The Toughest Lesson

I lost a friend recently.

Not to death. Not by choice. I lost my friend because of moral failure. Like myself, he is an evangelist and we have preached together in church conferences for years.  Together we have wept, laughed, prayed, and shared good times and bad.

When a mutual friend told me what happened, I refused to believe him. It was impossible—not just the adultery, but adultery with the daughter of one of his closest friends. The daughter that his friend had asked him to counsel while she was going through a divorce. This adultery had been on going for over a year.

He seemed repentant and begged forgiveness. We even spoke of restoration. I naturally assumed he would cancel his preaching engagements and voluntarily place himself under an accountability group for at least two years.

He agreed. Later I learned he had not canceled his meetings. As a matter of fact we were scheduled to share the platform for a conference in Colorado .

When I learned of his plans to preach at that conference, I explained to him and the conference leaders that I would not participate under the circumstances.  That is when I lost my friend.

Did I do the right thing?  I think I did.  Was I unreasonable?  I don’t think so.  You see, my friend had become the issue; the scandal attached to his name and ministry had suddenly become the focal point, not Christ. Before people could make a decision about Christ, they had to make a decision about the preacher. And when the preacher, rather than Christ, becomes the issue, the preacher must step aside.

Sexual sin

This is one of the awful consequences of moral failure—a shadow is cast upon the reputation of Christ and His message.

One of the hard facts we must face in the moral failure of a minister is that even after a period of probation under an accountability group, even after repentance and restoration, the reputation of the minister is still sullied. God forgives and forgets, but the world does not. In Robert Graves’ classic, Claudius the Great, the Roman Emperor says that a reputation is like an earthenware plate: “The plate is cracked: the reputation is damaged by a criminal sentence. The plate is then mended with rivets and becomes ‘as good as new’; the reputation is mended by an official pardon. A mended plate, or a mended reputation, is better than a cracked plate, or a damaged reputation. But a plate that has never been cracked and a reputation that has never been damaged are better still.”

The fallout attached to moral failure reaches beyond a man’s ministry – it brings devastation to the home and the family. A bank clerk, an insurance salesman, a doctor, a lawyer – adultery does not cost them their job (unless it’s with the boss’s wife). They don’t lose their income, their benefits, their pension, their standing in the community.  A minister however, loses all off the above.

I’m thinking of another minister friend, whose affair with his secretary nearly cost him everything. He was forced to resign. At 50 years old, he has not been able to find another ministerial position. He and his wife lost their medical benefits and future participation in the retirement plan.

His entire family life had been in the church. His wife had to resign her position of ministry in the church. Their circle of friends was church members and most of those relationships were severed. Whereas the children of a doctor might never know of their father’s infidelity, my friend’s children knew—as did all their friends. The humiliation to his wife and children was almost unbearable.

His marriage survived we’re still friends.  But every time I see him I am reminded of the high price paid for his folly.

Of course, I would never do anything like that. That’s what I always say when I hear of the moral failure of another minister. Quickly as I say that, I remember Paul’s warning to the Corinthians: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed least he fall.” I Corinthians 10:12 NAS I recall that while Peter boasted that he would never deny or leave his Lord, he did exactly that!

Another casualty in the moral war said, “You know which is the worst day of the week for me is?” As a preacher whose ministry had been destroyed by an adulterous affair, there was a deep sadness in his eyes and his voice was flat, dead.

“Sunday,” he said. “Every Sunday I am reminded I cannot do the one thing I was born to do – preach.”

These men have joined an ever increasing congregation of failed ministers, men who no longer can do the very thing they were born to do. For everyone we hear about there’s another hundred that we don’t hear about.

Preventive measures

Frankly, it’s frightening. Any man who thinks he is beyond moral failure is a fool. Even Paul admitted the fragility of the ministry when he said, “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: least that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”— (Corinthians 9:27) Literally, he said, “I beat my body and make it my slave.” In other words, preventing moral failure isn’t easy. It requires violent vigilance. Let me suggest some preventive measures.

Admit you are in danger

There is no place of absolute security. Remember Demas? You would think that being a co-worker of the great Apostle Paul, that laboring hand- in-hand with greatest of Christian hearts would provide ample security from worldliness. While at the same time he was laboring with Paul, Demas was loving this present world (II Timothy 4:10 ). It is to the elders of the church that Peter is writing when lie warns his readers of the roaring lion who is seeking to devour them. I Peter 5

Be willing to admit your vulnerability.  Unfortunately, the ministerial role often places men in situations where they are sexually vulnerable, especially when counseling women. This calls for a big dose of self-awareness.

In a word, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! “Flee,” was Paul’s counsel to Timothy. You are not strong enough to subdue this temptation. Run from it mentally, or physically, flee the source of temptation.

Beware of self-deception. Realize ‘you are not an exception. It can happen to you. If it does, you will suffer for it. So will your family, and your friends, and your Lord.

Anticipate pressure

One minister said that when he checked into a hotel he knew that in all likelihood there would be a little black box on the TV set that made pornographic movies available. So when he checked in, he had them turn off the box so he couldn’t use it. For this man, leaving the black box on would have been making provision for the flesh.

Develop avoidance strategies

You are in a war. You need to have a battle plan. It is too late to plan a strategy once the enemy has assaulted you.

Never counsel a woman without your wife or secretary present. I know one pastor who insists that every staff member have a large window in his office door.

Stay away from pornography. Never ride alone in a car with woman. When I check into a hotel one of the first things I do is place a pictures of my wife on the dresser. We talk on the phone every night while I’m on the road.

Love your wife

In talking with ministers a large number of them claim that their greatest help in overcoming sexual temptation is a strong marriage, specifically, a good sexual relationship with his wife. I’ve talked with some fallen ministers who blamed their failure on their wives lack of sexual interest.

Take every thought captive

Paul’s speaks of “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” (II Corinthians 10:5 NAS) To the Philippians he wrote: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” (Philippians 4:8 NAS)

Be accountable. Develop and accountability relationship with another minister, or a layman in your church. Since others experience the same pressures and temptations, they can offer encouragement and support. Being vulnerable and transparent is the key to success here.

Enlist this accountability group as prayer warriors. When I see the President on TV, I am always impressed with the number of Secret Service agents surrounding him. As was so vividly demonstrated in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, it is the job of the secret Service Agents to protect the life of their President, even if it means throwing themselves in the path of a bullet. That’s what spiritual leaders need. A Secret Service of intercessors -spiritual bodyguards- who will protect them with the shield of prayer.

A final word

“What do you want written on your tombstone?” Just like that. Out of the blue, I asked my wife, suspiciously, “Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, preachers are always quoting Spurgeon’s epitaph or Moody’s—I just wondered what you wanted on your tombstone.”

Truthfully, I have never thought about it. ‘‘I’ll think about it,’’ I said.

I did think about it. I came up with one. It’s not original but I can’t think of a better one. Actually, it ought to be the epitaph of each servant of Christ: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (II Timothy 4:7) More than just a tombstone, those words should be a touchstone to help prevent us from moral failure. My epitaph? How about,” I Finished My Course – and I Did it Under par.”

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