Garrett Kell: The Day My Secrets Got Out
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J. Garrett KellJ. Garrett Kell (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is the lead pastor at Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. He previously served as pastor of evangelism at Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas; as pastor at Graham Bible Church in Graham, Texas; and on staff at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He and his wife, Carrie, have five children.
Author and pastor Garrett Kell lived in the agony of his own secrets and porn addiction. But God used his breakdown for healing in Garrett–& his church.
Garrett Kell: The Day My Secrets Got Out
Shelby: Today’s conversation on FamilyLife Today covers some sensitive, but important, subjects that might not be good for younger ears; so please use discretion when listening to this next broadcast. Now, let’s jump into it.
Garrett: Jesus was very patient with sexual sinners; He was very tender with them. But He was hard against religious hypocrites. And you’ve got to pick: “Are you going to be a broken, humble sinner, who needs Him; or are you going to be a religious hypocrite?”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I can remember: often, men in our church would set up appointments to come see me.
Dave: Yes; I mean, you know, you’re a pastor—and you talk about different things, and you hit a chord with somebody—so they’ll come in.
Ann: Wait; so when they’d come in, did you think, “Oh, I know what this is about”?
Dave: Well, often, they would sort of stumble around; because I could tell they were afraid to really talk about why they were there. You know, you’re talking and laughing; but I can sense them getting nervous. Usually—and I’m not kidding—it felt like eight out of ten guys had a porn struggle. Because I had, from the pulpit said, “I have struggled with it,” they felt comfortable, like, “Well, if he struggled with it, I can go in and talk to him about it.”
But they were a little afraid to bring it up. They’d bring it up—and I’ll never forget this one time—Bruce, one of the drummers in our band—and I played bass, so I knew Bruce really well—he sets up this appointment. I’m like, “Why would Bruce want to meet? I mean, we talk all the time! We’re in the band together”; right? And he comes in, and he’s hem-hawing around. I finally go, “Okay, Bruce, I know why you’re here.” He goes, “Why?” I go, “You’re struggling with porn; I know every guy that I talk to struggles with porn. So that’s okay. Let’s go; let’s talk about it.”
He goes, “Dude! No! I don’t struggle with porn. Why do you say that?” I’m like, “Well, you know, a lot of guys are like you. They’re hesitant to tell me what’s going on, so I figured that’s what it is.” I go, “Why are you here?” And he goes, “Well, I just gave my life to Christ, and I was hoping you could like disciple me!” [Laughter] I was like, “Awesome, man!
Garrett: The drummer got saved—that’s better!
Dave: “This is great!”; you know?
Garrett: “We’ll take it!”
Dave: I’ll never forget that moment; because I got to the point, where I thought, “This is universal: every guy.” I didn’t meet with women, so I didn’t know their story.
Ann: Well, I was meeting with the women; and so often, women were saying, “I have no idea what to do. My husband is struggling; I feel like I’m not enough. I feel like this is about me. Help me!” And then, I would also have meetings, where women are saying, “I’m struggling with this issue, and I don’t know where to get help.”
Dave: Yes; so we’ve got Garrett Kell back with us today—pastor of a church—Del Ray Baptist; did I say it right?
Dave: We’re glad you’re back. Welcome back.
Garrett: Yes, it’s good to be here.
Dave: Obviously, we heard your story, which is this epic, awesome, coming-to-Christ story. But then we got into, after you came to Christ—and now, you’ve been pastoring for years—you had this secret sort of struggle that we just talked about, this pornography battle. But we didn’t hear of how you came to start winning this battle.
Dave: It sounded like you were hiding something, even in ministry, and nobody really knew except you. A lot of us have been there. I know our listeners, if they’re being really honest, may be the only ones who know this battle. Tell us the rest of the story: I mean, what happened? You were pastoring; and yet, when you go home, you’re struggling with pornography.
Garrett: Yes; I did feel hopeless. You know, as I mentioned, there was a time, where I thought, “I’m just always going to be like this.”
Garrett: And I resolved myself to trying to figure out how to live in the duplicity—it haunts you—a guilty conscience is a gift from the Lord, and I was trying to hide it. Yes, I had been a pastor for about three years, and I had a pattern of—every couple weeks, or every month or two, or something like that—where I would retreat, either for a brief time or a more extended time and indulge in pornography, then feel super guilty and delete my search history, and call a friend and be like, “Hey, I just want you to know I’m struggling a little bit. Pray for me!” That pattern just went on, and on, and on.
