When leaders fall

Sometimes we gloat: Aha, I knew it! He was always a phony-baloney and now it’s about time that his sins were exposed!

Other times we reel in shock and grief: No…not him too…

And sometimes our reactions are somewhere in between.

Last night the internet informed me of yet another prominent pastor. This morning I needed to read these words from Trudy Metzler:

I only hope that men and women of God who fall into adultery and sin, rise up again, like King David, to serve God with greater vision and passion… and broken. Because broken men and women are of far greater service to the Kingdom of God than great, strong, unbroken leaders. Our sins do not disqualify us from serving God, if we repent and fall harder on grace than we ever fell into sin. The grace of God is enough, whether alcoholism, gossip, adultery, gluttony, homosexuality, arrogance, or any other sin….

Because Jesus didn’t die for nothing.

Forgiveness

Like many survivors, I have been clobbered over the head with demands that I forgive those who have wounded and almost destroyed me. Some of those “clobbering” me have meant well; they believed that forgiveness was the key to my healing, or even that there was a magic equation whereby  forgiveness=instant healing.

Others were more selfish. If I forgave, they thought, all this unpleasantness would go away, we could forget anything ever happened, life would return to normal, and they wouldn’t have to be uncomfortable.

I know survivors whose friends and loved ones told them, “We forgave your rapists and we’re over it now! Why can’t you forgive and move on?”

In some Christian circles, unforgiveness and the resulting “bitterness” is seen as a worse sin than the original offense. I wish I could say I was making this up, but I’m not.

This — and other false, damaging teaching about forgiveness — grieves me so much that I have wanted for a long time to write a series of blog posts on the topic. The problem is that I’m still working out my own thoughts and beliefs. Even worse, I still balk and struggle.

From my own experience, I’ve learned that forgiveness often comes in stages, and that it requires a full understanding of the offense against us. To use a silly example, I might find it easy to forgive you if I thought all you did was steal some loose change out of my drawer. After all, it was less than a dollar. But if I discover you also took my life savings, that would be much harder to forgive. When we rush a rape victim to forgive, before she has had time to process what happened to her and assess the damages to her body and soul, before she has experienced life as a rape survivor beyond the immediate aftermath, it is far too soon for her to know the full extent of what it is that she is forgiving. To her, it sounds as if you are demanding, “Pretend it never happened. Get over it and love your rapist!”

Then again, I cannot ignore the Biblical commands to forgive…to love our enemies. I have come to the conclusion that these things are impossible…at least for me. That which we find impossible or difficult should never be what we demand and insisted upon for others. I have purposed to strike the words, “You need to forgive!” from my vocabulary.

At the same time, I believe that those of us who claim to follow Jesus will eventually be brought to that time and place where God asks us to do the seeming impossible. There are some who will experience a somewhat instant forgiveness breakthrough, like when Corrie ten Boom was able to forgive, when she met him years later, the concentration camp guard who treated her beloved sister so cruelly. (She tells that story here.) Others, like me, are more hard-hearted. I’ll be honest — I have struggled immensely to forgive the worst of my offenders. It came in stages and layers: I’ll forgive this part or this offense, but not this other thing. I argued with God, But this part — surely even You agree that it is beyond forgiveness! Look at the damage it caused! Look at what it cost me! Look at how evil it was! Somehow…eventually…God forgave through me, for me, in my place, and He freed me to forgive my rapists and others who had abused and mistreated me.

But recently — as in these past few days — God has shown me how unforgiving my heart still is. I claim to be a follower of Jesus, yet I still refuse to follow His example in forgiveness, especially for the day in and day out bumps and bruises we inflict on each other, knowingly or not, whenever there are imperfect people doing life together. But You don’t understand! I have the audacity to argue with my Creator, the One who created the universe. I have to see this person all the time and how do I know they won’t do it again? Besides, isn’t repentance a pre-requisite for forgiveness, and how can people repent if they don’t know the full extent of how badly I was hurt? I don’t think they even know how wrong it was!

God helps me in my human frailty. He is so good and so merciful. He puts up with me. He helps me. 

