What We Need to Know When Our Spiritual Leaders Disappoint Us

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I was 26 years old when I walked into church for what might have been the last time. Atheism wasn’t an attractive choice but it did seem like the only honest option at the time.

My formative years were an ironic mix of faith and skepticism. I’m living proof that we come out somewhat preprogrammed. Despite growing up in a parsonage and the fact that “God’s house” was my second home, I’ve had doubts about the whole thing since childhood. The doubts weren’t pervasive by any means but they steadily ebbed and flowed through the years and I simply learned to live with them.

Until my mid-20s.

I was married and in graduate school. My mind was ablaze with new ideas and I lapped up the intellectual energy like a heat-scorched traveler. It was a great place for me to be. And also the worst.

Academia and faith have a history of compatibility issues, in case you didn’t know.

The doubts that I’d swept under the rug for years came crawling out and stacked on top of one another until I was staring up at a giant that made my feeble faith look pitiful by comparison.

Each week, my husband and I still went to church, a prominent place downtown where we’d found fellowship with other couples in our stage of life, a choir for me, and a friend from college who served as youth pastor. But something was missing. Years later we realized that it was the Gospel, specifically Jesus, but we were too naive to name that oversight at the time.

Church brought me comfort because it was familiar. But it also twisted the knife.

Through a series of providential mentions, my husband and I visited a new church. I knew that it was a last-ditch effort for me. I was afraid to hope. Thankfully, hope is persistent.

For months we slipped in each Sunday, sat in the back row, and then left. I wasn’t interested in new friends or community; I had all of that already. I was simply desperate for spiritual truth that engaged the mind as much as the heart. I was also desperate for Jesus but again, I couldn’t name that specific need yet.

And in this nondescript church with a small-statured Greek man as its pastor, I found what I’d been looking for.

Week after week he taught God’s Word with intellectual rigor and authenticity. You got the impression that he was right there with you, in the trenches of the struggle, but with a voice of hope and confidence in the Scriptures. His passion and ability to relate were his greatest gifts as a pastor.

On several occasions he counseled me as I sought guidance in my battles with doubt, reassuring my husband and me that thorny doubts may always poke at my flesh to some degree and that God could use them for good. When I initially went to him for counseling, the first question he asked stunned me: “How much sleep are you getting?” I didn’t know what lack of sleep had to do with doubt but I do now. To this day, I find a direct correlation between sleep-deprivation and my spiritual state.

It was this sort of practical wisdom coupled with humility and spiritual insight that made our pastor a literal lifeline for me. At a time when I was drowning in darkness and despair, ready to choose atheism because it seemed the only authentic choice, God used this man to save my life.

Five years later he took his own.

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At that point we no longer attended his church because we no longer lived in that city. We were several states away, living and working and hopeful about our future as a young family. But I desperately missed that place. I missed my dear friends, my city, my church and its pastor who I so dearly loved. I still do. The news rocked us to the core.

I’ll never forget the day we boarded the plane back to Lexington, Kentucky for the funeral. It was held at one of the largest churches in town in order to accommodate the crowd. I wept for days and spiraled into a desperate place where hope seemed all but lost.

I don’t know the details of his last days, the unrelenting dark thoughts that compelled him toward a devastating end. I do know that he battled a years-long struggle with depression, that his congregation had recently provided a sabbatical for rest and healing and a trip back home to Greece, how he was adept at persuading others that he was fine.

I also know that he was able to speak so pointedly to my own struggles and doubts because we were kindred spirits, able to plumb the depths of the human experience because we were no strangers to the depths. I know why he told me all those years ago that my persistent doubts may also be God’s unlikely gift.

I write my way out of depths in much the same way that he preached his way out of despair. Grace meets us in the depths because it’s a place of desperation. And desperation strips us down to the bare bones, enabling us to access — for better and for worse — what’s most true about ourselves. It’s why places of pain bring forth some of the best art. Just ask any singer-songwriter.

But every gift has a flip side that can feel like a curse. Ask me how I know.

As he preached the funeral service of his dear friend, Pastor Bryan Chapell said this:

The mountain of fear probably looms largest over my heart because it forces me to question that if one who was so reflective of the light of the Gospel of my Savior could not escape this dark valley, then how can I be sure no such valley of shadows awaits me also?

 

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My dear pastor was indeed reflective of the Gospel of my Savior. But he was not the first spiritual leader who radiated Christ and also devastated his own flock with the painful reality of his own brokenness. He’s not the first or last Christian whose own battle has caused me to fear that darkness or temptation may one day loom too large for me or for someone I love.

Though I know that Jesus can keep me from the shadows, I also know that sometimes He doesn’t. Instead, He remains my companion in the thick of them. There’s no guarantee that the shadows will roll back permanently in this life but there is the promise of the presence of Christ.

