Several years ago I found myself in conversation with a well-known Christian leader who fell from the heights of public ministry because of his sin. His exposure and the response of many Christians have caused us to ask questions about how we, the Church, restore the fallen. I confess my thoughts towards him were filled were their own self-righteous judgments at the time of his fall.
The actions of this man were sinful and deceiving. He did a horrible thing and has suffered consequences because of it. To be sure, there are offenses that require people to be behind bars, stripped of their positions and face public outcry. We never need apologize for bringing forth needed justice for the protection of others, nor of expressing our hatred for the sin that causes pain and sorrow.
How we do that, as professed Christians, while simultaneously building a bridge of mercy to the person who fell is worthy of discussion…if we believe God’s kindness leads us to repentance.
I know this isn’t easy as our emotions accompanying grievous sin are deep and wide and apart from truly meeting Jesus at the Cross, will be out of control.
When I first heard Ted’s voice on the other end of the line, I immediately felt a sense of joy. His voice was kind, tender, caring and direct…he didn’t “sound” like the evil man some had painted him out to be. At the same time joy was seeping in, I felt my own sorrow for the judgmental heart I had towards him.
I repented to him, explaining our son looked up to him at the time of his fall. He offered immediate forgiveness with a sincerity I will never forget. He could have jabbed me back…”Well, maybe if you wouldn’t’ have judged me, you wouldn’t be in the mess you’re in.”
He didn’t take delight in seeing others suffering because of the sin he had once been judged for. He expressed genuine compassion. My ears were opened.
It had been two years since the public exposure of my sin in our church. My journey of healing and restoration had been beautiful and terrifying in multiple ways. Because my repentance was sincere through the grace of God, I did not concern myself with much of anything for the first year except heart transformation.
The first six months were more like survival mode.
The pain, regret and despair were the deepest I had ever known. The dark moments were fueled by the enemy’s accusations and the responses of those who could not handle my sin. Don’t misunderstand me; I know my sin hurt many people. I know the betrayal people felt was real and reasonable. I did not expect for those directly affected to embrace me upon confession, or ever.
They needed time. They needed space and so did I.
“But come on people! It’s been two years,” were my thoughts when I made the call.
I was tired, weary and ready to leave the church I told God I would stay at until He opened another door and sent me out with a blessing. Shortly after confession both my husband and I sensed God would have us stay in the church where I had committed adultery. The exposure and vulnerability I was thrust into left me in a whirlwind of confusion and torment. I did not want to stay. But even more, if God indeed was speaking for us to stay, I wanted to obey- come what may.
As I shared my story with Ted and feelings of weariness, he asked me, “How long ago did this happen?” When I told him two years, he laughed and said these words, “Oh Kandace, that’s like two months for some people, give it ten years.”
You would think that would have depressed me but strangely I found myself laughing with Ted Haggard! The joy in this man’s voice and the spirit in which he spoke filled my heart with hope. My perspective shifted and rather than focusing on the responses people had towards my sin, I was swept up in the love of God. Ted had survived and I would too. Not because I deserved it but because God’s love restores.
Waiting patiently started sounding like a gift…since waiting hadn’t been a strong trait for me, I got to learn. I got to slow down and observe other people’s journeys without demanding expectations. Of course I wanted to be forgiven but knowing God forgave me helped me honor the journey of others who weren’t there yet. It made me sad but I felt compassion in praying for them to turn to God’s grace and find peace. I eventually knew I was going to be okay even if there were those who could never receive me again…and not judging them for it.
Our sin doesn’t cause someone else to sin but it does give him or her the occasion to react. We sin because what’s coming from our own hearts, including our reactions. Thank God for His mercy and patience on both sides.
Ted Haggard got kicked out of his church and city and I was invited to stay in mine and be restored. If he could laugh, I could laugh. The restoration I was given from God was powerful enough to overcome the painful responses that would sometimes come… and how could I not freely forgive when I had been so freely forgiven?
For those of you listening and find yourself wondering what to do with a repentant brother of sister in Christ, here is your answer:
“so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” 2 Corinthians 2:7 (NASB)
Forgive and comfort. Not judge and shun.
Even before a person repents, our merciful heart shows them it’s not too late for them to repent and do what’s right. The Lord has much to say about those who withhold mercy and it’s never good news. You don’t even need to know the person to speak forgiveness and show them comfort, especially with public exposure.
The person who is repentant is keenly aware their sin has hurt people. They will suffer consequences so you don’t have to worry that if you are nice to them they won’t learn their lesson. Also, keep in mind; repentance is a gift with multiple layers to be unwrapped. The only sign of initial repentance is the person has stopped the sin (hurting themselves and others) and has committed to get help. But repentance is so much more than stopping a behavior. Those who go to prison are forced to stop their behavior but unless their heart surrenders to the conviction that they have sinned, there is no repentance.
Here are a few ideas for anyone who might consider what displaying God’s mercy looks like to someone who will never deserve it, but could be forever changed by it.
Write a note of encouragement.
Smile at them.
Look them in the eyes with love.
Defend who they are in Christ if they profess being a follower. (Yes, you can do that without saying their sin was okay)
Understand their journey is really messy and be sensitive to that.
Go ahead and express your hurt and anger to their face. (I respect the few people who did that with me. It gave me the opportunity to take ownership of my sin and express my sorrow)
Take caution to guard your own heart so that you do not fall into the same sin.
If you’re really courageous with God’s crazy love, go hug them in front of the crowd.
If it feels too hard, pray for God’s grace to empower you to do what He desires. Here is why that is a good idea:
“For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13 (NASB)
God’s forgiveness and mercy towards us is visible. He backed His words with actions. He showed us what His love looked like when He hung on a tree and provided redemption to whosoever will. Our words must also become visible. I am confident that if you are willing, God will give you ways to express your comfort beyond words.
We can do this church. We need to do this for our good and God’s glory.
I recently sat with a young woman whose sin was made public in the worst way several years ago. Her journey has been one of the most painful and confusing journey’s I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve had the honor of being her friend at the onset of her mess and at her lowest, when she despaired her own life. The way we met was God-ordained and someday she will share that story…but for now, she’s trying to decide if it’s safe to dream again…to want to use her gifts and talents to bless others…to raise up her hand and say, “I will!” My advice to her was to keep leaning into Jesus and listen to Him, because it will never feel safe and in some respects, it will never be safe. She has no control over how people will respond if she dares to dream again and asks to be put back in the game. Of course God’s forgiveness is sure and immediate when we repent… but trust with people takes time and sometimes it’s confusing on how much time to give people…because for some people there will never be enough time. So, I will hold her hand with several others when she shows up again. I will marvel in the transforming power of God’s grace and mercy again and again. I will remember that if God is for us and hasn’t condemned us, who are we to do that to others?
My plea isn’t that everyone would just be perfect so we don’t have to deal with the mess of messiness but that we get better at loving people in the messes because of the perfect love of Jesus. There’s only one way to do that and that’s spending time with Him. When we hear Him above the pain, when we see He is not only able but willing to help us, we will run to Him and not others. No matter what side we find ourselves on, Jesus doesn’t pick sides, He just comes and picks us up…giving us what we truly need.
And for those who don’t repent…who reject a gift that was bought with the precious blood of Jesus, we need to continue to pray, sometimes set boundaries, plead with them to come clean and show them a life of freedom is what they are really longing for.