It seems that there are just a few weeks, maybe months, between evangelical leaders being exposed for tragic sins. The latest is just the latest, not the last. Dig into them and there always seems to be some combination of unaccountable authority, overweening pride, and presumed entitlement—the unholy trinity of sinful leadership.
And those faults are as old as leaders in Scripture. But there is at least one man that is recognized for his humility. “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3 ESV).
Recently a godly man who greatly influenced my ministry philosophy received a leadership award for his lifetime of service in Christian ministry. One comment made in his tribute video was that he was talking about servant leadership before it was popular. And that’s so true. He was talking about it in the ’80s, and he got pushback from some ministry leaders then that thought authoritarian leadership was necessary in evangelicalism. Sadly, conservative evangelicalism is still in awe of those leaders with big personalities and big results. The meek man, the humble man, the servant, well… he’ll often get passed over.
This description of Moses occurs in the context of his authority being criticized by siblings, Aaron and Miriam which makes it especially noteworthy. How many Christian leaders respond with meekness when being unjustly criticized? In light of all the moral failures of evangelical mega-ministry leaders, Moses’ meekness is surprising. We don’t promote many meek men. Humble men don’t rise to the top of our churches and evangelical institutions.
It has been God’s grace to me that I never pastored a large church, nor led a large ministry, nor had a big name in conservative evangelicalism. I believe the list of men who can handle that is far smaller than the list of men that want it. Like most seminarians, I dreamed of importance. One of my college professors said of Diotrephes in 3 John, “The loving of prominence and the longing for preeminence is in every one of us.”
I was thrilled to hear that this man received an award for his lifetime of humble service. But I also felt something else for a brief moment. I was disappointed that I would never get an award like that. That no one would ever recognize me as a servant leader–because I’m not one. And I want the recognition. The longing for preeminence indeed.
Moses’s meekness isn’t just in contrast to mega-ministry leaders, it’s also in contrast to me. I want glory; I want importance. But being known as a meek, humble leader, well, really, what could be better than that?
My children are all adults now, but I remember when the younger two went through a period where they liked my wife to play hide and seek with them. It was a fun game that was made more fun by the fact that my two youngest were such lousy hiders—like all little kids are. They loved to hide in plain view. They loved to get caught. They giggled when you got near them. They hid in the very last place my wife hid in. And of course, they wanted all the lights on when they played. Basically, every rule that makes a good hider they violated.
It’s okay because it’s just a game of hide and seek.
Too often in marriage counseling I encounter the couple that hides things from each other. In fact, occasionally they want to include me in their deceit. “Now don’t tell my wife this, but….” Some couples hide things big and small from each other. It’s one reason why their marriage is a mess. They’re adversaries, not teammates. But other couples, many couples, hide small things from each other. It’s the belief that a small lie is not harmful to a relationship.
I see it in couples I counsel, but I also see it in myself. In my first pastoral position I was an assistant pastor in a suburb of Denver. My wife and I normally went to bed at the same time, but occasionally, as we were about to get into bed, I would tell my wife I needed to do something quick in the home office. I would do it and then get in bed.
When my wife would ask what I was doing, I would say something non-committal.
Want to know what I was doing? It’s probably not what you think. I was reading my Bible. I would go to the office, open my Bible, read a verse or maybe two, close it, and go back to the bedroom. I was ashamed that I was an assistant pastor that had managed to go the entire day without reading the Bible at all. I didn’t want my wife to know I was that kind of guy; that some days I didn’t read God’s Word. It was hiding and it was wrong, so I eventually told her.
I didn’t want her to know who I really was. But choosing dishonesty pushed us farther apart, not closer together.
The hidden life, no matter how small, is not the godly life.
In a passage where the Apostle John talks about God’s essence being light and uses that to encourage us to walk in the light, he drops this.
1 John 1:7 (ESV) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
We would expect in this passage that John would say that walking in the light leads to greater fellowship with God, and that’s true (1 John 1:9). But isn’t it surprising that this passage says walking in the light leads to greater fellowship with other believers?