Ann: Did you wallow in that? Were you, in your head, full of shame?
Garrett: There were times that I certainly was full of shame. I felt it particularly when I was trying to counsel other people,—
Ann: Oh, yes.
Garrett: —where I felt the weight of my hypocrisy. There were a couple times I think I withheld some really hard words; because I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t living it. I can just see how Satan—he wasn’t just getting me—he was getting a lot of people, because of my sin struggle.
Dave: —which is interesting—just to make the point that we often think our sin struggle just affects us.
Garrett: It does not; it always affects others.
Dave: Man, oh man! I mean, the people you were ministering to; but if you’re a dad or a mom, it is affecting your family.
Garrett: Yes; because you’re going to come in, and your mind’s going to be elsewhere; or you’re just numb.
Garrett: You’re not going to be as in tune with the needs of others; or you’re going to be angry because you’re ticked off: “I did this again!” Just the ripple effect of sin—it never just affects you—right?
Dave: Yes; right.
Garrett: And again, the church I was pastoring—God was blessing it! People were coming to the Lord, and people were growing—He was working in spite of me! During this time, I met my, now, wife. We had—long story; great story—her side is a lot more holy than mine. [Laughter] We met and started dating.
I was thinking about joining a friend on a church plant; and I said, “You know what? If I’m going to work with him, I should probably let him know everything.” Because I kind of felt like I just wanted to come clean. I wrote what I now call “the letter.” In the letter, I chronicled all of my sexual sin from the time I had become a Christian up until then.
I had told Carrie about my struggle with pornography. By His grace, the relationship really helped. There had been some distance, but I’d still never been honest about where I had been.
I sent that letter to my buddy, Reid. Carrie and I hopped on a plane to fly up to Jersey, to film our promo video for the church. I get off the plane; I have a voicemail. He says, “Hey, let’s meet up at the coffee shop.” We met up at the coffee shop. I had the hardest encounter that I’ve ever had. Reid—he’s a former Division I wrestler—he sat across from me, looked me in the eyes; and he said, “Garrett, I love you. But I read your letter; and I do not, in good conscience, feel like we can more forward with the church plant. To be honest with you, brother, I don’t think you’re qualified to be a pastor right now.”
Garrett: He said, “You’re not above reproach. You’ve been living a lie for a long time, and you need to go back; you need to tell your elders/your fellow pastors what’s been going on.” You know, I started coming up with every excuse: “Oh, it’s been a while!” or “Hey, you know, things are new now.” He goes, “No; you’ve been living a lie, and you need to tell the truth.” And I knew he was right.
I went back home, and I gave the letter to the elders. That began—2007—began what I call “the year of the anvil.” An anvil is a hard metal surface that you lay something on, and you beat it into shape. The Lord used 2007 to break me in all the ways that I needed to [be broken]. Those guys and their families: all they wanted was a church that preached the Bible. All they wanted was to see their friends have a place they could go and hear about Jesus, that wasn’t just mixed in with dead religion. That’s all they wanted in a church, and I hurt them.
They read the letter, and they wanted some time to think about it. We met back up, and they had some very hard words for me. One of them that I still remember—a good friend to this day, his name is Will—he said: “You know, Garrett, Jesus was very patient with sexual sinners; He was very tender with them. But He was hard against religious hypocrites,” and “You’ve got to pick: ‘Are you going to be a broken, humble sinner, who needs Him; or are you going to be a religious hypocrite?’” And that struck me.
And he was right. Those were—it was a hard word, but it was the right word—I needed to hear it. In a small town, things happen. Word kind of got out about the letter somehow. People started to have questions about: “Hey, I heard something’s going on with the pastor.” As you can imagine, in a small town, it mutates. Basically, what they said is: “What we need to do is we need to have you come up in front of the church and tell everybody what you did.”
After I got done preaching on Sunday, one of the elders got up and said, “I need to let all y’all know—many of you have probably heard—Garrett has some personal things going on/some personal sin. Tonight, at 6 o’clock, we’re going to meet back here, and he’s going to share about it.”
Garrett: Now, we didn’t have meaningful membership; so this was basically, “Anyone in this small town, who wants to hear about the pastor’s sin, come on out.”
Dave: Oh, boy!
Garrett: So that night, the room was full. It was one of those slow-motion moments. My greatest fears were coming to pass. Because the reason I hadn’t been honest this whole time—like I loved the Lord! I did; I loved Him, and I just wanted people to know Him—but I was so afraid that people were going to think bad of Jesus, and even more so, I was afraid they were going to think bad of me.
