God can restore what is broken – even this family

AJ’s journey from decimation to restoration

When AJ’s father – a respected church minister – had an affair with another staff member, the lives of his entire family fell apart.

“When I was 12 years old, I have a very clear memory of my mum and dad getting called into my dad’s office – the church office. They were supposed to be gone for five or ten minutes, but they were gone for four hours,” Alexander Boland, known as AJ, tells Eternity.

“So [me and my brother and sisters] just waited and waited. And when they came home – these kind of memories are just burned into your mind – it was very clear that something had gone horribly wrong and that life wasn’t going to be the same.”

It wasn’t long before AJ’s world – as a happy, homeschooled pastor’s kid, along with his older brother and four younger sisters – was changed radically.

His father had to leave the church – meaning the family lost their only source of income, along with most of their friends. They moved from their home on the West Coast of Canada to the other side of the country to live with AJ’s grandparents, who had kindly offered to support them.

“It was foundation shattering on many levels. My parents’ marriage obviously went through extraordinary strain and pain and confusion, after having six kids and my dad being a very well-known minister. But then there was also the faith side of things, not only the relationship with my father. [I began to question] what is real faith?” says AJ, who had a relationship with God as far back as he can remember.

The greatest impact of the affair and its aftermath, according to AJ, was on the family’s mental health.

“… after that point, I was a time bomb.” – AJ

“My dad had mental health struggles most his life, which led to him sort of living two lives – with his work at church, and then the life at home …”

“That mental illness got absolutely amplified. He became heavily medicated and emotionally cut off for somewhere between five to eight years before there was real progress made in his mental health.”

He continues: “Most of my siblings began to struggle immensely with fear, anxiety, depression and addiction. It was a hard slog.”

AJ himself succumbed to anxiety and depression, and wrestled with a pornography addiction.

“I remember my mum used to say to me, after that point, that I was a time bomb. I’d hold stuff in trying to cope, trying to make everything okay in my mind and I just couldn’t. Every now and then I would have to go on a screaming fit or put a hole in the wall or do something to release all the frustration and confusion.”

“There was a lot of frustration, a lot of confusion, trying to make sense of how my hero, my dad – and my leader in faith, my family’s leader – could do that. I couldn’t make sense of it.”

By the time AJ turned 14, he had become “quite an insulated, introspective” teen who “thought a lot deeper than all of my friends”.

“I was considering things they didn’t think about. I was trying to answer questions they had never considered, like why am I alive? That comes with depression as well. I was asking big-picture questions: What’s the point of this? Where do I go from here? What’s my purpose? And my friends were just playing basketball and concerned about whether or not they’re going to get picked for the A team.”

AJ’s feeling of isolation was exacerbated by the fact that he had been “thrown into a big public school”, where he was “the only Christian among my friends, and where I didn’t have a church family or community.”

“That’s been a huge part of my journey – wrestling with God, wrestling with my emotions.” – AJ

But rather than falling away from God, AJ says the situation actually served as the “pressure cooker that drove me to faith”.

He describes one particular “catalytic moment” during that time: “I was reading my Bible, and the more frustrated I got, the more I read it, just demanding answers from God. And I stumbled upon Philippians 4:6 – a portion of Scripture that says, ‘and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’.”

“I remember reading that and I got so angry at God and at my parents who were my Christian leaders at the time. I ripped into my mum’s room and let her have it, saying ‘This says we’re supposed to have peace, but you don’t have it, my dad doesn’t have it. Our family’s a mess.’

“After I berated her – she’s a hero – she quietly and humbly said, ‘You’ll have to seek God and let him speak to you because I don’t have an answer for you’ …

“That was sort of a catalytic moment. She gave me the way to answer the big questions – you’ll have to wrestle with God. That’s been a huge part of my journey – wrestling with God, wrestling with my emotions, my own proclivities.”

The more AJ sought God in prayer and Bible reading, the more he began to trust God, even in the midst of his messy family situation.

“I found out that he is peace – that God is peace, Jesus is peace. And I’m peaceful as long as I am close to him. And my problems are handled and managed as long as I am close to him.”

“God was able to use that soft clay and build [their marriage] back up.” – AJ

Over time, the brokenness of AJ’s family also started to mend. Today, he says his parents’ marriage is in “an incredible place” – thanks to his mum’s “willingness to extend forgiveness and mercy”, his dad’s “true repentance” and God’s “grace, mercy and radical provision”.

“Initially my mum forgave my dad on principle, not on emotion. She felt that Jesus forgave her and she needed to extend that to my dad if she was going to be a follower of Jesus.”

“But it was helped by my dad’s ability to break and truly humble himself. He never excused his sin. He didn’t try to hide it. He didn’t try to validate it. He broke – mentally and emotionally as well. It cost him to make that choice instead of covering it up and hardening his heart.

“My dad used to sit all the kids in a circle at least once a month after everything that happened and he just started asking us questions one by one until we let him have it. He just let us rip into him, and then he asked for forgiveness. So he regularly allowed us to fully express our anger or bitterness or resentment towards him. But he never excused himself – he owned it. He demonstrated true repentance.”

Noting that he has his parents’ blessing to share their story, AJ says, “My mum said the other day on the phone that it took her 30 years to become best friends with my dad, but it was worth the 30-year wait, so that’s where they’re at right now, which is incredible … God was able to use that soft clay and build [their marriage] back up.”

While AJ, his brother and sisters all had times when their relationship with their parents was severed, they have all reconnected with them again.

“As painful and hard as my journey was, I couldn’t change it because of what it fashioned in me.” – AJ

Significantly, the Christian faith of most of AJ’s family has blossomed through adversity.

His dad is again leading at a church on Canada’s West Coast, where his family moved back to before AJ’s final year of school. His brother is now a worship leader at a church in Toronto, one sister is a full-time missionary, another is doing a church internship and worship leading, and his youngest sister is also a worship leader, while AJ’s fourth sister is still working out her faith journey with his help.

As for AJ, back when he was 20, he met Aussie Bible college graduate Madison. They got married after a nine-month courtship and moved to Australia, where they both spent a couple of years studying at Hillsong College in Sydney.

Now, they have two children – one-year-old Smith and four-week-old Mahoney. AJ, now 26, is undertaking an internship with Bible Society Australia and afterwards, he hopes to embrace his calling to full-time ministry.

“I was discouraged from the thing that God made me for because of what happened [with my dad], and it’s taken me the better part of a decade to come to terms with that and just accept that’s what I’m made for,” he says.

“But what makes me want to get up in the morning is to see people encounter Jesus and grow in Jesus and become a genuine disciple of Jesus.

“My dream and my passion for my children is that they’d both be able to say, ‘I want to live just like my dad.’ That’s not the story I was given. But I was given something else to set me up for a win, which is don’t hide your brokenness, learn genuine repentance, learn what it actually means to be a broken human who needs a Saviour and then gets saved …

“As painful and hard as my journey was, I couldn’t change it because of what it fashioned in me – the values for authenticity, a genuine redemptive encounter with God and a fearlessness when it comes to facing sin.”

AJ concludes: “I heard it said recently that it’s not the Christians who hide their sin, but it’s the ones who are honest about it and then get redeemed from it who give the most glory to God. And that’s the testimony of my family.”