Let’s just say you met a southerner. He’s charming. He’s got a certain bravado to him. He may seem a little backwoods, but you feel that he could take on giants and win. He’s not the sexiest man, but he has winsome looks that draw you to him. He can play an instrument and delight an entire nation. All cares seem to melt away when he picks up his instrument. The nation seems swept away in his charismatic personality. You even make him leader of your entire nation because of all these things.
Then scandal hits! He’s uncovered to have undertaken a sexually illicit and adulterous affair. Innocence is lost. A nation is shocked! Government comes to a halt as all eyes turn to this man’s sinful engagement. Who have we put in charge?
Who have I just described? Have you just had Bill Clinton described to you? Or King David?
There’s not a whole lot of difference between them is there? In fact, the biggest difference I haven’t talked about is that David has clearly documented bodies he buried along the way to trying to cover up his sins. So his scandal actually takes the cake here.
Just think about the anger and outcry that went up against Bill Clinton. Much of it was even justly deserved. He wounded a country. He betrayed trusts placed in him as President and a man who was supposed to embody American character — which, ironically I think he embodied American, and human, character far better than anyone would really like to admit.
In just a second, I am going to show you how God responds to these situations, but I just can’t help but ask already — where is the mercy? Where is the graciousness? I’m not equivocating graciousness with not calling for people’s removal from public offices, although I’ll touch on that in a bit in this article. Right now, I’m just talking about loving, humble, merciful replies.
Replies like what Rachel Denhollander gave to Larry Nassar at her testimony hearing. If you did not see that, I’ll just encourage you to go read her testimony here. If you do not want to go there, I’ll quote what I think is the best part of it:
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
Grace for Larry Nassar? Where is the grace for Harvey Weinstein? Donald Trump? So many others? Now, if you are a victim of sexual assault and you think I’m letting these men pass, please let your anger pass. I promise you that I am not attempting to argue that they will not face consequences.
But they already face those consequences from a holy and just God who will throw them in a fiery pit unless something radical changes. Yes, I actually believe both Weinstein and Trump are currently going to the same place, and I currently don’t expect either of them to join me in Heaven. Read in that what you will.
But what I am talking about is our response as Christians to these people. Why don’t we, instead of being angry, fall on our knees and pray for them desperately? Do we forget what they’re facing? Do we forget that we were similarly deplorable, treacherous, and miserable monsters except for that the Father drew us unto Himself? (John 6:44)
Now, I am going to try to demonstrate that our responses to these situations will not always be formulaic. There’s not a specific, magical set of words we get to say to situations where people around us betray our confidence and trust.
But there are principles to how we should think about responding. To observe this, we need to understand the character of God, and to accomplish that we’ll go back to King David and then compare him to another king afterwards. Then I’m going to look at 3 implications of what this might mean for us as Christians responding to a broken world.
King David. We’ve already established he’s a worse version of Bill Clinton, right? Seriously. Let that sink in. If you want a scandal that would rock CNN, Fox, and every other major broadcast channel, this is it. This is juicy stuff! Murder, sex, and deceit. His political career is over for sure. Or is it?
How does God deal with him? After confronting him through Nathan the prophet in 2 Samuel 12, David pleads guilty to all of it. He actually says in verse 13:
I have sinned against the Lord.
Then Nathan responds him in verse 14:
The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.
Whoa! That escalated quickly? Why is Nathan talking about death? Who brought that up? Well, we start understanding David’s mindset more through Psalm 51:
Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me.
Bloodguilt here is not an accidental word. In Genesis 9:5, God gives this mandate of justice to the world:
And for your lifeblood, I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life his fellow man.
Okay, so God has said that He has the right and will demand an accounting for the improper taking of another’s life. Bloodguilt then in David’s case is exactly what it means. He is guilty for the taking of blood. We so often make Psalm 51 about sexual immorality that we forget it is also a prayer of repentance for murder. Seriously, David does something as scandalous as any politican we’ve seen here recently. And he’s 100% guilty in the courtroom of God. David knows this. This is why Nathan is reassuring David that he will not die.
But God has informed the people that as a holy and just God He has a right to take David’s kingship and very life without even blinking. But God has mercy? Why?
Well, this is an example of God’s desire to not see even the wicked die — he would rather see them repent and live (Ezekiel 18:32). God forbears so much of His righteous right to justice with us measly humans.
But that’s because David repents. This is not some weak apology. He doesn’t throw money at the solution. He doesn’t victim blame or even just attempt to blame shift. He just says, “I have sinned.” This is the kind of person God has mercy on. He lets him retain his throne and life. This is not to say that it was without consequences. The child of his affair dies and ever after David is plagued by plots from within his own family. God allows us to feel consequences of sin so that we desperately remember our need for him.
