Tyndale House Publishers
“What is taking so long?” I fumed as I waited for the doctors to arrive to begin my kidney transplant operation. I was lying on a bed in a pre-op room, wearing one of those wonderful hospital gowns— you know the type. The room was fairly cold and the nurses were bustling about doing what nurses do, not paying much attention to me. I was in sort of a twilight zone, but it seemed as if I had been cooling my heels for hours—and patience had never been one of my strengths. All I knew was that I was cold, uncomfortable, and apprehensive about the transplant and that I wanted to get it over with.
What I didn’t know was that at that very moment, in the room next door, my son Michael was fighting for his life. As the doctors removed the kidney that Michael was donating to me, one of his lungs collapsed and his situation became perilous. While they were working to stabilize my son’s condition, I was grumping and grousing in the next room about the inconvenience of having to wait.
I open with this story because in a lot of ways it sums up a major crisis in my life that had encompassed my physical, emotional, and spiritual health for years. I hadn’t intended to end up self-absorbed, physically sick, emotionally out of balance, and spiritually isolated, but that’s what happened. I was angry, impatient, disappointed, and frustrated with a lot of things in my life—and I was under a ton of stress. Along the way I had stopped relying on God and began to lean heavily on my own understanding and my own resources. The results were a major spiritual and emotional burnout and some very serious physical problems.
I want to share my story with you because I’ve found that most people, in one way or another and at one time or another, find themselves in similar circumstances: fed up, burned out, frustrated, and out of step with God. Maybe you are going through a similar struggle in your own life right now. Perhaps you, too, have experienced the joy that comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Then, through the busyness of life, being pulled in every direction, you’ve lost your bearings and drifted away from God’s best plan for you.
If the truth be told, we’re all susceptible to drifting. There are so many voices in our culture that compete with God’s voice for our attention. We begin to believe that we need more to be happy. More power. More love. More sex. More food. More travel. More things. These voices grow louder and louder, and soon we ignore the voice in our spirit that cries out, “No!We don’t need more things; we just need more of God.” As Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”1
It can happen suddenly, or gradually. If our guard is down, we can easily fall prey to the whims of the world. I know firsthand what it feels like to succumb to the temptation for more things, more money, more recognition, more comfort, and more leisure. Though I achieved just about everything I could possibly want in a material sense, I lost life’s satisfaction and the enjoyment of God’s blessings for a period of about ten years. I was miserable, and I wasn’t sure if I could ever regain the joy I had once known.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story, or I wouldn’t be writing this book. I also want to tell you about a miraculous renewal that began during my recovery from the kidney transplant and that is still bearing fruit in my life to this day. I’m a new man, with a fresh perspective on life. In the process of this renewal, I learned some important principles that I believe will help you move toward renewal in your own life and in your relationship with God.
What follows is the story of how I lost sight of my relationship with God for a while and how I began to drift away from him—even though I knew better, even though I’ve been teaching about how to have successful relationships for almost my entire career. Happily, this is also the story of how I was suddenly awakened to renew my relationship with God.
If this were only my own story of wandering away from God, it might be of limited use or interest, but I have seen the same principles— both positive and negative—played out in the lives of so many of the people I have counseled over the years, people who have read my books and attended my seminars. My hope is that if you hear the inside story—and the rest of the story—it might inspire you to draw closer to God and to experience the same renewal, refreshment, and revitalization that I have experienced.
Looking back, I can see how easy it was for me to drift away from God. Perhaps you’ve drifted in a similar way. Life gets busy, and a lot of demands are placed on our time. We get focused on the details of everyday life and on becoming successful at what we do, whether it’s raising a family, running a business, or working at a job. We might suffer some setbacks or get distracted, and before we know it, we’ve gotten out of the habit of spending regular time with God and reading his Word. We just start doing things on our own, pursuing our own goals, and making decisions based on our own self-interest. We still go to church and give lip service to our relationship with God, but before long he starts to seem pretty distant.
I’ve counseled enough people over the past thirty years to know that getting off track is a common problem. Still, it’s embarrassing to think about how far I actually wandered before God got my attention again. After all, I’ve been to seminary and served on a pastoral staff, and like a lot of other Christians, I’ve heard some of the best Bible teaching anyone could possibly hear. But even with all that, it didn’t take much for me to become distracted from my relationship with God by all the cares and concerns of life. The success itself became a distraction. The process was so gradual that I couldn’t see it for what it was—ugly, sinful, and destructive—until it was almost too late.
