by Josie Cunningham
In 2006, the book of Job became my nighttime storybook. I held my ears and my heart close to the Word of God as He carried me through the most gut-wrenching experiences of my life. My husband’s confession of embezzlement, and his resignation as pastor after 27 years, plunged me into a challenge that seemed utterly impossible. I found myself in a relentless pursuit to hear the voice of God.
My childhood years in the Carolinas consisted of working on the farm with my dad after school, enjoying home-cooked meals, and saying prayers at bedtime. My parents modeled unconditional love and their intentional choice to have me in church to learn about God was the greatest gift they ever gave me. I realized my need for a Savior at the age of nine. I made a public confession of my salvation in the small country church where I can still hear them singing, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me. And that Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
With the desire to follow God’s guidance, I packed my Bible and a few belongings and left for Baptist Bible College at the age of 19. It was there I surrendered my will to God to fulfill His purpose for my life. Phil and I met in my last year of college, got married the following year, and moved to California to serve in ministry. It was there we raised our three children, developed friendships, and served and loved our church family. Phil and I grew up together in many ways. We did not have a perfect marriage, yet our love for one another was no doubt confirmed and sealed by the grace of God. J. D. Greer speaks truthfully when he states marriage is when two sinners come together to be a reflection of Christ. He says God gave you your spouse on purpose; God has a higher agenda.
I did not go into my marriage thinking of it as a ministry opportunity. Now, however, I look through a different lens. Often, upon hearing Phil’s testimony, people are curious to know how our relationship could survive such deceit and destruction. Who would put up with one who preached God’s Word while in a stronghold of sin? What happened to bring unity where the bond of trust had been ripped so quickly apart? When did God appear in the burning bush and tell me what to do? Where was I when God gave me direction, and why would I choose to walk a journey of restoration and suffer the ridicule on public display? I do not wish to dwell on my husband’s sin, nor do I wish to make this about me. I do, however, wholeheartedly desire to promote my dearest friend, my Savior, my Deliverer, my Counselor, my Refuge, and my mighty God!
Through this trial, I was deeply wounded and changed. I experienced anger like never before in my life. I grieved for my children, for the embarrassment and pain they experienced. I grieved with them over the loss of their dad as they knew him — when he was handcuffed and taken from the courtroom to prison, I knew he would not return the same. I grieved the personal losses birthed from Phil’s secret sin. They were innumerable, yet worthy to be shared. I lost many friendships, both within the community and among the church family. These families were not my projects in ministry — I loved them immensely. In one day, with my husband’s confession, I walked out of the church, never to see many of those families again. I grieved the death of me, the person I was. I mourned the loss of a marriage I thought was built on trust, and the loss of a husband as I once knew him. These initial consequences of sin placed me in my own prison of darkness, and I often found myself lying in a fetal position in my bed, lifeless.
Where were all those friends I had served with and cried with during their times of sorrow and pain? Some asked if I was going to divorce Phil, others told me I should and that I did not deserve this pain. I had several urgent choices to make. Would I stay in this marriage? Would I forgive? Christians are commanded to forgive. To me, there was no choice to be made. Isn’t that what the cross is all about? How to demonstrate the challenge of that choice was something I could not fathom at the time.
Six weeks before Phil sat down with me to verbally unleash the years of his bondage, I had purchased the Bible study When Godly People Do Ungodly Things by Beth Moore. God, no doubt, prepared me for the response He most desired. I knew God was sovereign and even this circumstance had been filtered through His loving hands. As I read through the chapters of Job, I agreed with his words, “Who am I that I should accept good from God and not evil?” Was I being persuaded that I was entitled to a fairer life? I wanted God to know I was going to trust Him, and I fell on my knees when it occurred to me He knew He could trust me.
Satan may have power over our circumstances, but he is defeated by our faith. I’m grateful our faith is not based on our feelings — it is an act of obedience. My response to Phil would affect my children, my friends, my family members, those who stood by me during this time, and possibly those who did not, and my decision would affect generations to come. My response would be a reflection of whom I worshipped. Job blessed God with his response in his grief; I chose to do the same. We have this treasure in jars of clay to show this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.
