Haggard’s Lessons Learned

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In the midst of all this mess about Haggard and Mike Jones, I’ve been trying to find one person talking about the real social issue under the microscope here. There are already over 2,200 articles linked on Google news (and certainly more to come), and yet no one seems to be saying what keeps coming up in my mind and heart about the unthinkable reality we’re all trying to understand (though David Kuo had some good early perspective here).

This isn’t a political blog and I don’t intend to make it one tonight. There’s so much more to this story than a marriage amendment or a fall from grace. Yes, pride comes before a fall, but who among us hasn’t been guilty of that? We don’t have to understand the how and why and take in every last detail in order to understand that the real issue here is what happens to our cultural perspectives and expectations about our Christian leaders (again). How will our view of sin and church leaders and the myriad related concepts be affected by this?

Perspective: this is not the worst thing to ever happen. I drive by New Life church every day on my way to work. I pass Ted Haggard’s books on the bookshelves in the lobby, and I gaze at the big, blue-domed building from the window in the conference room during our weekly staff meetings every Tuesday. Some of us attend services at New Life on Sundays. The church will go on.

Expectation: No one expected this. Security is something none of us can take for granted. When I spoke with Ted last, he was telling me about his position on Jesus Camp, the documentary featuring Becky Fischer, whose camp was recently closed after a cowardly act of vandalism. He asked if I’d seen his statement on the news sites yet. And ironically, he was encouraged that I had, that it had gotten picked up and run so quickly. Now those sites are printing a different kind of news as it happens. And life will go on.

None of us is immune to the kind of pressures Ted faced. And no one gets to escape being the recipient of others’ perspectives and expectations. So none of us is immune to the double standards and hypocrisy that claims certain people and certain sins are more terrible than others. And so none of us can easily escape the unwritten standards and rules that restrict our perspectives when we face such difficult situations as this. I think some of this understanding was at work in my former boss, James Dobson’s statement on the issue, expressing his solidarity with his friend, and believing the best about him despite appearances.

We do feel these things going on around us, but we rarely recognize them or stop to think about the consequences, the fallout of our own sin of complicity. When scandal and disgrace take place, we are as bad as the one on the block, judging, casting shame, making ourselves complicit with it. We are scandalized, disgraced as well. It is our own shame we share in, our own embarrassment and scandalous humanity.

We are all guilty with the guilty.

I stand with Ted Haggard, guilty of sin as deplorable as his. Mine is no less significant, though no one is likely to be convinced. I know I am a sinner. None of us gets to shake our heads and say, oh, what a shame on him. It is my sin that’s on my mind. And yet, I hurt for the public attention his is being paid, and will continue to be paid, as though there’s some backward public cleansing in so much horror and moribund curiosity at seeing this symbolic figurehead taken down. Why should his sin be worse because he’s a public figure? Our double standard is the real scandal.

Yes, he is responsible for more than most, and he is a bigger man with more on his shoulders. And yet, whose life doesn’t touch others? Ripples or tidal waves, the splash of our sin affects more than we know, in ways we can’t even imagine. Let’s consider the lesson here and not be stupid. Don’t condemn Ted. Consider yourself. Get down off your high horse and turn that finger around. It’s us he’s representing. You may not have a church or an association behind you, placing all their hopes and dreams on you, but thank God for it. You still have a chance to make a change, if need be. Recommit to the right course, despite your particular perspective or expectations. Do what matters to make sure you’re in the right place when you venture to speak. And if you’re hoping to be called upon to share your message, start by admitting your inadequacy.

Jesus gave us the blueprint: get right first if you want to lead. Surround yourself with support. Apply checks and balances. Resist the acclaim and seek wise counsel. Pray and practice humility. Make your heart a place of true love for others by recognizing God’s love for you. You can’t achieve the goal otherwise. Be forgiving and don’t be out for your own interests.

I believe this is the first task of every serious writer. Can there be any more important preparation than ensuring our authenticity? Being real is the only way to write truly good work. Gather with those few friends you can really trust, those who believe the importance of your work, and confide in them. Trust them and seek the truth.

Learn the lesson here: good books are the result of more than just good minds. Don’t neglect your heart and spirit in the process. It takes courage to live in the path of others’ attention. You must give up trying to look the part. Get right first or give up trying.