So is God just a God who always forgoes judgment? No, He is not. Asa is a king in 2 Chronicles 14-16 who did, generally, what was right in the eyes of the Lord. But in the 36th year of his reign, this happened:
Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and fortified Ramah to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the territory of Asa king of Judah. Asa then took the silver and gold out of the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and of his own palace and sent it to Ben-Hadad king of Aram, who was ruling in Damascus. “Let there be a treaty between me and you,” he said, “as there was between my father and your father. See, I am sending you silver and gold. Now break your treaty with Baasha king of Israel so he will withdraw from me.” (2 Chronicles 16:1-3)
Whoa there, Asa! Not only do you not trust the Lord for your provision, but you want to pay for mercenaries and bribes with silver and gold from the Lord’s temple? Audacious to say the least. Here we have another king who generally sought the Lord in error. In sin. In the same chapter, the Lord speaks to him through a seer — see the similarites to David again? — and Asa gets angry and defensive. His heart gets colder and he grows more oppressive against the people.
Asa 3 years later becomes afflicted with a severe illness. I have no doubt that, at least in part, God was trying to humble Asa and draw him back to himself. Verses like the following show that Asa does not respond as hoped:
Though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians.
Because of this response, Asa’s last 5 years are miserable and seem to fly by in a bitter pang as the Lord slowly breaks him down to a bitter end through this disease. I can’t say definitively that the Lord would have healed him had he turned back, but it is not without precedent that the Lord might have been gracious to restore his health and extended his life. (Isaiah 38)
What I do see is that the Lord is slow to anger (Exodus 34:6). He gives him 5 years to turn back. 5 years of bitter anger and unrighteous rest in the land is more than enough for the Lord to indict him. Eventually his unrepentant heart brings about a sad demise.
That was a long introduction, but I hope it set the stage well for three takeaways that I can see flowing out of these contexts.
Takeaway #1: Show Supernatural Mercy to All
The first thing Christians ought to start doing is to be people who have mercy on those who fail us, even if that failure comes at a deep cost to ourselves. If God is willing to do it then shouldn’t we, as His people, also be willing to do it?
One passages that supports this being a Christian principle is Matthew 6:14-15:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
The principle here is obvious. We who are most worthy of condemnation and were reconciled to God while we were His enemies by the blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:9-10) are to be those most willing to forgive. I think that we as believers ought to even read Luke 12 in this light:
But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of the servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers […]
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Well, I’ll just posit this question. What more can a person be given than the gift of reconciliation to God through the sacrifice and propitiation of the Son by the Father’s will? Yes, I think this passage can be read more specifically to analyze those who maybe have more in certain areas and how they steward, but I think in a very top-level reading of this passage if we are servants who are belligerent and unforgiving that says something very scary about our spiritual status.
Here’s also an interesting consideration as well for God’s people. Amos in chapter 7 twice intercedes for the Lord on Israel’s behalf and gets God to relent. Here’s one of them:
This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!” So the Lord relented. “This will not happen,” the Lord said.
Moses and Samuel also famously intercede for God to spare people. I wonder, do we really have compassion for those who are coming under God’s judgment? Would we interced for them before the Lord? When is the last time you prayed for North Korea? ISIS? Egyptians who murder our brothers and sisters in Christ? These and more are imminently drawing God’s judgmental gaze and will not go unscathed.
How about if we move a bit closer to home. Do we seek to show unreal sympathy to people like Larry Nassar? If his victim, Rachael Denhollander, can find grace in her, how can we deny him that? What about men like Donald Trump? Harvey Weinstein? When is the last time you prayed for the hearts of Planned Parenthood leaders?
Here’s a surprising thought. If we really detest abortion, we ought to pray for proponents of it to meet the Lord! What more intimidating thing can we do than pray for an encounter with the Lord? Read Isaiah 6. When Isaiah meets the Lord he is undone. He knows he is unclean, but the Lord assures him and the rest is history. Let’s pray that those with unclean lips in a land of unclean lips meet the Lord.
What about our great hero of the faith, Paul? We know Ananias didn’t want to go and minister to him so that his sight would be restored. But if Ananias doesn’t do this, then one of the greatest evangelists ever known would never have begun his ministry. Because Ananias was willing to minister to a bitter enemy’s heart the world changed.
Let’s not be unmerciful with people who are not where we think they should be, whether they are in opposition to us or are immature Christians. My dear brother Brad Wheeler had a great observation that you never know if a drunk passed out at a bar right now will become the next great pastor. Just chew on that next time you turn up your nose at that person stumbling drunkenly, or the homeless man on the street, or the same-sex couple walking down the street. Is God’s mercy not able to extend to them? Will you be contemptible towards them, or will you pray for them in desperate, fervent hope that the gift you have received might also be theirs?
