(Posted earlier this week at Worldmag.com)
I spent some time thinking about the sad story of Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. He has been a vocal advocate of family values and faith. He boldly proclaimed his faith in Christ and his responsibility as a Christian public servant. Now his very public affair has damaged and perhaps ruined his marriage, career, and legacy.
I used to be among the first to jump on the dogpile of condemnation for fallen Christian leaders. Now when I read about men like Mark Sanford, Ted Haggard, and John Ensign I am mainly sad. I am sad for their families and friends—and sad for those who were damaged by their sin.
I wondered how these men got to such a low point in their journey. Perhaps a bit of insight came from a recent Texas storm. Strong winds toppled a 50-foot-tall tree in a friend’s backyard. But strong winds are a part of every spring in Texas. Why did this particular storm fell a mature tree? The answer came as my friend cut up the fallen tree—it had completely rotted inside. There was no way to tell when you looked at the tree. The bark covered the decay and the leaves were green and pretty. But inside the tree was dying. It finally reached a point where there was not enough strength left in its core to withstand another storm.
The example from nature is a metaphor for how we can topple as Christians and completely surprise those around us. We wear masks. We look good. We say the right things. We stay busy doing Christian things. But the slow rot of sin is decaying our judgment and relationship with Jesus.
Tree experts will tell you that often a small wound in a tree left unattended will allow fungus to enter and begin the destructive process. If the wound had been treated, the disease could have been halted with little or no damage. Perhaps a wound occurred in the hearts of the men listed above. Perhaps pride or fear or simply not knowing what to do caused them to ignore the wound in their souls. And that opening allowed the slow decay of unresolved sin that led to their fall.
The metaphor reminded me of the Scripture where Jesus railed against the “self-righteous” religious leaders:
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too” (Matthew 23, NLT).
I know me. I know that I must seek the illuminating light of the Holy Spirit to help me see the filth and greed and self-indulgence that lies within or I could fall with a sickening thud as well. I am sad for Mark Sanford today. I pray for his wife and his handsome sons. I know that forgiveness and redemption are available for all of them. But I also know the terrible consequences of sin. He has paid and will pay a terrible price and so will those he has hurt. I would ask you to pray for Gov. Sanford and for other Christian leaders that fail. Before you smite them with the hypocrite hammer I would ask you to look in the mirror. If you see what I see you will extend grace to those who fail. What I see in the mirror is a person who was saved only by grace. I see a person who is capable of failing if I do not lean wholly on that grace every day. A person who does not want to hurt the heart or cause of Jesus because I am so grateful for His amazing grace. I like the way The Message translates Paul’s words to the Galatians:
“If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived” (Galatians 6, The Message).