By Steve Wyatt
You probably wouldn’t have liked the man I once was—though you might’ve been impressed by my résumé.
I certainly was!
I sang my first solo at 6, taught a seventh-grade Bible class at 15, preached my first sermon at 16, and was a youth pastor at 19. I served as senior pastor of a multistaff church at 23, and wrote two books by my early 30s while leading a church of 200 to more than 3,500!
And all God’s people said . . . ?
Back in my former life, I was on most short lists for everything touching any part of all-things ministry.
And for nearly three decades, everything I touched—SPARKLED.
Until it didn’t.
Our church was completing our relocation when my wife of 24 years told me she didn’t love me, wasn’t sure she ever did, and was leaving to be with another.
Church leaders tried to be supportive, but the pressures were great and my sense of failure pressed in so hard I resigned in shame. I found a way to support my kids and me, and hoped against hope that God might eventually heal me.
Fast-forward four years. That’s when God gave me a new love, took me to the desert, and restored me to ministry. Together, Cindy and I planted a church, even as we shared a love most people only dream about. That love grew exponentially as the cancer in her body also grew, until one April evening she stopped by Heaven to see Jesus—and decided to stay.
And I thought my Midas-touch life was over—all over again.
Except it wasn’t.
My Story Isn’t Mine
Life has taught me, painfully, that the story I DO live isn’t mine; God is the real author. I’m just a bit player in the drama he’s chosen to write through me.
It’s odd, but after God restored me the first time, I did stuff I was never bold enough to do in my previous life. I wrote a book in the first six months of our new church. Weird! And during Cindy’s 14-month cancer battle—with me as her primary caregiver—I decided to preach through Hebrews. Insane!
So in the midst of helping my wife undergo chemo, radiation, plus all those surgeries, I’m also slogging through neck-deep teachings about the tabernacle and blood sacrifice and the old covenant versus the new covenant. Dealing with why good works and sin offerings and burnt offerings “never did please God!” (Hebrews 10:8).
Finally, in Hebrews 10, the writer tells us what DID please God. Spoiler alert! It’s Jesus. To be more specific, it’s the death of Jesus. The one and only sacrifice that would forever make those who live “by faith” holy.
Easter arrived on April 4, 2010. I decided not to do a one-off message, but plowed into the next verses in Hebrews and urged our congregation to “draw near to God . . . with the full assurance that faith brings . . . [and to] hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:22, 23, author emphasis).
I was still convinced that part of that hope would include Cindy’s healing. So I was going to come springing out of Easter with a hope-inspiring, faith-building, confidence-infusing sort of miniseries through Hebrews 11 and 12, two chapters that contain THE most life-transforming verses of my spiritual life.
And I couldn’t wait for the Sunday after Easter to get after it.
But it would wait.
Because three days after Easter, Cindy breathed her last and slipped away to be with Jesus.
Faithfulness Equals Showing Up
When I sensed it was time to preach again, I had no clue what I would say or how I would say anything. But I embraced the words of a former professor who once said, “Faithfulness is 90 percent just showing up.”
So . . . I did.
And God came, too. Just as he walked alongside me through every other surprising (and heartbreaking) twist and turn of this exquisitely broken story I’ve lived.
He knew, although he’s the only one who did, that after the supreme joy of Easter—and the devastation of three days after—that the first words out of my mouth on that Sunday several weeks after the awful day, in a message scheduled more than a year before, would be:
“Now faith” (Hebrews 11:1).
NOW . . . faith.
FAITH . . . now.
Not someday. Not at another time for some other person in some similar circumstance. But faith, Steve, now. “By faith, my son . . . now.”
So here’s what I’ve realized all these chapters deep in my story: It’s not just God who’s obligated to be “faithful” to ME (Hebrews 10:23), a promise he not only made . . . but made GOOD on. But what about MY faithfulness? In the face of my greatest loss, God’s faithfulness, already proved, provoked a question about my own. What hangs in the balance, when pain is your companion, is whether you will “persevere” (Hebrews 10:36) in your own faithfulness.