Pray for your leaders. Pray for your neighbors. Pray for your co-workers. Pray for your fellow soccer moms. You get the picture. Everyone is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and if you treat unmercifully those who seem lowly in your eyes, then that suggests you might not know the creator who made them very well.
Doesn’t the Lord himself teach us the importance of mercy in the parable of the unforgiving servant? (Matthew 18:21-35) I’m not sure that we can have a more consistently humbling and righteous response than to remember our own lowly state and then use that response to help make “justice roll out like a river, righteousness like an ever falling stream!” (Amos 5:24)
My hypothesis in this entire post may be summed up in this; God will be glorified and our worship of Him will start to transform the world with the simple act of learning to pray for those who seem most undeserving of mercy in our own eyes.
Even Moses prays for Pharoah when asked to. (Exodus 10:16-17) Moses does this even knowing that Pharoah is a lost cause. Exodus 6 and 7 are full of the Lord pronouncing that Pharoah will not listen and will be an object of God’s power to demonstrate God’s glory. What a waste of time to pray for someone like that, right? Right?! Don’t we do this in our own lives?
Yet when Moses has an opportunity to pray for Pharoah, he still does it. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the Bible records that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” (Numbers 12:3) and why “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (Exodus 33:11)
Friends, do we desire deep intimacy with the Lord? Perhaps one of the most powerful steps towards that is being the kind of people who pray for those who seem most undeserving of our prayers. In that place, perhaps we get as close as is humanly possible to the character of a God who would die for those who were His bitterest enemies. (Romans 5:10)
Takeaway #2: The Church Ought To Be Heralds of Truth
I’d like to consider what we see in Ezekiel 3:16-19:
At the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, You will surely die, and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself.
The Lord did not leave either David or Asa alone in their sin. Indeed, I imagine that He did not even leave Bill Clinton alone in his sin. We may never know who God’s herald was, but I find it very in character with God to believe there was someone who preached the Gospel to him so that he might turn away from sin.
Who will you be a herald to? It doesn’t have to a major figure. What if it is your local councilman? An apartment neighbor? Your fellow church member who is in unrepentant sin? Will you be a herald to these people?
The Lord seems to delight in using us as agents of speaking His word to those who need to hear it. Will we not go? And if we will not go and speak the truth, then I think we ought to take seriously the warning in Ezekiel that the blood of those who perish will fall upon us. There’s a lot here at stake for us who claim the name of Christ.
Takeaway #3: Righteous Authority Is Rooted In Real Repentance
I will admit wholeheartedly that this is the part of this post I am still most wrestling with and may change my mind very soon as I contemplate more on it. But I actually had this thought because we have to deal with the fact that the Lord does not remove David from his kingship. What does this mean for whether someone with a scandalous past can retain or keep their political or pastoral role?
I think the first thing to note is that this is not an easy question. Nor do I think it is a consistent question. You have to analyze things on a case by case basis. Some things will always be a reason for removing someone from authority.
Sidenote: Removing someone from authority is not synonomous with casting them out of the church. We very well may remove someone from a pastoral position even as we raise them back up in Christ to become a faithful follower of Christ once more.
But I do think that we, as people seeking to be merciful, cannot automatically tear people down if the Lord is willing to be patient and merciful with rulers who mess up.
I think one of the most crucial elements in evaluating someone’s ability to retain a role of authority, aside from the nature and depth of their sin, is to evaluate the authentic depth of their repentance. Let’s look at David’s repentance again:
I have sinned against the Lord.
Just compare this simple but weighty confession to other confessions. Bill Clinton said he sinned. But against whom did he sin? He lists a lot of people, but I don’t hear the Lord anywhere in that confession. Not once does he directly mention God. Perhaps I missed it, but what does it mean for him to throw out the words “sin” and “repentance” without once mentioning God?
Roy Moore brought brimstone and fire down upon those who accused him. Even if those allegations were false, that’s not even a Godly way to handle it. We are called to be those who take joy in our suffering because it leads to hope (Romans 5:3-5) and who are gentle and patient in instructing those in error (2 Timothy 4:2).
And what if there was some element of sin on Roy Moore’s part — even if it didn’t lead into an illicit affair? What would it have done for Moore to say, “I did know her and while we had no affair, I understand why she might feel the desire to say these things. After all, I did (insert X sin) and so have sinned against God in this matter. I pray that reconciliation will be possible for all involved, just as Christ has reconciled me through His life, death, and ressurrection.”
That kind of response completely changes the game in how everything around Roy Moore gets handled. The scary part is that you cannot hardly imagine Roy Moore being like that because you can hardly associate the word “gentle” with Roy Moore. That’s a huge, big, red-flag kind of problem.
Look at the apology of Al Franken. He in one breath empathizes with people and in the next insinuates he remembers events differently and that he did not understand them even in the same way as the other person. Just read this part of the apology:
I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann,” said Franken. “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
That’s an apology? Maybe. Repentance? Not even close.
