It was a tremendously shocking and sobering half hour. I found myself confronted with news about the tragic falls of three substantial Christian leaders. As I went from news item to news item, I was feeling sadder and sadder. How can this keep happening? Clearly the foe we all battle and the demands of ministry and life can put us in places worse than we realize at the time. And, sadly enough, our greatest foe has way more success than I wish. Gosh, that half hour was brutal.
While there are a number of ways to go with this really painful topic, one major response has to be, how in the world can Christian leaders, or all leaders for that matter, stop themselves from falling into these terrible traps? Traps that leave lives, marriages, families, churches and campuses simply devastated. Traps that make finishing well a lot more difficult, if not nearly impossible for some.
What follows are my best ideas about how to step away from the ledge of insanity and excruciating regret, if you find yourself getting close to choices that could land you in a terrible, terrible place.
Words of Compassion
First, it must be said that none of these leaders mentioned above, or likely any of the leaders that have fallen, ever planned on falling into these traps. I’m confident each of these men above completely wish they could go back and have a do over. My heart goes out to these men, and I pray for their recoveries. And, of course none of us are without sin, or immune from the conditions that Satan used to do major damage in their lives.
Having done some earlier research on this topic, (including personal observations of a mega church pastor who baptized me as an adult and later fell through an affair), let’s take a look at five major contributors to these tragic events. As you read through them, please consider the extent to which you resonate with these contributors.
Five Major Contributors to Falls
Struggles with Overextension and Stress
Surely, one major factor in these cases has to be chronic overextending. This happens when a person’s job demands get bigger and bigger over the span of time, or when a person simply works at an unsustainable pace too long, to the point where life is so stressful and draining that an escape from reality becomes more and more attractive. As human beings, we simply can’t go on working all the time without facing real temptations to escape reality in unhealthy ways. And, the more overextended and stressed we are, the more distorted our views on temptation and purity become.
This one is tough to write about, partially because entitlement is ugly, and partially because nearly all of us wrestle with it (it comes hand and hand with sin). What I’ve noticed in myself and others, is that when we overextend, a truly hideous sense of entitlement can sneak in, and all of a sudden leaders are entertaining thoughts of rewarding themselves for hard work that have nothing to do with honoring the Gospel. Part of what is so tricky about entitlement is that leaders can indulge themselves for either success or failure, using their hard work, (regardless of the outcome of their labor), as a justification for indulgence.
Struggles with a Low Sense of Worth
Often leaders who fall into these traps struggle with a poor sense for their own inherent value. They don’t fully know that they are deeply deeply loved by Jesus, absolutely regardless of what they do. They often see their value as closely connected to their work performance, social status, or popularity. Always needing to perform to feel valuable, or having the weight of one’s value riding on the roller coaster of public opinion, makes escape more and more compelling over time. Further, a low sense of worth can make it harder to handle success in terms of a leader’s sense of identity, which also makes foolish choices more tempting, because doing something foolish can restore a more familiar sense of identity.
Struggles with Losses and Early Wounds
This is one of the most painful parts to write about, because most people just don’t see this one before it’s too late. I have more painful clinical stories to support this than I’d like. Major losses in our adult lives (such as losing a spouse) make us more vulnerable to temptation. Yet, beyond that, if we have gone through major losses early in our lives (such as losing a parent, parents divorcing, abuse or neglect), Satan loves to exploit those terribly painful and vulnerable times to insert lies into our minds and hearts. Lies about our worth. Lies about how we are slow, stupid, or flawed. Or, how it’s our fault (whatever the problem is), or at its worst, how we are simply shamefully unacceptable. Those lies are so painful, they’re often deeply buried and we put on invisible masks to cover the lies we believe about ourselves. When those losses, lies and wounds aren’t addressed, people are often seduced into finding their worth through the externals mentioned above, which makes them more inclined to overextend, and have a greater vulnerability to a fall.
Struggles with Being Vulnerable
The last major cause has to do with the person having a deep struggle with being vulnerable. When a person struggles with vulnerability, often due to early losses and the lies that snuck in through those losses, it is terribly difficult to take the risk to let people in to their struggles before they get too big. This is tragic. Because these people are so used to not letting people in, (often due to hidden, underlying shame), they start to see superficiality as just how life is, not realizing the great relief, comfort and hope that is found in deeper sharing with loving friends, a good pastor, or a skilled therapist, or all of the above!
While there are more reasons that could be explored, for the sake of time, let’s now look at how to avoid a tragic fall, and be in a much better place to finish well. (These are especially important to act on if you deeply resonate with the contributing factors)
Ways to Avoid a Tragic Fall
Depending on how far gone you are with the contributing factors, these steps may be difficult to embrace. That brings us to the first way to avoid a fall.
1) Personally Imagine How Awful a Tragic Fall Would Be
Often we idealize temptation, and neglect considering just how terrible a tragic fall would be. Please take a moment to imagine the pain in your spouse’s eyes, the devastating impact a broken marriage would have on your kids, and how much pain, mistrust and skepticism your fall would have on the people you lead. Imagine having to write a letter like R.C. Sproul Jr. did, where it is you and it is not a dream. Really think about that until it hurts, until you are almost nauseous with the awful taste of regret, embarrassment and guilt. That ideally will give you more motivation to embrace the other steps below!
