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I can tell you how it felt to look my dad, my retired pastor-father, in the eyes and tell him that I’d had a moral failure. It felt like telling a lousy joke and not being able to get to the punch line.
My misadventure, for lack of a better term, began almost two years after my first wife died from ovarian cancer. Vicki and I had married in 1973, in between my sophomore and junior years at Bible college. Our marriage was better than good, and that’s not just my opinion. Vicki said so too, as did everyone who knew us, including our folks, our sons, and the people who received our ministry over the years. Most would say our marriage was bullet-proof, and we were certain we’d live to see golden anniversaries. But cancer changed all that.
About six weeks before Vicki died she asked me, “Lowell, after I die do you think you’ll remarry?” I told her that I had thought about it, and that I hoped to follow Paul’s recommendation from 1 Corinthians 7 and remain single, serving the Church with a 100% focus.
Vicki laughed. Then, seeing the hurt well up in my eyes, she explained that she didn’t think I was a sex maniac who, without a wife, would “burn up” with lust. She was confident I could take care of myself when it came to the laundry, keeping a clean house, and doing all the tasks of the single life. But she felt strongly that I needed a helper.
“You’re wired for marriage, Lowell. You’re good at it. And I think you should marry again so that someone will be there to guard your heart.” She told me that God must have had me in mind when He said, “It’s not good for man to live alone.” She just couldn’t imagine me alone. That’s why she had laughed.
Just four months after our thirtieth wedding anniversary Vicki died. She was a young thing, leaving just four days past her fiftieth birthday.
Cancer is an insidious killer – a cruel reminder we live on a fallen planet. Vic battled the disease for five years, and along the way she experienced an honest-to-goodness, medically verified miracle right in the middle of her fight. (Her healing story appeared in the Pentecostal Evangel, Mother’s Day edition of 2001. http://pe.ag.org/Articles2001/4540_rhoden.cfm Check it out.)
After Vicki’s passing I was often told that I “grieved well.” I know what they meant, but putting it on paper still looks weird. All I know is that I navigated the pain of great personal loss, and found deeper things on the other side of it. I didn’t blame God, and I survived.
There are several things I feel really good about looking back. I successfully steered clear of Internet pornography, and I didn’t go bar-hopping. I focused on pastoring the church I loved, and filled my days—filled them—with ministry. And when I wasn’t working myself silly I went out with friends, or watched sports and news into the wee hours. Usually I’d get about five hours of sleep, and that seemed to be enough.
On the down side, I ate too much – usually in front of the TV late at night. And I didn’t exercise enough, so I ended up weighing more than ever. But, hey, it didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t “available.” I was just a modern St. Paul with a taste for junk food.
That lifestyle lasted eighteen months until, just as Vicki had predicted, I was blindsided by loneliness. I remember the day: I was going through a bathroom drawer and I came across the Nike sweatband Vic had used to hold her hair out of her face while she prepared for bed. Bang! I missed her…again. But not just her. I missed living with a woman, and all the intimate stuff that goes with sharing one’s life with a female.
There aren’t words in my vocabulary to describe what it’s like being a widowed pastor. Friendships and routines change drastically. You’re only planning your day when you’re a widower. Things like fixing one dinner at home only accentuates the loneliness. So for me it was junk food and the tube for company.
Some friends noticed when I started talking about meeting someone. A few told me some of their work associates had used E-Harmony or some other web dating service, and now they were married. The Internet sounded safe enough, so I put out my profile without prayer ever crossing my mind.
Three months into my internet dating experience, I “met” a Christian lady that lived three hundred miles away. She loved God, was highly educated, and held a top position in a good company. She was easy to talk to, and she seemed to be “the one.”
I drove to see her a few times. She came to see me. One time we met halfway. That was a huge mistake. I’m relieved to say we never had intercourse, but we crossed every other line. I sinned. Period.
Conviction came immediately, but I rationalized. I told myself that I hadn’t broken marital vows. And then I promised God and the lady that I would not cross those lines again.
Somehow the sanitized term “moral failure” just doesn’t do justice to the depth of my sin. I can remember one particular day when the Holy Spirit was saying—yelling in my conscience—“Don’t do this! Turn around and walk away.” But I said, out loud, “I want this.” Out loud. Talk about brazen.
You don’t have to take a big bite from the apple when one little bite will do. Just one little bite and suddenly you find yourself frantically searching the garden for fig leaves, hoping God doesn’t show up and start asking questions. Like Adam, I knew nakedness. Besides violating my relationship with God, I knew I had broken my ministerial vow to live a pure life, to steer clear of anything that would cast my fellow ministers in a negative light, or stigmatize the Body of Christ.
