“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (Galatians 6:1-3)
The scriptures say, “we all stumble in many things” (James 3:2). It has been my observation that when it comes to our own failings or the shortcomings of those we love, we are longsuffering to a fault and often quick to provide justifications as to why we might have lived short of the Christian ideal. However, when it comes to the failings of others, we are often not so generous. Edwin Louis Cole once said it well in one of his pithy yet profound statements: “We judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions.”
Recently, the story broke of another high profile minister who had a moral failure. These stories are not new, but with the advent of the Internet and social media, we are seldom spared the details of stories that would have been better kept out of the public eye. It isn’t that people do not have a right to expect those in ministry to live up to the ideals they espouse, but we only have to ask ourselves how we would like our own failures posted online for all the world to see to realize that this can be very difficult reality for any individual or family to survive.
I realize that people can be pretty bitter in their hurt and disappointment, and that public figures have become fair game as front-page tabloid fodder, but we in the Church have an obligation to love and to restore those among our ranks who have taken a misstep in their life. Certainly, we have a right to expect integrity from our leaders, but what do we do when someone comes up short, when they don’t meet the expectations their office demands? What about everyday believers who are not well known? How do we handle their failings?
As a pastor, and a believer, I have been on all sides of this issue. I have prayed with those who have taken a wrong turn in their lives, and I have received support and prayer when my own actions did not measure up the biblical standard God expects of His leaders. I have seen many a person gloriously encouraged as God’s grace and mercy washed their sin and guilt away and restored their wounded conscience. Over the years I have had people confide things to me that no one would want known publicly and seen them relieved to hear that their struggles were not unique to them, and to realize that they were not some kind of pariah to be shunned by the rest of the church family.
We need to realize that when it comes to leaders, it is simply good battlefield tactics for the devil to try to take them down. They are high value targets because by taking out one person, many are made to stumble. On the night of His betrayal, Jesus told the disciples, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Matthew 26:31). What he said truly came to pass, as at the time of his arrest, “all the disciples forsook him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). It’s simply a principle that applies both naturally and spiritually. When a leader is lost it creates a confusion and distress among the sheep.
Leaders have influence, and so a leader’s actions carry greater repercussions. When they fail, others are often affected adversely, and some may choose to leave the church or even abandon their faith. Some of this is because we’ve set leaders on too high a pedestal and attached our faith to them rather than to Jesus, our true Shepherd and Leader.
Years ago I was speaking to minister about this very issue, and he shared a great analogy with me. He said that any of us might wake up in the middle of the night to head to the kitchen or the bathroom, forgetting that our wife has rearranged the furniture. As a result we might trip over the sofa, step on the cat’s tail, sending it shrieking through the house, and land with a crash on the coffee table. That story will become a party tale for years to come as people laugh with you (or at you) for your five steps in the dark, which landed you on top of a pile of broken furniture. Yet, interestingly enough, we quickly forget that earlier that day we took thousands of steps that were uneventful and took us, time and again, to our desired destinations.
I guess the moral of the story is that life does not end because we had a failure, and we should not let those five steps in the dark define us for the rest of our lives. Those who have had a crash deserve our love, forgiveness, support, and certainly our prayers. As one person said, “Don’t take a photo of your life at the point of failure. Keep the video running! The story isn’t over!” God does not keep images of our low spots, and we shouldn’t keep a scrapbook of the failings of others either.