So, would I?
Would I embrace the story God was again writing for me?
Would I stand on my core beliefs . . . even in the face of horrific loss?
Would I embrace this thing I could not change?
Would I focus on what was left of my life . . . not what had been lost in my life?
Broken and Reshaped
It’s perplexing, but my pains, far more than any of my gains, have stretched me to embrace the story God chose to write through me. For his perfect purpose, he wanted to fundamentally and publicly break me (twice!).
WHY? So that he could then reshape me according to his choosing.
I realize now that his plan has gifted me with a voice (and a platform) few pastors could know. Because God lifted me, just as he lifted Elijah, to a Carmel-like moment, but then sent me racing to find cover under a broom tree, and then, a cave.
I had always preached that Elijah was better having experienced that descent.
But now, so also am I.
Yeah, the other Steve was sought after . . . then. I spoke at the NACC and then avoided it. Then I went, but hid. Now I go, but there’s no reason to hide, although I sit at the feet of people I once rubbed shoulders with. I once had a seat at the table. Now? I have no clue where the table even is.
But obscurity has been wonderfully liberating. Because there is sweet peace in knowing that having lost my life twice, I embrace the life I still live for his choosing. An empowering move, every bit as strengthening as when Moses stomped out of the wilderness or when David crawled out of the caves.
Because I now understand that every breaking experience I surrender to and humbly embrace is the lumber God will use to build yet another platform to put his limitless grace on display.
Better for the Pain
What’s this have to do with leadership?
Well, I am a better pastor because of my pain-filled story.
I’m a better husband for having lost—twice. And yeah, I said “am.” Because my amazing God sent another love my way. I don’t deserve her, but God gave her anyway.
I’m also a better father and grandfather because I know what should be treasured and what merely glitters.
I believe God has sent me on this exquisitely awful journey because he had a purpose. It’s way too early to try to decipher that purpose, or why God chose this path for me—and not you. To be perfectly transparent, I don’t know why. Not today. Maybe never.
I wish I DID, but I don’t.
And there are days, trust me, when I wish it had been you.
All I really know right now is something I read years ago from A.W. Tozer. Nearly 50 years ago he spoke a line in a sermon that became a book—one of my most treasured books, The Pursuit of God. In it, Tozer said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.”
Today, I am more in love with Jesus in my 50s than at any other time. And though I have visible scars exposing wounds I never dreamed I’d have, I have not lost one BTU of the heat, passion, and fire God put in me back when snarky Stevie felt invincible!
See, following Jesus is really all about dying. Postmodern Christianity wants Jesus to do all the dying—though we really love to hear sermons about him dying. But “to take up a cross” (Matthew 16:24), which is what Jesus calls us to do? In Jesus’ day, if you saw somebody dragging a cross through town, you knew “that dude’s about to die!”
Since following is mostly about dying, I’ve learned the hard way to die faster than I used to die. And I am better for having learned that.
How has that informed my ministry?
I’ll never fully know, I suppose. But I don’t need to know how many other cancer warriors have been inspired to keep fighting because of the way we lived out Cindy’s story. I don’t need to know how many caregivers kept leaning in despite the emotional exhaustion and the spiritual terror of watching a loved one drift away.
But here’s something I can measure. Dozens of men who have heard my story have said to me, “Wyatt, your example of a husband loving yet losing his wife has forever made me want to be a better husband.”
I never expected that. I had long believed I had conceded that high ground. It’s amazing, but from the scattered debris of my greatest loss, God had built for me yet another platform.
And now I know, my struggles made me . . . better.
And stronger. Because enduring through pain teaches you way more than when you’re riding the wave. Sure, you may walk with a limp for the rest of your life—but I’d rather limp in the life I have now . . . than go back to my other life.
Because, even I like this me way better.
Steve Wyatt serves as lead pastor with The Crossroads Church in Anthem, Arizona.