18 months ago, I (Josh) began a painful but profound honor: the honor of walking with Matt Svoboda through the devastation of his life’s rock bottom toward the restoration he’s now experiencing in his life and family. What made this a unique honor, as a friend of 17 years and one of the elders over him, was getting to speak with him multiple times a week and seeing firsthand the fruit in his life as he gave himself fully to the work of healing, repentance, and restoration. One of my favorite verses in the New Testament simply says…
Finally brothers… aim for restoration.
–– 2 Corinthians 13:11
One of the greatest ways we can “aim for restoration” in the lives of other people is by telling the story of restoration in our own lives, so I’m extremely proud of my friend’s willingness to share his story to give Jesus-centered hope and help people who wonder if there is any possibility for them:
My Story: Shame, Sin, and Suicide
Everything was going according to plan.
I (Matt) had a fantastic wife, great kids, a newly adopted daughter, and even the yellow lab, to top things off.
I was thriving as an executive pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in the country, working with my two closest friends and loving every minute of it. Our church was healthy and strong, but I was far from it.
On paper, everything looked perfect. But, life isn’t lived on paper.
For years, I struggled with cycles of depression. To make matters worse, the only people I shared my depression with were my wife and best friend/pastor.
I was always very high-functioning and had learned to hide behind my personality. As an enneagram 7, “life of the party,” I could turn the facade on any time I needed.
Through the years, I dealt with each of the depression cycles like the past ones. I pursued God and begged him to pull me out of it. I held on because the Lord had rescued me from each of the previous cycles. I guess I naturally expected him to do the same each time, even though that was never promised.
But then came the fourth major round of depression. I had no idea the depth this one would take. After a few years battling this on my own, things changed. A new script started playing in my head that had not been there before.
A New Script
The new script was not a good one. My outlook severely darkened, despair overwhelmed me, and the whispers of death started to sound sweet.
I often sat on the couch thinking about death–what my boys would say about me, the incredible feeling of disappearing, and how much better everyone would be without me. This lasted hours upon hours.
At this point, suicide just sounded like an option if things didn’t get better. But the very thought of having the thoughts shook me. In my mind, this was all new. Because of that, I met with a counselor friend for coffee to share about this new script playing in my mind.
But in full disclosure, I significantly downplayed the severity of it. Looking back, I think I wanted to open the door without sounding the alarms. But alarms were necessary. Though I downplayed it, the counselor still suggested a six-day in-patient retreat center. Still in denial, it seemed like a massive step for what I was dealing with.
Often, when someone shares a struggle with another person, they start to feel a little better. And that’s what happened to me after talking to my counselor friend. At least for a couple months. But without a plan, and trying to do it all on my own, the despair came back with a vengeance.
This is when it got dangerous.
I lost hope. My means of numbing and self-medicating reached new heights. I felt like a ticking time bomb.
What I have come to learn is that I was filled with shame. Having been a Christian for 15 years, I falsely thought Jesus just took care of all that. Yet, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was a person engulfed in self-hate and filled with anger toward God for not helping me.
And that shame was spilling over. In the past, I was able to manage and suppress it. But I couldn’t anymore. My recovery book states that shame is so potent, one drop can result in an entire life of lost self. I was losing myself in the worst way. Disconnected. Numb. Isolated. Hurting.
I started to lose all boundaries and sense of being. On the inside, I was unraveling.
The Night It Came Crashing Down
Keep in mind, I was a very high-functioning executive pastor throughout all of this. My wife was the only one who could see what was happening. But, like me, she didn’t know what she didn’t know.
Suicidal ideation became the dominant theme of my days. Suicide went from being an option, to being a good option, to being the right option. It was a good option because I truly believed my wife, my children, my friends, and my church would be better off without me. It felt courageous. It felt selfless.
But what I also didn’t know is that shame-based people don’t think they have shame, they believe that they are shame.
Up to this point, none of my struggle with depression or self-medicating had worked itself out in blatant external sin. But that was about to change. The shame was spilling over, the case I was making against myself was subconsciously being finalized, and the internal bomb was about to go off.
Traveling alone for work one night, I began talking with a woman and one thing led to another. Before long, I had crossed some significant physical lines with this woman I had never met until that night.
In my mind, the case had now been made.
I betrayed my wife, who loved me dearly. Now, she would be better without me. My family would be better without me. My church would be better without me. It would be better for everyone if I disappeared.
The script playing in my head went something like this, “I TOLD YOU THEY WERE BETTER OFF WITHOUT YOU! You don’t deserve them and they would be better if you were gone.”
I drove home the next day and told my wife that evening. It was crushing. I saw the pain in her eyes. I heard the despair in her voice. I knew the ruins I had created, the chaos I caused.
She couldn’t believe what I had done. I couldn’t either. The destructive nature of my sin just dropped a bomb on my wife and marriage. And to be clear, while mental health was a factor, it is an explanation of the context that helped give birth to the sin, not an excuse for it.
The next day we went to our Lead Pastor and told him what had happened. Thankfully, he and the rest of the elders responded the way you would hope, with both individual compassion and wise congregational care.
While there was genuine repentance over what I had done, I still didn’t understand the underlying shame that led me to that place.
Over the next few days, my wife went and stayed with some friends. She both needed and deserved her space to grieve, be angry, and feel the weight of her loss.
My Game Plan
In the days that followed, I saw the pain I caused and finalized the case that my family would be better without me. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to release them. I needed to free them. I needed to give them a gift of life without me.
