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When good Christians go bad

Greg Stier
Greg Stier

In case you haven’t heard Mark Sanford, the Republican governor of South Carolina, was caught by his wife in an adulterous affair with a woman from Argentina. To be honest, it makes me cringe when I hear his qualifying explanations and wierd apologies. It is obvious that he is still “in love/lust” with this woman but was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. I’m sure he is torn between his commitment to God, his wife, his constituencies and his hormones. To be honest, I wish he would just resign and go away. The media is having a field day with this story. Like pit bulls with raw steak they are salivating, tearing and chomping the tantalyzing tidbits of this taudry real life romance novel.

But there is nothing novel or nobel about it. This whole thing makes me sick. It is very sad, not just for his family, but because it gives another black eye to the battered bride of Christ.

Speaking of brides, I actually respect his wife for not just blindly standing by her man, pretending like she supports him. She is angry, committed to God and processing what to do next. She seems like the only one in this story who is not a fake. Don’t get me wrong, I hope they work it out. But I hope they really work it out and not just stay together in the marriage because divorce is not an option, or for the sake of the kids or whatever. And talk about Sanford and sons. I feel bad for the junkyard he has left for his young boys. Their hero has fallen. Their world has cracked.

I am praying that Sanford repents, resigns and then restores his marriage. and gains back the respect of his kids. But the dude has got a long way to go from what I can see.

It’s always something with us Christians. A few years ago it was the whole tawdry affair between Ted Haggard and a male escourt (isn’t that just a fancy way of saying prostitute?) It just seems like every year or two another nationally prominent Christian bites the dust of the lust and we, the believers in Christ, become a laughing stock to the world…again. We just keep giving the unregenerate more and more reasons not to believe in Jesus.

So how are we to respond? What’s a believer to do when good Christians go bad?

1. Don’t be surprised.

A Christian can commit any sin that an unregenerate person can. We still have a sinful nature and it is as depraved as ever. Our sinful nature doesn’t become less sinful when we become Christians. Sure, it is legally dead, like a prisoner on death row without appeals. But it still can lie to us from behind the bars. Paul makes this clear in Romans 7:15-19, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Don’t be surprised when Christians sin. We all have it in us.

2. Don’t get cocky.

My wife sometimes gets frustrated with me when she asks me “Would you ever cheat on me?” and my answer is inevitably, “I sure hope not.” She wants me to give her a definitive “no!” but I am afraid of giving it because I don’t want to get arrogant about my own ability and resolve to stay pure. It’s that kind of sure-fire cockiness that leads to moral compromise. Galatians 6:1 reminds us, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

I have reminded my wife of this verse and she has reminded me that she won’t be one of those stand-by-your-man kind of women if I ever cheat. She has made it clear that she will use her get-out-of-marriage free card (Matthew 19:9) if I ever commit adultery. And I believe her! This may surprise those of you who know my wife as the sweet and kind lover of people that she is! But she has another side that only those closest to her know about, an unmatched inner strength and resolve. I actually am reminded of my wife when I read Mrs. Sanford’s comments about her husbands infidelities. To be honest, I am afraid of cheating on my wife and, in some wierd way, that makes me more attracted to her. Debbie is not defined by me. She is defined by God and, therefore, she looks at me with a perspective calibrated by who she is in Christ.

We are going on our 19th wedding aniversary and my hope is that we are both faithful to God and each other for the rest of our lives. But we can’t get cocky about the strength of our internal resolve to stay pure. Instead we must….

3. Choose to live a life of dependency on Christ moment by moment.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7:21-25

It is Jesus who has rescued us from the penalty of sin (when we trusted Him as our Savior), is rescuing us from the power of sin (when we continue to trust Him moment by moment) and will rescue us someday from the presence of sin (when we die or fly.) But, in the meantime, we are in a daily battle with who we were (our sinful nature) and our new identity in Christ. When we choose to listen to our old self we lose. When we choose to depend on Christ we live out who we really are in Christ.

Once, at a pastor’s conference many years ago, the lead speaker (who was a famous Christian psychologist) claimed that he had counseled thousands of pastors and their wives through adulterous situations. He said that the one common denominator that all of the compromising pastors had was the the safeguards they had put in place with members of the opposite sex. This may surprise you as much as it did me but he vehemently said it was true. Every one of these unfaithful men of the cloth had refused to counsel a woman alone or be in a car with the member of the opposite sex alone or whatever.

The speaker then told us something I’ll never forget. He said, “Gentlemen, safeguards, in and of themselves, will not protect you from unfaithfulness. Only a strong relationship with Jesus and your wife will.” He went on to explain that he thought safeguards were all well and good but he pounded the point and the pulpit home with a phrase I will never forget, “lust will pick a lock.”

He is right. The only thing that will keep us pure is not some human rule but the divine rule of Christ in our hearts. The moment we put our trust in the safeguards instead of Jesus is the moment we fail. As Colossians 2:23 reminds us, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance fo wisdom…but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgences.”

4. Forgive and restore or confront and ostracize.

I don’t know Mark Sanford’s heart. Maybe his repentance is genuine, maybe not. That needs to be determined by the spiritual leaders at his church. But if and when true repentance takes place we Christians should be the first to forgive. If genuine repentance doesn’t take place then there should be Biblcial confrontation (Matthew 18:16-17) and, if that doesn’t do the trick, then ostracization by the entire church (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.) Think of this as a holy cold shoulder done out of a heart of love with the goal being shame, repentance and restoration in the heart of the believer.

Tough stuff. But the stuff that makes Christianity unique, holy as well as loving.

I am praying for Mark Sanford as well as for his wife and family. I hope he repents, resigns and restores. I am also praying for you to be pure, to trust in the Lord, not your human safeguards to keep you pure. Please pray for me. I want to be a faithful husband who finishes well. I want to be dependent on God’s strength and not my own.

When good Christians go bad we need to confront and seek to restore. We need to analyze ourselves and not become arrogantly judgmental, to humbly trust in Christ’s power to keep us pure and to seek to rebuild the Name and Fame of Christ by living holy lives of love outloud to all around us.

We have our work cut out for us.

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