their logs in the matter. In Matthew 7, Christ tells us to look to ourselves first. I’m assuming that you’ve been doing that, that they have seen that, and that they’re seeking forgiveness—not perfectly—but that overall you see that the thrust of their life is now characterized by a desire to glorify God, to restore that relationship, to rebuild any kind of trust and strengthen it if at all possible, and hoping in that. But the problem is that whoever the other party is, they have moved on in their minds. They’re resisting—perhaps sinfully—any attempts to reconcile, at least in terms of a desire to put things back where they were. This other party still feels the pain of the broken relationship in almost all cases, but rather than what Ken Sande would call “peacemaking,” they are either “peacefaking” by fleeing the situation or they’re just turning to attacks and what he would call “peacebreaking.”

This workshop today is based on a couple of different case studies. I want to walk you through a couple case studies with two men in particular that I’ve had the privilege to become friends with and to know who have experienced this situation with their wives—now ex-wives. I want you to walk away with three different things in particular: 

1) Different counselors can draw from the same Bible, but will creatively apply these truths in different ways. I was not the primary counselor in at least one of these cases. We can accomplish the same goal by creative application. 

2) Similarly, there are different believers. These two men are in different places in their spiritual maturity, and you’ll see that these two men will cling to different combinations of biblical truth as anchors in their lives. We don’t want to walk into anything with the mentality of “Oh, yeah. I’ve seen this before.” We want to be humble. We want to listen. We want to love. We want to enter into the struggle with them. We want to think through things.

3) Even though these two cases are not a comprehensive treatment necessarily or an agenda, I want these principles to be tools that you can add to your toolbox. 

What I’ve done was such a blessing, even with the pain. I’ve gone back and sat with these men on multiple lunches a year and a half or more after the situation had not resolved and ended the way it did. I walked back through the situations from the initial point of revelation of, “Hey, there’s a problem here,” all the way up through the end and through where they are today. I explored with each of them the question: What was it that really encouraged you to be faithful at each stage along the way? I have five little things from each case study about what brought them comfort that I’d like to flesh out a little bit. These are things we want to explore. These are things that we want to make sure to emphasize with different people. 

I’ve given you a reference as well at the beginning to what we call “authentic suffering.” This is something that Steve Viars has coined in his book: It’s Not Always Sin: Bringing about Healing to Those who Suffer. Excellent book, excellent resource. I commend it to you. In particular he had a talk on that in 2011 for ACBC that you can go look up if you want the short version of it as opposed to the book.

You can see that when others are suffering, we certainly want them to repent of any sin that they’ve had in the process and move towards an authentic biblical suffering where they are understanding that they can be honest with the Lord. We look at Asaph in Psalm 73 and see that Asaph is bringing his questions and angst to God, not in a way to somehow assign fault to God, but in more of a sanctified, “I don’t get it; I just don’t get it.” Admitting our weakness, admitting our failures, but while encouraging hope in God and sticking to sound theology.

We’ll see how important dependence on our church family was in the lives of these two men. I hope that I can impress upon you how incredibly important that was and the importance of the preparation that brought about the relationships that stood firm when everything else in their life felt like they were on shaky ground. I think it’s important to encourage active ministry even as we suffer and, of course, encourage an eternal perspective. You’ll see elements of those in these two case studies. 

Case Study #1

So let’s begin with a man that we’ll call Alan. That’s the first study. Alan is obviously not his real name, and with Alan’s permission, I’ve sifted out the things that are common to man. Alan was an elder in his church at the time. To shorten the matter a little bit, his wife drifted further and further away not just from him, but from interest in spiritual things and in the church, which grew from a drifting to a sort of bitterness against him. The church began to see that lack of interest, that engagement even during the sermons, but on the other side they saw an elevated interest in her appearance as she wore increasingly immodest dresses. Then they saw a desire for pursuing her own career. It was a sales-related type of career where she was away from home and from their two young children a lot on weekends and nights. It was also the type of career that had lots of office parties and celebrations when sales went well frequently throughout the year and involved extended hours alone with other men. This eventually led to adultery that wasn’t even revealed until well after the divorce, only fairly recently. I was brought in to come alongside another set of counselors and the leadership in Alan’s church.

