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.
Like many others I’ve known, I was a driven leader. I reasoned—rather, gave the excuse—I was doing my work wholeheartedly for God. The truth is, something else was more deeply rooted in my life, causing me to seek success, validation, and honor from other people. I needed to let God work on my heart. After more than 20 years of marriage, I was finally realizing I had a problem, and I began to seek solutions. But for my wife, it was too late. Heidi had given up on me and our marriage, and we were heading toward divorce.
Now I needed those men in my small group, and they were there for me. They prayed for me. They encouraged me. They held me accountable. I didn’t want to give up on my marriage, so I decided to fight for my wife, serve her, love her unconditionally, pray for her daily, and trust God. I was hurting, but I had men in my corner. I felt hopeless, but I knew God was in control.
One night, I felt led to take a run in our neighborhood—which is strange because I’m not a runner. Yet I obeyed what I thought was an urging from the Holy Spirit. As I jogged, I sensed God speaking clearly to me. I heard neither an audible voice nor a promise of how this situation would end—whether in divorce or reconciliation—but I sensed God’s assurance he would eventually use all this for his purposes and glory. It was a moment of hope in the midst of uncertainty.
Weeks of separation from my wife turned into months. I remember the day I read Psalm 50:15: “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” That day, I wrote in my journal, “God will rescue me and my kids in all of this. We simply must trust him. And when he does rescue us, it will be because he has done something only he could do! That’s the only way for him to receive glory!”
During this long walk through a dark valley, God was teaching me to surrender to him, how to live a humble, servant-oriented life, and how to love people as God loves me—no matter what. I determined to love Heidi the same way—to humbly serve her, and to wait on God to move in a way only he could.
I also learned what it really means to trust God. I knew he specializes in mending what is broken, even resurrecting what is dead. Finally, it seemed my prayers—and those of our friends—were being answered. Heidi and I started to talk, then spend some time together, but she wasn’t ready to reconcile. She liked the changes she was seeing in me, but wanted to make sure they were real and would last.
When Heidi’s grandmother in New Jersey passed away, I made the 12-hour drive with Heidi from Louisville. During that trip, God worked in ways only he could. We returned home with a new commitment to work on our marriage together. Our relationship was reconciled, and our marriage is now stronger than ever. We have continued to see God’s faithfulness as we grow together and work as a couple through the life circumstances that still come our way.
Several months after our reconciliation, our men’s group sensed it was time to multiply, so I and two other guys stepped out to start a new group. God brought two men into our new group who were struggling in their marriages. God began using what I had learned to help them surrender their relationships—and, more importantly, their lives—to him. But God wasn’t finished. About a year later, I was asked to speak at two small-group conferences in Brazil. I had not planned to tell my story there, and it wasn’t in my notes, but suddenly, I just knew I had to. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a message in such a bold way, but I sensed that the hundreds of pastors needed to hear my story and what I learned from it.
When I finished speaking that day, the pastors lined up to talk to me, and one after another embraced me, many with tears in their eyes, saying, “Obrigado. Muito obrigado!” (Thank you! Thank you so much!) In broken English or through translators, many explained they needed to hear this message—they too had put their ministry above their family or had mistakenly equated their relationship with God and their work for God. The man who served as my main translator later told me many of these pastors were struggling in their own marriages, and some had recently been divorced or separated.
God always keeps his promises.
In the midst of teaching me how to be the husband God wanted me to be, he was also teaching me how to be a better leader. I learned that relationships matter. My relationship with God still comes first, of course. For my marriage or my ministry to be effective and produce fruit, I must stay connected to him. I must abide in him and make him my first priority every day. When I do, he pours his life, his love, his strength, his forgiveness into me and simply—yet powerfully—overflows those things from me into the lives of others. I’ve learned I actually don’t have to work so hard on my own to make things happen. I can relax and trust God to work through me. This has freed me to be the leader, and the husband, and the dad God wants me to be.
In my ministry roles today, I have more than ever on my plate, yet I’m much more able to love my wife and kids and friends as I should. How do I accomplish this? How do I prevent myself from mixing up my priorities again?
First, I stay focused on what is truly vital in my life. Many of us leaders deal constantly with the tyranny of the urgent. When we do, those things that are vital in our lives—our relationships with God and our family—often take a backseat on our priority list until those relationships—or the mending of them—become urgent to us. That’s what happened to me. I didn’t pay attention to my wife’s pleas to make my relationship with her my priority until I almost lost it. Yes, the tyranny of the urgent still happens, but I handle it much differently now. I refuse to take on too much. I say no to many new demands and requests on my time. Every day, when Heidi gets home from work, I stop working, and we spend time preparing and eating dinner together. Weekly, we have a scheduled date night together. These are my priorities.
Second, Heidi and I have worked hard on how we communicate with one another. If Heidi ever feels like she’s not first in my life, she says so—and I listen! When I have a tight deadline and need to get some work done, I let her know, and she gives me the time I need. We’ve learned to work together. Heidi likes when I sit on the couch with her, and we’ve found we can, when needed, sit on the couch together, yet work on our separate projects. We never realized that before because we never talked about it. Simply communicating about how we feel solves many potential problems.
Finally, and most importantly, I seek to live according to Philippians 2:1–11 with everyone, but especially with Heidi. I seek to love and serve her as Christ loves me. I remind myself to set aside selfish ambition and vain conceit, which were at the root of my actions before. I seek to humbly value Heidi above myself, putting her interests above my own.
What I’ve found is that I can love and serve God with my whole heart, and I can love and serve my wife wholeheartedly as well. I don’t have the ability to do that on my own, but God gives me the ability to do this well and bear fruit.
As I write this, Heidi is on her way home from work, so it’s time to stop and eat dinner together. I work from a home office, so I’ll “clock out” from this job and turn my heart toward her. We’ll sit on the couch later and talk. I’ll ask her about her day and listen intently. She needs me to be present with her—and there’s nothing I’d rather do.
I think I hear her car pulling into the driveway now.
―Michael C. Mack is a small-group consultant, the author of numerous books, and the editor of Christian Standard, a church leadership magazine started in 1866.