by Russell Willingham
It was a glorious day at the beach. The bride and groom were hand-in-hand as they faced the pastor and the pounding surf. His words of gratitude and humility to his wife were heart-felt. Her words of affection and delight to her husband were beautiful. It may have been the most powerful exchange of vows my wife and I had ever witnessed.
Paula and I were invited to this small, intimate ceremony because we had known this couple for years. This wasn’t their wedding, however, they had already been married for thirty years. And it wasn’t your typical vow renewal (as great as those are). This was a miracle.
Why? Because early in their marriage, “Brad” had an affair with his wife’s best friend. “Helen” was devastated. They found their way to NCM and began getting help. God worked in both of their lives. After a year of counseling and group work, they graduated from the ministry. They were grateful for what God did through NCM. That was fifteen years ago.
I bumped into Brad, Helen, and their five children from time to time. They seemed to be doing good. Then a year ago, Brad showed up again at NCM. When I saw him in the waiting room, I knew something was wrong. We went into my office, and his heart-breaking story came out.
“Russell, after I left NCM, Helen and I were doing fine. You gave me a clear path to follow, but eventually, the accountability in my life fizzled. I also started slipping spiritually. To be honest with you, I went back to my old behaviors. I knew if Helen found out, our marriage would be over for good. I was determined to take this with me to the grave.
“I would have done it too if I hadn’t had the heart attack. So my doctor scheduled triple bypass surgery. The night before my procedure, he came to my hospital room and told me they were going to split my chest open. He also told me I could die on the operating table. “But, otherwise,” he said, “there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Nothing to worry about? I freaked out. I knew if I died, I would have to stand before Jesus and explain myself. I confessed everything to God: the flirting, lying, and three affairs. But I knew it wasn’t enough—I had to tell Helen. When she and the kids came to my room later that night, I spilled it all to them. I cried uncontrollably and kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Oh God, I’m going to die!” The nurse sedated me, and I woke up a day later in recovery.”
After the surgery, his wife asked him to leave. She said the marriage probably wouldn’t make it, but she hoped (for his sake) that he could get to the bottom of this. His grown children were furious and wanted nothing to do with him. Brad moved into a camper behind his brother’s house.
He said, “Russell, I realize I didn’t deal with all my issues when I was here fifteen years ago. But I have to get to the bottom of this now. Will you help me?” Of course, I was willing to help him.
Over the next six months, we met every week and dove into his family of origin. He realized that the abuse he experienced as a little boy caused him (in adulthood) to try and be perfect at everything he did. As a result, he became the top cop in his department. He was highly respected but relationally destitute.
We unpacked his warped thinking, and he began aligning himself with God’s perspective. He saw that there was deep sin inside, but he also saw that God’s love for him was unbelievably real. After forty years of being a Christian, he finally believed the good news.
In the process, Helen began to see a man she had only glimpsed a few times over the years. They had some challenging discussions, fights, and ever-so-slow breakthroughs. Even the kids began to soften.
All this led up to our moment on the beach. Only our small group knew the whole story. These two radiated such passion for each other that it brought us to tears. Their oldest ended the service by singing a beautiful song to his parents, “This garden’s gonna grow, this garden’s gonna grow. I hope we’ll all be ready. This garden’s gonna grow.”