I eventually developed a friendship with Alan that lasts even to this day. I hope we enter into those relationships expecting to become close. The world tells us to keep a safe professional distance, but the Bible says to love people, and that’s an encouragement to me. Alan is an encouragement to me, not just because we’ve been able to walk through this together, but because he loves the Lord and I need men like that in my life. I need to spend time like that with men who love the Lord.

Let’s look at how Alan responded during the process of realizing that things were really not good, but while he still hoped they would get better, and then during the painful process of seeing that the situation was just going to keep deteriorating. The situation went on for about a year to a year and a half.

1. He was comforted by submission to the church.

Let me expand on that a little bit. As an elder, Alan was usually on the other side of these types of situations. He was usually the one dealing with and diving into the sticky situations as well as leading. For the first time in his life, he was on the other side.

He found a huge comfort in the ability to submit to church leaders. They weren’t perfect, but Alan realized that they loved God and they loved him. This is why it was important to Alan. Here’s a guy who for all practical purposes was filled with wisdom and understood the Word, was committed to the sufficiency of Scripture, understood how it applied academically to his own situation, but he was so caught up and so weakened, or faint-hearted or small-souled according to 1 Thessalonians 5:14. It was hard for him to even reason through what to do next. It was helpful for him to be able to look to these men and just say: “Tell me what to do. Help guide me.” Even though people like Alan may have been on the other side of the table at times, when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard. It’s hard to think clearly and we need people who will come alongside us to help us and to guide us. It was difficult to submit not just to the leadership, but to the church, and to trust the process outlined in Matthew 18, even though his wife was the one who was persisting in her sin.

They were not just unpacking all his wife’s stuff; they were unpacking his stuff and his home. That’s humbling. You can’t close that door and not let anyone in. Alan had to figuratively invite them inside his messy house, but he learned through the process to find comfort in and to embrace that humility because he saw that it increased his dependence upon God as well as his church family. 

We’re looking at submission to the church, trusting the leaders to do what is right and to be qualified men who are walking with the Lord, seeking His counsel, and working together to think through these things. Because of the position he was in, this went to the leadership very quickly. There are situations in our church that maybe one or two elders know about, and by the time it gets to a larger stage we bring it before the rest of the elders. That’s a wisdom issue. In this case, it elevated very quickly because of his position. Alan found comfort in submission because they were people that the Lord had put in his life to help show him wisdom and to love him.

2. He was also refreshed by the friendships he had in the church.

We want to encourage that at all times. Proverbs 18:1 says, “He who separates himself seeks his own desire and quarrels against all sound wisdom.” Other versions say, “he rages against all sound wisdom.” A tendency sometimes is to withdraw, especially if we’ve been the counselor, if we’ve been the elder. It’s humiliating. But our churches need to keep cultivating the culture that we suffer with one another. I think it’s helpful even just to articulate that when people are pouring out their hearts to you, just to let them know “we’re suffering with you; we love you.” As the church, we are the hands and feet of Jesus to our hurting brothers and sisters. It doesn’t need to just be the counseling arm; it needs to be the whole church. They don’t have to know all the details, but we know when we need to take up action and love those who are hurting.

The flip side of that is that there were so many people holding Alan up during his weakness in this trial that he would have a tendency to think of it as a bother and a burden. All of these people had their lives going on; there were a lot of things going on, so he didn’t always want to ask for the help when he most needed it. He needed to be encouraged. It’s times like this—by the way—when it’s probably not the best choice to send a text message saying: “Hey, praying for you. Let me know if you need anything.” You see what I’m saying? We mean well and we may do that. But Alan had the most encouragement when men in his life would take the initiative to say, “Hey, listen, we’re doing lunch this week. When are you free? Let’s go to lunch. Let’s spend some time after work.” Don’t put the ball back in their court.

That means that, as counselors in their lives, we may need to prompt other men or women as is appropriate to engage them. Maybe it’s just an another individual in your community group or your small group or women’s group. For example, you might just say, “We’ve been praying for Joan, but why don’t you see if she’s got an evening free or go find a way just to go sit and be a friend with her while she’s doing laundry Thursday night, just to be there because those are her loneliest times. Maybe you can just be a friend and don’t ask her to tell you when it’s okay. Sit down and figure it out; be there for her.”

