His wife stops believing in Christ and backs out of church. One such pastor’s wife shares her story with Mary Davis for EN.
EN: Take us right back. What were your early experiences of the Lord?
PW: Although only one of my parents was a Christian, I was a well taught child, through church and by nightly family prayers.
I had religious thoughts, even remarkable answers to prayer which impressed me enormously. As a teenager, I went to a women’s Bible study group and I gradually realised the girls knew the Lord in a way I didn’t. One day, I understood for the first time what Jesus’s death meant for me — that my own sins could be forgiven and I need not fear meeting God on judgment day. Soon after, I went to university and got involved in the Christian Union straight away.
EN: Would you say that your faith then was genuine?
PW: I think, yes. I was considered a strong Christian — I knew the Bible and Christian doctrine and took a leading role in Christian activities. I married a Christian man, he trained for ministry and, as the pastor’s wife, I was very involved with our congregations. It was a joy and privilege. Did I know the Lord himself? I think the answer must be ‘yes’, but not as well as I should have done. I had let head knowledge and past experiences replace a close, ongoing, personal walk with my Saviour. I guess my subsequent experience emphasises the truth of 1 Corinthians 10.12: ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’
EN: But you started drifting away from the Lord. What happened?
PW: I was very tired from juggling family and church. My husband and I had been close in our early years, but we drifted apart because of the pressures on us. We have very different personalities and the differences were highlighted by poor communication and lack of time together. I became lonely and disillusioned with my marriage, and thought things would never change.
With my husband often absent, I felt like a single parent — dealing with parenting issues on my own. Having married young, I hadn’t had a career. I felt a lack of personal fulfilment. Also, my mother’s death caused further emotional trauma and tiredness. I ended up totally overwhelmed and hopeless, and felt God was doing nothing to help me. Worse, I blamed him for putting me in a position where I had to accept everything and couldn’t complain. As a pastor’s wife, you can feel obliged to endure anything so as not to jeopardise the Lord’s work. I now realise the Lord was there all the time, but I’d stopped looking to him. My personal prayer life and daily Bible reading had vanished under the relentless daily routine and, with it, my vital lifeline to God’s presence and help. If I have just one message from all this, it must be: ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well-spring of life’ (Proverbs 4.23).
EN: Where did you look for direction?
PW: I went back to work, which brought me some success and satisfaction. Despite God’s kindness in this, I was very rebellious towards him. I became so angry and hopeless that I consciously gave up my faith. I’m not sure whether I turned my back on God (but still believed in him), or decided there was no God. At first I think it was the former. However, as I continued to ignore him, I didn’t like the bitterness and hardness I saw in myself, so I tried very hard to believe that God didn’t exist. Rather than being bitter because God had deliberately sent me so many troubles, I tried to believe that ‘these things just happen’, so bitterness was irrelevant.
EN: Why did you stay in the marriage?
PW: I think God used several providential factors to ‘hedge me in’: health problems, fear of hurting our parents and, perhaps, most of all, my maternal instincts that didn’t want my children’s lives to be damaged.
I stopped going to church. I tried to keep up appearances for a while — but I felt such a hypocrite and so miserable that my husband finally suggested I stop going. It felt terrible at first, and I rather thought the sky might fall in, but it didn’t. I’m not sure we managed the process well. We kept it quiet, which was probably a mistake, as my husband didn’t immediately get the support he needed (though he later confided in friends). We dropped out of Christian society as a couple. Busy urban life, or perhaps embarrassment or sensitivity, meant that most people left us to it.
EN: Looking back, what do you think was going on in your life and heart?
PW: To be truthful, I hadn’t thought about it much before now. I believe the Lord kept me, even though I was consciously rebelling against him. He graciously prevented me from wrecking my life and the lives of my family. He graciously guided me in my working life and things I learnt then were later wonderfully ‘recycled’ in family experiences.
I wonder whether I was a ‘lost sheep’ or a ‘prodigal daughter’? Perhaps an amalgam of the two? Looking back, it seems to me that the Christian life is much more personal and complex and challenging than I realised in my youth and I think young believers ought to be taught that the Christian life is a journey, not a one-off conversion event with a plateau-like experience after it. I guess that is the vital message of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
EN: You were ‘away from the Lord’ for 14 years. What brought you back?
PW: The immediate event was the astonishing conversion of one of our children. He had left Christianity in adult life, causing me major spiritual discouragement. But God saved him and changed him.
During my years away, I thought constantly about issues of faith. I read lots and listened to debates, but found secular answers increasingly unsatisfactory. They didn’t seem to go the heart of the matter. The problem of evil had always troubled me — but there was also the ‘problem’ of good. Where did it come from? And there was personal morality. I didn’t like the darkness and lovelessness developing in my own heart without God. It seemed to bear out the truth of the gospel.
Our marriage was gradually rebuilt. Through many pressures in our family life and my work life, my husband was a tower of strength to me. His kindness and support warmed my heart towards him in love and gratitude and the Lord gave us opportunities to rebuild and strengthen our marriage.
Christian friends let me pour out my feelings to them — and it was often what they did which helped and impressed me, their unconditional love, the way they lived, rather than what they said or believed. Regardless of their faults, they seemed to have a quality of life that was undeniably more loving and selfless than unbelievers — though I had some kind unbelieving friends too. All these things, including, I’ve no doubt, many prayers for me, played a part in my eventual return to faith.
EN: Do you have any advice for young couples in the ministry — or couples in general?
PW: God’s timescales are longer than ours. My husband and I could easily be another statistic of a broken marriage — it would have been easy to give up. I claim no credit — as I said, I think I was prevented from leaving. Working through issues and growing in knowledge of one another, and, most of all, knowledge of God and his ways, has brought solidity and depth to our relationship. So I would urge couples to persevere and not give up.
The Bible stresses the importance of patience — the thought of God’s patience with us should make us patient with one another, in marriage and other relationships. He has loved us so patiently and faithfully when we didn’t deserve it at all. It is hard to be patient, sometimes heart-breaking, but God’s ways are so different from our ways and they genuinely work best.
Young ministry couples need to make sure they give quality time to their own relationship and don’t take one another for granted. I think the Devil especially targets ministry families — it is a no-brainer that, if he can destroy the leaders of the church, he will greatly forward his own purposes. Churches should especially pray for their pastors and their families and not think they are ‘super-Christians’.
EN: What would you say to a Christian whose spouse is drifting spiritually?
PW: Don’t lose hope, the Lord can bring them back — ‘He is able to save to the uttermost’. Keep praying. If they have had a deep Christian faith, there will be a continuous struggle going on in their minds. They may be thinking a lot about spiritual things, even if they don’t admit it to you. God can use anything in their lives to speak to them. I did a scientific course in my leisure time and was amazed at the complexity of the structure of a single cell. It made me think there must certainly be a God because believing that such organisms could just invent themselves strained credulity too much.
EN: What have you learned about the Christian life through all this?
PW: God’s grace is so much greater than I ever imagined, his love for me is always there, and I can rely on him in all situations. I’ve also realised, a bit late in my Christian life, the importance of praying about everything. I’ve found — wonder of wonders — that God is as good as his word! Daily answers to prayer not only strengthen your faith but give you a growing sense of God’s love. I’m also learning it’s not all about me, but about what God wants for me. Most of all, I’ve learned that God’s ways are both very mysterious, and also very merciful, and I love him for it.
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