It wasn’t until after I experienced the joy of God enabling me to forgive more utterly and completely than I thought possible, to replace my hurt, suspicion, and withdrawal with more love than I thought my puny little heart was capable of — it was then that He reminded me of Jesus’s words on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I’m so unlike Jesus. It breaks my heart.

I don’t want to be like the unforgiving servant Jesus described in one of His stories. The immensity of my rebellion against God makes people’s sins against me pale in comparison — which is exactly the point Jesus was making. But sometimes forgiveness is more than just hard — it’s completely beyond me. It’s in His forgiveness of me, in His love for me, that I find the ability to do the impossible.

It’s in being able to forgive…the big and little things, the nagging things I don’t want to let go of…it’s in finally letting it all go — like smoke up a chimney — that I make one little faltering step closer to being more like the Jesus I claim to love.

Sexual abusers as “ambassadors”

Redemption is not just one of my life themes; it’s something I consider the greatest theme through all of the Bible and all of history. It’s huge and sweeping…and deeply, intimately personal.  That’s why this article caught me eye in a sea of articles about the Duggar mess: Finding Redemption in the Josh Duggar StoryUp until now, I’ve avoided the temptation to add a blog post to the many words already out there on the internet about this tragic situation. But then this troubling statement in Michael Brown’s article popped out at me:

“Josh can be an ambassador on behalf of the abused…”

Here is the context:

Josh can be an ambassador on behalf of the abused, even helping the abusers as well. While it can feel like your life is over when your past, largely private sins become public (how many of us would like for that to happen?), the fact is that Josh’s future can be bright in the Lord.

He can call on others who are sinning to come clean and get help, using his own example redemptively. And he can encourage those who have been abused to realize that they are not guilty and should not feel shame, also encouraging churches to embrace those who come for help rather than making them feel as if there is something wrong with them.

Why should those who have suffered abuse be stigmatized? They should be our priority for healing and restoration.

I’m all for redemption, and I’m sure the author of this article means well, but this is not what redemption looks like. It does not consist of sexual abusers, no matter how repentant, being allowed to do anything that might even remotely further traumatize victims of abuse.

Just to be sure, I looked up definitions for “ambassador”. Let’s all assume Michael Brown means “unofficial representative” and not “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity”. Even so, his word choice, and the idea behind it, is both troubling and problematic.

As a victim of rape and multiple instances of sexual abuse ranging in severity, I would like to emphasize the following:

  1. Sexual abusers do not and cannot represent me. I do not want them speaking on my behalf. The audacity behind such a statement is appalling to me. We don’t need people speaking for us or usurping our voice and our agency. We need people to encourage and empower us to speak for ourselves. Sexual abusers — no matter how repentant — are not the people to take on that role. They have not earned that right; in fact, they have disqualified themselves completely. Even if it turns out that a sexual abuser was previously victimized himself, he still does not speak for me, nor for most sexual trauma survivors, nor should he attempt to act as my “ally”.
  2. I don’t need sexual abusers telling me what I should or should not feel. The sexual abusers and rapists in my life already did exactly that. I don’t want or need another one presuming to tell me, yet again, how I should react to the crimes and sins perpetrated against me by people like him.
  3. I have no interest in anything an ambassador from the “sexual abuser community” might have to say to me as a sexual trauma survivor. By the grace of God, I have done the near impossible and have forgiven those who have perpetrated sexual sins and crimes against me. I do not want to hear any more excuses, justifications, pity parties, blame-shifting, minimizing, denial, or explanations. I’ve already heard far more than I ever wanted to hear. If you are a sexual abuser, I don’t want to understand how or why you did what you did. I’m sorry if that hurts anyone’s feelings, but I really do not want to comprehend the thinking and attitudes of the men who raped me, or the males who have wounded me sexually. There are things I never want to understand. I refuse to be dragged into such cesspools of evil thoughts and selfish, twisted desires. A truly repentant sexual abuser would not want to inflict that on survivors. We already had to deal with the abuse and trauma; don’t make things worse.
  4. Sexual abusers and sexual abuse survivors are not two “communities” that need to make peace with each other or bridge some gap of misunderstanding. Anyone who thinks that there is even a role for “ambassadors” is woefully ignorant of the very nature of sexual trauma. This isn’t a “but can’t we all just get along?” situation. As individual survivors, we may choose to forgive our abusers, but that doesn’t mean it would necessarily be wise to reconcile with them or to enter into relationships with other abusers, no matter how wholesome or contrite their “ambassadors” might appear to be.