Walking in the light means not hiding or evading. it means being honest about who and what I am. Dishonesty moves us away from people. Walking in the light moves us closer. So no small amount of hiding is insignificant.
The recent revelations about Ravi Zacharias have saddened us all. But one part of it didn’t surprise me. When the board examined the initial accusations against him in 2016, it’s been widely reported that he had 3 phones and wouldn’t turn any of them over to the board. It happens over and over again with unfaithful spouses. A spouse that doesn’t let the other spouse see their phone is a bad sign. What is he hiding on his phone?
That’s the dramatic example, but what small, seemingly insignificant thing are you hiding from your spouse? Is it the pre-supper Big Mac (probably the greatest sandwich American ingenuity has ever developed)? Is it a conversation you had with one of your kids? Is it an Amazon purchase? Is it a traffic ticket? Is it a show that you stream until she walks in the room? Every choice to hide is a choice to move further from your spouse, not closer.
Our God is light and he wants us to walk in the light (1 John 1:5-2:2). Come out into the light. You’ll enjoy more genuine fellowship with other believers–especially those closest to you.
What Are Our Substitutes? What Are Our False Remedies? What’s the Almost Right Answer?
Christians know that trusting God is both important and hard. It’s a daily struggle in the little and big ways that our plans go awry. So we do some things that are the almost right answer, but we convince ourselves that they are the right answer. What are some of those? Here’s my observations.
I’m Not Worried, I’m Just Concerned–A Healthy Concern (Ps 20:7)
Psalm 20:7 (ESV) Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some will claim that they aren’t worrying, they just have a “healthy concern.” What does that mean? I want control. When I don’t have control over something, I worry about it. If I can get myself to a place where I have control, then I don’t have to trust God for it anymore. When I can pay my bills, I am tempted to quit trusting God for them. I see this in the Christian that does all they can do and then trusts God for what they cannot do. They don’t have control over what they cannot do, so they trust God for that limited part.
Here’s the problem: I need to trust God for even the part that I can do. I may do it wrong. I might not be as wise as I think I am. It might turn out differently than I planned. My circumstances might change, so I’m not able to do what I did before. I trust God for all of it. This is the “God helps those that help themselves” philosophy. No God doesn’t. He helps those that cannot help themselves.
So even that which I think is within my power and control, I must trust God with. I cannot depend upon my own efforts for any of it.
Any time I take the situation into my own hands and determine that I must solve this, I am in danger of not trusting God. I do need to make plans, but I cannot trust my plans (Jam 4:13-17). When I start thinking that my effort and plans are foolproof and I just need God to do the part I cannot do, I’m no longer trusting God. It might look like I am, but I’m really not.
God Will Take Care of It; I Can Sit Back–Pious Fatalism (Ps 127:1)Jerry Bridges discusses this in his excellent book, Trusting God Even When Life Hurts (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988), 107, 112-113.
This is another thing that looks like trust, but really isn’t. If God’s going to get done what He wants done anyway, then I don’t need to do anything goes the thinking. I don’t need to witness to my co-workers. If God wants them to get saved, they will get saved anyway. So I do nothing, but I claim that I’m doing nothing because I’m trusting God. I make no plans. I’m negligent with my responsibilities, but I claim it’s because I’m trusting God.
“But the knowledge of His sovereignty is meant to be an encouragement to pray, not an excuse to lapse into a sort of pious fatalism” says Jerry Bridges. Because God is sovereign, He is able to answer our prayers. He is able to use our weak efforts to accomplish great things for His glory.
God’s sovereignty is not an excuse for us to do nothing. We don’t know what God’s sovereign plan is in a specific situation; therefore, we should use all biblical means at our disposal to work towards what we believe to be a good result. While we do that, we recognize that His sovereign plan will be accomplished with or without our efforts. God’s control over all things is not an excuse to shirk our responsibilities.
Trusting God is a razor’s edge balancing act. I do need to plan for retirement for example, but I cannot trust my plans. I also can’t do nothing (unless God hasn’t provided me the opportunity to do anything) and call that trust either.
