Betrayal In a Youth Ministry Marriage
“The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The great Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the first-millennium French abbot, is our best guess for the source of this well-known aphorism. In my own experience, it’s also true that the path to hell is paved with countless slight turns away from Jesus, until you find yourself drastically distant from him. A few years ago, this is exactly the pit I’d fallen into—hopelessly trapped in a web God’s enemy had skillfully woven for me. The devil is, indeed, our “enemy [who] prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). I was ill-prepared to resist the “devouring” strategies thrown at me, and arrogantly assumed I’d never be one of those Christians who fell into a lifestyle of sin. I was wrong…
I met my husband Jason in 1996 at Bible college, fell in love, and knew from then on that God wanted us together for a lifetime. After graduation, we married and moved to Pennsylvania. We both had passion to serve in church ministry.
In 1999 Jason was offered a youth pastor position at the church we were then attending. After prayerfully completing the candidating process, Jason accepted the call. Our church was a young, healthy, vibrant congregation. We not only served under a senior pastor we respected, he and his wife were intimate friends. They modeled and reflected the love of Jesus above all else.
We had our first child a few years after we started at the church. By then we were five years into our demanding ministry life, and I was trying to balance my part-time job with volunteer church work, motherhood, and being a wife. My church-work was intense, and my to-do list in every area of my life seemed overwhelming. I saved no energy for my personal time with God. Secretly, I was exhausted and depressed and living without purpose.
My husband and I believed in doing ministry together, but adding a child into the mix meant we often went in separate directions. My faith became a duty to perform, not a passion to live. My relationship with Christ morphed into just another meeting, just another church service, just another teenager joining us for dinner, and just another night I felt completely disconnected from my husband. Our conversations devolved into business transactions most of the time. I often resented Jason’s strong commitment to the church and quietly wondered why he couldn’t see how much I was hurting. When I worked out at the gym in the evening I started wondering how I’d respond if a man there showed interest in me. It’d be nice to receive some attention. I didn’t know it, but I was already in the enemy’s crosshairs.
Taking the Bait
In early November 2004 I took a brief trip with our child to my parents’ home in another state—to help them out with a few things. During my visit I received a phone call from my best friend from college, Lisa. Her mom had suddenly passed away. Immediately I called Jason and told him I wanted to go be with Lisa during this time, especially since she was the only believer in her family. Jason understood, so I scrambled to get a plane ticket. My mom said she’d watch our toddler. Early the next morning I headed to the airport. I hadn’t slept in about two days.
When my flight landed I took a bus to Lisa’s Midwest hometown. She greeted me with tears at the bus station. She was very glad I’d come. “No time for my own issues,” I thought. “I needed to be strong for Lisa.” So we headed straight to her brother Dave’s house for a quick bite of lunch and to say hello to the rest of her family. Her married brother Dave welcomed me, and her unmarried brother Paul seemed really happy to see me. His greeting took me aback because I felt unattractive and worn thin. The last time I saw him was at Lisa’s wedding, and he responded to me like a long-lost friend.
The next day Lisa and I ran funeral errands with her husband, Matt. That evening I saw Paul again at Dave’s house. Again, he looked delighted to see me. We playfully bantered back and forth about silly things. I liked the attention—I was starting to like Paul’s company.
The next morning was the funeral service and Lisa asked me to be at the church early to help. My host dropped me off and I looked for Lisa’s family. They were all running late. I was the only one there except for, that’s right, Paul... I thought, “Finally, I look pretty good.” I was happy he was seeing me at my attractive best. His whole face smiled at me when our eyes met. We sat and talked for about 15 minutes until other family members began arriving. We were there to bury Paul’s mother, yet our conversation took us to another place. Our “harmless” flirtation seemed like a balm for the heaviness of the funeral.
During the funeral lunch I sat at a table near Paul. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. A few close friends of the family and I headed back with Lisa and her siblings to their parents’ home. There Paul and I enjoyed more time in casual conversation and my feelings for him grew even stronger.
