Not Frightened Enough
Sex and the Vulnerable Pastor
When my friend Mike told me about yet another pastor’s adulterous departure from ministry, I not-so-graciously, but all-too-typically, responded, “I think we should just round up all the pastors and shoot them. It’ll give the church a fresh start.” I had to confess the impracticality of that, and the fact that, in reality, it probably wouldn’t do much good. And I had to realize that instead of self-righteousness I should rather just be afraid.
I’m not alone in that.
When I began ministry, Gordon McDonald, then a pastor in Boston, had recently published his book Ordering Your Private World. This book was a significant help to me as I tried to shape my daily Christian experience in a way that would sustain me in ministry. McDonald became my hero, for about five minutes. With the revelation of his subsequent affair, I shelved the book, probably with a sneer.
But then McDonald did something rare for a high profile Christian minister caught in notorious sin. He disappeared until his repentance was as notorious as the sin itself. I really am not able to comprehend the decisions and stressors and conditions and choices that lead someone down the path to what we euphemistically call “moral failure.” But I can see the wisdom of McDonald’s model of notorious repentance. I wish more would embrace it.
My respect returned. I took the book back off the shelf.
These days, years after the event, McDonald speaks a message of vigilance. Where God is at work, where revival is possible and happening, he observes, Satan will target the leaders, often pastors, with temptations to sexual sin. This is not to offer the excuse that “the devil made me do it.” But to know that we are the target of the enemy’s strategy is to learn what to fear.
We are targets because a pastor’s sin can destroy more than marriages and careers. We are watched, closely, by children and others whose view of God and respect for his church are mediated through what they see in us. To violate that trust for a season of pleasure or emotional support has a wide ranging impact. As we are
. . . of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others . . .
(as reasoned by the Westminster Larger Catechism) we make a juicier mark and a greater victory for our enemy. We should be afraid.
Sin of this nature does not come upon anyone overnight. When one sleepily begins to drift to the edge of the interstate, grooves in the shoulder create such a racket that he is shocked into alertness. We need such grooves in our pastoral lives to keep us awake and vigilant.
And we need to be grooves for one another. One friend suggests we question one another with some regularity in ways that expose our emotional and relational health. “How is your heart? What do you find yourself longing for relationally these days? Where are you finding satisfaction? How are you and your spouse doing? Are you enjoying one another? Are you having conversations with one another?”
There are undoubtedly other and better questions, such as, “Have you been inclined recently to have sex with anyone you are not married to?” I suppose that’s direct enough. The point is that we need the kinds of friends who will ask such questions of us and a culture that allows us to confess our struggles without losing our jobs.
Recently I shared with my friend Curt random pieces of an innocent correspondence I had been having with a distant female friend. Curt said, “Be careful.” Puzzled by his response I pressed him. He reminded me that something as simple as “innocent” correspondence can evolve into something less innocent. He was being the grooves along the road. I realized I had in him the type of friend willing to ask me the questions needing to be asked. Find yourself such a friend. Invite this friend to ask the hard questions. And be willing to answer honestly.
In the movie The Fellowship of the Ring Aragorn, disguised as the ranger Strider, asks the hobbit Frodo if he is frightened of the ring wraiths who had recently tracked him down. Frodo admits that he is. You don’t need to know a thing about the movie or book to understand Aragorn’s fierce reply.
“[You’re] not nearly frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”
To live life in fear is not the essence of Christianity, of course. But Gordon McDonald and others like him have come face to face with what hunts us, and they lost.
Perhaps we are not frightened enough.