Josh Duggar and others like him have nothing to say on my behalf, and little or nothing that I need to hear. They should never attempt to be ambassadors to or from survivors. Sexual abusers like him do not possess wonderful, compassionate insights that would aid me in walking out my healing. At this point, there is no need for apologies or forgiveness, because his sins and crimes were against his sisters and another unnamed victim, not me. However, should he take Michael Brown’s article to heart and try to usurp some sort of “ambassador” role that is not his to take, I think he will owe a major apology to many, if not all, survivors.

The problem with “purity culture” is not purity

She was raised in an ultra-conservative Christian homeschooling family, with loving but legalistic parents. Or maybe they were more protective than legalistic; as an adult, she is still trying to puzzle that out. There is no doubt in her mind that they loved her and meant well.

The circles in which they traveled, especially as she approached her teens, emphasized — among other things — purity. Although her brothers got what came across to her as somewhat of a token, “Oh, by the way, boys and men need to stay pure also”, the real targets of the “purity message” were the girls. Whether or not her parents, pastors, youth leaders, and the authors of the books and articles she read intended to teach her the following, this is what she came to believe:

  • Purity is defined exclusively in sexual terms. Sexual deeds make you impure. Thoughts do too, but to a much lesser extent.
  • The single most important and valuable thing about a girl is her purity. It is the most precious gift she can give her husband, yet it is also owed him to the extent that she is robbing him should she squander her purity on anyone else.
  • Boys and men have many other things that are important and valuable about them, and many other things to offer their future wives. Their purity is of lesser value, does not define their worth, and is not the most important thing about them.
  • The most valuable thing about a girl or woman is her sexuality. It might be the only thing of value about her, unless she marries a man who also appreciates her homemaking skills. However, even the most amazing domestic talents and abilities will never make up for being sexually impure, broken, or lacking.
  • Men are far more valuable than women, because they are not judged and defined solely by their sexuality.
  • While it’s nice if your future husband does not have a sexual past, he does not owe you his purity. You have no right to be judgmental or unforgiving of anything he might have done. His past, if he has repented of it, should no longer matter.
  • A girl is not only responsible for guarding her own purity, but the purity of everyone who encounters her. She needs to scrutinize her actions and appearance at all times in order to make sure she is not causing anyone to stumble.
  • It is impossible for boys and men to maintain purity in their thought lives. In fact, there is no such thing. Males are wired in such a way as to be on the verge of sexually explicit thoughts and desires at all times, and thus the most seemingly innocent thing can set them off. For example, if a boy sees a girl with wet hair, he cannot help imagining her naked in a shower, begging him to have sex with her.
  • Men and boys are incapable of respecting a girl or woman that they want to have sex with. This would seem like a problem in marriage but, while it’s important for an unmarried woman to gain the respect of men, wives supposedly no longer need respect. Only husbands do.
  • Men and boys are incapable of respecting a girl or woman who has lost her purity. It’s kind of debatable whether the sex act in marriage causes a woman to lose her purity or not. After all, the fact that she “gives” her purity (as the greatest gift she could possibly give) to her husband implies that she no longer possesses it. Luckily she only needs love from her husband and not respect. Marriage apparently mysteriously transforms a woman that way.
  • Once a girl or woman loses her purity before marriage, she is ruined forever. She can repent and be forgiven by God, but her purity is gone, never to be regained. She has robbed and cheated her husband out of the only thing of real value about her.

The young woman I am writing about is not the only one to believe these things. Not by a long shot.

I would hope that readers would see this as a problematic message. Whether or not this is the intention of the proponents of “purity culture”, it is what many young women are learning in homes, churches, youth groups, books, articles, blog posts, homeschooling conferences, etc., often with heartbreaking and disastrous consequences. One need not search very hard on the internet to find tragic story after story. Some young women who were harmed by growing up with these pervasive messages are now speaking out quite strongly against not only “purity culture” itself, but the very idea of remaining sexually pure until marriage.

