Newlyweds and new Christians Clint and Penny Bragg were the darlings of their small church. She was on the worship team and the deacon board of missions. He led discipleship training. They taught Sunday school classes together and separately, helped organize the singles' group, and directed vacation Bible school. All while Clint juggled a job as area manager for a glass business and Penny completed her bachelor's degree and teaching credentials.
"We didn't know how to say no," Clint admits.
Yet despite the hectic schedule, their first year of marriage flew by without a hitch. On the surface, they seemed to thrive on the busyness. They didn't realize the marriage-building time they needed was being eaten up by the whirl of spiritual activity.
"It felt like God was blessing all our plans," Clint recalls. "But instead of going with or beside God, we were running ahead and asking him to catch up."
"We didn't have the spiritual roots of a strong, long-term Christian," Penny agrees. "We were still on the emotional high, very goal-driven."
The first cracks
A two-week mission trip to Haiti in August 1990, a month shy of their first anniversary, began the first cracks in their seemingly solid relationship. Having spent two military tours in Vietnam, Clint was familiar with the harsh conditions of a third-world country. But Penny's sheltered life hadn't prepared her for the extreme poverty and suffering she witnessed. Suddenly her faith wasn't providing the security and answers she depended on.
"I'd pictured myself going door to door, asking, 'Have you heard about Jesus?'" Penny explains. "Instead mothers begged me to take their babies to America. I couldn't understand how God could allow that suffering." She returned shell-shocked, unable to process what she'd seen.
"I shut down," she says. "The doubts about God's goodness and faithfulness stirred a lot of childhood pain and insecurity, such as my parents' divorce and an incident when, as a young adult, I was taken advantage of by a church leader. I was expected to give a glowing report to the congregation about my time in Haiti, but I felt ambivalent about God and my faith. So I put up a wall of defense to everyone around me. I didn't talk about what I was feeling, not even to Clint. I didn't want to admit I wasn't the strong, 'supergirl' he'd married."
She gradually stopped reading her Bible and connecting with the women at church, and pulled out of her church responsibilities. Clint didn't comment for fear she'd think he was trying to control her.
Along with her spiritual doubts, Penny began to struggle with her role as Clint's wife. Clint's father had died years earlier, and neither her parents' failed marriage nor the mature, 15- and 20-year marriages she saw at church provided good role models for issues facing a new wife. "I'd hear about being a Proverbs 31 woman and think, Whoa, that's really not me," she recalls. "I knew Clint expected me to be a good Christian wife, and I didn't know how to handle those expectations. So I provided physically, with meals and laundry. But I didn't know how to provide emotionally or spiritually. Or how to accept those things from him."
They rarely spent time alone together the way they used to, and when they did, Penny would end up busying herself with cleaning or schoolwork.
"As soon as I'd come home, she'd jump up and start doing things," Clint says. "I'd tell her to take it easy, but she was never willing just to sit still and relax with me."
Although Clint knew something was wrong, he felt inadequate to change or fix it. "I was a John Wayne kind of guy," says Clint. "Men should be tough, just suck it up and keep going. I didn't feel I could share with Penny how unhappy I was, and I didn't ask what was bothering her. I just thought things would work themselves out."
A growing distance
Over the next few months, as Penny talked less and spent less time connecting with Clint, he realized things between them weren't going to get better unless he did something. He cut back on his work hours and church responsibilities to be home more. But to cope with her growing insecurities about her faith and her role as a wife, Penny poured herself into what she felt more secure in: academics. As a student teacher, she received accolades that gave her the confidence and security she craved.
Never verbal fighters, Penny and Clint simply clammed up and became more like roommates, withdrawing and suppressing their frustrations and anger.
"I felt horrible, but I didn't know what to do or how to change. And I didn't feel I could talk to anyone from church," Penny says. "They'd thrown us the wedding of all weddings. No way was I going to tell them we were having problems."
The silence and their avoidance behavior created fertile ground for someone else to enter the picture. Three months after the Haiti trip, Penny developed an emotional attachment to a classmate, Chris.*
"Chris offered me the kind of connection
I hadn't received from Clint, and seemed so attuned to my feelings," Penny says. Before long they'd crossed the line into a physical relationship. And Penny didn't know what to do.