Psalm 127:1 (ESV) Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Psalm 127: 1 reminds us that it’s not if God blesses their efforts that the house will be built and the city will be secure. The psalmist speaks as if God must do it all. Yet the builders and the watchers would be negligent if they did nothing. They must do something. Bridges says, “We must depend upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We must, to the same degree, depend on Him to enable us to do what we must do for ourselves.” “There are times when we can do nothing, and there are times when we must work. In both instances we are equally dependent upon God.”
I’m Trusting God for My Preferred Result–A False Savior (Is 45:9; Rom 9:21)
Isaiah 45:9 (ESV) “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Romans 9:21 (ESV) Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
This looks like I’m trusting God. I will pray really hard that what I think needs to happen will happen. I will say that I’m trusting God to see my preferred result. But I’m not really trusting God because I will be discouraged if I don’t get my result.
Anytime I am trusting God only for a specific outcome, I’m not trusting God. I am trusting what I think will save me in this circumstance. That’s why I call it a false savior.
What does this look like?:
We’re trusting God that He will heal our relative’s cancer. What if it’s not his will? Some Christians die of cancer? Can you trust God with that outcome?
I’m trusting God to provide me a husband. What if He doesn’t?
I’m trusting God that I will get that job. What if God wants you to have a different job?
I’m trusting God that this conflict with my parents will be worked out. What if it isn’t (Rom 12:18)?
I’m trusting God that we’ll be able to get a house closer to the church? What if you can’t?
I’m trusting God that we’ll be able to have children some day. What if you can’t?
I’m trusting God that my brother will trust Christ some day. What if he doesn’t? Is God still good?
This really looks like trusting God to us. In fact, we even say that we’re trusting God. But what we’re really saying is that we know what the right outcome is in this circumstance and God is the One that can provide that outcome; therefore, we’ll trust Him to provide that outcome and that outcome alone. But really trusting God means I accept any outcome as coming from His all wise, loving, and sovereign hands, not just the outcome I prefer.
So I can certainly pray for my preferred outcome. But am I trusting God if I’ll only accept that outcome from Him? He knows best, and I must submit to his will; not He to mine.
In my ministry these are some of the false substitutes for trusting God that I’ve seen in my heart and in others that I have counseled. They’re deceitful because they are the almost right answer. They sound like trusting God, but they are really trusting our own efforts, or trusting our plans, or just pious laziness.
We’ve been watching a lot of Law and Order recently. We ordered YouTube TV a year ago so I could watch college football, and it allows unlimited storage of any show you want. So it took me about 3 seconds to set it to record all Law and Order episodes and within a few months I had all 496(!) episodes available. My wife and I have been working our way through them, and I don’t want to tell you what season we’re on for fear you’ll realize I’ve watched way too much Law and Order. 😉 It has been the last thing I remember before sleep a little too often. Sometimes we wake up the next morning asking each other if the criminal got convicted or sometimes even who the criminal is (must have fallen asleep really early in the show).
One thing I’ve learned (if my TV legal education can be trusted… and I think it can) is when an illegal search or an illegal interview of a defendant results in some damning evidence, it will often get tossed. It cannot be used. It’s called the fruit of the poisonous tree. If the search is illegal (the poisonous tree), then the result of that search is illegal too (the fruit).
It reminds me of something Jesus said.
Luke 6:43–45 (ESV) “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Jesus actually spoke about the real fruit of the poisonous tree! If my life produces bad fruit, it’s because the tree is bad. Clearly in this passage the tree is a metaphor for our hearts. Evil hearts produce evil. The fruit is bad because the heart is sinful.
Own Your Sin
I don’t like owning my sin, but this passage tells me I must. I want to believe that someone else is responsible for the poisonous fruit on my tree, but Jesus doesn’t allow that conclusion. Change doesn’t happen if I won’t own my sin. If you’re still pointing the finger at others or at your circumstances believing they are responsible for your sin, you won’t grow. No one else put that fruit on your tree.
Address Your Heart
All change goes through the heart if it’s biblical change. I don’t need to get better at biting my tongue; I need to get better at repenting. Jesus is not interested in my attempts to put good fruit on a bad tree. He wants the tree changed. And… thankfully, he gives heart-changing grace.
