Every one of the guys in my men's group was struggling.
Some had serious health issues. A couple of the guys had been out of work for a long time. Some were dealing with huge financial problems. Several had prodigal kids.
One guy was having legal issues with his girlfriend and actually spent some time in jail. We didn't know the truth of the situation, but we knew we were being called to love him unconditionally and to speak the truth in love.
Another man was going through a nasty divorce and had been thrown out of the house by his wife, who also took out a restraining order. The men from our group jumped in and moved his stuff out of the house for him.
Our simple motto became, "We're in your corner."
It seemed odd to me that several of the men in this group were either struggling in their marriages, were going through a divorce, or had recently gone through one. But I counted it an honor to minister to these men through whatever circumstances they were experiencing.
When My World Came Tumbling Down
The words still ring in my ears: "I just don't want to be married to you anymore." I found myself in a struggle that I never expected, although it was a long time coming. I wasn't blindsided. Heidi and I had always known we had to work hard on our relationship, but I wasn't prepared to hear those words, and neither were our four teenage kids.
Suddenly we were separated. Heidi moved into an apartment, and I moved into a dark valley of the soul. I stepped out of my staff position at our church so I could focus on my family and try to reconcile with my wife. I didn't know what to do, but I did know that I wanted to trust God no matter what. I wanted to love my wife unconditionally and sacrificially. I wanted to fight for our marriage, even though there seemed to be little hope.
I fought with all the "why" questions that ran through my mind, and I knew I couldn't fight this battle alone. I needed God, yes, but I also needed the guys in my group. I needed them to be in my corner this time—to minister to me.
God showed me some areas in my life that he wanted to change. He used my painful circumstances to cut down my pride and need for control. I went to my group and confessed my sinful attitudes. I opened up about how my ways of relating to Heidi had caused her pain and brought us to this point. I admitted to them how I had put my ministry before my marriage. The men in my group didn't shame me, but they also didn't tell me it was all okay. They affirmed me and my vulnerability. These guys cared for my soul and loved me unconditionally.
There were times when I was tired of working so hard to reconcile with my wife, and I felt like giving up. I admit that I desired an easier, less painful path—and divorce sometimes seemed a lot less painful—but the guys in my group reminded me about what was most important. They prayed for God to strengthen me and for the Holy Spirit to direct me. For months, the men in my group encouraged me, prayed for me, and held me accountable. They were models of how God works in the lives of people who trust him. Those men gave me strength and spurred me on, to continue serving my wife.
Choosing My Marriage
One day I received a call from a church on the other side of the country offering me an opportunity that my daughter called my "dream job." It was the perfect fit for my experience, skills, and passions. If I didn't take a job within a month, my severance and family's health insurance would end. Several pastors and counselors said I should take the job. It would provide for my family, and it seemed God was providing the opportunity. My daughters even said they'd go with me. But I knew that taking the job would split up my family and would basically be my acceptance of divorce. I could have an opportunity to make a kingdom impact if I took the job, but at what cost to my family?
I wrestled with God over the decision. I asked the guys about it, and they challenged me with the idea that I could make an impact on God's kingdom without leaving to take this new job, but I couldn't have much of an impact on my family from across the country. I spent time with God in his Word, and he confirmed this understanding.
The decision became clear. My hope was not in a job, even a "dream job." At the same time, my hope was not in my marriage, family, or finances (as good as those things may be). My hope was in God alone. If I put him first, he will take care of everything else. I said "no" to the job and "yes" to fighting for my wife and family. God would have to supply for our financial needs and provide ministry opportunities.
Over many months, God worked in a way that only he can. The process itself was very slow, but my wife began moving back toward me, and eventually she moved back home. Heidi and I extended forgiveness and grace to one another, and we reconciled. Our marriage was restored. And my men's group gathered to celebrate the great news.
As our men's group continued to grow, I felt led to start a new men's group so even more men could experience the community of a life-changing group. Leaving the group in the hands of two of the core men, two of us left to start a new group. Shockingly, God began to fill our new group with men who were struggling with their marriages. One man had recently gone through a divorce that he asked for but now deeply regretted. Another had a marriage on the rocks due to his gambling problems. Through group meetings, late-night texts and phone calls, and many hours just hanging out together, I could see God working in these men's lives. God was using our painful experiences to draw us together and to himself. As we worked through our marriage struggles, God changed our lives and the lives of others. One group member actually reached out to a friend whose marriage was in trouble. The friend came to our group and experienced God's overflowing grace for the first time.
What I Learned from the Pain
God gets our attention through the painful circumstances in our lives. But when we trust God and depend on his church, we can see amazing life change in ourselves and others. As God's partners in the process of transformation, we need to do three costly things:
1. We must be humble. Pride often gets in the way of God's work in and through our lives. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned in the midst of my pain was humility. I had to acknowledge that I was powerless over the situation. For me, humility led to surrender, especially over all those things I would have been inclined to try to control. God's presence, power, and purposes had to become sufficient for me—and they were.
2. We must be authentic. When we're honest about our pain and sin, God can use it. This not only leads to change in us, but also allows God to use our struggles to reach someone else. God used my circumstances because I chose not to hide what was going on in my life. I had to admit my shortcomings. I had to come clean and then trust that my friends would still accept me—and they did.
3. We must trust God. I had to trust God with the outcome of my painful situation and let him do what only he can do. I didn't know how it would all end, but I had to learn to trust God no matter what, and my small group helped me do that. They reminded me that God is sovereign, trustworthy, and powerful—and he is.
Through the support of my small group through this painful situation, I experienced transformation. My marriage is stronger. And I now have the opportunity to minister to men who are struggling in their marriages. God has used my pain to bring amazing life change.
—Michael C. Mack is the founder of and advisor for SmallGroups.com and author of many small-group books and discussion guides. He also leads church training events and consults with churches through Small Group Leadership; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.