Thursday, June 4, 2015

Every Man's Battle

This is a guest post by a dear friend in response to recent news coverage about Karen Hinkley & Jordan Root.

The story of Karen Hinkley and Jordan Root has gone viral. It centers around The Village Church, a 10,000 member megachurch whose lead pastor is the famous, Matt Chandler, and their response to Karen’s discovery of her husband’s abuse of child pornography while serving as missionaries in East Asia. The details of what happened, when and how, have been the subject of letters gone viral, the main ones being here and here

In brief, The Village Church (at the time the couple’s home church) placed Karen under their church disciplinary process as a result of her "unwillingness to seek reconciliation." The real controversy, though, is that Jordan, the addict, somehow escaped a need for formal church discipline. As part of their disciplinary process, The Village Church emailed 6,000 members, providing details as to why the couple was home, what Jordan had done, their interpretation of Karen’s response and why they were placing her under church discipline. Somehow, Karen had become the bad guy for her “lack of submission,” and Jordan the hero for “fessing up.”
Clearly this is a deeply personal story, and as with every relationship, has its own nuisances and history to consider. This post is not an attempt to dispute facts or to provide every detail of every side. Rather, the fact that this story has exploded and caught so many people's attention should give us reason to stop and look a little closer. And so today we're stopping, looking, and asking, What is the bigger picture here?
Perhaps it is that when churches attempt to stuff something as profound and mysterious as the Divine and the Bible into a concise doctrinal statement, and form things like, "church disciplinary policies," there is likely going to be some splitting at the seams and lots of room for error. 
Perhaps it is that there is a terrible current of sexual sin running rampant through churches today, and that The Village Church’s response speaks of how skewed parts of the conversation around sexual addictions has become.
I discovered this in a very personal way when I asked other women from my own church community if their husbands had a “porn problem.” All but one said yes. The real kicker: Many of these men are serving in church leadership positions, training for pastoral roles, starting their own families. Somehow their sexual addictions aren’t serious enough to warrant counseling, let alone removal from leadership for a period of time. Why??

I think a big clue lies in the fact that the church has coined pornography, “every man’s battle,” and in doing so, has allowed these men to feel very justified in continuing to make bad decisions, often for years on end, often in secret. Although few churches would say it overtly, the message conveyed is usually something like, “It’s a shame that women allow themselves to be sexualized and tempt men to fall into sexual addiction. These poor guys just don’t stand a chance in our culture, bless their souls.” I know this, because I have lived this.

When I read Karen Hinkley’s story last month, I had moments of extreme déjà vu, minutes at the monitor with my face flush in jaw-dropping gasps. So many emotions came flooding back, so much the same in Karen’s story and mine. How many women have gone through some version of this horrific experience? And yet, too, there are things I cannot relate to at all in Karen’s story. It is her story, not mine.

Still, we both were/are extremely connected to a church body, we both seem to have felt certain in our choice of spouse as being “the one” or “God’s plan for our lives,” and we both have/had spouses that have/had serious sex addictions that were unknown to us until many years into marriage. Like Karen’s husband, Jordan, my husband concealed his addiction throughout our dating relationship and into our marriage, until finally I overheard a conversation he was having with a friend late one night, a conversation in which he admitted he was struggling with regular pornography use. I knew this was something he had struggled with in high school and his freshman year of college, but was told on numerous occasions throughout our relationship that this “struggle” was no more.

When I found out that those earlier reassurances had been bold lies and that I had been married to an active sex addict all these years, I was immediately ill. I was devastated and disillusioned. In a moment, it felt like my entire marriage had been a sham – the man I married was a mirage and when the illusion faded, I was left standing with a man who had no real identity to me at all. So many lies...

Like Karen, I turned to our friends, our church and our pastor – and this is where our story takes a bit of a different turn. Upon telling our pastor and his wife about my husband’s addictions, they offered to come to our home and spend the evening with us, to give us space to talk, uninterrupted by meetings, agendas and the overall workday drudge. They stayed until after midnight, while I cried and yelled and told them every detail and concern with our marriage and my husband’s sexual addiction. I shared my uncertainty about the future and the very real possibility that I would file for divorce. They met me with great love, understanding and acceptance. My heart breaks for Karen that she wasn’t able to experience that gift. 
The only piece of advice given by my pastor and his wife that night, was to make sure that the decision I was making was one I owned with my whole heart and mind and could tell my children about with great confidence one day. I walked away from that conversation feeling a tinge of hope and a lot of support. I assumed I would get the same reaction from anyone else in our church I decided to share our struggle with - love, understanding, acceptance. Unfortunately, like Karen, this was far from the reality I experienced. 
Our church’s number one selling point has always been “community.” Our church is that place where you can go, with all your stuff, your baggage, your hurts. A place where people will be there to “meet you where you are,” bring you in and make you feel like you’ve always been there. At least that was our initial experience, and so much of the reason why we had been drawn to this community and remained committed to them over the years. We would have never imagined that all of this could change…but it did.