The problems with “purity culture” are legion, but I will address only three of them for now:

1. It sexualizes women and girls — even very young girls — and repeats our media-saturated culture’s false message that women’s value is measured by sexuality and little or nothing else.

I mentioned the creepy sexualization of little girls when I wrote about “Purity Balls” on my old blog. In many ways, “purity culture” robs little girls of their innocence by forcing them to view themselves as sexual beings when they should be running and playing and learning — free of concerns about their future wedding nights. We should be teaching them what it means to be a follower of Jesus now, as wonderful little girls, and how they are of infinitely more value to Him, and more beloved, than they could ever imagine.

We need to tell girls and women that their worth rests in far, far more than their sexuality. The most valuable, precious gift a woman can give her husband is herself, in all her fullness and complexity. Sexuality is a part of that, yes, but I must emphasize again that her worth is in her personhood — who she is in the totality of her being, her talents and abilities, her personality and character, her knowledge and wisdom, her life experiences, her accomplishments, her relationship with God, her morals and values, her thoughts and opinions, her hopes and dreams — all that and more makes her uniquely who she is — and that’s what she brings into marriage.

Her sexuality is not a commodity that she sells in exchange for a wedding ring, or that her father sells on her behalf. Marriage is neither prostitution nor domestic service. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Any teaching or belief that even hints that it might be, or that virginity is owed as part of the transaction, is ungodly. Any boy who does not truly understand what is most precious about any woman — far, far more precious than her virginity — is not ready to be a husband…or at least not a very good one.

2. “Purity culture” has no idea what purity really is. Purity is not some treasure that girls are born with and that they need to guard desperately and fearfully until the day that they give it to their husbands. No one need weep on her wedding night, as one distraught “purity culture” young woman did, over the loss of what once defined and gave her worth.

Purity is not an intact hymen. It is not virginity. It is not a lack of sexual experience. It is not even saving your first kiss for the wedding. Purity is not a “thing” that you can give away or that someone can steal from you.

More times than I care to count, I’ve been told heartbreaking accounts of young girls being sexually abused, molested, and raped, often by people they loved and trusted. Such despicable evil perpetrated against a child damages and wounds his or her soul in a way that is indescribable.

It is all the more devastating if you believe that the most important thing about you, the precious gift you owe your future husband, has been stolen forever, obliterated and destroyed. Your body may heal. The deep wounds no one sees may heal as well. But your purity is gone forever. And, if you are a girl, so is most of your worth.

Of course that is a lie, an evil lie, from the very pit of hell itself. Unfortunately, it is one that many deeply hurting young girls have learned from “purity culture”.

Old Testament Jewish law had a lot of perplexing and burdensome commandments about cleanliness and purity. The good news is that, as followers of Jesus, we are no longer under that system of law. In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus declared all foods clean, teaching that what a person eats does not defile him or her. He was doing more than lifting the dietary law; he was teaching what makes a person defiled or impure:

Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from the outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart…That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.

To be very graphic, when a rapist invades the body of his victim, she may feel defiled, but she is not. He may have robbed her of her innocence, by the horrible evil he has inflicted upon her, but he has not robbed her of purity. He has defiled himself — long before he committed the sin of rape — not her.

The Bible talks about different kinds of purity: of heart, of devotion, of doctrine, and more. No one is born with pure devotion and pure doctrine, and then needs to avoid giving those forms of purity away prematurely to the wrong person. We would laugh if someone taught, “Save your doctrinal purity for your spouse, because it’s the most valuable gift you can give him or her!” No man except a lunatic would say, “Well, she started believing some really messed up stuff there for awhile, some actual heresies, and she lost her doctrinal purity. Thankfully, she repented and has seen the error of her ways but I’m sorry, I want to marry a woman who saved her doctrinal purity for me.”

I’m not making light of the fact that sexual pasts can invade the present. I firmly believe that avoiding sexual sin is a good, righteous, and important thing, but it is something that should be undertaken to obey God, not to avoid “losing the most precious thing one can give to one’s spouse”. Also, if we are going to emphasize purity, we need to emphasize true purity, in all its forms, and not just female virginity. We need to make sure those of us who are teaching purity are pursuing it as well — in our thoughts and our actions.

