Leadership Sin (Part 3) Pride, Confession, and Redemption

Image: Albrecht Durer: King David Doing Penance, National Gallery of Art.

This is the third part of a piece regarding the sin of leadership, namely pride.  We began with a look at 1 Timothy 5:19-20 and how that helps us identify pride as the sin that “the rest may fear” as opposed to, for example, the sexual sin that Ravi Zacharias (RZ) was alleged to have committed.  Specifically, we wanted to demonstrate that other leaders are particularly susceptible to pride which can enhance and exacerbate sins they had previously considered conquered.  Such sins may include sexual sin, such as RZ has been accused of, but may also be of an altogether different variety.  Thus, it plays into pride to think along the lines of, “I don’t struggle with sexual sin so I don’t need to worry about this.”  

In Part 2 we looked more specifically at King David as an example of this phenomenon, examining his affair with Bathsheba and the murder that came out of it, and trying to determine how “A man after God’s own heart” could slip so far.  Our investigation revealed that, while his sexual sins were certainly a vice that gave root to his pride, it was his pride and arrogance that twisted his honor, likely causing him to see himself as a necessary part of God’s plan, thereby justifying much worse sin.  As deadly and perverse as the sexual sin was, pride was the sin that gave sexual sin control of David’s life and gave rise to murder.

We ended before Nathan’s intervention with the king and that was deliberate.  Before we approach his redemption, we have to really understand the parallels between his life and the life of a leader today.  As an ancient, David’s life is naturally separated from our own by time, culture, and numerous other factors, not least of which is being a king, meaning we have a tendency to dismiss his life as being completely different from our own.   For the purpose of application, then, it is useful to see his problems in a more familiar cultural context.

Since this post began with RZ, it would be understandable for me to go there, but as regrettably detailed as the report was, in order to really dive into his story, I would still have to fill in a lot of gaps.  The same would be true of any other modern figure; it’s true of King David as well, but I am not hurting any of his descendants to speculate on his life and motives in such a manner.  The family of a man like RZ has been through enough in the last 8 months without having some random guy creating a back story to his sins. 

So let me introduce you to Bob.  Let’s get this out from the start, Bob does not exist.  He is a figment of my imagination.  Nevertheless, he presents a solid, if speculative, case study in the way that an ordinary vice becomes a criminal or near criminal struggle due primarily to pride.  Short of a modern King David leaving a deeply reflective account of his transgressions, this is perhaps the best we have.     

So let’s say Bob is a powerful evangelist and speaker and the head of a large ministry that has helped lead untold many to Christ.  Bob is 45 and has invested much of his life into his work which has come to consist of long speaking tours from city to city in a myriad of countries interspersed with periods of seclusion to write and reflect.  We join Bob in Southeast Asia, in the middle of a multi-month tour of Asia and Europe, his first in half a decade. 

Bob has a dark side.  He has struggled with heavy and hidden sexual desires for most of his life.  Before he was married, it included illicit sex, but since his marriage 19 years ago, it has largely been confined to pornography on the internet.  Even that has been curbed in the last several years, and it has been almost half a decade since he last looked at porn.  The temptation remains, it has never really gone away, but it is not what it used to be.   

This is likely in part due to Bob’s friend and ministry partner, Greg, who is also his accountability partner.  Bob is quite open with Greg.  In fact, sometimes he has even exaggerated a little to feel like they have something to discuss in this area. 

Bob is also open with his wife whenever she asks.  In her case, though, the exaggeration tends towards downplaying it a little.  But in neither case does he lie about his activities.    

Ordinarily, Greg comes on the tours.  His presence alone helps keep Bob honest.  When they formed the ministry together a decade ago, they wrote several safeguards into their organizational bylaws framed like those of many other organizations: limiting alone time, especially with women, or requiring guardian software on their computers and other devices. 

They had been a little optimistic when they wrote up these guidelines.  Bob never realized how hard it would be to avoid alone time, and as an introvert, he actually needs alone time to do his job.  Likewise, today’s cutting edge software is tomorrow’s bloatware.  But since the best safeguard is honestly sitting across from Greg or his wife over dinner or a beer… if it ain’t broke…

Neither Greg nor Bob’s wife are with him this time.   