"I felt trapped," she admits. "I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't tell Clint. And Chris kept urging me to leave him."
Penny's distance, coupled with her growing closeness to Chris, convinced Clint that there was more than friendship between the two. When he confronted Penny a couple months later, she assured him he had nothing to worry about. But too many incidents—such as seeing her at the mall with Chris when she was supposed to be at school—said otherwise.
Again and again, he pressured her to give up the relationship only to have her deny anything inappropriate was going on. She agreed to one session with a Christian counselor, but admitted nothing.
Nearly a year after the trip to Haiti, Clint issued an ultimatum: him or Chris. He then left for the weekend to give Penny space to make her decision. When he returned, she'd moved in with Chris. "I felt I'd failed him," Penny says. "What I'd done went against Christianity and my role as a wife. There was no going back."
Over the next two months, Clint tried to persuade Penny to come home. "I was hurt and confused," he recalls. "I thought we were in love with each other. I couldn't understand how that had changed. I didn't care what she'd done. I loved her and wanted her back."
But in the spring of 1992, eight months after Penny moved out, the Braggs ended their marriage at Penny's request.
Though he wouldn't admit it, Clint grew furious with God, blaming him for breaking up their marriage. He went to counseling for three months, then filled his days to keep busy. He earned a four-year degree in 29 months, coached football, sold real estate, and refurbished houses. "I didn't want time to think," he admits, "so I became Superman." Though he felt obligated to attend church to "prove" he was a Christian, he chose a large congregation across town so he could show up for services and leave as soon as they were over. In time, he stopped attending altogether.
Meanwhile, Penny avoided thinking about the consequences of the choice she'd made, and poured herself into her career. Things seemed to go well for the seven years she lived with Chris, until escalating arguments ended the relationship and in 1999 Chris moved out.
For the first time in her life, Penny was away from family and living alone. The solitude gave her time to think, and time for God to work in her. "One morning," she recalls, "I looked into the mirror, and thought, Who are you? What in the world have you become?"
That night Penny reached out to God and for the first time admitted what she'd done was sin. "I felt flooded with forgiveness," she says. "But I also knew there was a mountain of consequences."
Immediately Penny began to see a Christian counselor. She found a new church and over the next three years put down the roots she'd never established as a young Christian. She also confronted the issues from her past, gradually confessing to family and friends the sin she'd committed. Some of the conversations were face to face. Some were incredibly awkward. All were humbling.
"I just kept asking, 'Lord, who else do I need to admit this to?'" she remembers. "Clint kept coming to mind, but I put him off. I was scared he would blast me."
Clint experienced his own journey of restoration. At the same time Penny was reconciling with God, an incident with a subcontractor working on one of his houses nearly ended in physical violence. Ready to punch the man, Clint heard God speaking to him: What are you doing, Clint? Are you going to hurt this guy? Is that how you're going to show him what a Christian is? "It stopped me in my tracks," he recalls.
That weekend, for the first time in two years, Clint attended church. Slowly, he began to re-establish his relationship with God. "I told him, 'I've been angry at you for the last ten years. I know I haven't been pleasing you. I'm willing to do things your way from now on.'"
The return trip
Once Penny made up her mind to contact Clint, she had to find him. He'd moved from their home state of California, and for the past three years had been living and working in Florida. One evening in February 2002, his name popped up on an internet search.
"My heart stopped," Penny says. "I knew I had to follow through with what I'd committed to do. So I wrote the most honest letter I could, admitting what I'd done and asking forgiveness."
A week later, Clint received the letter.
"I sat at my desk, and for five minutes I just stared at the envelope," he recalls.
The letter was nothing like he'd expected. Penny's sincere apology flooded Clint with emotion. "I'd told a counselor the thing I wanted most from Penny was someday to hear her say she was sorry," he says. "She warned me it would never happen. After reading Penny's letter, I closed my eyes and prayed, Oh, thank you, Lord."