Every day I fight to believe that He is enough.

I also painfully admit that while we hope for the promise of deliverance here in this life, sometimes the only deliverance is Heaven itself.

Christ alone is the only true promise.

I write this post in the wake of confusion and devastation as well-loved leaders have not been able to hold fast to the standards set before them. And every time it happens, the shadows roll in again. Not because I think they are less prone to sin and not because I necessarily place them on a pedestal. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

I spiral because it makes me doubt God, something I’m already good at doing.

God, how can you allow him to be your mouthpiece, to minister to vulnerable hearts, when you know he’s neck-deep in his own hidden sin?

How can you allow his mental illness to persist when you know it’s going to lead to an unspeakable end and cause countless people to doubt you as a result?

And let’s not even mention the critics, the haters and the skeptics who come crawling out of the woodwork in jubilation, pointing out that the proof is in the pudding. 

How can I know that you’re true if you speak through the mouth of a liar?

Why do you allow the shadows to eclipse your glory, if only for a time?

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One can stay mired in these questions forever. But here’s the problem. Staying in a place where the spotlight is turned on another spares us from having to turn it on ourselves. And it subtly elevates us to a place of righteousness by comparison.

Yes, God can handle our questions and our doubts. He knows we’re human and we’re hurting and we have to walk our individual roads of recovery and healing.

The pitfall comes when we begin thinking in us vs. them categories.

Those who have “fallen from grace” and those who are still in God’s “good graces.”

Those who have committed “moral failure” and those who have taken the “moral high ground.”

Friends, we have all sinned. We have all fallen short of the standard. “Fallen from grace” is an oxymoronic statement. Grace is not a place of pedestals from which people can topple if they’ve become too celebrity or gone without accountability. Grace is the safety net that catches us when we do fall.

Grace is the very air we breathe.

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Why do we relegate Grace to its own place and draw a circle around it?

As for “moral failure,” I do that every day. And that’s not just false humility or a low self-concept or total depravity theology talking. {So do you, by the way. And so does your favorite pastor.}

I literally just took a break from writing this post and stormed into the living room where I went off on my kids because they won’t stop fighting. I made my son cry last week because of something hurtful I said out of sheer exasperation. Daily, I grieve my shortcomings. Daily, I have to repent of my failure to love well.

We are a house of moral failure, day in and day out. And we are simultaneously a house of grace. I want this home to be the safest place for all of us to fumble and fail and forgive. Not that we’re there but I pray that grace will continue to abound and lead us in that direction.

I pray the same thing for the church, which should also be the safest place for God’s children to fumble and fail and forgive. But we all know that it’s not.

I write and speak often about “receiving your own life,” about acceptance and beauty and gratitude right where we are. But you have no idea how I have railed against God just this week about the way He’s chosen to orchestrate some things in my own life. I’ve taken my anger out on others. I’ve blame-shifted and nursed everything from greed to entitlement. I’ve been indifferent to the needs of others because I’m too preoccupied with my own desires.

God’s given generously to me yet I’ve rejected his loving provision with my brazen discontentment.

But we consider these lesser sins because no one can see them. My inner thoughts aren’t splashed across headlines, thank God. But if they were, you’d see that I’m a mother and also a murderer, an advocate and also an adulteress, a friend and also a foe to the very ones I’ve called friend.

Jesus himself tells me I’m all of these things, that the shortcomings of my inner life, the sins “behind the curtain,” are as heinous as the ones that play out on the stage. I don’t want to believe that. To do so levels the playing field and I want to believe I’m better than the tangible cheats, that I inherently bring more to the table because my record of external goodness is better than another’s.

But Jesus tells me the truth. Not to send me hiding under the table in shame and condemnation but to set me free from both.

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Accusation isn’t the final word. Love is. It’s the ultimate #LoveWins.

He looked at my record, died the death I deserved, and came back to life with a clean slate that He then handed to me as my very own. I’m forgiven, clothed in his righteousness, set free to love and forgive others with this same kind of scandalous love.

Here’s my point:

We can’t love and forgive our stumbling saints unless we’ve grieved our own moral failure and basked in the beauty of forgiveness and freedom.

We can’t extend empathy and compassion to another unless grace has overtaken our own lives with its magnificent beauty.

“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…”  {John 8:7}  But we live in such convenient denial, don’t we? Throwing our stones from a distance anyway.

David Zahl said this in a brilliant and timely post he wrote last week:

If we’re only okay with preaching grace in theory — but not when someone is actually in need of it — then perhaps we the peanut gallery are the ones who need to take a sabbatical. 