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23 thoughts on “Haggard’s Lessons Learned”

  1. These kinds of situations remind me of when the Hebrews looked around and wanted a king. They wanted a man to put their faith in. Well, God gave them what they wanted and spelled out the consequences.
    Looks quite familiar.

  2. This is why the church-general is such a difficult place for so many of us—for we who fully realize our sin, who feel like Jezebels or Rahabs every time we step through church doors.
    It is not so much a matter of what we have done, but a matter of what we are capable of doing. If we believe we’re not able to fall as Haggard and so many others have, then we may well be the next to do so.

  3. Rebecca says: “…if we believe we’re not able to fall…”
    Yes. This is exactly it. And I think it’s a problem our churches perpetuate. Many teach or preach about “overcoming sin” in such a way as to suggest you can actually solve your sin problem once and for all. Just follow this program or plan or attend this seminar or do these things and you’ll be “closer to God.” (Until the next time you fall. Then it’s just a matter of re-entering the program and solving it again.)
    I don’t know about you, but I struggle with sin daily. And even saying “daily” minimizes the truth of sin’s persistence. But does that move me farther from God? Not as long as I’m seeking Him in the midst of that struggle. I think it brings me closer.
    There is no church “program” that provides a solution to sin. Only the Cross. Because that’s such a difficult concept to apply to daily life, I think churches get off mission and start to present some Gospel of Reducing Sin instead of a Gospel of Following Jesus.
    Maybe the best we can do in this life is crawl through the muck of a fallen world following God to the best of our imperfect (and yet, somehow, God-granted) ability.
    Perhaps as we follow Jesus there are times when we are lifted up to soar above the fallen world. I don’t know. Certainly as we follow Jesus we will continue to fall face-first (and often) into the mud.
    I want to find a church that is equally able to sit with those who are caked in mud (and not condemn them for the mud, but just love them) and those who are soaring (and not put them on a pedestal, but just love them).
    “…we may well be the next to do so.”
    Isn’t the real truth that we already are?

  4. Mick said it so well as did all of the commenters. I blogged about it as well on Friday over at Into the Fire (hopeofglory.typepad.com/).
    For those of you who appreciate the wise counsel and often funny words of Mick Silva, please visit my blog on Tuesday (Nov. 7th) to see how he answers some questions about editing, fiction, and writers in our world of Christianity.

  5. My own father was a pastor of a booming church in the mid-eighties. He ran off with a girl in my sister’s youth group. We had all the same reactions, double standards, etc. None of these stories surprise me (especially after my own personal connection to one).
    The sad thing is that we categorize sin so that we don’t have to face our own ugly, fallen natures. Strangely enough, gluttony and lying are mentioned right in there with homosexuality. Hmm. Maybe we should see some pastors resigning for their sins of overeating. Of course that sounds ridiculous, reactionary, and upsetting. And believe me, I don’t think it should happen. I do think, however, that we should pull back the curtains on sin in general and bring it into the light. Instead of calling it “moral failure,” let’s say what really happened. In my dad’s case, the “moral failure” phrase was used publicly, leaving room for interpretation which caused long-term troubles. Some believed he hadn’t really done anything that bad and wanted him reinstated. Others spread conjecture and rumors which I still hear to this day, over twenty years later.
    As a novelist, I am set on dealing with characters who also struggle with temptation, doubt, frustration, and sinful patterns. I hope, through fiction, to show some of God’s grace for those willing to deal honestly with where they have come from–and where they are going.