When I began to share about the issues in my marriage with my closest church girlfriends, I was initially met with great empathy. They all expressed deep sympathy, offered their help and provided encouragement. In the beginning, it felt so good to proclaim the ugly secret that was brooding behind our closed doors.

But as I continued to share, I noticed my church girlfriends becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I was not letting my husband off the hook, I was holding him responsible, I was giving him an ultimatum – be abstinent from pornography or I’m leaving. The ultimatums made my friends squirm. They explained that they thought I might be over-reacting, that it wouldn’t be best for my children to end the marriage (as if children can’t see through a fake marriage), that this is “every man’s battle,” and that I should remain faithful to my marriage vows of “for better or worse” no matter what.
Here's what I heard when those words were said to me - what many women hear when these messages are hurled at their pain. I heard, “You’re too emotional and your emotions aren’t trustworthy,” and “It’s better to pretend you’re in love so your children turn out okay,” and “It doesn’t matter if he stops, or if you’re happy - you promised to stay together and that’s what you must do.”  Those words took such a toll on me. I was tempted to not trust myself, to not trust the Holy Spirit inside me who was - despite all the other voices trying to speak on His behalf - screaming, “This is NOT okay, this is NOT good, and this CANNOT go on.” I was tempted to listen to the voices of my “friends” and deny what God was so vehemently pleading: This must not continue.
Thankfully, my best friends (I can say that even more profoundly and confidently now than ever before), my counselor and my pastor pointed me toward that voice of God, told me to listen and trust, and have lovingly supported me every step of the way. What in the world would I have done without them?

I wish that those church girlfriends were the only hurtful voices I encountered, but unfortunately, like Karen, that is only half of the ordeal...

You’d think that my husband’s actions towards me, or my friends weird and hurtful judgements, would have been the most painful parts of this entire experience – but I can assure you that it was the reaction of my husband’s friends that sent me from a downward spiral into a full blown tailspin. They said things like, “I told you she would eventually divorce you,” and “Make sure when you go to counseling they address her issues too,” and “She’s never had a close relationship with God,” and “You’re not the bad guy here, you’re a really good guy.” It was another barrage of many hurtful conversations to obsess over during long months of toiling and regrouping, of trying to figure out if our marriage was worth saving. I was dumbfounded how the conversations had changed.

It was as if they were blaming me for my husband’s addiction, that somehow I drove him to it (and hasn’t finding a scapegoat for another person's decisions been going on long enough?!). They said it with their words, with their actions and with their abandonment of us as friends when we eventually confronted them about it. In the end we decided that our marriage was indeed worth saving  - but it would have been much easier to do with a little more of the love and acceptance that we expected from our church friends.
I cannot help but connect my experience to Karen’s. All of a sudden, because she dared to call her marriage a fraud, because she dared to leave a relationship that for all intents and purposes never existed to begin with, because she did the unpopular thing, the negative attention was diverted almost entirely to her. She dared to abandon a lie in search of the truth, to begin again her way. She disappointed her church by not doing it their way, and they let her know in a very public way.
It was like The Village Church was trying to turn Karen and Jordan into their next short film: “Romance Rekindled – How One Man’s Addiction Reconciled Him and His Wife to the Lord,” and when they realized they weren’t going to get their neatly-scripted happy ending, the church flailed around to regain control, trying to force Karen to reconsider her supporting role. How damaging it was for them - for any of us - to pretend that there is only one right way to navigate such a complicated life experience.

When this kind of thing happens to someone, support and compassion are helpful, blame and judgement are not. Gentle leading and encouragement are helpful, coercion and abandonment are not. Love always wins, and from personal experience I can say, it is the love of those who cared most that carried me through some of the hardest months of my life. If it weren’t for those sweet voices of love and hope, this post would end with a bitter, angry sentiment stating something like: If you don’t get it from the pulpit, you’ll get it from the pews.
And that would be very, very sad.

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