When I began earnestly pursuing God’s calling on my life back in the 1960s and 1970s, I never dreamed that I would eventually encounter such success. Although my career got off to a promising start, one of my first jobs, in a ministry organization, took a turn for the worse after several years and ended badly, leaving me feeling confused and discouraged. When I left that organization, Norma and I moved to Waco, Texas, where I became a family pastor in a church. In this new job and new surroundings, I felt that God was renewing my spirit and healing old wounds. It was like a breath of fresh air. I felt as if Christ once again became the center of my life. Not that everything was perfect in Waco—every situation has its challenges—but I felt renewed in my relationship with God, and he began to bless me and my work.
During those years, I remember setting aside time each day for prayer, and praying with such focus and intensity that I believed everything I prayed for would eventually come to pass in some way. My prayers were people centered, and I prayed with big results in mind. I was energized to reach thousands of people for Christ and help thousands of marriages. At least, that was my vision and I believed that God desired to use me in that way.
After I had been in Waco for about a year, I received a phone call from my good friend Steve Scott. Steve and his wife had attended one of my weekend marriage retreats, and he had come away with a new excitement about his marriage.
“Gary,” he said, “you’ve got to write this stuff down. Have you ever thought about writing a book about marriage?”
I didn’t know if I had what it takes to write a book—the writing process and my ADD don’t always make great bedfellows—but I had been thinking about how I could expand my message to reach more people. I asked Steve if he would pray with me about it, and he agreed.
We began praying, and within six months we had a plan to write not just one book but two—one for men, and the other for women. Although I had no formal training in writing, Steve was a talented advertising writer. We worked together, and during that next year we finished the books.
In 1979, my church sent me out to be a “missionary to the world” to help couples, singles, and parents in their relationships. I taught seminars about twice a month. By the mid-1980s, Norma and I had moved to Phoenix; I had published several more books, which were all selling well; and the seminar ministry was really taking off. We changed the name of our organization to Today’s Family and hired more staff to take our ministry nationwide.
In 1988, Steve Scott and I filmed an infomercial, hosted by Dick Clark, to sell videotapes of my seminars. We later updated these infomercials, with the help of John Tesh and Connie Sellecca, and Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford. The video series sold more than four million copies.
With the sale of all those tapes and a steady stream of book royalties coming in, you can imagine how much money we now had to handle. I know, it sounds like a great problem to have—and in many ways it was—but it created some pressure points, both in my life and in my relationships, that would later cause some serious fractures.
I grew up in a very poor family and never had much money. Early in my career, when I was an assistant pastor, I was earning just enough to provide from month to month for my wife and three kids. And I was happy. I would start my days with a morning jog, taking time to thank God for all the blessings in my life. Life was good. I felt healthy and successful, and I was excited about my relationship with God. I specifically remember telling him that I didn’t need money, that all I wanted was to love people and minister to them.
But when the money started rolling in, I found I was ill-prepared to handle it. I had never learned anything about saving, investing, giving, or anything else related to business or personal finances. I had always been the one trying to raise money for ministry; now other people were coming to me for financial help.
The amount of money that came into our ministry changed from month to month, and I didn’t have a clue about how to manage it. But I wasn’t worried. I believed that God was allowing our ministry to prosper and that he would guide us. I certainly wasn’t worried about becoming corrupted.
I still remember sitting with my good friend Dave Cavan at his conference table and saying, “Dave, don’t worry about me. My relationship with Christ is so close that money will not have the same effect on me that it might have had in the past.” Well, I was wrong. Money did have a hold on me. The Bible warns us not to be naive in believing that we are above falling into temptation and sin. I was pretty naive.
Here I was, with more money than I’d ever seen and a ministry that was going off the charts in terms of growth. Even though my passion was with the ministry, not with making a lot of money, all of a sudden both the ministry and the money were begging for my attention, and God was only somewhere in the mix. I was becoming distracted from my primary relationship by the sheer volume and pace of life. Sound familiar?