Bob is midway through a presentation in Taipei when he trips on one of the guitar amplifier cords, inflaming an old basketball injury.  The next night in Hong Kong, he must sit down part of the way through the show.  On arriving in Bangkok, the next day, he can barely stand.  One of his assistants gets him a new pair of shoes and another tries to track down a back brace.  The concierge at the hotel suggests a massage and a local pastor from the north part of the country says that this is one of the country’s specialties.  So, Bob agrees.

It would be unfair to imply that all massages in southeast Asia include extra services, in fact most are just a massage.  But some have a “manager’s special.”  This one does.  Bob is so tired and sore it takes him a bit to realize what is happening, and though he notices right quick when things actually heat up, long story short, he does nothing to stop it.    

Has Bob broken any laws?  No.  The girl was just doing her job and he paid her.  Has he violated his marriage?  Oh yeah.  There is no easy way to deal with this.  At this point, Bob does not even think of hiding it.  If the thought had crossed his mind, Bob likely would have been so repulsed that things might have ended right there.

I could go on with Bob’s story here.  I actually wrote up quite a bit more, but in the interest of time I will summarize.  His transgression on that night in Bangkok stirs up the sexual desire within him that had lain vanquished and somewhat dormant, but not gone, for years.  Over the next several weeks of touring, Bob struggles with a panacea of guilt and remorse, but also a growing sense of justification. 

At first he justifies not activating his network, his confessors.  He feels that this is too big to just drop on them over the phone, but somehow convinces himself that even so he can handle it.  He tells himself he will be vigilant now, that he was surprised into the sin by all that was happening around him.  But telling himself that there were mitigating circumstances, even if there were, is to absolve himself of the problem, to say it’s not really his fault. It is distancing himself from what he did wrong. 

The situational components that led to the sin are thus not dealt with and will come back.  His vigilance might work for a time, but his back is still a problem; the show must go on; and massage is his best ad-hoc solution.  Since there are a number of massage situations that cater to a segment of society with a different moral structure than the Church, it is inevitable that he will eventually encounter one.  Can using such a service be avoided?  Yes, fairly easily, often with a mere word or two, but even if culture and language are not complicating things, ultimately such avoidance comes down to the choice of the individual himself, and given time and remaining in solitude, he will fail. 

For Bob the only solution to his first sin, the sexual sin, is to quickly confess to someone what he has done.  In fact, that is what 1 Timothy 5:19 and 20 advocate. They have the Church forcing confrontation in escalating degrees, with the hopes of driving the sinful leader to confess, but at each stage it can stop in the presence of repentance.  Christianity is not a culture of struggle sessions and the like.  As people realize their mistakes, though they must deal with the consequences themselves, there is forgiveness in the Church. 

But if Bob refuses to confess, it is not good. “If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. (1 John, 1:6)”   He does not call on his accountability network, maybe worried about distance or sharing such news over the phone.  The longer he resists confession, the more likely he is to sin again, which spurs more guilt and pain. With each instance of sin, he will feel the pull to confess, but the urge to hide it will become all the stronger.

Having isolated himself from his regular network, as a man of God, he must at least consider sharing with someone locally, a member of his team or a local pastor. But he rightly ascertains that such a move could be a bombshell.  “You know that massage you booked for me the other night.  I slept with the girl who came. Actually been doing that about half the tour.”  The weight of such a statement on a mere acquaintance or a subordinate would be devastating. 

Let’s look at Bob’s thoughts as he contemplates letting someone else in on his transgressions. I’ve lost control.  I need to tell someone.  My defenses are shattered; I can’t do this alone.  As his hand reaches for his phone, he thinks, I still can’t tell my wife over the phone.  Greg probably just went to bed.  Maybe I should tell one of the guys here.  He mulls over that for a while. He even picks up the phone; he can call his assistant, Jeff.  

His mind flies back and forth.  If I don’t tell someone, I won’t be able to stop myself.  I’m as good as gone, but if I tell Jeff, it’ll tear him up.  He worships me and this will destroy him.  The more he thinks about telling Jeff, the more he hesitates, the more reasons start to pop into his mind against it.  The thought had already been forming, but it coalesces now, If I tell Jeff, it might cost him his faith; can I really do that to him?  Now firm in his mind, the ramifications loom giant, not just Jeff.  If this gets out, how many people would this destroy?  Now the merry-go-round has begun.    