So I wrote my suicide letters. One to my sons–I wanted to control the narrative of what they thought about me and make sure they knew how I felt about them. One to my wife–profusely apologizing for the pain I caused her and assuring her that things would be better for her.
I then looked up my insurance to make sure it would pay out so my family would be taken care of. Under my policy, it appeared I needed to have it for 24 months, it had been 26. I was good to go.
I had a plan for how I was comfortable doing it.
But there was one problem. The night I was going to carry it out, I was the only adult at home with my kids. I couldn’t let my sons be the ones to find me. It would ruin the narrative I was trying to leave them with. Not only that, they would be traumatized. So I reasoned with myself, “Not tonight, but the opportunity will open.”
That’s when God stepped in.
The next morning a crisis counselor met my wife and me at our house. Wearing a hat to cover her eyes, my wife wouldn’t look at me, or him, for that matter. Neither one of us said much.
He carried a spiritual authority and confidence that did something that hadn’t been done in my life in 3-4 years… it sparked hope. Not a lot, but just enough. Just enough for me to say, “Hold on. Before I do this, let’s see how this plays out.”
He recommended the same six day in-patient treatment center that the counselor a year before had pointed me to. A place called Onsite Workshops. My church kindly helped me pay for it and I decided I could wait a couple weeks to see if this place could help what seemingly nothing else could.
It was there that I learned what I needed. I found the sources of the shame that needed to be healed–the abandonment by my father, the sexual abuse I endured as a child, and the many other instances of shame I received as a kid.
My ACA recovery book says, “Denial is the glue that holds dysfunction together.” None of us really know when we are in denial, that’s why it is so powerful and has such strong grips from generation to generation.
This is when the invisible hand of God started becoming visible again.
The sovereign silence that God chose to use to allow me to hit rock bottom so I would finally get to the place where I would surrender everything to him was turning to a sovereign voice gently reminding me of His fatherly love towards me.
Things didn’t magically get better by just showing up at Onsite. The journey toward healing was excruciating. I had to walk with my wife through the ruins that my betrayal caused. And even though the elder’s of my church offered me a process of restoration, I had to walk away from it. I wasn’t in a place emotionally or spiritually to be a pastor. But that’s all I knew.
Stepping away from the church was painful and scary. My wife and I thought we would be there forever.
But God had a plan, a plan to show me what it means to be poor in spirit. He slowly, but surely peeled away everything I ever used to hide behind. He let me hit rock bottom, so he could lift me up.
Finding Hope Again
The year following the betrayal and the suicidal letters was incredibly difficult. But, instead of the pain of despair, it was the pain of progress.
My wife and I both ended up going to Onsite. We both got personal counselors. We got a marital counselor. I started going to a recovery group called ACA: Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.
We started picking up the pieces. I started working a normal 8-5 job.
But none of it was easy. Old wounds and new wounds had to be revisited. We had to get to the source. Our lives in almost every way just got blown up: my calling, my career, our community, our stability, our envisioned future. We had to grieve. We had to feel the loss. We had to work through the pain. The work of healing is simultaneously the most difficult and the most critical. We, together, were putting in the work. I was simply grateful to have a wife who graciously decided to stick with me through it.
As for me and God, we wrestled. And wrestled some more. I was disappointed with Him. I was disappointed with myself. I was angry that He chose to let me hit rock bottom. I was angry he didn’t just lift my spirits and let me keep going as he had done times before. I was angry this was the only way He felt he could get my attention enough to get the healing I needed. I had a lot of blame for Him and for myself.
Thankfully, a great Christian counselor, ACA, Onsite, a dear friend, and a couple books helped me work through the anger, blame, and disappointment, and get my heart to a place where I could trust God again. They got me to a place where I could feel safe and loved as I surrendered my new life to Him.
So yes, we wrestled, but He finally got me content to walk with a limp.
So why do I write all this? Why do I tell my story?
A few reasons:
- My ACA book talks about moving from hurting, to healing, to helping. I felt incredibly alone, not understood, and with nowhere to go for years. I believe I can use my voice to help people, especially pastors, not feel those things. I believe God wants me to use my story to help others. To be as blunt as my wife’s counselor, “We don’t have the option to hide. He gave us our story for a reason and he wants us to share it.” Well, here we are.
- It crushes me every time I see another pastor take their own life. When I see it, I think, “I get it. I want to go home too.” But, I know what God is doing in my life and marriage and I know that every person who makes that decision misses out on so much that God wants to do in their life. I am so grateful God has worked in me a renewed commitment to Him, to myself, and to my incredible wife and family. I want everyone to get this opportunity. Hear this though, if you are in that place, I get it. I hear you. I understand. It is overwhelming. I know the despair is consuming. Let me just say this to you though, you are worth finding out why you want to take your life before you do it. At least for me, when I did the incredibly difficult work of finding out why I wanted to take my life, God used it to help me want to start living again.
- I hope to serve other pastors from letting the shame, or guilt, or whatever it is for them spill over onto their families and congregations. I held mine down and managed it for two decades before the sin and shame reared its ugly head. But until I dealt with the sources there was no way it wasn’t going to come out. My prayer, in using my voice and my story, is to encourage pastors and other people to start doing the work before they are forced to by the ugliness of sin. I hope to bring awareness and help move people out of the denial I was in before it is too late.
- For years, I had all the theological answers. I knew the truths. I did the spiritual disciplines. I did everything I was supposed to do. And yet, it wasn’t nearly enough. I discovered a significant gap in my own life that I believe others walk with as well. We in no way pretend to have all the answers. We don’t pretend to have “arrived.” We have simply started the upward climb and hope to encourage others to join us.