I just basically went through the whole letter, and told them everything I had done, even as their pastor, in regards to looking at pornography. I wept, and I asked for their forgiveness; told them I would do whatever they wanted me to do. If they wanted me to resign, I would resign; if they wanted me to do—whatever!
I’m keenly aware that Jesus paid for that as well—as a pastor—but all of that really broke me; it really humbled me.
Ann: What did that look like? You say you were broken; what did that look like?
Garrett: Fast-forward a couple weeks/months—somewhere in there—because we had multiple meetings after this, where there was more of this and constantly confessing. I remember, I got to the place where I had confessed every sin that I could ever think of, and I was lying on the rug in my bedroom. It was one of those plush rugs—really plush—so it was all up in my grill. I remember just lying there, and I remember I had no more tears to cry. I remember saying, “Okay, God; I can’t think of anything else I could confess.”
He didn’t speak to me audibly; but it was like He said, “Now, I can work with you.”
Because, before, I had been so trying to control my sin. You can’t control sin! You’ve got to kill it.
Ann: —and your image.
Garrett: Yes; and that was part of it. My sin was not just the pornography. Pornography is never isolated; it’s always tied to 10,000 other things! For me, I was discontent; I was prideful; there were so many things that were feeding it. It was my area of weakness, and it was the easiest thing to run to; so that’s why I think it got me so much. But I felt like I had no more sins to confess; that if somebody walked in the room and said, “Hey, I heard something about you,” I would be like, “Shoot! Go ahead. Who doesn’t know?”—
Garrett: —like there was nothing, you know? I was in the light.
It was the hardest year of my life. I mean, the church I hurt; my dog died—you know?—I was in a burning accident, where 12 percent of my body was burned: my face, my arm; all of it was 2nd and 3rd-degree burns. It was a string of thing, after thing, after thing.
Ann: And you’re engaged at this time?
Garrett: I was; yes. My wife sent wedding invitations from the burn ward in Dallas. We didn’t know if I’d ever have my face back; we had no idea.
Ann: I’m thinking she read the letter—
Garrett: Oh, yes.
Ann: —knows about the letter.
Garrett: She was there for the whole thing.
Ann: But she’s thinking, “I’m with you.”
Garrett: Yes; and I don’t think she was blind. I think she was so reminded in this—at one of the meetings, she got up and said—“I just want you guys to know: you’re right that he sinned. We should see this sin as serious. But I want you to know I’m going into my engagement with this man, with eyes wide open. He has repented of this; he’s tried to be humble and confess his sin before you. You’ve got to decide whether you think he’s qualified to be a pastor or not; those are real questions—and you’ve got to think through that—but I want you to know that this man is not walking in the darkness anymore.”
You know, she did that because she loved the Lord; but I think she saw it rightly, you know? I had repented by this time, and God was very kind; but it was the worst year of my life.
Garrett: That’s one of the things I want to say, for whoever is listening right now, and you think: “I could never tell! I could never come out into the light,” “You don’t know what would happen if I told my husband what I’ve been doing,” or “…if I told my wife what I’ve been doing,” or “…if I told my parents,” or “…if I told my church.” I need you to know that it’s going to be hard. It may be harder than you imagine, but I would not trade what I gained from that year for anything.
I got to see my Lord as He is—I lost my sin—but I got Jesus in a fresh way. I wasn’t saved again; I hadn’t lost my salvation, but I knew the intimacy and the joy of the Lord in a way that I don’t think would have ever been possible any other way. Hebrews 12 talks about that: “Discipline is not enjoyable for the moment,”—it’s like the understatement of the New Testament; right?—[Laughter]—he says, “But it produces the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” and that peace that passes understanding. If you came in here and said, “I know everything about you,” I would not be scared; because it’s in the light, and Jesus has paid it all; and I’m free.
It doesn’t mean I couldn’t be tempted. On the plane, when I’m flying here, the guy next to me was watching some show with all kinds of make-out scenes. I’m just like, “Of course!” So I have to turn myself to look the other way. And of course, there’s a part of me that’s like, “Well, maybe one little look.” I’m like, “No! Come on! Jesus is better,”—that’s the fight, all the way, until we see Him face to face.
I just want you to know that, if you’re in the midst of that battle, there’s a way out. There’s a way out, and Jesus paved it with His blood. He will walk with you. And whatever it costs you, it will be worth it; because He will never leave you or forsake you.