Clint decided to call Penny, and what he intended to be a brief conversation stretched to five hours. They talked deeply and honestly about their feelings in a way they hadn't while married, sharing things they'd never discussed, such as Clint's experience of being molested as a child. They'd always kept secrets. Now they opened to each other in a whole new way. The conversation finally ended with tears, forgiveness, and prayer.
Though he slept little that night, Clint arose early and wrote Penny a ten-page letter. The message he conveyed was simple: Have you ever considered reconciliation?
That letter prompted another phone call, after which Clint and Penny decided to follow God's lead in putting their relationship back together. "We'd run ahead of God so many times in our lives, we needed to ask him what he wanted," Penny says. "We contacted our pastors and surrounded ourselves with wise counsel."
"We did everything we didn't do the first time around," recalls Clint. "We let everybody know so they could pray for us."
They read Scripture together, and exchanged letters and e-mails. Every Sunday night they had a devotional time over the phone.
After three months, Clint and Penny decided to meet face to face, at a spot halfway between their homes—neutral ground. There they'd settle if they could put their marriage back together.
They met in Denver on Memorial Day weekend, 2002. They'd booked separate hotel rooms to keep everything above board. Clint arrived at the airport first and made his way to Penny's gate to wait for her. When she stepped off the jetway, they embraced. "It was as if 11 years had never happened," Clint recalls.
"Like a hand fitting into a tailored glove," Penny agrees. "It was seamless."
They spent the weekend reminiscing and catching up on each other's lives. One day they met in a park and shared journals, talking for hours. Later, Clint came to Penny's room toting a large, black suitcase he said was a present for her. Inside, Penny was stunned to find all the mementos from their wedding ceremony—cards, their honeymoon scrapbook, and the goblets from which they'd toasted their marriage.
"I was overwhelmed," Penny says. "I couldn't believe Clint had saved everything."
"I'd moved 11 times, but I could never get rid of those memories," says Clint. "I didn't understand why until I got Penny's letter. I thought, Wow, Lord. You knew what you were doing."
On their last night together, they had a worship service in Penny's hotel room. They sang, prayed, and shared Communion—a granola bar and grape juice sipped from their wedding goblets. When they finished, Clint pulled a chain with his wedding band from under his shirt. "Do you still have yours?" he asked.
Penny went to her suitcase, removed a small brown pouch containing her ring, and handed it to Clint. "Many times as a struggling teacher I'd been tempted to hock the ring, or just toss it into the ocean," Penny says. "But something had made me hold onto it, and I'd felt God urging me to bring it to Denver."
Clint prayed over their rings, then looked at her with shining eyes. "Penny, will you marry me again, this time for life?"
"I said yes and burst into tears," Penny remembers.
Clint went back to Florida, sold his house, and moved to California. In August 2002—11 years after they'd divorced—he and Penny were married for the second—and final—time.
Learning a new way
The four years since have been a blessing, and a challenge. "Within two weeks the honeymoon was over," Penny says. "We were still dealing with old issues such as trust. We knew we had to be intentional about our marriage this time around."
They've surrounded themselves with accountability and prayer partners and continue their Sunday night devotional time. They have also instituted a "mini marriage retreat," getting away for a weekend every three months. No cell phones, e-mail, or outside influences are allowed. The first day is spent relaxing and having fun together. Then they review the last three months—what God has done for them—and plan the next three—what God wants them to do. They cover all areas of their marriage, such as intimacy, communication, finances, and family, to be sure they are staying on track with God and with each other.
Inspired by the miracle God worked in their marriage, in 2004 Clint and Penny created Inverse Ministries, dedicated to providing the tools for reconciliation to other couples in crisis.
Last fall, beginning on the anniversary of their original wedding date, the Braggs made a "40-day marriage ministry mission trip." Traveling from the West to East coasts, they stopped in churches and individual homes, speaking about God's power to mend broken relationships.
"Reconciliation is such a unique thing," Penny says, "because you're learning to love the same person, but Jesus' way this time."
"It's a daily choice," she explains. "We wake up next to forgiveness. Like a big double scoop, we have God's forgiveness and each other's forgiveness. That's what true reconciliation is."
"If you pray constantly, daily, to God and believe it will happen, guess what? It will happen," says Clint. "Penny and I are the living proof that God can heal all wounds and restore lives."
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.