I never sought to lead a small group for men who were struggling—especially with marriage issues—but God just put this particular group of men in my path. Several of the men had recently gone through a divorce and were still hurting, some were in the midst of divorce, and a couple of others seemed to be moving in that direction. “We’re in your corner” became our group slogan, as we found ourselves saying it to at least one guy every week. I felt God brought these men into my life for me to shepherd and disciple.
But then it was my turn.
“I just don’t want to be married to you anymore.” I wasn’t prepared to hear those words from my wife, 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 small-group ministry position so I could focus on my family and try to reconcile with my wife.
During this time, I decided to read through the book of Psalms, knowing it could provide me with reassurance and hope from God. One day, as I read Psalm 42, I wrote in my journal, “I’m feeling sadder and more hurt, scared, heartbroken, and lost than ever. I feel like everything is crumbling around me, and I feel beat up and completely broken.”
In this dark valley, I learned more about God, myself, relationships, and ministry than at any other time in my life.
To understand how I got to that point, I have to go back 30 years to when I started seminary and got involved in ministry. A Christian mentor encouraged me to throw my life into what God was calling me to do. Colossians 3:23 soon became my life verse: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Other verses reinforced my new drive to work wholeheartedly for God. I underlined Proverbs 16:3 in my Bible: “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” Then I highlighted, drew a box around, and scribbled stars next to Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
I put my whole heart into my studies and ministry. I believed I was living by biblical priorities—God first, then my wife, then our kids as they came along, and then everything else. Yet reality told a different story.
Doing well in seminary and writing an A+ thesis were paramount. Whatever time I had left—which wasn’t much—I spent with Heidi. Then came the writing of my first book. Then the founding of a ministry, which meant spending many late nights in my basement office. Then more books and a growing number of speaking opportunities. Then several church ministry positions. I worked hard building relationships with church members; discovering, developing, and deploying new leaders; helping start many new small groups; connecting more and more people into groups; caring for our leaders; investing in coaches and directors in our growing ministry—all while leaving Heidi to fend for herself with our growing family. She felt alone.
Somewhere along the way I started to treat my relationship with God and my ministry for God as the same thing. If I was to work for him with all my heart, I believed I needed to put everything I had into it. And over the years, Heidi felt as though she was less important to me than the things I did and the people in my ministry. She didn’t sense she had my heart—and I didn’t realize how right she was.