It was 1997. I sat in church reflecting on the events that brought me to this point, and I was sure no one would have believed the pain I was feeling on the inside. I sat lost in my emotions. Even though we enjoyed fellowship with other couples in the congregation, none of them noticed the cold glances my wife sent my way.
For every practical reason, I should have loved my life. I was experiencing success on the job and was moving up in my organization. We lived in a beautiful house located in a recognizable community. Our children appeared to be flourishing. I was expected to be the next president of our congregation, all while leading small groups of Christians who respected me. I enjoyed an active lifestyle in the local golfing community. We took family vacations to the beach each year. Growing up in a violent and addiction ridden home, I was often told that I beat the odds. I considered myself a survivor...but because of all of this, I also felt the need to keep secrets!
Everyone at work and church only knew the public me, not the “behind closed doors” me. That person was very insecure and afraid. That person wasn’t okay.
I met my wife during a season where was free from the demons in my closet. I thought I beat them in 1995 when we married. Free from my secrets for over a year, I was living a healthy and focused life.
However, about a year into the marriage, things weren’t as rosy as I hoped. My wife’s two daughters didn’t take to me as I imagined they would. The pressure at work placed demands on our time, and I felt distant from my wife. In the midst of this, I turned to my secret as a comfort and escape. My secret was a pornography addiction.
When my wife caught me, the pain was way more than I ever anticipated. I had deceived and hurt her more than I ever thought possible.
Even though we were just existing under one roof, my wife was willing to stay with me. I wasn’t sure why; there was a cloud hanging over me that I couldn’t get relief from. I was terribly addicted to pornography and now she knew my secret.
Soon after that, we moved to Tennessee and found a church. After taking the membership class, they suggested we get into a small group. This was the last thing I wanted to do. I had kept my secret for years and had no intentions of bringing it up to a small group. So, we continued to struggle, just existing as husband and wife. I thought it would only be painful for us to bring it back up. In reality, I didn’t want to cause myself any pain, because I was rebuilding my image in a new place. I couldn’t bear to see the hurt that I caused in her eyes again. But she wanted to join the group, so I reluctantly agreed.
Though I continued to keep my secret, I met a mentor who would disciple me for the next 5 years. He had a heart for people like me—a Christian who didn’t know how to have a relationship with God. Through his guidance, I was able to lead some church groups. Due to my service, I was asked to be part of a team that would bring a recovery ministry to our church. Our pastor asked if I could go with him to Dallas to meet the leadership team for re:generation.
I was in wonder from the moment I met these people. Their freedom from the same addictions that bound me up was intoxicating. While there, I was asked “Why are you here?” and “Why are you passionate about helping others?” I replied with very unspecific answers—still guarding my secret.
In spite of that, I left knowing that God loves me no matter what I had done, and that sin would not define me if I chose to be honest and turn from it. For the first time, I felt that freedom was possible.
In 2014, we launched re:generation at our church. In a last-minute schedule change, I became the speaker on our first night. I was afraid as I prepared my testimony, but I wanted that freedom more than I wanted to guard my secrets. No one (including my mentor) knew all the sin that was about to come out. I wasn’t sure if the church would even want me around. The enemy had convinced me that if people really knew who I was, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. With about a hundred people in the room, most of them leaders in our church, I shared my story and my secrets authentically for the first time.
To my surprise, I was met by the pastor with a big hug when I finished. For the first time in nearly 20 years, I was truly free. I didn’t realize just how free for some time after.
It brings tears to my eyes when I look back on my journey. Since that first night, I have shared my story weekly with our newcomers to re:generation at our church. I even shared it from the stage on Sunday in front of 1500 people. While still difficult, each time I share is just as freeing as the first.
God uses my testimony to help others know that, through Christ, they can be fully known, loved, and free from the pain of the past. He uses my mess as His message of freedom. I can’t imagine keeping God’s work in my life a secret ever again.
Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.”
I had a secret that kept me enslaved...but now I know true freedom in Christ.
- Rich Riesz, Director of Care and Recovery, Grace Fellowship Church, Johnson City, TN