As time went on, I began acquiring things—investment properties, new cars, snowmobiles, a boat. I told myself these things were all for my family’s enjoyment, but being able to provide these nice things was just as much about satisfying my own ego. Just five years before, I had taught about the dangers of materialism and how rising expectations can cause stress and destroy relationships. Yet here I was, ignoring God’s truth by doing the very things I had warned against.
I now understand more clearly why money doesn’t bring more happiness. The more we have, the more it controls what we do. After a while, I stopped asking God, “Is this something you want me to have?” If I saw something I wanted, I just went ahead and bought it. Sometimes, I didn’t even tell Norma what I was planning to do. A classic example of this was the time I started construction on a new house without talking to Norma about it.
It was several years ago that Norma and I decided to move closer to our present ministry office in Branson, Missouri. With our kids all grown and gone (though they were all living nearby at the time), we decided we could downsize our home and save some money. We had already purchased a lot through a close friend, so we had the land; all we needed was a plan. Norma mentioned to me that she really wanted to wait until we sold the house we were living in so we would not be stretched financially.
Even though I remembered Norma giving me that advice, I began to dream about a house design I had seen in Philadelphia. The house had lots of brick and kind of an English country feel to it. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to meet with the builder and at least discuss preliminary plans. When we got together, he told me he had built a similar home in California and could save us a lot of money. Without consulting Norma, I told the builder, “Let’s go ahead and get started, but let’s keep it a secret.”
I showed Norma the plans, and she agreed to the English look, the size, and the floor plan. What she didn’t know was that the house was already under construction. When I met with our banker, he told me that all he needed to finish the paperwork was my wife’s signature. I realized that I couldn’t keep my surprise. I had to tell her.
I took Norma to lunch and told her I wanted to share some “good news” and some “not so good news.”When she asked for the “not so good news” first, I told her I had met with the builder and that the house was already underway.
She got very silent. In Norma language that means, “You’re in big trouble, pal.” Taking advantage of the silence, I quickly added a little sales pitch: “But I talked with our real estate agent again, and she said we should have several offers for our home in the first three weeks of being on the market.”
Norma finally signed the papers, but she let me know that she didn’t appreciate my little surprise.
Three weeks later, Norma said to me, sort of in jest but sort of not, “Ah, Gary, you said we’d have several offers within the first three weeks and we haven’t had one!” Once again, Norma was right.
Several months passed, and still no offers. By now it was time to move into our new home. Although moving into the new house was very exciting and fulfilling, the weight around our necks—two monthly mortgage payments— was exactly what Norma had advised us to avoid. The wisdom of her counsel was driven home to me month after month for three years, which was how long it took for our old house to sell.
Money also began to rule what I did with my time—and I resented it. I enjoyed speaking and writing, not sitting down for hours trying to manage all the aspects of financial planning, building, giving, being fair with my staff, and setting aside funds for future growth.
Our ministry was also growing. We hired more people, bought the latest and greatest equipment, and gave everyone raises and bonuses. None of these things were wrong, in and of themselves. But what was happening was that I was subtly and gradually depending less on God and relying more and more on my own wisdom and understanding. At the time it all seemed good: Not only were we taking in a lot of money, we were also giving away a lot of money to ministries and people in need.
During this time, I began to develop newer, grander expectations, expectations that included much more growth. Worldwide growth. With the financial ability to do so many different things, we were constantly asking ourselves, “What should we do next? How can we make this better? How can we reach more people?” As the ministry grew, I think I just assumed that everyone would work well together and be happy. And like a lot of people, I expected that the material blessings would add an extra measure of happiness to my life and my work. I expected life to be more fulfilling.
But instead of experiencing greater fulfillment, I felt that I was constantly overwhelmed by deadlines and frustrated that other people were not being reliable in helping me manage my money and my ministry. If they didn’t do things fast enough or well enough or just the way I wanted them done, I would come unglued. My actions and words didn’t always match that of a Spirit-led Christian. Mostly I expressed myself by complaining, griping, and judging other people. I was totally ignoring God’s truths, and I wasn’t heeding his Word.
In my heart, I knew that God had given our ministry favor and that it wasn’t by my own efforts we were being successful. But it didn’t take long for me to forget this truth. I had prayed for all the big breaks through the years, and now the doors seemed to be opening automatically. I started expecting that life would keep getting better and that more and more doors to ministry would be opened. And I expected people to keep responding to me and to the message the same way they always had.
