By now you have heard of the scandal involving Ted Haggard. Reaction to the news has ranged from sympathy to disgust, from support to condemnation. The media has dedicated a lot of attention to this story, though they seem to be writing about it as just another news story rather than something that is somehow bigger or more significant than any other story. Watchbloggers are out in force, like homeschool moms at a book sale, swarming and trampling. To this point I have refrained from mentioning the issue for reasons related primarily to my own lack of sanctification. But I feel now that I can speak out with some legitimacy.
Until this week I knew very little about Ted Haggard. I had heard his name a few times and even received a book of his from a publisher not too long ago (though I chose not to read it). Here in Canada we receive little news coverage of evangelical churches and leaders and I’m quite sure that, until this week, his name has never been mentioned in the Canadian media. Even now, the main pages of Canadian news sites have no mention of the story. And yet I realize that he is obviously an important individual who founded what has become a huge and important church and led an organization representing millions of Americans. Of greatest consequence, Haggard is a brother in Christ.
Like many of you, when I first heard the news of this scandal I wanted to know more. I wanted to know details and to have the whole story of his immorality printed before me. I wanted the lurid and gossipy details. Some sick and depraved part of me wanted to know it all, no doubt so I could compare myself to him and account myself somehow superior to him. Thankfully, this was but my first instinct and was obviously the desires of the “old man,” the part of me that delights in all that is evil and contrary to God. God was good to show me that I should not long after such things.
What I felt next was little better. I felt pity. This was not true sympathy, but pity that Haggard could be such a sinner; such a depraved individual. I felt sorry for a guy who could desire something so base, so sinful. Who would want to use meth? Who could feel that type of homosexual desire? I don’t understand such urges! I felt comfortable in my moral superiority and in my greater sanctification. I felt proud that I was not one of those guys whose life was such a far cry from his profession of faith.
And then I watched the video of Haggard being interviewed in front of his home. I’d encourage you to watch the video too, focusing on Haggard, watching his eyes, watching his face. You can find the link here. Remember as you watch that this is not a film and he is not an actor. This is a real man with a real life, a real soul, and real emotions. And now watch it again, but this time watch his wife, sitting immediately beside him. And not only that, but consider that sitting behind him are three of his children. The children sit silently while the reporter asks dad if he has done meth and if he has ever had sex with a man.
And then realize that, as we explored earlier this week in a discussion about total depravity, there is really no difference between you and Haggard or between myself and Haggard. We are all totally depraved with our sin extending to every aspect of our being. There but for the grace of God go I. There but for the grace of God go you. While I would not expect a reporter to approach me if I were to fall into similar sin, I can only imagine the pain of having to sit in front of my children, my wife, and answer questions about whether or not I have had sex with a man or admitting that I purchased illegal drugs. It’s horrible. It’s terrifying. That could be my wife, wondering how I could do this to her, wondering if she can ever trust me again, wondering if she can ever love me again. Those could be my kids, hearing the lurid details of dad’s depravity. Those could be my kids, trying bravely not to cry as they walk into school on Monday morning, knowing that everyone knows, knowing that life will never be the same.
I went from wanting to know details, to feeling pity to feeling terror to pleading with God to continue to extend His grace to me that I would not fall. Jonathan Edwards, in his most famous sermon, spoke about God’s sovereignty and how, at any given moment, it is only the sovereign grace of God that keeps Him from ending a person’s life. Marsden writes, “The subject of the sermon is that at this very moment God is holding sinners in his hands, delaying the awful destruction that their rebellion deserves.” Edwards said, “You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his price: and yet ’tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: ’tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night…but that God’s hand has held you up: there is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell. Oh sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in.” What is true of eternity, is equally true of the temporal. Just as nothing but God’s hand keeps both Christian and non-Christian from death at any given moment, the same hand is all that restrains any of us from falling into sin as dreadful as Haggard’s, or sin that is far worse.
Paul’s exhortation of 1 Corinthians 10:12 has been much on my mind this weekend. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Oh, that God would keep me from relying more on my effort and less on His grace. I pray and beg and plead that His grace would continue to extended to me that I would take heed, that I would continue to fill my heart with His Words of life.
