Over the last few weeks it’s been painful and disappointing to hear the stories of victims that have been abused and assaulted by powerful celebrities, executives, and politicians. It seems every day we’re exposed to a new (seemingly credible) accusation against some influential person.
Even still, what’s far more painful and disappointing is when something like this hits close to home; when it’s not just some famous person we’ve never met, but somebody we deeply care about entangled in sin. It’s one thing to heap scorn and derision on “those rich and powerful people” out there from some anonymous Twitter account. It’s quite another when it’s somebody we’ve spent time with, invested ourselves in and for whom we have great affection. How are we supposed to respond if a friend confesses to a hidden addiction, or is caught in an affair or whatever other transgression you can think of?
Acknowledge it. Period. No excuses. No justifications.
When we’re close to somebody, sometimes our first instinct, when we find out their problem, is to try to lessen the problem. To take the edge off we might say things like “Well, nobody’s perfect” or “We all have things we regret.” These statements are indeed true. But as understandable and true as these sentiments may be, ultimately it’s not helpful to leave it there. Scripture is abundantly clear that it is “the truth” that will set us free (John 8:32). Hiding or excusing or downplaying the reality and consequences of sin helps no-one: Neither the victim of the sin, nor the perpetrator- The victim must know that they are protected and will be taken seriously and the perpetrator must understand the severity of their problem. The Law of God must do it’s work of leaving us without excuses or rationalizations (Rom. 3:19-20). The light must shine in the darkness and that demands as Luther said, “we call a thing what it is.”
And yet, there’s a HUGE DANGER here and that is in acknowledging sin, we can so easily slip into the sin of self-righteousness.
So, at the same time as we acknowledge sin, we also must say….
There but by the grace of God go I
Oh, but it feels so much better to sit in the place of moral superiority, doesn’t it? Awhile back, Jon Ronson gave an insightful TED Talk about the proclivity and effects of online shaming. At one point he is sharing the story of a pop scientist named Johan Lehrer who was caught plagiarizing. To begin to make amends, he was invited to speak at a foundation lunch to apologize. What he didn’t know was that the foundation would have a screen placed within his eyesight broadcasting tweets responding to what he was saying. Soon the abusive tweets came pouring in….
"Jonah Lehrer, boring us into forgiving him.”
"Jonah Lehrer is just a frigging sociopath.”
Imagine how insanely distracting that must have been?!
Why does Ronson say this sort of mob mentality happens?
It's because we want to destroy people but not feel bad about it. Imagine if this was an actual court, and the accused was in the dark, begging for another chance, and the jury was yelling out, "Bored! Sociopath!"
You know, when we watch courtroom dramas, we tend to identify with the kindhearted defense attorney, but give us the power, and we become like hanging judges.
Indeed, in our age of social media-driven pharisee-ism the thing that is so often missing is this recognition: That even the best of us are capable of huge failure. As the Scriptures make abundantly clear, “No one is righteous, no not one” “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Oh sure, you may not be tempted in the same way your friend was, but make no mistake you’ve got your own issues. As you cope with your friend’s failures, you are not to stand above them, but alongside them, recognizing that apart from the grace of God, you could be sitting right where she is.
One of the best illustrations I’ve ever heard of this proper mentality comes from a song by Sufjan Stevens entitled, “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”. The song is not for the faint of heart, and frankly, I don’t like listening to it. But it is a stunning work of art. All throughout the song, Stevens describes in vivid detail the horrors that this notorious serial killer inflicted on his victims before eventually burying them under the floorboards of his house. But then, something changes in the last verse. Sufjan switches to the first person in his narrative of the story:
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
Yes, as painful as it is to admit, “there but by the grace of God go I”.
But there’s still something else Scripture calls us to do with those who have fallen and that is….
The other day, in response to Louis C.K.’s admission of sexually harassing numerous women over the years, an old friend of C.K.’s, Sarah Silverman decided to address it on her show. She pulled no punches in calling C.K.’s actions what they were: Wrong, bad, disgusting. But at the same time, she said this:
"I love Louie. But Louie did these things. Both of those statements are true. So, I just keep asking myself, can you love someone who did bad things?
Silverman is asking a question that God has been answering for thousands of years about every single one of us:
The answer is Yes. In Christ, it has always been (and will continue to be)
Because if it is true that “none is righteous, no not one,” than it is also true that when God says in John 3:16 that He “loves the world” that He HAS TO love people who have done bad things. People like you and me. No, scratch that: People that are you and me.
As Romans 5:8 so perfectly states it: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
If it is also the case that we are called to be as Luther said, “Little Christ’s” to our neighbor, then we are called to go and do what Christ does for us. So when your friend falls, you don’t run, you enter in. When your friend fails, you hold them up. Thus the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 6:1- “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Do you hear the tension we are called to here? Acknowledging the transgression, but also restoring them with gentleness.
Let me finish here with the words of James 5:19-20
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Erick is married to Melissa and they have 3 boys together. He earned his Master of Divinity Degree from Lutheran Brethren Seminary and has served as a Pastor in Fontana, California and Staten Island, New York. He also serves as the Chairman of Fifth Act Church Planting. In September of 2015 Erick started to plant Epiphany Lutheran Church in Manhattan.