Though we would never wish for a scandal to take place and make its way into the headlines, and while we should always regret the circumstances that bring one about, a scandal does offer the opportunity for personal introspection. A wise man will heed its lessons, for it inevitably provides the context to consider whether sin is sneaking up on us as it has on someone else, to practice the biblical admonition “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
In recent months the news around these parts has carried stories of a number of highly-publicized scandals, some of which involve professed Christians and some of which do not. And while none overlap my life or social circles in any significant way, I’ve still found myself pondering the public facts to consider what lessons I can draw from them.
The lesson that is most prominent in my mind is that you’re never too old to destroy your legacy—which is to say that you’re never beyond the temptation to sin. Some of these people had enjoyed many years of service in the public eye and had earned an upright reputation. And then, in the blink of an eye, they had to resign in disgrace. Some tried to express the hope that, because they had done so much good for so long a time, their legacy would not be entirely undermined. Yet, while they may have done much good, they will never outrun the context in which their careers came to so sudden a halt. The lesson is that we can never coast, we can never relax our vigilance against sin until we have safely landed in heaven.
Just behind that lesson is this: sin will often bring the most pain and harm to those we love the most (or are meant to love the most). It is almost unbearable to consider the cost to a wife in shame as news of her husband’s affair crisscrosses the world (and, of course, to a woman’s husband if the wife is the one who has transgressed). Every story will tell of a marriage that must now be in peril because of one spouse’s thoughtlessness, one person’s transgressions. That husband may have enjoyed his sin while it was taking place but his wife and family will know only pain, shame, and confusion. That pastor may have gained some enjoyment while committing his sinful deeds, but now he has resigned and his church is left rocked and hurting. So often the cost of our sin is disproportionately paid by the very people we are charged to love, protect, and care for.
Here’s another lesson: Some people stick around too long. They grow so accustomed to being in the public eye that they cannot tolerate the thought of obscurity, of being a former politician, a former athlete, or even a former pastor. Yet there comes a time when remaining in the public eye (or the pulpit or the conference circuit or …) may reflect idolatry more than necessity or service. That public prominence may have become a matter of identity so that the individual doesn’t know who he would be without the position and the acclaim that comes with it. And there is grave danger that comes to those who are in the public eye to work out their own identity rather than to serve others. Sometimes what’s best for a person, his family, and the people he has served is to step aside—to quit while he is ahead. (The people who most need to quit are probably the very ones who find the thought most unbearable!)
And then this: We are particularly vulnerable to temptation in the area in which we build our “brand.” One of the individuals caught up in a recent scandal branded himself as the consummate family man who loved and valued his wife and family. Yet he now leaves the public eye just hoping he will be able to regain their trust and confidence and salvage something of a relationship with them. Another was an advocate for justice who was found to have committed acts of great injustice. The area in which both of these people wished to present themselves as particularly strong was the very area in which they were particularly vulnerable (or even eager, perhaps) to temptation. And this makes me think of how many Christian “experts” in areas like marriage and family have eventually been unmasked as hypocrites in much the same way and how many advocates of the vulnerable have actually trodden so many underfoot. We easily deceive others and ourselves.
I also see how Satan may send counsellors to try to persuade those who have sinned that they should not allow that sin to drive them from the public eye—that they are so good at what they do or so crucial to their church or organization that they should fight to maintain their position. Sometimes a disgraced individual will initially follow conscience and attempt to do the right thing, only to heed poor counsel and withdraw an earlier resignation. Just when a person seems willing to make much of his sin, he may be encouraged to make little of it. Bad sin so often seems to be followed by bad counsel.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that a man can be easily flattered. In a number of situations the person was caught up in a sexual scandal with someone quite a bit younger—sometimes in a context that was abusive and sometimes in a context that was consensual. I believe many older men would be able to testify that there can be something very validating about the attention of a younger woman, something very affirming about thinking he’s still got what it takes to attract and woo someone who is much his junior. Aging can certainly be humbling and discouraging, so a man who is wise will consider how he can face and endure it with grace—and not seek out or succumb to flattery.
The final lesson is that your sin will find you out. An old Puritan warned that Satan likes to dangle the bait while hiding the hook. Satan’s greatest trick is to let us think we can enjoy the pleasures of sin without paying its cost. And while we so often get away with it for a while, eventually the hook grabs hold and our sin gets exposed. And while we see this happen time and time again, we seldom seem to learn the lesson. When confronted by the opportunity to sin, we need to consider the cost to ourselves, our family, our church, our testimony, and our Savior. We need to assume that Satan does not just wish for us to sin, but to eventually make that sin every bit as public as was the case for those people we see in the headlines.
I will close out with J.I. Packer’s challenging, sobering words, penned when he was already old and already grappling with the challenges of aging: “Racers always try to keep something in reserve for a final sprint … My contention is that so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed.” Those who are in that final stretch must make it a sprint indeed—a sprint in which their godly character carries them safely and victoriously over the finish line. Meanwhile, those of us who are still approaching that final stretch must already be laying “aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” so we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us”—and run to the very end without stumbling, without falling, without bringing disgrace to our name or reproach to the name of Christ.