And then he spoke to what I believe is the heart of the matter for most of us when a spiritual leader disappoints us:

I suspect the real issue is transference. By transference, I’m referring to the way we project or transfer the attributes onto a pastor or leader that we need to be there. We turn them into repositories of our feelings about God, or our parents {or both.} They become a stand-in, consciously or not. At times, the transference is helpful, maybe even necessary. A minister tells you your sins are forgiven, and you hear their word as Gospel. Alas, such transference, especially when amplified by celebrity, seems to turn the messenger into the message — no matter what they are saying. 

For me, devastation over the humanness of my own spiritual shepherds leaves me feeling devastated about God. I turn the messenger into the message even though I’d never want anyone to do that with me.

Ironically, I’m all too aware of my own moral failure. And also shockingly unaware. I’m either in the self-loathing ditch or the self-congratulatory ditch. Thankfully, grace inhabits all the ditches, and the byways in between them.

And it’s in his grace that God allows the feeble kings and queens of this earth to topple, reminding us that there is only one true king, one true shepherd, one true savior.

Leaders whose failings are made public can make me doubt God. I pray that instead, human failures point to the most fundamental tenet of my faith — that there is only one true God.

Disappointment in our leaders should reorient our truest hope in the One who will never fail — Jesus. He promises that He’ll never leave us or forsake us. He did not come to break our hearts but to bind them up when this crushing world does.

Sixteen years ago, when my dear Greek pastor attentively listened to my barrage of questions about the dilemma of hypocritical “Christians” throughout the ages — the crusaders, the slaveholders, the lying leaders — he responded with this:

We are called to follow Jesus. We are not called to follow his followers.

How ironic and beautiful that the words from my departed pastor, a man who could not ultimately find peace in this life, are the words that still comfort me with truth each time a Christian lets me down. And each time I let someone down as well.

Authority has its place. Ordained leaders vow to observe certain spelled-out standards. I don’t make light of their responsibilities to God and to the flock. There are real-life consequences when they stumble badly, consequences that carry a ripple-effect of devastation.

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But for those who are in Christ, our moral failures don’t determine the final verdict.

Can we just pause for a moment and drink to that? Seriously, let that glorious news settle into your bones.

If you’re glad about this for yourself {and gladness is really an understatement} then be exceedingly glad about it for others! Especially for those who need the power and comfort of this good news when they’re in the valley of shadows.

May we not add insult to injury by judging others more harshly than we judge ourselves.

May we not contribute to “us vs. them” thinking that further divides Christians into categories of righteousness.

May Christ alone be the true object of our faith. And may all of our scarred saints point us to the One who bears the scars on their behalf. And who bears ours too.

 

A Prayer for the Bewildered and Brokenhearted:

God, forgive us for confusing mere humans with the divine. Forgive us for placing our trust and hope and security in the people and places and programs of this world. Thank you for leaders who make the Gospel, in all of its fullness, so very beautiful and real. Thank you for keeping them by your grace on the days when they run with strength and on the days when they stumble in failure.

Remind us that Grace doesn’t have a fence around it, nor is it a high and lofty place from which your children can fall. Show us that the field is level at the foot of the cross. On that blood-stained ground, we are all the same. And if we don’t believe that’s true, show us our pride. Lovingly bring us to repentance. Show us the glorious face of our one true shepherd who loves without limits, who has won over death itself to bring us home. Only you can use brokenness and sorrow and sin to draw us more intimately to yourself. 

Heal our hurts. Bind our wounds. Keep us from the shadows. Infuse us with Gospel Love. Overtake us with your Grace. Amen.

 


 

Postscript:

I’ve been writing this one for over two weeks. Sad news often serves as a trigger for me, opening up old wounds and taking me back to dark nights of the soul that are never as far away as I want to believe. There’s been plenty of sad news lately and this has not been an easy post to write, mostly because I’m still trying to figure out what I believe about some things.

Last week David Zahl, who I quoted, wrote such a compelling piece. I needed it badly. I almost didn’t finish my own post because he said it all with such brilliance and beauty.

But writing is like a sacrament for me, a means of grace that leads my burdened soul to truth one letter at a time. So I wrote this in bits and pieces, stopping when I was up against a wall and starting again as a new day with its new merciful truths formed in my mind.

I finished it primarily for me and as a result, it’s longer than a blog post should be. But I extend it to you anyway, praying that it carries hope and comfort to those who most need it.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    This is so good, Marian! I’ve been so sad for Pastor Tullian and his family over the last couple of weeks. I cannot imagine what that would be like to go through with the public peering in and commenting on every move. That news was hard to take, but I loved the article you linked to, The Scandal of One Way Love, and agree wholeheartedly. I found your post incredibly touching and always appreciate the reminder that we’re not to follow other flawed humans, but CHRIST. As you said, “the only true promise.”

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