I know this can seem horribly old-fashioned, and yet it has incredible power. One of the most effective weapons we have in combating the seductive spells of temptation, is to candidly tell God the truth about what we are battling with. Further, in light of Paul’s exhortations (Romans 8:13), we are to put foolish thoughts to death! So, please do your best to earnestly and soberly repent of ways you are beginning to indulge sinful thoughts and ideas before they gain more and more power and lead to actions that you will forever regret (James 1:15).
3) Invite Jesus in to the Stress and Struggles
The busier we get and the further we go into struggles, the harder it can be to invite Jesus in for a host of reasons. We can think he’s upset with us for not handling things better. We can be embarrassed by how foolish our thoughts are, and how we know we shouldn’t be even entertaining such inappropriate things. That is when we need his grace, perspective and strength more than ever! Please take the risk and invite him into all the confusion, pain, and struggles you are going through. Pray for the grace to listen and obey his counsel.
The rest of the ideas are more practical, tangible ideas to begin to take the pressure down, and begin to restore some balance and perspective to help you step further away from tragic choices.
4) Please, Take Regular, Renewing Vacations
Regular, renewing vacations are a great antidote to chronic overextension. Many busy Christian leaders do really poorly at taking regular renewing vacations. Most leaders I work with are given up to a month or more of vacation time (something I’m occasionally jealous of), but rarely take the full month. That often implies their sense of worth is tied to their job. Taking the full month of vacation every year, with ideally one portion two weeks in a row, does wonders for restoring our souls, deepening our most important relationships (including with God) and helping us gain a deeper perspective on our lives. It also makes temptation less and less attractive, which is huge when it comes to avoiding a tragic fall.
One major tip here is to plan your vacations for the next for the entire next year, before annual planning for ministry activities. Advance scheduling provides a greater chance of honoring those times and a sense of peace and anticipation throughout the year.
If this step is really hard for you, please ask God to heal you of your inflated sense of responsibility, and try step #5.
5) Take Regular Spiritual Retreats
Take one day a month (or at least quarterly) for a silent retreat, to be still before God and renew your soul. (These should be considered work days for folks in ministry.) Leave work agendas behind and simply pursue what restores your connection with God. You will be stunned, if this is new for you, about how powerful and grounding it can be for your soul, to incorporate regular retreats. If you are struggling with temptation, please use part of the day to reflect on the sacrificial work of Jesus for your imperfect soul, confess your struggles, and ask God to heal your heart. Consider asking God to help you see your inherent worth in His eyes more clearly, to set you free from performance traps (Ephesians 1 can be valuable here).
6) Embrace the Sabbath
This is a regular prescription in my writing. Taking seriously the call to truly rest from work and enter into worship and renewal one day a week, is a great nurturer and protector of your soul. It creates a one-day-a-week haven, and enables us to slow down and invite Jesus deeper into our souls, especially the areas where we feel tempted.
7) Cultivate Healthy, Transparent Relationships
This can seem almost impossible if it is really foreign to you. Yet, trust me, it can be done. Having at least a few balanced relationships where you can confess your temptations and struggles and ask for support and prayer, is invaluable to avoiding a tragic fall. Please pray for God to show you who you can pursue as a friend(s), and for the courage and wisdom to start sharing in ways that allow God’s truth and grace to set you free from serious temptation. I promise you that healthy, transparent relationships are an enormous gift from God, deeply enrich our lives, and make temptation less and less compelling.
8) Make Daily Times to Receive Deeply from the Lord
God longs to help you move into His good dreams for your life, and away from Satan’s train wrecks. Taking the real risk to slow down, connect with your heart, and be still before God, through prayer and in reading His Word, can be enormously helpful in dealing with temptation. Authentically invite him into your temptations and struggles, fears and worries, hopes and aspirations, and ask Him to bless, protect and guide you in fulfilling His good calling on your life.
9) Take Play Seriously
I recently wrote about the power of play and finishing well. Healthy play is a great antidote to stress. Risking time to do fun things, things that lighten your heart and fill your soul on a regular basis, makes reality more appealing and fantasy less appealing. I promise. Like vacations, incorporating regular play reinforces your inherent worth (separate from performance) and let’s the grace of God sneak in a bit more, making temptation less attractive.
10) If You Really Struggle with the Above, Please See a Skilled Therapist
Sometimes even baby steps on the above can feel impossible to take. If that’s you, please make the time to find a skillful therapist to help you address and overcome the contributing factors. Focus on the Family has a national directory of Christian therapists, or simply use a search engine. Letting a skillful helper in on your struggles, where confidentiality is a given, can be a great way over time to heal from losses and lies, live a good life, and step away from a tragic fall.
You don’t have to be the next casualty. You don’t have to be the one we painfully read about reflexively cringe. You can take steps to right your course today and enjoy a rewarding, God-honoring future. If you are struggling please follow the 10 steps. If you know someone who is, please consider forwarding this blog to them, or better yet, connect with them and offer them your support. God longs for all of us to finish well. He longs for all of us to avoid a tragic fall. May He grant you the grace to follow His good path that leads to life.