Ann: Listeners can’t see this, but Garrett has his Bible right beside him. I wish you all could see it, because it’s marked up. You can tell that this sucker is worn. You have been in the Word; you can tell that it’s been your lifeline.
Garrett: It is my life. I lived by lies for so long—both as a non-believer and as a believer—I mean, I got duped. We need His Word; His Word is truth. And He never breaks His promises! He always keeps them, including this one: that He’s better than sin, and that He will help you to find freedom from whatever bondage you’re in right now. You don’t have to always be like that! It doesn’t mean you won’t always struggle, but it does mean you don’t have to be ensnared. There’s a way out.
Dave: Well, let’s talk about finding freedom.
Dave: Because I’m guessing—did you end up having to leave that church?
Dave: You stayed.
Garrett: I stayed, by God’s grace.
Dave: So they received you,—
Garrett: They did.
Dave: —which is a beautiful thing.
Garrett: It was a hard year; it was a hard year. I had a lot of offers to go to other places, and even some counsel that I probably should, because it was really hard. But one of the things the Lord convinced me of is that I had made this mess, and I needed to walk through it.
You know what? What the Lord did in me, He then did in that church. Some people left, and I totally understand why; but there’s something else that left in those days, and that was the spirit of hiding—
Garrett: —and self-righteousness. People didn’t hide anymore as much. You know, people still struggled with stuff; but the amount of people, who began to confess adulteries, and anger, and stealing, and lying, and their own porn problems—and everything else you can imagine—because all of a sudden, what they saw was that, in the light, there’s safety and grace. It may hurt; but Jesus is going to put the balm of His blood upon you, and He’s going to bring healing; and there’s life in the light!
We began to be a community that learned to walk with a new kind of culture: a culture of confession, and repentance, and running to the throne of grace to receive grace and mercy in a time of need. And that really changed because I understood, all of a sudden—I went to a Christian counselor during this time, and his name is John—he was the first brother who helped me to understand that the gospel was not just for non-Christians, but it is for Christians. He helped me to see that the gospel is for broken Christians too. We never graduate from being broken, desperate, needy sinners. We don’t stop that! We need it increasingly so. When we sin, as a believer, we sin with eyes wide open, with the Spirit indwelling us.
Garrett: That’s all the more grievous; right? “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” So praise God that there’s help and there’s hope! We stayed for another three years, and the Lord helped us to complete that chapter in a time. When I left, it wasn’t because of scandal. It was because, “You know what? I think I’ve led you guys as far as I can.” I went and served under another pastor for about a year—it was kind of my practical PhD—and then I went from there out to help revitalize a church outside of Washington, DC; and I’ve been there.
Ann: There is a beauty to that. I feel like, when Dave confessed at our church—and I think you had been beyond it, Dave—because you weren’t pastoring when [you] came out of your porn struggle.
Ann: But when you confessed to the church that that had been a struggle, and that our marriage—like, when we were struggling in our marriage—we would talk about it. We would say: “Leave your mask at the door.
Garrett: Amen, yes.
Ann: “Come in free, in terms of who you are and what you’re struggling with, because we will meet you where you are; because that’s what Jesus does—
Garrett: That’s what He does; yes.
Ann: —“He meets us right where we are.”
Dave: I remember when I—I mean, I can see it—back then, we were renting a space; you know? We used to call ourselves: “The church where, if you can find us, you can join us”; because we had a different hotel or whatever. We were at this Michigan State Management Center the night I decided, “I need to confess my struggle.” We just started—first year—and just a couple hundred people coming at that point.
I remember my co-founder came up, after I got off the stage; and he just looked at me and he goes, “You just changed this church.” I go, “What do you mean?” And I wasn’t thinking, “I’m setting sort of a core value for us”; but he was like, “You just set a core value; you just said to this church, ‘This is a place where you don’t have to fake and hide.
Dave: “’You can be honest, and Jesus will meet you right there.’”
Dave: And looking back, 30 years later, he was right. It was like it became known as the place where the grace of Jesus will meet you where you are, not where you’re pretending to be; you know?
Ann: But He won’t—He’s so loving—He won’t let you stay there.
Dave: Yes; and He’s going to surround you with a community, which is what you did. You said, “I have to say this out loud to somebody, so they can come into my darkness and bring the light and me out of there”; right?
Garrett: Yes; and that’s where the next chapter is: learning, then, to live as a Christian like that; so we don’t want it to be just like one big, epic confession—
Garrett: —and then be like, “That’s it.”