  6. Mick, great post and I love some of the points you made.
    Here’s my take: Sin is sin, no matter what the sin. We all sin, and his sin is no worse than any of ours. That being said, a man who is in authority over believers has to be held to a higher standard, whether we all like it or not. And then there’s the whole issue of being a very public figure. I’m not pointing a finger at him or anyone else, church leaders must be more discerning, stop preaching cheap grace, and stop running away from confronting sin in others.
    We all claim from time to time, me included, that we’re weak, our flesh betrays us, satan deceives us, and the “world” sucks us in. But if we keep our nose in the Word, and keep our voices calling out to God in prayer, how much power does sin have over us? How big is our God? How much do we obey? I read the (biased but well-written) 21 page article in Harper’s Magazine about Ted and New Life Church. I’ve met the man. I have visited New Life Church some years ago.
    Market-driven churches that focus on getting people’s needs/wants/desires met and putting on a great show are placing themselves in a precarious position. If Ted struggled with this particular sin his entire adult life, why didn’t he step out of his position of very public leadership after he submitted to temptation? Where was his sense of responsibility to his family, his church and to all Evangelical Christians? Was his own craving to get his needs/wants/desires met stronger than his responsibility to serve Christ and His church? See what I’m saying? If churches focus on what the people want to hear/see/do, then that permeates everything. Focus on what God wants, and the story changes. It’s not his “sexual sin” that bothers me, it’s that he dragged his family, his church, and all evangelicals, to some degree, down with him. The rest of us sinners aren’t in that same position to affect SO MANY people. We should all be, “above reproach” and people who are in the public eye, even more so, like it or not.
    I’m not bashing Ted or any leader who calls himself Christian, but we have a right as believers to examine the situation (soberly, not sensationally) and discuss it, if only as a warning to every single one of us.
    And most importantly, we need to pray for Ted and all of our leaders that they turn away from “Disneyland” American Christianity and return to the pursuit of holiness, not happiness.

  7. I am reminded of one of my favorite despair.com posters: “What if the purpose of your life is merely to serve as a warning to others?”
    While I laugh at the poster, I mean it here in a very serious way. Haggard’s demise is a warning to us all. To ME. What about MY OWN spiritual walk? Am I hiding thngs in darkness? Am I affording myself of all of God’s protection against falling into sin?
    I, too, blogged about this today, but in a different way. No one goggling “Ted Haggard” would find my post, for his name is never mentioned. With sincere apologies to C.S. Lewis (who I’m NOT), I addressed the issue through Screwtape’s eyes. Thing is, Satan can use Christians just as well as nonChristians to now stir the pot after this whole sordid affair (pun intended).

  8. Suzan wrote: “If Ted struggled with this particular sin his entire adult life, why didn’t he step out of his position of very public leadership after he submitted to temptation?…Was his own craving to get his needs/wants/desires met stronger than his responsibility to serve Christ and His church?”
    I think the answer is pretty clear that Ted’s craving was stronger than his responsibility. But isn’t that what sin is?
    Why does someone in a leadership position (or any position) continue in that sin? Well, for one, we have been given this uncanny ability to live two lives and somehow pretend the one doesn’t affect the other. It does, of course, but we can live for a long time without seeing it. Perhaps some live a lifetime without any observable fallout.
    Also, I think it’s a sad-but-true fact that the church itself contributes to the difficulty of a leader owning up to sinful choices. That “holding leaders to a higher standard” seems right…but doesn’t it also ask them to live an even more sinless life than you or I? Is that possible? Or does putting the weight of the whole church’s “ability to minister” on the shoulders of one man or woman make it even more difficult to admit failure?
    Finally, I think it’s fair to say that we all think at times we can “overcome” our sin. Either we try to solve it on our own (we can’t) or we plead with God to solve it for us in secret (which He may or may not choose to do).
    Leaders may need to be held to higher standards…but not in terms of their capacity to sin. There is sacrifice in leadership. Perhaps that sacrifice isn’t meant to be a “giving up” of the appearance of sin, but instead, the admittance and persistent acknowledgment of the reality of sin and a daily recommitment to pursuing God with the support and encouragement of the congregation and board members. What if the “higher standard” referred to humility and honesty instead of an expectation that our pastors live a more perfect life? Would that make our pastors seem weak? Perhaps.
    Maybe that’s a good thing.

  9. Steve, I understand what you are saying, and I’m a sinner like all of us, and I don’t think it is possible to live a sinless life. But I wonder sometimes why we Christians are always talking about how hard it is to overcome sin. It seems like we give the world/flesh/devil a lot more credit than is deserved. It says in the Bible that when we are saved, sin no longer has power over us. We CAN be overcomers with God’s help. When we focus inward on ourselves, we will fail.
    I guess that when it comes right down to it, it really doesn’t matter what I think or what you think, anyway. Here’s what the Word says about people who are overseers. When I read this, I understand why it’s important for a leader to remove himself/herself when he cannot fulfill this comission:
    1 Timothy 3
    “1Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer,[a] he desires a noble task. 2Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”
    The church today is aching and groaning for self-less, Godly men, men not involved in politics, not of celebrity status, men who will deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and guide their flock on the road to sanctification.