Is your counsel addressing the heart? Or are you just stapling new fruit on an evil tree?
Are you addressing your own heart? Or are you content with superficial change?
It’s quite common for teaching about forgiveness to lead to more questions about forgiveness. I wanted to include some of them here. Forgiveness requires real biblical wisdom in the specific details of a person’s life. Hopefully these will be a help to you.
What’s a Definition of Forgiveness?
The definition of forgiveness is promising…
Not to bring it up to the person’s face
Not to bring it up behind the person’s back
Not to dwell on it
This is not original with me, but I like this definition because it lines up with how God forgives us.
What If You Didn’t Sin, but They Are Offended? Should You Ask Their Forgiveness?
For example, someone expected you to call them while they were in the hospital, but you didn’t. They are angry with you for not calling. In fact, they’re giving you the cold shoulder. You didn’t promise you’d call them, but they expected you to. Is that sin? Probably not.
So the break in the relationship is real, but the sin is not. Do you ask forgiveness just to reconcile? One question to ask is who has sinned in this relationship? It’s not you; it’s them. They didn’t get what they wanted and now they are responding sinfully.
You shouldn’t ask forgiveness in order to appease someone. Forgiveness is not mine; it’s God’s. He invented it we could say. I cannot use it for whatever I want. Don’t use forgiveness as a gimmick. Don’t use it to patch things up unless you think you have actually sinned. Don’t cheapen it.
So what can we do in those situations?
•If it’s a pattern, we can confront their sin.
•I’ve said, “I wish I would have done that” because I really do wish that. If it would have prevented them getting offended, I really do.
Do You Need to Forgive God?
Some Christians will recommend that you pray and forgive God for certain tragic events. For example, if your child is born with a serious and terminal health problem, you might need to forgive God for that.
God is the absolute standard of right and wrong. He never does wrong. He is not unjust. Therefore, it’s blasphemy to accuse Him of doing wrong to you by telling Him you forgive Him.
The reason we would think that God has done wrong is because things didn’t turn out the way we thought they should turn out.
We are told that everything that happens in a believer’s life is for their good (Rom. 8:28-29). Therefore, when “bad” things happen in a believer’s life, the proper attitude is one of thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:18).
So it’s always wrong to be angry with God—to think we need to forgive God—but it’s right to bring our questions to God with a heart of faith. The Psalms are full of questions to God when life seems inexplicable. However, they brought their questions to God in faith. They didn’t accuse Him of wrongdoing, but they did have doubts about His dealings. They moved towards God, not away from Him. We should too.
Do You Need to Forgive Yourself?
Maybe you’ve heard this view before—that you need to forgive yourself. What you did was so horrible that it demands not just God’s forgiveness and the offended person’s forgiveness, but you must also forgive yourself.
Do you know what the Bible says about forgiving ourselves? Nothing. It doesn’t show up in either example or command. Scripture teaches vertical forgiveness—God forgiving us. It teaches horizontal forgiveness—us forgiving others. But it doesn’t teach internal forgiveness. Clearly that is significant. It indicates that this idea of self-forgiveness didn’t come from careful study of Scripture but from somewhere else.
So, when someone tells us that “I just can’t forgive myself,” can we help them? Yes. Someone that expresses this thought may actually be telling us something else.
They might be expressing an inability or unwillingness to receive God’s forgiveness. We say this because we really doubt that God has forgiven us.
They may not be willing to acknowledge the depth of their sin. Sometimes this means “I cannot believe that I did that.” This is a form of pride; as if this type of sinful failure was beneath me. It’s an indication of self-righteousness and a lack of realistic self-knowledge.
They may be venting regrets for not achieving a certain cherished desire. I had an opportunity and I threw it all away. When desires are thwarted, the result is self-reproach and a case of “if only I had….” In this case a more careful use of language is helpful. They should say, “I regret how I blew that opportunity.”
Self-forgiveness is unbiblical because you are the offender, judge, and the forgiver. Only Jesus Christ can fill all three roles. When you or I do it, we are trying to be God.