Even Andy Savage’s recent confession at a megachurch in Memphis falls short for me. Now to be fair, I’ve watched his confession and a lot of it is good. I even think it is sincere. But I think he failed to succinctly say who he sinned against. He talks about seeking reconciliation with the victim, with her discipleship group, and with others. He resigned from his role at that church he used to be at, which was wise. He mentions harming God’s kingdom.
But something huge and gaping is missing that should be the very first thing he feels desperate to spit out of his mouth!
Why does he take 7 minutes into his confession to first directly reference God? He does apologize to God, and maybe I’m being overly critical on how long it took him to get there. But it just feels wrong. Even the fact that the congregation can clap makes me feel like there’s something weighty missing. Part of bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) means bearing the weight of each others sin. Personal business is always family business. If that happened at my church and the full weight of sin was being felt and the brunt was coming down, we would never clap. Never. I promise you that.
I worry this last point may be a bit more of semantics. But my point here is that I just don’t see our leaders — both in the church and outside of it — taking weightily enough the issue of this idea of “I have sinned against the Lord.”
It seems that God, in his mercy, may just be willing to continue using a vessel in a role of authority who has so deeply repented in both a public and private way before the Lord and demonstrates through his actions the deep longing to make things right.
But we have too many people confessing primarily to horizontal issues of sin. They acknowledge how much they hate the consequences of sin, but often fail to hate the sin itself. Therefore, I am suggesting that the only type of man I’d consider allowing to stay in a pastoral or presidential or otherwise role would be the one who prays like David:
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Editor’s note: “You” here references God in the context of the larger passage, in case it is confusing whether David might be referencing Bathseba or someone else.
See how different that is? There’s nothing here of sugarcoating or victim-blaming or anything else. He doesn’t complain that Bathsheba — who must have been exquisitely beautiful — was bathing on her roof and tempted him. He doesn’t try to point out how he’s already attempted to respond to the situation with righteous actions like Andy Savage does and thus mitigate the effects of the sin. Andy Savage seems to act like he’s shocked this women is still hurt by what he did. I don’t mean to be unfair to him. I want to remind people that I think his confession may have been a genuine confession. I also just think it was a weak confession.
So here’s the crux of what I’m thinking, and if you see me I’d love to hear what you think because my thoughts are not finalized on this.
If you try to repent in a way that makes it sound like you have any merit of your own to retain your office, then I have no confidence you’ve understood the depth of your depravity and sin. I will amost always support that person’s dismissal from that position.
But maybe, just maybe, if you tell me that you have sinned and God would be right to judge you and take your life if He so chose, and you’re now placing yourself at His mercy. Then maybe I’ll consider allowing you to retain your position.
Note the operative word is maybe here. I’m not saying they automatically get to keep it. Some, maybe even most, men may be truly, deeply sorry and should still resign their post of authority if they have unrepentant sin that catches up with them.
But no matter what, I know this to be true. I will be merciful to those who have harmed me. Now, the operative word there is actually me. If you do harm to the name of Christ, I will consider it my Christian duty to help you confront your sin. (James 5:16-20) And yet, that person whom I have just confronted will still be the recipient of my prayers for mercy. Because the Lord will judge them unless they repent before God.
I know I will be merciful because the Lord has been merciful to me beyond any standard I could have ever dared hope. I mean that literally. When I was dead in my sin, I was so dead I could not even fathom the thought of needing reconciliation with God. That’s how dead and depraved I was. Yet He extended mercy to me anyways and gave His Son for me so that I might have no more condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1) and be raised to glory in life everlasting with Him (2 Corinthians 4:14) if I will repent from my sins, be baptized, and pick up my cross to follow him. (Acts 2:38, Matthew 16:24)
I pray for His mercy to extend to all those who do not have it already because both their days and my own are fleeting. All too soon, they will perish and mercy will be beyond their grasp. How can I hope for them to go that way? I cannot, and I do not think Christians should ever hope for people to perish apart from Christ. We can hope for justice to be administered, but also rejoice when the justice is relented because a new brother or sister joins our midst.
Just ask yourself this testing question. How would you react had Hitler lived, he repented, and joined your local church? What would you do? Man, that’s a tough question. And yet all of us humans apart from Christ are much closer to being Hitler than we are to being God. What a convicting thought of my own sinful nature that I have been redeemed from!
So, Christian, who do you despise today? And how can you recognize the forgiveness and mercy you have been extended and extend that unto this person who is much closer to you than you were to God before His mercy and grace came upon you? Pray for that person’s soul. Preach to that person’s heart. Plead with them to recognize that their only concern is their sin before the Lord.
Perhaps if we Christians actually were willing to pray, preach, and plead with the Lord for these people, then maybe — just maybe — we’d start to see some differences in the lives of those around us? It’s food for thought.