Those are refreshing things and those in a weakened state don’t always think or feel like they have the wherewithal to ask for it. But we are meant to walk this Christian life in a community of faithful believers. We want to help men like Alan and women in situations like Alan to see the value of their church; there’s something to appreciate here. I’ve been in humbled situations where I depended heavily on others to serve my family and me. One of the things that was the most encouraging to me was to realize that this is so, so valuable and so important that my church—that Grace Community Church—when I was in my largest trial was being sanctified through my trial by a loving and wise Father that didn’t just pour this out on Tim for Tim to grow, and Tim to do this, and Tim to move towards Christlikeness; but He did it for my church and for them to step up and sacrifice, for it to cost them to love my family.

It is good for Alan to realize and to be grateful for their sacrifice and service not just because it helped strengthen him, but because it helped strengthen his church family. It is good for our churches to be inconvenienced for those who suffer. That’s tangible. It’s even evangelistic in nature. We talk about John 13: “They will know you’re my disciples if you have love for one another.” We want to be a tangible representation of gospel love to our community and to unbelievers who are even in our churches to see how we love one another.

Alan was grateful throughout. It was an anchor to him that he had a deep bench of people that he could go to at any time not just for the superficial stuff, but the nitty-gritty. There’s a balance here too; it doesn’t always need to be every time you come over it’s a hard, heavy thing. Sometimes you just need to have a dude night. I’ve had friends where they were walking through some really, really hard things, and every Tuesday night when the kids got in bed we’d pull out World War 2 DVDs of documentaries and things like that and just watch military things because that’s what we do in Huntsville. We watch military things, you just can’t get out of it; or NASA stuff. Just to nerd out over whatever.

May this be said of all of our churches as well as ourselves. Are we cultivating these kinds of transparent relationships? It’s hard to bring them up at the last minute. But are we doing things as we progress through so that it is available when it’s needed? Because it is a valuable resource. I’m talking here to church leaders as much as I am to anyone. Are we being deliberate?

To the others who are like Alan, I think Alan said, “I want other people in my situation to know not to let your trouble become your scarlet letter either.” Enter into those friendships, but those things don’t need to be something that silently defines your relationship with everybody else. We want to encourage people like Alan that we’re here because we’re your friend as well. I’ve had honest discussions with men before who said, “You know, I appreciate it. There are meals; there are prayers; lots of people are gathering around. What’s going to be happening in six to nine months from now when this is still an issue? Where’s everybody going to be?” That’s a good honest question. And we need to keep reminding them: “Hey, we’re not going anywhere; we’re your church family; we’re your friends.” We may need to teach the flock and lead them by example and make sure that we stick with them, especially not losing them to bitterness and those types of things. The friendships and the church are super, super important. You’ll see this with the second case as well. 

3. Alan was strengthened by sound theology.

He’s a teaching elder in his church. He understands, right? He doesn’t need somebody to reveal to him the mysteries of Romans 8:28-29, but he needs to be reminded. We all need to be reminded. Some things that helped him the most in this area really had a lot to do with the way you help people understand their relationship to God and His character in this trial and who they are in God, for example. Booklets and studies on authentic suffering are helpful. I think the thing that helped Alan the most was a book by Dave Harvey. I was talking to Jim Newheiser about this last night; it’s a book called Letting Go. (Dave wrote another book that I’m a huge fan of called When Sinners Say I Do. It’s a great marriage book and it doesn’t hold back any punches right out of the gate.) This is a book by Dave and I forget who the other author is, but if you look up Dave, you’ll find it; it’s called Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls. It’s broad. It’s not just for husband-wife relationships, but parent-child relationships, friendships, sibling relationships, and those types of things. I love that it’s written from pastors who have just seen this over and over again in their churches. 

I was going to share with you some amazing notes that I took in that book, but it is on an airplane probably somewhere in a back-seat pocket. So, if you’re going home on a Delta flight that has three seats on each side of the aisle and you sit in 28d, you may get a gift. I left that behind, but I will say that is a great reference if you do not have it bookmarked. They have a wonderful app as well if you’re an app kind of person. Jim has audio that is available on that website where he talks through this subject. I imagine you just search for Dave Harvey and you’ll find a number of resources. That’s a great resource. I have gone to many times. Have you ever come away from a counseling situation like, “Okay, this is a little bit new and I need to make sure I’m thinking biblically about this”? Please make one of your stops. Things are common to man and they have brought in a number of wonderful speakers. There are transcripts if you’re a reader rather than an audio person. You’ll find this resource on there if you want the short version of what that book has to offer.