  10. And there lies the rub: the comfort gospel does not adhere to selfless, humble, sacrificial denial, and the “uncomfortable” aspects of following and serving Christ.
    How do we keep ourselves from such privilege in this country? I thank God everyday for being born in this beautiful country, but I am as selfish as the next person, fighting it along with the rest of you. I love Jesus, but I will never be worthy of what He’s given me. He alone makes me worthy but only as a servant, sister, friend. Do we really grasp the responsibilty involved in serving Him? The challenges are endless. The enemy of our souls is shrewd, calculating, and most of us don’t even fight. We succumb. Spiritual warfare is real, and if we hope to leave this earth with our salvation intact, we better arm ourselves with His weapons.

  11. Suzan, thanks for your wise thoughts. Yes, some of us probably do spend too much effort talking about how hard it is to overcome sin. I don’t mean to suggest that sin is greater than the Cross.
    I agree that we can indeed be “overcomers.” I guess my comments were meant to remind us that even in that “overcoming” we are not freed from the temptation to sin. When we preach that “overcoming” is the same as “putting an end to”, we set ourselves up for greater failure.
    We can be cognizant of the persistence of sin and still live as overcomers. A paradox? Sure. But it sort of has to be, doesn’t it? As long as the world in which we live as overcomers is a fallen world.

  12. Well, then you can join me in praying what those of us who suffer from ongoing depression often pray (yeah, the motivation may not be pure, but what the heck, it’s my reality): “Lord, come quickly.”

  13. Suzan, you questioned (rightly so) Haggard’s delay in not removing himself from a position of influence and authority. I agree with your spiritual insights on this.
    To provide an answer from the basis of earthy, practical reasons, let me use again my own father’s fall from the pulpit. Beside the obvious blinding of sin, there were other things to stop him from stepping down. Where does a pastor turn when he knows that confession will cost him his job–the job for which he may have gone through years of college; the job which provides income and possibly insurance for his family; the job that gives him some confirmation that God still works through his life, despite his weaknesses? My dad told me this was one of the most confusing things for him during his period of hidden sin: the fact that God continued to do amazing things in the church.
    There have been days when my most productive writing came after my most sinful moments. Other days, I floundered after a great time of spiritual nourishment with the Lord. All of this to say, God’s work is not based solely on our righteousness (dirty rags, anyway), and we sometimes get caught up into this works-oriented theology that can even backfire by excusing our own sin when good things happen. A sick cycle, isn’t it?
    Interesting side-note: We don’t even know the names of most of the pastors in the New Testament churches, but if history were to look back on our era, they would be sure to discover the “big names” highlighted. Maybe we’ve mirrored a celebrity culture and lost sight of who’s really the head of the church.

  14. Excellent, thoughtful discussion here. Thank you all for it. I’ve often heard that many who pursue degrees in psychology hope, in their heart of hearts, to successfully anyalyze themselves into better mental and emotional health.
    In other words, they go into that particular field because they’re screwed up. That may be a gross generalization, but I’ve wondered sometimes–especially after going through yet another pastor-confesses-to-lifelong-struggle-with-besetting-sin confession, whether some folks might not enter the ministry for this reason–to try to come to grips with their own sin, in the hopes of overcoming.
    Hey, I know a guy who admitted he went into ministry because it was the only profession he thought would gain his earthly father’s approval–not a good reason.
    I’m just saying: Stranger things have happened.

  15. It seems in every field there are wannabes. Not called by God to be there. Then there are those who head there who are called but fail to heed the warnings and are deceived into believing they can overcome their downfalls–that since sin is common to man, they’re really no different than anyone else, and, as Eric noted so well, it seems God is still using them effectively. We all forget it’s God. A lot of people are willing to be used even in sin. Others leave their faith for a season in shame and let the enemy have his way until their devastation is complete and the deception is clear. Then they crawl back to the Father, and IF they come in humility, they will be a better person for the horror.
    Just a reminder for you: today is Mick Silva day over at Into the Fire (hopeofglory.typepad.com/). Go visit and see how he answers 4 questions about reading, writing, and editing.