Garrett: But like, “Now, how do you cultivate the Christian life that is oriented toward heaven/toward Christ?—where we’re all helping one another/encouraging one another, ‘as long as the day is called “today,” so that we will not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’ How do we learn to confess, on a regular [basis] to one another, and live in the light?” Because anything left in the dark, the devil will use. When you walk in the light, as He is in the light, there’s fellowship and freedom and joy.
Garrett: That’s the way that Christ intends us to follow Him. It’s possible; you know? And there’s no perfect church. I mean, our church isn’t perfect now, by any stretch of the imagination. We’re struggling; you know, we all still want to hide stuff; nobody wants to—you know?
Garrett: We fight against it. We’ll regularly welcome people, and be like, “Hey, glad that you’re here. If you’re looking for people who’ve got it all together, you came to the wrong place; [Laughter] because they are not here! None of us are.”
Garrett: But that’s the Spirit of Christ; right?
Garrett: He welcomes us.
Dave: Well, what’s interesting is—your book, Pure in Heart: Sexual Sins and the Promises of God—all we’ve covered so far is like the first couple of chapters. [Laughter] I mean, seriously, we’ve got to step into: “What does purity look like?” “How does God deliver us and bring us to victory and freedom?”; right?
Garrett: Yes, there’s so much; yes.
Dave: I mean, a lot of that is the rest of your book; and I think we need to talk more.
Ann: And I want to say, “Well done!—like the letter”—you know?—“the ‘letter’ that you wrote—the fact that that was read and then you confessed it and talked about it in front of your whole church—that is not an easy thing to do. I can see that you’ve changed your entire life and legacy as a result of that courageous step.”
Garrett: Yes; the Lord gives the strength.
Garrett: I was too weak to do that by myself. He brought me to the end of myself, and He used other people to help me; but I do praise Him for it.
Ann: Yes, we do too.
Garrett: It was the best decision I’ve ever made besides following Jesus.
Dave: And I would add this: “If you’re listening, and you’ve got that secret in the dark, and nobody knows; the dark wins every time.
Dave: “You’ve got to choose to do what Garrett did, and say, ‘I’ve got to write a letter,’ or ‘I’ve got to make a phone call,’—like—‘Somebody—
Garrett: Yes; don’t wait.
Dave: —“’Somebody has to know my struggle.’ Because victory is on the other side of that confession. It’s where it begins: is when you bring it into the light. Today’s your day.”
Shelby: Many of us know that mold festers in the dark—it grows in dark places; it multiplies—and it causes destruction as well. Sin is exactly the same. God wants us to drag our sin, kicking and screaming, into the light; because that’s where healing is. That’s where transformation takes place.
What I love about Garrett Kell and his conversation today with Dave and Ann Wilson is that it was a practical and encouraging conversation that really raises the bar, but also saturates us with grace. It helps us to know: “Hey, we’re not alone! We’re not alone in our struggles here.” When we’re honest and transparent about them, God will change us; and then, in turn, bring glory to His name so the gospel can go forth. Christians are forgiven failures; and it’s helpful to know that, even pastors are forgiven failures too.
Garrett has written a book called Pure in Heart: Sexual Sin and the Promises of God. For many of us, who are trapped in sexual sin, we believe that, sometimes, there is just no escape. He helps us to know that there is good news in the gospel, not just at salvation, but in our present struggles today.
If you want to find great answers to this very common struggle amongst many of us, you can pick up a copy of Garrett Kell’s book, Pure in Heart, in our FamilyLife Resource Center. You can head to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to order a copy; or you can give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
And while you’re there, many of you know that FamilyLife Today is listener-supported. While you’re there, ordering a copy of Garrett’s book, if you make a donation of any amount all this week, we want to send you a copy of Sharon Jaynes’s book, When You Don’t Like Your Story. I think it’s very interesting how we’re talking about this topic with Garrett Kell, when it comes to sexual sin, and how the shame of that can really help us feel embarrassed about our story/about some of the things in our past. That’s why this book by Sharon Jaynes is so incredibly helpful; because we can look at our story and go, “You know what? I just really don’t like that very much”; but her question is: “What if your worst chapters could actually become your greatest victories?”
God is in the business of taking the ugly parts of our lives, turning them around, and giving glory to Himself in the process. So when you make a donation of any amount at FamilyLifeToday.com, we’ll send you a copy of Sharon Jaynes’s book, When You Don’t Like Your Story.
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to continue talking one more time with Garrett Kell about: “What does it mean to run the race with purity from the beginning to the end?” That’s coming up tomorrow; we hope you can join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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