Alan was encouraged by this. In his words, he said, “It just kind of helped me realize I wasn’t crazy.” This is what he meant by that: This had a grounding effect for him because in this particular situation his now ex-wife was just in attack mode: peacebreaking, constant criticism, constant blaming, finding fault, saying, “It’s your fault that we are where we are and it can’t be fixed.” That will wear you down. That’s a war of attrition. Because Alan sincerely loved her, he wanted to consider the criticisms that were constantly being launched at him, but he was worn down by the accusing and the blaming. Dave reminds us in his book that we can also become tempted to acquiesce in order to try to keep the peace and to somehow keep the marriage intact. But when we do that, all we’re doing is allowing them to persist in their sin without the sting of consequences. That is not actually a loving thing to do. Dave’s book helps think through that.

Even though Alan was acutely aware of his wife’s sinful thinking and approach—her desires, her words, her pursuits—he needed those reminders of what his responsibility was and that she was indeed in rebellion against God.

4. He was humbled by hope in God.

“Love believes all things, love hopes all things, love bears all things.”

We know for a fact that any relationship can be reconciled. There is no brokenness, there’s no line that we can cross where God’s grace does not restore; but we also don’t want to put our hope in those things. We want our hope in God. Just like when we get an unwelcome diagnosis, we don’t want to put our hope in statistics of how effective treatments are or even in the doctors and how good this particular group at this particular clinic is. Our hope is to be anchored in Christ. That God knows what he’s doing and that everything God does is, by definition, good—everything.

Alan was stripped of so many things that he enjoyed as a husband and a father in a very callous, fairly quick fashion. In those dark moments, those evenings—I say this as if it’s a bad thing—all Alan really had left in those times was Christ. In those moments when we realize that all we have left from the things that we would normally take comfort in and take assurance and refuge in—our families are good refuges to go home to, I’m not denying that—but in those moments we are left with the fact that Christ needs to be enough. He is our portion, and He is enough. 

Speaking back to the friendships, this is our sacrifice as well to offer those times up to say: “Listen. I don’t care what time it is when you’re really, really struggling. Don’t wait until our next meeting time to call me, especially if you’re in the throes and the heat of battle. Don’t sin against God; step aside and call me. I would rather lose an hour of sleep than for you to sin against God. Let me pray for you. Let me just encourage you.” There were times when he would call and just say: “You know, I know what needs to be said. I just know I’m not thinking right. Can we talk for a second?”

Just be encouraged to stay the course. Sometimes we start to question things when the outcome is not really working the way we want it to: “There must be another way. This isn’t working.” What’s happened is that our goal has just drifted from glorifying God to, “I want the right outcome.” It’s a good desire but it has become an unholy desire because it is affecting our joy. We’re beginning to question God’s faithfulness. 

I want to talk about the times when there might be other creative ways to apply biblical truth, the times when we were just tempted to do whatever it takes to keep the peace, to do whatever it takes to bring her back when that is not a goal that God can bless. Those are humbling times too, when our ideas and our plans don’t just diverge from God’s, they sharply diverge. “God loves the family. God loves harmony in the home and I’ve got none of that right now.” We’re forced to pray with our counselees with tears, “Let Christ be enough. Let Jesus be enough for us.” 

Those are big agendas: humility and gratitude. They’re huge agendas.

Jeremiah Burroughs wrote a book titled The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. I’m pretty sure if I had left that book in the backseat, it would have been returned to me promptly because that book is thick to get through. That’s an old Puritan classic and it’s not one you just casually sit and read through. Jeremiah Burroughs said it’s not just about being pleased with God but being pleased with what God does.

I like 2 Corinthians 1:3 where God is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. There is nothing that we can take comfort in that’s really comfort apart from the person Himself of our Father. He is the God of all comfort. Verse 5 after that says our comfort is even abundant through Christ. If we want people to be comforted, we point them to their Father. We point them to Jesus.