  16. My thoughts…
    “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone. . .” John 8:7
    We know that we’re all sinners. We know that Biblically, none of us is able to cast the first stone. “Sin is sin,” we say.
    It’s true, sin is sin. There’s no hierarchy as far as God is concerned. But why do we say it, while still finding it difficult to really belive it, to act on it? I mean, do we really equate our own daily sins – a little pride, a little greed, a little judgment – with those blatant (and nearly unforgivable) sexual (that’s the key, by the way) sins of those who should be above all that? Why do we say “sin is sin” but have trouble believing it?
    Here’s why: Sin may be sin – but consequences? Now there’s where the difference lies.
    There may not be a hierarchy of sin, but there for darn sure is a hierarchy of consequence.
    Some sins carry little to no external, visibly observable consequences. They mark the soul, sure. But the effects are limited to the sinner himself or herself, and are worked out between the sinner and God. Some sins affect relationships in small ways – creating distance, harming trust. Other sins affect relationships in large ways – destroying hearts, devastating lives. Obviously sin can even permanently take away another’s life.
    So the consequences of sin run the gamut, and I think what’s happened here recently is that we’ve all been mind-boggled by the magnitude, not of one individual’s sin, but its far-reaching consequences. We are frightened by it, too. Sin is sin, but what if my sin – my gossip, my little white lies – had the power to devastate thousands of others? What if my sin were being paraded as the reason that scores of Christians will now question their faith, and legions of non-believers will decide never to believe? What if my sin ripped my spouse and children’s lives to shreds and exposed the people I loved to ridicule and humiliation?
    For most of us, our sins won’t have consequences that far-reaching. We’ll continue on, letting Jesus deal with us on our sins, and leaving it at that. We’ll go about our daily private confession and repentance but most of the time, we won’t tell anybody about our sin, and we won’t really think that much about our sin. But we’re sure thinking about other people’s sins, aren’t we? We’re looking at the huge consequences of those sins. And we’re reminding ourselves as good Christians do, sin is sin, and I am just as much of a sinner as he.
    But I wonder, do we really believe it?

  17. Anonymous wrote: “I mean, do we really equate our own daily sins – a little pride, a little greed, a little judgment – with those blatant (and nearly unforgivable) sexual (that’s the key, by the way) sins of those who should be above all that? Why do we say “sin is sin” but have trouble believing it?”
    Your comments about the hierarchy of consequences are wise.
    But isn’t the question you close with “…do we really believe it” at least partially answered in the above excerpt where you say “…should be above all that”? As long as we continue to set anyone up as someone who “…should be above all that” we’re contributing to the all “sins aren’t equal” problem.
    Why should we assume that someone who has dedicated his or her life to serving God “should be above” any sort of sin at all? I know I keep harping on this same theme–clearly it’s an issue I’m dealing with myself–but what does it do to the power of the Cross if we suggest someone should be “above” any sin at all?
    I know what some of you are thinking–Jesus has overcome sin. Sin has no power over us. But that’s only true in a “kingdom” sense, isn’t it? Suzan mentioned that as long as we focus inward on ourselves, we will fail. Absolutely. I know that’s been the reason for my greatest failures (failures that have left me with high-ranking consequences according to your “darn sure” hierarchy). I agree that when we focus on God, we can overcome. Do you know anyone who is able to do that perfectly? I don’t.
    Why do we have trouble believing “sin is sin”? Because we desperately want to believe there IS a hierarchy and that God will set us above those sins we fear most—the ones with the most devastating consequences.
    He doesn’t do that.
    He does offer grace and forgiveness.
    Thank God.

  18. By using the phrase “those who should be above all that,” I meant all of us — Christians. We all are “supposed” to be able to live in victory over willful and premeditated sin. But of course, everyone recognizes our inability to live in constant victory over the inadvertant sins — greed, pride, gossip, etc.

  19. I’m not sure I agree that greed and pride and gossip are inadvertant sins.
    And is it that we’re “supposed” to be above all of these things or that we are granted, by God’s grace, the power to overcome these things?
    Maybe my issue with this is merely a matter of semantics. I keep tripping on “supposed” because it sounds like my effort is more important than God’s.
    I agree that God gives us victory over sin…but wouldn’t that include all sin? Not just the sins covered by CNN, but the rest of them. Like greed. Pride. Gossip…
    I guess my point (yes, I know, hitting a thumbtack with a sledgehammer…sorry) is that when we categorize sin, we control God. I’m not comfortable doing that.

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