Eventually I broke off the relationship. I also broke a heart. I wish I hadn’t. I wanted the proverbial clock to move back to the days of innocent curiosity, before she had introduced me to her friends.
Later a dear friend helped me understand some of the lies I had believed. I’d always thought that each of us has only one significant love in life, and that I had my quota in Vicki. It’s that stupid “soul-mate” thing. I thought, “I’ll have to settle for companionship.” What bunk. I was so deceived.
Some months later that hurt lady contacted my district’s headquarters. She sent copies of our emails, and pictures of us together. She said, “You ought to know what kind of man Lowell Qualls really is.” I don’t blame her. I blame me.
I know there are fellow ministers reading this right now saying, “Wait a minute! Don’t be so hard on yourself. You were lonely after being married for a long, long time. You made a mistake. It’s okay. Everybody makes them.” Blah, blah, blah.
I wish I hadn’t hurt this lady. I wish I could have gone mano-a-mano with my ego in some wilderness. But … hear me now … I needed this. This reality check. This humiliation. This breaking. This ugly exposure of my heart. I needed my day of reckoning.
Why? First, because I thought I was immune – that I would never do what others have done. Second, because my heart was hard. Third, because I was a train wreck in the making, one of those men who thought he could stop himself – one of the biggest lies of all. I know now that more than “my calling” or “my ministry” being at stake, my life was in danger.
My superintendent called. He sounded glum. We were (and still are) friends of many years, but he had a terrible job to do. He had to ask me “the questions,” starting with: “Did you do what she said you did?”
Two weeks earlier I had confessed to Becky. I had met her two months after my failure. Her reaction surprised me. Instead of rejecting me she was actually the first conduit for God’s grace to begin its healing work in me. She and I talked about perfectionism, self-esteem, sin, love, and forgiveness. She prayed for me.
Months went by. During that time my district leaders interviewed my accuser, corroborated her testimony, sent me for an evaluation to a fantastic Christian counseling center in Akron, Ohio, and delved into my version of the events in question.
I wrote out my confession and surrendered my credentials. I cried myself to sleep several nights, and wrestled with my blankets, tossing and turning and reliving the nightmare.
Finally, the district graciously offered me a two-year program. The goal? Restoration. I gratefully accepted, and told Becky what I was facing. She said, “I’m on your team.” (We married six months later, with the blessing of the district leaders. In so doing I left that wrong-headed notion of “just-one-love-in-life” where it belonged: at the foot of the Cross.)
It was right at the beginning of that awful period that I talked to my parents face to face, with my older sister listening in on the telephone from Florida. My saintly dad concentrated on every word as I detailed my failure, all the while his eyes locked on my mom. After I finished he spoke sweetly, while still looking at mom: “Son, your mother and I have been married for 64 years … and if she died … and I found myself in the place you have been …” He looked me straight in the eyes now. “… I would have done the very same thing.”
I was taken off guard, and deeply touched. Yet what followed was even more poignant. “I don’t condemn you,” he said.
And my sister in Florida? It was really tough telling her what I had done. Many years ago her first husband, an A/G pastor, had an affair, refused rehabilitation, and they divorced. Now she is married to a great guy – the pastor of a non-denominational church in Orlando. My confession brought back some painful memories, but her response was lovely, and loving, too. Graceful.
Next I called my older brother, an Assemblies of God pastor in Virginia Beach, and told him everything. He was wonderful. He prayed for me, and told me he was proud of me. How odd: I was ashamed, but he was proud? Unlike the prodigal’s older brother, mine put out the spiritual welcome mat as I stumbled home.
Then I called each of my three younger sisters. I dreaded talking to one. She had also been married to an Assemblies of God pastor who had fallen into sexual sin a few years ago. And like the other aforementioned brother-in-law, he had walked away from the denomination and the offering of rehabilitation. I knew telling his ex-wife, my sister, would be hell.
Yet she was so tender in her response, soft and careful, like a child gently touching the wound of a fallen playmate. She sweetly reassured me that I was loved.
When you take one little bite of forbidden fruit innocent people suffer. Elderly parents experience unnecessary pain. Siblings get hurt. And then your colleagues find out. They always do.
We all get caught, you know. God pretty much guarantees it. Sooner or later, “What is done in secret …” You know the rest.
It isn’t that God enjoys exposing our nakedness, or because He wants to use our pain to fire a warning shot across the bow of the Church. We get caught because He values our souls more than our comfort. Ultimately we get caught because He loves us. He’s a Fighter, unwilling to let us go down the drain without a brawl. He fights with us, for us. You’ve probably preached that a hundred times.