Finally, the fifth point that Alan wanted me to share with you all. This was more along the back side of this in the aftermath, after the wreckage had gone on. He was seeing where things were, still hopeful one day for reconciliation, I would imagine, but he was focused.

5. Now his main focus was to be faithful in “the new normal.”

I got this phrase from Bob Somerville’s book—excellent book on depression, by the way—If I’m a Christian, Why Am I Depressed. What Bob was pointing out in his book was with all the things that go on as we age, and other things that happen to us medically even, or things that go through our bodies, sometimes we have to realize that those parts of things are not going to change and are not going to go back to “normal.” We have a new normal: the way I’m functioning now.

Behavior and heart issues aside, in a sense Alan now has a “new normal,” and he needs to not become overly focused on trying to fix too many things as much as on: “What does faithfulness look like now?” This is now his new normal and it’s messed up compared to where he was. There are all kinds of weird complications, right? He has restrictions even on where he can live because of the children and the school zones; they’ve got joint custody so he can’t move outside the school zone where she’s decided they’re going to live. There’s a lot of fears of how things are going to be playing out with the children, especially.

It’s helpful for Alan to be reminded: What does faithfulness look like now? As Martha Peace says: if these fears of mine do play out, God will give me the grace to deal with it at that time. But right now, what does faithfulness look like? What does a godly father do in these situations? He has kids that are now split between homes that have very different rules and very different spiritual practices. It’s easy to want to get caught up trying to undo what happens at her house when they come; but instead, he needs to focus on the fact that what they need most of all from Alan is a godly father who redeems the time that he has with his kids.

It’s also a challenge to uphold Ephesians 6:1-3 with the children to honor their mother as long as she’s not asking them to sin. When he doesn’t have them, he prays for them and he prays for her. When he does have them and they want to complain about how mom won’t let them do this, or mom did this, or mom got angry and did this, to teach them to honor their mother. Why? Because it is the Lord who commands that and therefore that is what is best for the children.

He has a week on, week off with his kids, and during his weeks off he’s really focused now and engaging other people in ministry and fellowship. He’s not afraid even to ask married men to meet him after hours just to hang out every now and then or to find ways to encourage and minister to others in his church. Focusing on being faithful in the new normal is where Alan is living now. There’s still pain there; he’s reminded of it constantly when he comes home to an empty apartment, when he’s writing, seeing the impact to finances and everything else that goes on, when he goes to work and he’s not doing the thing that he had trained to do most of his life any longer.

Case Study #2

Let’s talk about Tom. Tom is in our church and was married for 15 years with two children. His family began attending our church a number of years ago, and he was growing and was doing extremely well. But like we see evidence of in 1 Corinthians 7, his wife wasn’t. His increased interest and energies towards learning and applying God’s word ultimately developed a lack of peace in the home, some irritation on her part, and possibly even animosity. 

Some of us men can be clueless; we don’t do subtle very well and we don’t get the hints like we probably should. When she revealed her desire to separate, it took him by surprise completely. He never saw it coming. And even then, Tom didn’t really think it would go anywhere.

Tom did the right thing: he called an elder at our church for counsel. It was not just, “I’m just going to pick up the phone and call the guy I like the best” but it was the one who was part of his community group with whom he already had an existing relationship with in the men’s group. Again, it’s important to develop those environments where people feel safe bringing their hearts to you because they know that not only will you be wise, you will be trustworthy to hold it in your hands for them even in their most vulnerable moments.

I was not the primary counselor in this situation, but came in on occasion to assist. Overseeing the counseling ministry doesn’t mean that I do all of the counseling; it can’t mean that in our church. More often than not now, we’re about 300 people. There’s a number of people counseling in our church. I’m there to assist; I’m there to help develop agendas, especially when things get a little scary and the counselor is a new counselor; as well as to help train those who are working through certification; and, of course, to minister to those that the Lord brings upon my life to be the primary counselor for. This is one of those situations where the elder and his wife just felt a little stuck, and they asked me to come in to sit in with the session and lead a few of them.

There were times when Tom would be out of town and she would call and reveal that she had developed a relationship with another man. Actually, this kept happening to Tom. It was another man and another man. It was more revelations and more revelations—some of them virtual, some of them physical. There were changes that were noticed on her social media: lots of pictures of her all of a sudden working out, glamour selfies, and all kinds of things, even on the way to church. Not to say that selfies are bad; but this was a remarkable difference where the focus was on her appearance, just to give you a few examples. It continued to go downhill.