As I spent countless days and nights pleading for God’s help, it was clear my decision was to stay in my marriage and trust God. This choice was based solely on obedience to God and my love for Him. At this point of the journey, I had no feelings of love within me. I knew I loved my husband and I knew I loved God, but there was no movement in my heart. I was emotionally flatlined and feared I would never be able to feel and express love again. One particular night comes to mind as I laid my head on the pillow. Suddenly the room filled with a black cloud. As I looked up, creatures with long arms and fingers were grasping for my mind. I recognized this act from Satan and began to rebuke him in the name of Jesus. Phil and I spoke scriptures aloud, proclaiming I had been covered in the blood of Jesus. Within a few moments, the demons and the cloud of darkness dissipated. I truly believe my mental state was saved from a nervous breakdown on this particular evening. The power of God’s Word rescued me that night and through the years that followed.
God began the restoration of my broken heart as I surrendered piece by piece, day by day, the overwhelming pain and resentment that consumed me. God strategically placed counselors in my life who not only shared their wisdom and knowledge but purposed to help me come through this circumstance with God’s fingerprints on my response. This was my greatest desire. I did not want to have the victim mentality for the rest of my life, ending up bitter, isolated, and ineffective for my Lord. Yet, as I battled depression, I felt I had been stripped to bareness and was forced to face the fact I would also have a new look and a different touch.
As I unfolded the letter from the courts of California to read my husband was facing criminal charges and was to appear in court, where he was later sentenced to prison, another part of me died. Grief was becoming too familiar. Phil was shackled and taken from the courtroom and I returned to my home in North Carolina to live with my parents, with whom we had been living prior to Phil’s sentencing. Phil and I both were so grateful for my parents’ grace during these years. We lost our home and most of our finances, and the unconditional love they showed brought healing in so many areas of our lives. I continued to work at a small church in my hometown, and it was there God showed me more of Himself.
I wondered how I was going to make it emotionally without Phil around. I would go to sleep at night with my Bible, and many nights cried myself to sleep. I could not talk to Phil, as my only communication with him was via letter. There were days self-pity and loneliness cried for my embrace. During this season, I was given the book Choosing Gratitude written by Nancy Leigh DeMoss. She speaks of ingratitude as the first step away from God and as one of the enemy’s most lethal weapons. I determined to thank God aloud for blessings every day. I would go for walks and do nothing but thank God for His touch on my life and for His promises.
While Phil was in prison facing his own health issues, my dad was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2009. My dad and I had always been close. He was my prayer warrior. As I began taking my dad for blood transfusions, I received word the life-threatening surgery to remove the mass in Phil’s throat had been scheduled for December 7. If Phil made it through the surgery, according to the doctors, there was a strong chance he would never talk again. Then, on December 5, I received a phone call from my sister-in-law who was panicked as she told me she found my brother dead in his recliner that morning. As I delivered my brother’s eulogy, my husband was undergoing surgery as a prisoner in a hospital where no one was allowed to visit. On the day of Phil’s surgery, I walked into my office at work and fell on my knees. God met me there that morning. I truly felt His presence pick me up as though I was a little baby. He placed me on His shoulder, He gently patted my back, and reminded me He was with me and He would take care of me. Some might think I was hallucinating, but I tell you, I was not. God is real. I was reminded again of Job when he said at the end of his storm, “my ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.”
I grieved the loss of my brother and cared for my father’s feeble body at night. I gave thanks Phil’s surgery had been successful and prayed God would keep him safe as he faced a second surgery for thyroid cancer. Soon, I was told my dad had only a few weeks to live. Could I bear any more pain? God so graciously allowed me to be with my dad when he went into eternity. Was this really another death, another funeral, another opportunity to brag on God — a sovereign God, holy and perfect, who gives and who takes away? Blessed be the name of the Lord!
As I bathed Phil in prayer from a distance, God held me and was faithful to meet my every need. God brought Phil through his second surgery and used him mightily to bring inmates into the Kingdom. We both continued to heal from our wounds, and God, in his mercy and grace, brought Phil back home July of 2010. We both felt we had faced our own wars that year. God had sustained us and reminded us He alone is enough. He was faithful as we stood in battles with grief, sickness, depression, loneliness, betrayal, and the evils of this world. He sent friends, old and new, to love us, He financially met our needs and, by His grace and mercy, he kept our family together.
Ten years after it all began, I now sit writing these words with a heart full of compassion — a heart that can receive and express love again, and a heart filled and overflowing with gratitude to my Lord. He has healed my broken heart and bound up my wounds. He has restored, repositioned, reconciled, and renewed. My response to these chapters of my life: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God — and not from us. God, alone is enough.”