The next day I headed to the airport with Lisa and her husband. As they dropped me off Lisa said, “Have you noticed that my bother Paul is sweet on you?” I shrugged it off. She asked me to forgive Paul for his disrespectful attitude toward my marriage to Jason. Again, I shrugged it off. I missed Paul already.
Blowing Through the Barriers
I got on the plane and headed back to my parents house on the east coast. On the flight I couldn’t stop thinking about Paul, and about my husband, who currently felt more like a roommate. I liked Paul, and as dysfunctional as my marriage was, I loved Jason. Running through my head were two hard questions: “Who am I, and what am I doing?”
When I arrived back in Pennsylvania I was not doing well. I knew Jason loved me but had no idea how to help and support me. On Thanksgiving Day I called Lisa to see how she was doing. She was at her dad’s house and Paul answered the phone. We talked for almost an hour before he gave the phone to Lisa.
I kept my secret from Jason. But I soon told pieces of my story, in confidence, to my closest friend Cathy (from our church). I also told our senior pastor, Robert, and reached out to a Bible-college friend, Colleen. Robert immediately got me in to see an excellent counselor—the church offered to pay for my visits. Robert hid my identity from the elder board and paved the way for me to get the help I needed. Cathy walked with me through the huge mess of my daily life and kept me on track. Colleen flew in around Christmas to spend time with me and to help with Christmas preparations. All of these friends said they’d be there for me as I waded through the muck. I knew I could trust them. Meanwhile, I kept up all my church responsibilities, pretending like I was fine. I knew Jason could lose his job if others found out about my “problem.” And I wondered who would (and wouldn’t) extend grace to me if I spoke openly about my struggles.
My husband remained loyal and loving to me, but he still had no idea about the ugly depths of my struggle—he thought I was seeing the counselor to deal with my “mild” depression. My pastor and my friends urged me tell him. I told them I just needed a little more time. I couldn’t imagine hurting him so deeply, and wondered whether he’d hate me if I told him the truth.
Counseling was going well, I’d repented of my first steps down the path to adultery, and I’d begged God to forgive me. But life with Paul was still very appealing—it represented an “easy out” for my struggles. I remember watching planes fly overhead and wishing I could be on one. I wanted to be anyone but me.
Lisa’s birthday was the beginning of February—the first without her mother. I thought about going to visit her. She lived out west, nowhere near Paul. Robert told me he was concerned about my decision to go. He asked me to cancel the trip. I thought he was crazy.
“And what about the money I spent on my ticket?” I asked.
“Don’t be concerned with that,” Robert said. “I believe the Holy Spirit has given me a very bad feeling about you going on this trip, so please don’t go.”
I didn’t know what to think about Pastor Robert’s advice. Finally, I labeled it over-protectiveness and blew it off. But I couldn’t blow off the terrible stomach virus that ravaged my body the week before I left. I was on the upside of the virus, but weak, the day my flight took off.
Once at Lisa’s I realized I over-estimated my ability to handle casual conversations about Paul—it was even hard to see him in family photos. Nonetheless, I decided it was going to be a good week; I would do just fine. And then, one day, the doorbell rang. Surprise! It was Lisa’s dad and Paul in the doorway, there for a surprise birthday visit. Lisa was stunned and happy. I stood there in shock. He was here. How could that be? I thought I’d worked so carefully to avoid this!
“That’s it,” I thought. “God has betrayed me—pushed my beyond my limits. I’m mad at him. How could he allow this after all I’ve done to stay in my marriage and to get back on track spiritually?” If this was the hand of my “loving” heavenly Father, I didn’t want anything to do with God.
Soon after his arrival Paul and I had time to talk alone. He told me he’d dreamt about me and thought about me—he was excited to see me again. I told him how I missed him, too. Over the several next days we were together all the time—I knew it was making Lisa and her husband uncomfortable, but I didn’t care. I loved talking to Paul and being near him above everything else. When our hands or feet touched I felt a high. The sexual tension was intense between the two of us—it’s only by God’s grace that we were never alone for more than 10 minutes. Even though I’d decided to walk away from God, he hadn’t walked away from me. He knew extended time with Paul would have meant a full-blown affair.