I love Tom. I’m going to call keep calling him Tom on purpose, but it’s not his name obviously. The lunch where we covered most of the ground on this was just humbling for me to see his love for the Lord and where he is now. I’ve listed the five points from Tom for you here. 

1. He was revived by regular confession and repentance.

We don’t respond perfectly to these things, do we? Tom felt like he had failed his wife initially. He cried for an entire day. This is not a guy that I see being a very emotional guy. We helped him write letters to her asking forgiveness for his logs, including not leading and loving her like he should have been all those years, assuring her that he still loved her and wanted to reconcile. He still expected things to work out. According to 1 Corinthians 13:7, love hopes and bears and believes and endures all things.

When he was sinfully angry, Tom understood that. He didn’t have to go through a whole workshop on anger. He knew his attitude was not right and Tom had to learn to confess. In doing that, he recognized that there was a war inside of him. Galatians 5:17 says: “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” And it can get weary failing over and over and over and over again. First John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What do you tell the person who says: “I just keep failing in this area. I know I’m growing in my understanding; I’m catching it a little bit early; but God surely is just weary.” What do you tell them? Keep confessing. God loves to forgive. We want to show them what repentance looks like; we want to work with them to change and to put things in place; we want to help them mature in that area. But we have to understand that our God never tires of forgiving us. Praise the Lord for that.

Sometimes it takes a while to recognize the harvest of the seeds we’re planting, but we don’t begin the process until we recognize it for what it is: confessing and turning from our sins, even if it seems like we’re doing it over and over and over again. Tom was revived by that regular confession because he saw it for what it was. He didn’t just wallow. We want to wallow sometimes in our sin, especially in circles where we teach the sovereignty of God, the ugliness of sin, and learning to hate it; but we want to recognize that the bitterness of our sin shows us the beauty of Christ and the sweetness of our Savior’s love. We want to teach them to move from that hatred of our sin, that recognizing of the evil that it is—it really is enmity against God—to our confession and learning to rejoice in God’s forgiveness.

We’ve heard reference to 1 Timothy 1:15 where Paul says “I’m the chief of all sinners,” but he goes on in verse 16 to say because of that—I’m paraphrasing—I was shown the grace of Christ. You know what he does in verse 17? He just goes into a benediction, just flows right into worship. That should be the process. That should be the flow of a right understanding, not just of our sin and God’s holiness, but of His wonderful forgiveness. That we rejoice in that; that we stand in that, realizing that His love for me, His commitment to me is not dependent upon those things. Do you know that God is more committed to your sanctification than you are to the passing pleasures of your sin? I’m thankful for that if you are a child of God. Tom could rest in that.

2. Tom was also restored by the faithful preaching of the Word.

We have a lot of our sermons online, like you would expect. Our pastor, Paul Lamey, preaches through entire books of the Bible in an expository sense from one to the other. He doesn’t set the agenda; the Holy Spirit does. He tackles the hard passages, and he’s such a blessing to our church.

Tom sought out and listened to sermons, seeking out those in particular that dealt with issues of forgiveness in the gospels, because Tom saw that it helped him reset to a 1 Corinthians 10:31 mindset of doing all to the glory of God, whatever you do. He was an immature-ish kind of believer who has begun growing, and I love this description he gave: glorifying God is one of the gospel’s defining characteristics. He got it. He got that the goal and thrust of his life, even in this trial, was to glorify God. I asked him why just listening to sermons was that important to him and he said, “Tim, the regenerated heart wants God. And where do we find God and learn about him? In His Word and in the faithful preaching of His Word.” He knew what it was to love God and to love His Word. This is why we are biblical counselors.