You’ve probably also preached that when you throw in the towel and surrender, acknowledging that He’s the Winner, He pours out His grace and heals broken lives!
Here’s the rub. It’s time for us preachers to believe what we’ve preached.
Maybe you haven’t yet risked the confession that would set you free to begin the process of restoration because you know God doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay in the ministry. Maybe you haven’t come clean because “doing ministry” has become more important than living in sweet relationship with God. Maybe you’re unwilling to gamble your paycheck, your housing allowance, or your retirement account. Maybe you fear your marriage won’t survive the embarrassment, or your kids won’t recover from the shame.
I understand, believe me. It’s tough to come clean when all God guarantees us is that His “grace is sufficient,” or that His strength is perfect when we admit our weaknesses.
Here’s why I’m writing: Learn from me. If you haven’t crossed the line from temptation to sin, don’t! But if you have crossed it, come clean. Now. Prove God, and come clean. Face the challenges that will come when you decide to ‘fess up. Face them with Him.
Most likely confession will require you to fully expose the lie you’ve lived, embrace certain humiliation, and surrender your reputation, your economic future, and all your relationships to God. It was Jim Elliott who said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Said another way, confession may require you to lose something you think you can’t live without in order to gain something else you really can’t live without. Can you really live without a clean conscience? Without your integrity? Without the kiss of God, and His embrace? Can you really live without His presence in your life?
I keep thinking about Psalm 24:3-6, where David sang, “Who may climb the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in His holy place? Only those whose hands and hearts are pure, who do not worship idols and never tell lies. They will receive the LORD’S blessing and have right standing with God their Savior. They alone may enter God’s presence and worship the God of Israel.”
Did David write that song pre- or post-Bathsheba? Did that event haunt David as he penned those words, or were they written beforehand?
No matter. We know David’s pride led to sexual sin and the subsequent murder of an innocent man. We know David got caught, and that he was outed. Humiliated. His sins were broadcast by the media of his day, and then recorded for all time in the pages of the most widely read book in history. Sermons about the consequences of pride would be preached using him as an example for three thousand years (and counting).
David’s soul was much more important to God than his position as Israel’s King. And there’s more than a hint in Scripture that David learned this truth: It is better to be caught and re-stored than to get away with adultery and murder.
I suspect some might think, like I did, “Why open Pandora’s box? Why not just wait until the truth catches up with me? Who knows? Maybe I won’t get caught, and I can clean up my act with nary a disruption in ‘my ministry.’” After all, once the story’s out, there’s no turning back. It’s public domain.
My new wife asked me, “Why do this? And why use your real name? It’s not a part of your prescribed therapy.”
I told her that I thought I must do it this for as part of my personal restoration. It has nothing to do with my denomination. It has everything to do with that immaterial part of me that must change. You see, once my story is out Satan can’t use it to batter and abuse me. He can’t use it to hold me captive to that what-if-someone-finds-out thing that always handcuffs a prideful soul. So the telling is part of my humiliation. Self-imposed, yes, but necessary.
There’s a half-truth Satan keeps using, generation after generation, that says public confession is like penance, where we engage in self-flagellation. He lies that it’s the confessor’s best way to satisfy the “need” to pay for his own sins. He tell us that by climbing up on a self-constructed cross and crying, “Mea culpa,” we experience absolution.
The truth is, Christ’s Cross was enough for salvation. Period. Yet, throughout the New Testament we are consistently encouraged to take responsibility for sin committed after entering into a saving relationship with Jesus, and we do so through confession. Take a long look at, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” That was written to believers, right?
Then there’s, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Again, written to believers. According to 1 John 1:5-7, confession allows us to come out of the shadows and “walk in the light” with Jesus (“… as He is in the light”). Part of walking with Him is living a confessing life.
So … what are you going to do now?
Why not make an appointment with a trusted friend. Start the process of coming clean. Risk humbling yourself. Risk trusting God for the outcome.
Today I’m doing better than okay. Sure, I’m not pastoring, and right now I’m not free to teach or preach. But I can confess, and it feels great!
A pastor-friend of mine in Florida says, “I wouldn’t trade being able to look in the mirror, first thing in the morning, at a man with clear eyes and a clean conscience for anything.” I know what he means. I wouldn’t trade my newfound sense of God’s unconditional love and grace for any pulpit, anywhere. I wouldn’t trade the solid relationships that I have now. And I wouldn’t trade having clean hands and a pure heart before God.
Think about it: A downfall starts with one little bite … but restoration can begin with one simple appeal: “God, help me. I’m coming clean.”