Let’s analyze this last line of thought.  Like we said in Part 1, this is where pride comes in.  The Bible makes it abundantly clear that the individual preacher neither gives people their faith, nor does he take it away. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Cor. 3:7).  As hard as this situation might be for Bob’s protégés or those that that he ministers to, their faith is God’s responsibility.   

Bob knows this, but the problem here is that he is ready to ignore that fact, convincing himself of two equally damaging but opposing falsehoods.  1.  He is nothing more than a serial sinner.  2.  He is too important to let this take him down. 

The first is a familiar lie.  He has overcome that before.  The extent to which he is sexually sinning is severe, but the fact of it is nothing new.  The controls he has in place, though in need of adjustment, are on the right track.  But confession is at the heart of his control apparatus and that is what he is avoiding right now.  This is where the first lie is so deadly.  By pridefully equating himself with his ministry, he is preparing to cut that option out of his life. 

Why?  Because pride is changing his perspective on the whole thing, his descent into sin is becoming a noble sacrifice.  Where Christ took on the sins of the many wholly absent of any guilt, Bob is preparing to embrace his own sins alone, ignoring or even reveling in his guilt, in an attempt to protect the faith of the many.  He will bear his own destruction to spare the faith of others.  That makes him feel some warm fuzzies.  He’s practically a hero!

The parallel with King David or RZ is now clear.  Just as David misunderstood his kingly role in God’s plan as integral to that plan, just as RZ told the woman that she would be responsible for the souls of millions, so Bob has begun to see himself as the reason for the faith of others, an essential component of their salvation.  In both of these genuine cases as well as our imaginary case, we have a perverse pride that has twisted the sinner, justifying the sin, and shortcutting any desire to confess.

We could go on now and describe Bob continuing down his life of sin.  It would only get worse, even as his ministry continues to grow.  The more exposed he becomes to people not carrying the same weight around their necks, the more he will feel convicted, but the more he will bury that conviction.  This will give his sexual vice more strength, making his desires ever more perverse, perhaps even criminal, but he is smart and capable and because of his ministry quite powerful.  Though a mistake is likely at some point, causing a massive scandal, in its absence, he may never be caught.  It is plausible, then, that he would simultaneously maintain an unsullied legacy which would continue to give inspiration to millions long after his death all while quietly destroying the lives of hundreds or even thousands in his depravity, not to mention the toll on his own soul.  And one must wonder what he might have accomplished had so much of his energy not been devoted to a giant cover up. 

But David’s life involved no such dark outcome (his descendants got to enjoy the darker stories), which means Bob’s does not have to.  Let’s imagine that he bites the bullet and calls on his partners or assistant.  He takes an active step of repentance.  What has happened? In humility, he has given up trying to control the situation. In fact he has thrown himself under the bus, and in that self-denial he will rightly feel shame because what he did was shameful. What he will not feel is vainglorious pride.  And he will probably never know how close he came to losing it all.    

Furthermore, he is one step closer now to becoming a master of his body and overcoming this sin.  Every little victory, even a belated one, is valuable.  Our spirit/flesh war is not eternal.  We are not meant to spend forever fighting these problems.  For Bob, there will come a day when sex will assume its proper place, where in theory he could walk into very compromising circumstances in which he would probably feel desire and even temptation, but with the pure absence of any impulse to sin. 

Imagine that for a moment: no impulse to sin.  It doesn’t have to be sexual impulse.  Many do not meet that demon, but all of us have some sort of impulse to sin.  Fear, anger, jealousy, power plays or self-indulgence or, well, the list goes ever on.  Now imagine that impulse gone. 

It’s hard to do because for most of us our pet sins are those little annoyances we know we shouldn’t do but that we have no idea how to effectively get rid of, which means that we cannot envision life without them.  

Let me give you a fairly gross way to conceptualize it, which is appropriate, because sin is gross, so there we go. 

My boys are like most kids.  At various points they have jammed their fingers up their nose, dug around a little, found a tempting morsel that they studied a bit, then licked that finger clean quick as a whistle.  This action was, to them, desirable for some reason, though clearly forbidden from the quick and hidden way that they always seem to carry it out. 

Anyone with hands and a nose is able to pick his nose and eat it, and judging by the ubiquity of the act among children of a certain age, there must be some appeal, yet that appeal is pretty much completely gone by the time we reach adulthood. 