Faithful counseling from the Word to the heart of repenting believers leads them, not just to be restored, but:

3. To be motivated by the truth of the gospel.

To give you some more context: we continued confronting Tom’s wife as she would at first come but not follow up, and she ended up going on a trip. We were confident that she was planning to meet with another man from other emails and chats, and we found apps that were specifically designed to assist in adultery and those kind of things. We’re just really glad that she was actually pretty bad at passwords and things like that. But when she returned from that trip, we had a setback. Tom—admittedly out of anger and manipulation—gave her an ultimatum, and said “Hey, if you’re not going to work on reconciling the marriage, I’ll pay for a duplex. Let’s move you out.” She called his bluff. There may be times when that’s an appropriate move to make. Tom’s concern was that he did that out of anger and manipulation. She accepted the ultimatum; she moved out. The counselor helped him to write a letter, certainly asking for forgiveness for his attitude, but also stating to her what repentance looks like. We’re calling her to repentance. What does it mean? There were three things in particular:

1) To quit her job since she was using her job in this particular situation to fuel her lust and I don’t want to go into details there;

2) To replace her smartphone with a dumb phone or whatever you would call it; and

3) To focus on living as a Christian wife and mother.

Her response: “That’s just too much for me.”

At this point Tom is daily in the gospel. This is what’s important. This is what Tom got out of this. He was still cycling through times of sinful anger, but we could at least see that it encouraged Tom by realizing that maybe his anger didn’t last as long; it wasn’t an all-day thing where he would just visualize in his mind this other man kissing his wife, but his anger would last for about an hour, and he would realize it was sinful and he would repent.

He was comforted and strengthened by the truth of the gospel in his life. So naturally—get this—because of that, he felt compassion for his wife. She was ensnared in her sin. He was finding repentance. He was finding a merciful God, and she was not. She was ensnared in her sin; she was in active rebellion against God, who resists the proud.

He strongly desired not just to get her back so they could go back to being “normal”—whatever that is—but he strongly desired to show his wife the comfort that the gospel brought to him. Those were the directions of his prayers. How do we pray for our enemies? How do we bless those who curse us? We desire for God to do good in their life. We desire for God to bring about repentance in their heart.

His actions meant that he pursued that by trying to love her as Christ loved the church. The counselor worked through helping him think of practical ways given their particular situation at times when they were apart and when they were together. Even when they were together there were times when she moved into the garage at one point and wouldn’t sleep with him. So he was motivated by the gospel, not just for himself, because he wanted his wife to experience the comfort that he got. 

4. Focus by honest expectations of the struggle.

A little bit like Alan’s “new normal.” It means honestly understanding mentally where the struggle is really going to happen. In other words, Tom knew that he had heart work to do to prepare for a long, hard road of reconciliation from the beginning. His counsel included that. He had to fight images in his head of things that he imagined happened, seeing his wife do things that were just for him totally out of character throughout their entire 15 years together, finding lies and deceit, burner phones, emails, chats and all kinds of other things. You can see the effect of sin. Sin just ruins everything. You can see the irrationality of her thinking.

Tom is learning some of the same lessons over and over every couple of months because his heart is cycling through this, though he was still expecting even at that point to rebuild. We kept finding revelations of conversations and inappropriate relationships with other men. Tom was on a long process of learning forgiveness, to have a desire to offer her forgiveness and to stand in the spirit of forgiveness in humility since she was not requesting it, but still to stand in that spirit eager like the Luke 15 father who was waiting, looking, and hoping. Tom said to me and I quote: “That requires unconditional love because she’s not asking for my forgiveness.” He said that as a reflection of the love that God has shown him even while he was an enemy of God. He made that connection in his mind, but he still continued to struggle with confusion and doubt. It’s really easy to ask yourself at a point like that, in the most intimate human relationship that we’re blessed with on this Earth (marriage): do I really know anybody?

He needed frequent encouragement to trust God rather than mankind. We know Jeremiah 17:9 a lot: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things.” You know what comes before that? Some very important verses where the Lord says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength,”—and this is the other part—”and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” When we trust in mankind, when we desire for mankind to fill the things that only God can fill in our lives, our heart will turn away from the Lord. Like Paul wrote to the Galatians, right? “If I seek to please man, then I cannot be a bondservant of Christ.”

We see the consequences of that in Jeremiah 17:6, but in verse 7, we see the contrast that “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord.” Our trust is in a person.

It’s so easy to make flesh our strength, our circumstances, the things that we think we need to calm back down and to make life normal again—whatever that is. But those things are deceitful. Our heart will turn away from the Lord. We may understand that. We all give the “Sunday-School-nod” in here and say “Oh, yeah, brother, we get it. Cursed is the man. Blessed is the man.” And yet we still choose. Why? We don’t need to be convinced of that. I don’t think Israel necessarily needed to be academically convinced of that. I mean they were this far along in the Old Testament by the time Jeremiah told them that. “Got it. Got it, prophet.” Then why do we do it? Because verse 9: “The heart is deceitful above all things.”