There are some who are seeking to make this issue into something almost prophetic, as if it is indicative of the state of evangelicalism. “The Reformed Gadfly,” whose post was endorsed by Slice of Laodicea writes, “I’m sick and tired of being associated with a ‘Christianity’ that does not seem to care one whit about holiness or obedience to God’s Word. Let me say this as perfectly clear as I can: I believe that ‘Christianity’ in America is nearly totally apostate. Why? We have abandoned the vision of the Holiness and Fear of God. We’ve built a false god that will cater to our flesh and meet our ‘felt needs’. Our real need? Repentance. But we don’t want to go there. We live in Laodicea. No apologies. Cut and dried. Stuff like this can only happen because contemporary Christianity is rotten to the core.”
No, no, no! Stuff like this happens because we are rotten to the core! Stuff like this happens because I am rotten to the core. Oh, that we would all take heed! How can we be sick and tired of being associated with other sinners? I am the greatest sinner I know and can only delight to be in the presence of other sinners, others with whom I can share God’s grace and from whom I can learn more about God’s grace. The Christian I am most sick and tired of being associated with me, for my sin is before me always! Every day I have to peer into my dark heart and beg God for forgiveness. Every day I see again how my heart is dark and black and awful and filled with emnity towards God. Every day I see in my heart that I am no different than Ted Haggard. But for the grace of God I would do so much more and so much worse. Take heed. I sit here and weep for Haggard and his family and his church, but selfishly, I weep even more for myself, knowing that I, too, could be in such a situation. What is in Haggard is in me. What is in me is in you. But for the grace of God…
Despite all the darkness and the grief, this situation gives me some hope and some cause to rejoice. New Life Church seems to have handled this situation very well. I know nothing of the church beyond what has appeared in the news and what Phillip Ryken wrote of it at the Reformation21 blog. “I visited New Life Church when it was in its popular ascendancy about a decade ago. The strongest impression I had on that particular Sunday was a palpable absence of the gospel — lots of feel-good worship and moralistic exhortation to lead a good life, but little in the way of a biblical message of repentance for sin and grace in Christ. Yet this is the only gospel that can save any of us who are guilty of scandalous sins.” They have certainly moved quickly and decisively in this situation, examining the evidence and taking swift action in removing Haggard from his position of authority. This seems like the right thing to do based on their conclusion that “Our investigation and Pastor Haggard’s public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.” This was good to see and bodes well for the church. I hope this situation strengthens the church, causing its members to look long and hard at their own lives.
But there is more reason to hope. Bill Kinnon pointed out to me the subject of Haggard’s sermon just one week ago. Haggard preached “from 1 Samuel 16 on God’s preparation for the removal of one King, Saul, with his replacement, David. An interesting passage to cover in a church where the leadership model more closely resembled Kings and Chronicles, than that of New Testament leadership. The preacher was speaking about the forthcoming US midterm elections. Talking about how God removes some leaders and replaces them with others. One might see the preaching as prophetic for the events in the last week.” Mere seconds into the sermon, Haggard prayed that lies and deception would be exposed. “Father, we pray that lies would be exposed. We pray that deception would be exposed.” I can but hope that Haggard’s prayer was sincere and that God took him at his word, answering his prayer. I can only hope that Haggard realizes this and turns to God in full repentance.
And I can only hope that, when you and I ask God to answer our prayers and to save us from our sin, to unmask the sin that haunts us, that He will be so swift to answer. I sometimes hesitate to ask God that he will deal with the sin in my life in whatever way He deems necessary to get me to actually change my ways. And yet, in my best moments, I ask Him to do anything necessary, no matter how difficult, no matter how humiliating, to draw me closer to Him and to mold me ever more into His image. If I’ve been intimidated before, I will be even more so now. And yet I see that He can and will answer.
If we look to Ted Haggard as a representative of all that is wrong in Evangelicalism, I think we miss the most important lesson. The lesson we need to learn is that we are every bit as sinful and fallible and willful and depraved as Haggard; perhaps more so. It is only the grace of God that, like a spider being held over the flame by a nearly-invisible web, prevents me from giving in to all the sin that is in me and being dragged down by it. Oh, that He would continue to extend this grace! And oh, that I would take heed lest I, too, fall, for what is in Haggard is in me.