The night before I left to return home Paul and I were alone for a few minutes in the kitchen. We talked about how we felt about each other and what was to become of us. I told him that as much as I longed to be with him I still loved my husband and needed to work on my marriage. He understood. I knew I’d done the right thing, but letting Paul go was devastating to me. Later in the evening we passed by each other in the darkened kitchen. He grabbed my hand and pulled me close to kiss me. But we heard Lisa’s footsteps outside the kitchen and we backed away from each other.
A Hard Landing
The next day I boarded a plane to go home. Once I settled into my seat I called Paul—it was hard to say goodbye. Going back home to deal with the mess I’d created felt impossible. Paul couldn’t understand why I was so bothered by what we’d done: “It’s not like we slept together.” I told him: “This is an emotional affair, Paul, and I’m married. We’ve done something wrong. We have. I really care about you and I don’t want this to end, but it has to end.”
I hung up with Paul, then prayed that my plane would crash. If I died, or Jason died, or Paul died, then it would be over. Scripture passages flashed into my mind about “sin giving birth to death (James 1:13-15) and my desperate need to “renew my mind” (Romans 12:2).
Much to my disappointment, the plane landed intact in Pennsylvania. I went back to face my faithful friends—all of whom stood up to me and challenged my sin with renewed fervor. I’ll never forget telling Robert how God had betrayed me and how I wasn’t sure I wanted to live the Christian life anymore. I wanted to run away from everything. He calmly asked, “How do you know you are a Christian?” I couldn’t believe he was questioning my salvation! I looked at him incredulously, then started to weep. I knew I was a believer—I just didn’t want to live like one.
So I decided I had no other option but to finally tell Jason everything.
He was as hurt and as angry as I expected—more hurt than anything else. His love for me has always been deep, unconditional, loyal, and trusting. And I’d betrayed him. Secretly, I hoped he’d leave me. But Jason told me he wanted to work it out. I headed back to counseling and worked for months with Jesus, my counselor, and Jason on my relationships and my thought life. Psalm 51 became my prayer: “Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
Working through my messed-up life with Jason and my counselor was one of the most terrible experiences of my life, yet it stretched me tremendously in character, faith, and strength. The daily temptations to leave were almost unbearable. Once, I broke down and called Paul. Another time I sent him a letter. I worked harder than I’d ever worked at anything to stay on track and fight. Even if I didn’t “feel” in love with Jason on certain days, I knew he was the one God had given me for life. I’d made a commitment.
Born Again, Again
In April, just as my life began to stabilize, Jason told me he was seriously considering a “dream job” position at a church in another state. So, in the summer of 2005, we left the church we loved and started over. It came at a time when I felt like I was just getting my “sea legs”—I could stand without falling, and the desire for Paul was fading away. God’s grace and goodness carried us through the difficult transition. And as we settled in to our new life Jason and I experienced a profound and beautiful healing—our marriage is now stronger than ever. Two years after our move we celebrated the birth of our second child.
Today the scar of my sin remains, but the burden of it does not (Lamentations 3:22). My heart echoes the words of Psalm 25: 21: “May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope is in you.”
*Daria Thompson is an assumed name for a woman who’s been married to her youth pastor husband for 13 years.
Excerpt From My Journal
“I have been dangerously close to the edge of sin and the depths of depression, and it frightens me. The temptation to just leave it all and possibly have a full-fledged affair is so strong it beats on the door to my soul long and hard.”
Excerpt From My Journal
“What would happen if people at church knew who I really was? Sometimes I feel like shouting: ‘I almost left my husband, the youth pastor. I almost walked away from God. I was depressed and angry. Do you still like me? Do you still love me?’ I came out of depression and my sense of purpose took a new direction. I think I finally get why pain refines us and how God loves us through it. The future honestly scares me but I don’t want to move backward and I’d go crazy staying where I am. I have to plunge into the years ahead with great expectation of God’s goodness.”
The Revelation of Sin Within a Community of Believers
In Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel, he quotes the great German theologian and martyr Deitrich Bonhoeffer:
“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from their fellowship. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is we are sinners!”