It’s not just an academic problem. It’s not just: “Oh, we need to teach them some things.” We need to be reminded of that as counselors. It requires miracles in the heart; it requires trusting the Lord and making the Lord our strength. We want to make sure and promote that in every way we can: in how we pray with them; how we pray for them; how we present the Word to them; and how we guide them not just to do things, but to do things for the glory of God; to motivate them to rejoice and to trust in who God is and what He does.

5. Finally, Tom was refreshed by friendships he had in the church.

Eventually, she did initiate a divorce. Tom has full custody of the children. She didn’t just abandon Tom; she abandoned her children. We’re concerned for the kids—how we help Tom answer some of their questions because they’re pretty young, and as they grow up to help them understand God’s love for them and understand the horrible effects of sin. They still see her.

Church leadership goes before the church. We complete the fourth step of Matthew 18, and we saw these men in particular praying for Tom and his ex-wife. We don’t want to lose Tom. She’s gone. She’s out. It’s just amazing to watch our church family love him, to love his children, to make extra efforts to stay involved in his life through fellowship, men studies, counseling, and caring for the kids. 

A year and a half later Tom was still studying sermons from 1 John. How helpful that is. He listens to Scripture audio. He is still tempted to anger at times, but Tom said that it’s not nearly as often and not for as long, and it’s a lot easier to get in check. Praise the Lord that we can see the work of the Spirit in his life.

Tom looked at me and said: “I’ve been pruned, and I have an overwhelming joy in God. Tim, I can honestly count it as joy because I recognize she is still in her trial.” He feels pity and sorrow for her. He has shed tears of gratitude. He did at the table. We both did over what the Lord has done for him. Not just the pain that he’s endured from his ex-wife, but over what God has done. 

Let me give you this information about Tom’s background. I didn’t learn this until recently. His father was a womanizing drunkard, very apathetic. He left their family when Tom was very young. Four children and a wife left in poverty. Kids were 1, 3, 10, and 14. Tom was 10 when his dad left. And before I learned that, Tom told me, “Tim, I haven’t had a hard life. I have God’s love and goodness.”

What a perspective. Would you lead out with that? That’s the power of the gospel and God’s grace to transform our hearts.

Faithfulness in these matters, friends, is filled with tears and pain, but it’s still faithfulness. We can be confident that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. When we step back, we can see those impacted by the trial are much broader than our counselees. 

Our elders received a letter from Tom’s sister. I’ve taken out identifying names and made substitutes, but I want to share this with you. I’ve never met her; we’ve never met her. She lives on the other side of the country from Huntsville, Alabama. She wrote this to us. I will end with this.

“I’ve wanted to send this email for months and I don’t really know where to begin. 

I want to say thank you to the pastors and elders. Thank you for loving my brother and his kids as they have gone through such a difficult time. Thank you for coming alongside my brother and not letting go. Thank you for reaching out to him daily when he went through some horribly dark days. Thank you for all the counseling. Thank you for trying for reconciliation. Thank you for doing everything the Bible lays out for trying to bring repentance in his ex-wife’s life. Thank you for praying. Thank you for letting God use you to be the means of grace in his life. I know God has used you all and your church to answer many of our prayers [she’s speaking of her family’s prayers].

I wish I could show you my heart and the appreciation that I have to you all, mainly to God, but to the ways He answered some of our requests. You and your church have glorified God a thousand miles away from me, and I can see it clearly. Such a miracle has been done in my brother’s heart. He’s not bitter or consumed with himself and how he has been wronged. He has clung to Jesus through this. His faith in God through this has changed me. A faith that has been fostered and cared for at your church by God. You are all strangers to me, but you will never know how much your faith and the outpouring of that faith have changed my life and the lives of some people that are very important to me. Thank you doesn’t seem appropriate and wish I could say it more meaningfully. Please keep seeking to glorify God in your church. It’s happening.”

That’s the work of the Lord through us. We don’t always get to see the extended fruits of our labors. What a blessing that is and an encouragement to us.