Why?  It’s not that I can’t pick my nose and eat it.  It’s not even that I want to and restrain myself.  It’s potentially even convenient.  I blow my nose fairly regularly and sometimes scratch it or otherwise find my fingers in situations that, were this a genuine temptation, would be remarkably compromising, yet the thought of picking my nose and eating it generally does not even occur to me, and if I take the time to think about it, as I am now, I find it more disgusting than tempting. 

That disgust, in fact, is exactly the feeling that I propose we will all one day feel towards all sin. 

In fact, we already feel this disgust when it comes to other people.  We hear about prominent Christians having a sinful double life, falling prey to lust or greed or violence, and if that is not a sin we deal with, it turns our stomachs.  If it is a sin we do indeed struggle with, we feel pity or maybe even sympathy. It is telling that the only sins about which we don’t feel disgust are those we have accepted as part of our own lives.

And so, as discussed in part 1, we are to fear seeing a sinful leader rebuked because in him we see ourselves and what we could become, which is the beginning of redemption. 

For David, his rebuke came in the person of Nathan.  If David had not received an intervention from Nathan, his pride would have walled him off from seeing his sin as sin, and his vice, locked away from the repentance required for grace to function, would have grown and expanded into other areas of his life. David would have become a decrepit tyrant falling deeper and deeper into depravity. 

David was, for all practical purposes, a slave to his flesh at this point.  Any direct attacks on his sins would have prompted David to defend himself and his actions, much as it had already prompted him to increasingly vile actions.  David would have lumped Nathan in among those who would destroy him, meaning Israel, to who knows what end. 

Turn on your imaginations again..  Nathan walks in prophetically admonishing the king, “David, you slept with your friend’s wife then killed him, how could you?” David might easily have responded: “You got it out of order, man, Uriah’s death was truly terrible, but it was just the course of the war.  It couldn’t be helped.  Then, because of our friendship, I went to Bathsheba to console her, offer her the country’s thanks.  True, one thing followed another.  We perhaps moved the relationship forward a little hastily, but it all worked out in the end, right?  I mean, if you look at things in a certain light, I saved her while guaranteeing Uriah a legacy.  I’m basically a saint.” 

Lies, yes, but it is Nathan against the king, and in squaring off, David, his ire raised, would have only gotten worse.  He’d already murdered a friend to protect himself and his legacy.  Why not a pesky prophet?  David would have slipped more towards being the power mad dictator his predecessor was.

But God did have a plan for David, and knew his heart well.  The only way to get David to repent was to expose that sin, and to do so, Nathan took the subtle approach.  As king, David was his nation’s highest human judicial official, which meant that criminal judgement fell under his jurisdiction.  Nathan knew that posing a judicial situation to the king in which justice had been twisted could not but awaken that sense in the man.  One can imagine David getting more and more worked up at the obvious wickedness of the perpetrator in Nathan’s story, so that when Nathan struck and twisted the dagger, “YOU ARE THAT MAN!”, David’s prideful heart of flesh fell slain at his feet.  As Nathan pressed on giving the Lord’s judgement, David’s exposed sins had nowhere to hide.  By the time Nathan’s judgement was delivered, all David could say was “I have sinned against the Lord.” 

This period of exposure and humility on David’s part reveals so much about recovery.  David is a man after God’s own heart, but what David had done was among the most abominable acts any man could do.  David knew this and the soul searching he puts into the Psalms written at this time shows how much he knew it.  This was David at his best, but it took a host of tragedy and the promise of more to send David back to his harp. 

Do David’s fancy words, even inspired, exonerate him of his crimes, of adultery and the murder of a friend?  Not remotely, but it is not my place or my right to judge or condemn him for that.  As David says to God in Psalm 51:4,

 Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment.

David’s words show us that for a time at least, he had put aside the pride that threatened to destroy him altogether.  For this, Nathan tells David after his confession in 2 Samuel 12:13, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”  There are still a litany of ramifications which David will pay out for the rest of his life, but that life will continue.  So it is with all of us.  Though our sins are forgiven, we must continue to live in the world we have broken. 

This post began reflecting on RZ’s sins.  Those have and will continue to cause great pain for everyone they touched.  Their effects will be felt for generations.  There is nothing in this post or written anywhere else that can exonerate the man of his crimes.  But his relationship with God is between the two of them, as is ultimately his salvation.  And our God is as merciful as He is just.    

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