I would also argue that it is a sign of impurity when a father looks at his sweet, innocent little girl and becomes overly concerned about her hymen, as if it belongs to him until he turns it over — hopefully still intact — to another man. I would argue that it is a sign of impurity when a man buys his little girl a beautiful dress and takes her out to a fancy ball, the fulfillment of her sweet childish princess dreams — and then makes it all about sex. It takes a certain amount of impurity for a man to begin teaching his little girl that a fancy night out with a man always has strings attached, this time that she must promise him, “I pledge to remain sexually pure…until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband…”

The lack of understanding of true purity is because of my next point.

3. “Purity culture” lacks a real understanding of the gospel.

In Isaiah 1:18, God says, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow.” In other words…pure as the driven snow…

In 1 Corinthians 6, we read a list of all the sorts of sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God, followed by these words:

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

That’s the part of the gospel that the “purity culture” people seem to be overlooking. When God forgives our sins, He washes them away and we become pure. We negate the work of the Cross, the tremendous sacrifice our Savior paid, when we act as if purity has some source other than Him, and when we act as if the stain of sexual sin is so deep that God’s grace is insufficient to purify it.

Many of us who grew up in the church memorized 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Unfortunately, proponents of “purity culture” do not really believe that verse. If they did, more husbands would be honest in admitting, “I feel jealous and insecure because my wife had sex with other men in her past, and I’m having a hard time not holding it against her” — instead of maligning both the gospel and the character of their repentant wife by saying, “She was not pure when I married her.” To hear some men talk, one would think their wives had gone straight from working in a brothel to the wedding, without even bothering to take a shower in between. It doesn’t matter how long ago a woman’s sexual past may have been, or how fervently she pursued righteousness in the meantime, or how pure her devotion to Jesus — her husband still sees her as impure. The gospel means so little to him.

The irony is that few of these same men want a truly pure wife. What they want is a “whitewashed sepulchre”, all clean and beautiful on the outside but not so much on the inside. They want a wife who is pure in body but not necessarily in heart, a wife with a virginal body who will somehow automatically know how to fulfill her husband’s porn-driven masturbatory fantasies. Too much purity of conscience, too much innocence, too much devotion to God might get in the way of that.

As for the young woman at the beginning of this post…according to “purity culture”, she lost her purity, first because of what someone did to her against her will and then later by her own choice. After a few years living as a prodigal (I love prodigals!) she returned, not quite to the faith of her youth but to a new, more life-giving, fervent, simple yet profound, intimate faith. She eventually met a man who recognized her purity — along with many of her other wonderful qualities, including her approach to Christianity — and fell in love with her. Last I heard, they are living out their own happily ever after story, as far removed as possible from the false teachings of “purity culture”, and instead pursuing together what 2 Corinthians 11:3 refers to as “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.

Kicking and screaming prodigals

 

Although I’ve never been an atheist, C.S. Lewis’ words resonate with me. More than once, I have been a prodigal. More than once, God has brought me back.

In Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, the father is out on the road, waiting for his return. In the most dramatic case in my own life, my Heavenly Father went to a far off land, found me in the pigsty, and brought me home. Initially, I was not grateful. I was “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting [my] eyes in every direction for a chance to escape”.

Wait! But what about free will? You’re making God out to be some sort of kidnapper!

All I know is, if I’m ever drowning in the sea, please don’t stand on the shore and debate free will. If I’m ever taken hostage, please don’t make me get over every twinge of Stockholm syndrome before you rescue me. If you see that my situation is dire, please do not withhold your help until I fully recognize the danger that I’m in.

I figure God knew what He was doing. On this side of things, I am so beyond thankful that He did not leave me to my own devices in the muck and mire.

Why doesn’t He mount search and rescue missions for all His prodigals, and drag them all back in a more or less timely fashion? Why doesn’t He prevent their wandering and rebellion in the first place? Why does it seem He was more concerned about me? I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that I was that one little lost sheep. I was lost, and now I’m found. And I’m forever grateful that He didn’t make me find the way on my own but that He dragged me back home to Him.

My only wish is that I had never left…not even for a moment.