Avoiding moral failure

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16)

This past Sunday I preached a sermon on Joshua 7, a passage that belongs in the Terrible Bible Story Hall of Fame. In the story, Achan’s decision to steal some items from the plunder of Jericho leads to the death of 36 Israelites and eventually to the death of both him and his family. This passage is a sobering reminder of the impact our sinful actions can have not only on us, but our families, community, and the people of God as well.

As I prepared this sermon, I thought of the many spiritual leaders through the years who have brought disrepute on themselves and the church through their own sinful actions. Every few months, it feels like I am hearing about another prominent pastor or evangelist – sometimes even a local pastor – who has given into his sinful desires and brought upon himself, his family, and his faith community painful consequences. Here are a few thoughts for all who do not wish to become the next Achan.

1) You are not as amazing – or as essential – as you think you are

I have often said that I am so thankful that I did not experience success early in my ministry career. From a worldly perspective, things went well my first few years at NewLife, as the church grew numerically and there was a lot of positive sentiment. But during that time, I also experienced a great deal of conflict, mainly due to my own struggles with leadership and communication. Because of the growth of the church, I began to develop the belief that I had God’s favor, and therefore people needed to fall in line with what I wanted to do or they were in opposition to God. Thankfully God humbled me into realizing that everything good was due to His grace, in spite of my weaknesses. Nevertheless, I see that same attitude all over in those who experience worldly success through numerical growth, financial blessing, or the praise of the crowd. I see many Christian leaders who attribute positive results to their own abilities and expertise, which leads to pride and a diminished ability to hear the corrective voices or warnings of others. The truth is that God deserves all the glory and praise for anything good. We are eminently replaceable.

2) Be accountable to others

We are not meant to fight the battles of life alone. Life is hard, and leadership is even harder. For those who are experiencing success, there can be a growing belief that they deserve more reward for their labors, often in the form of sex, money, or fame. And this entitlement often leads to regrettable behavior. It is so critical to be known intimately by at least one other person, to be regularly confessing and repenting to a friend or mentor and being reminded that sin is deadly and that holiness is worth the effort.

3) Praise God that He still uses screw-ups like us to do amazing things

The Bible is full of “heroes” of the faith whose lives were marked by incredible failure: David slept with Bathsheba and had Uriah killed. Abraham tried to pass off Sarah as his sister to save his own skin. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. But somehow, God’s grace was sufficient for even their sin and weakness, and God was still glorified through their lives. The moral failings of leaders today reveal that God is still very much in the business of using flawed men and women to expand His kingdom. I remember reading the late Christian author Brennan Manning’s autobiography “All is Grace” ten years or so ago and being amazed that on a speaking tour where I heard him speak and was very blessed by what he had to say, he admitted to going back to his hotel room and drinking himself to sleep every night. Somehow, despite the terrible consequences that our sin can have, God’s grace still abounds all the more. All is grace, indeed, and all glory belongs to God.

Maintain a proper perspective on your frailty and God’s glory and grace, and stay accountable. And if you do fall, repent, get up, and praise God that His grace is greater than our sin.

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