Through the years,my ego started to swell and pride settled in my heart. I never lost the awareness that God was the one who had opened all the doors for my ministry, but as people started treating me more graciously wherever I went, I began to expect compliments and accolades. No matter where I went, whether traveling for business in the United States and Europe or on vacation in Mexico, people would come up to me and say, “I bought your video, and it changed my life!My marriage has been saved. I just wanted to thank you.” After a while, the attention became almost embarrassing, and I secretly hoped that no one would recognize me or interrupt me. I grew weary of the attention.
Tragically, I was tempted to believe that I was the one who had changed all these lives. I kept telling myself I was on the right track, because how else could all these good things happen? Why else would God bless me like this? I concluded that the overwhelming prosperity must be part of God’s plan and the answer to my prayers.
So I forged ahead.
People continued to treat me like a celebrity, and I began to act like one. I expected special treatment in restaurants and on airplanes, and I always traveled with an assistant to keep people from getting too close to me. How’s that for a so-called relationship expert?
The Bible warns us about what can happen when we listen to too much flattery. Proverbs 29:5 says, “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.” The people who thanked me for my ministry weren’t trying to set a trap for me, but I was beginning to think more highly of myself than I should have. I started believing all the hype. How blind I became!
All the attention and ego-stroking caused a disorientation in my soul. My perception of myself was out of whack, and I had a very skewed view of the worth of other people. My grandiose expectations continued to rule my life, and I became increasingly intolerant of anyone who didn’t quite measure up.
One time one of my neighbors reacted to my attitude when we had a disagreement. She said, “Gary, you are nothing but a prima donna, and it’s ugly.” But that didn’t faze me. I just figured she was jealous of my success. Such is the nature of pride. I was spoiled and self-centered, and it had happened so naturally and gradually that I hadn’t even noticed. I didn’t want to deal with any relational messes. I didn’t want to deal with any inconveniences, and I resented anyone who tried to hold up my plans. I wanted my relationships with other people—including those with my staff and my family—to be hassle free and manageable.
By the mid-1990s, Norma and I had moved to Branson and had begun a new organization, the Smalley Relationship Center. My three children—Kari, Greg, and Michael—had become involved in the ministry, and all indications were that we would continue to grow and prosper. We had already accomplished more than I had ever dreamed of, yet my personal walk with God had grown progressively colder and more distant. I felt spiritually dead inside. My motivation to continue with my ministry was gone. I was discouraged and confused. Boy, was I confused!
My relationships were suffering severely. After delivering a message at one of my seminars on how to get over anger and stress, I headed back to the hospitality room with my two sons, who were sharing the speaking responsibilities with me. Just minutes after teaching about anger, I had a disagreement with Michael and Greg about something and I lost my temper. That was the pattern in my life at that time. I let all my negative thoughts control me.
I remember Greg stepping back and saying to me, “Dad, why don’t you reread the book you wrote fifteen years ago called Joy That Lasts” I felt the sting of his words, and it made me even more angry and irritated.
I wasn’t prepared to receive words of rebuke and correction from my son. But Greg had observed how people would come up to me after a seminar and tell me how much their relationships had been helped by my books or tapes, yet he knew I was not heeding my own counsel. What my son said to me was true, though I didn’t accept it at the time. I was embarrassed by his rebuke, but he was right! I honestly had forgotten what God had taught me fifteen years earlier— that Jesus is all I need. He is the source of all my joy.
The incident with Greg and Michael made me painfully aware of my relational bankruptcy. Looking back, I realize how my son’s stern words were good medicine for me. As much as I had counseled and helped other families to get along, Iwas unable to work alongside my own sons. I was blinded by self-centeredness, unable to see the damage I was doing to the relationships around me. No wonder I felt so empty.
My whole life, it seemed, was consumed with pulsating stress. I was bothered by the traffic on my five-mile commute to work. I was irritated by the inconvenience of air travel from Branson to all my seminars. I was stressed by a steady series of publishing deadlines and the need to come up with new seminar material. I was worried about the weather as Norma and I were building our new house. And I was caught up in the tension of working together with family members in ministry. It seemed that everything was a hassle or a distraction, and everything cost more than I had anticipated. The pressure was becoming unbearable. Ironically, the things I had expected to bring me fulfillment and enjoyment in life turned out to be the very things that created havoc.