How could they?
I felt sick to my stomach.
They were the last person I ever expected to do that.
They abused their position and vulnerable people.
They deceived us all.
I trusted them.
I didn’t expect such moral failure.
I thought they were an honourable minister of the gospel.
How can someone who has done so much good, do that evil?
These are the thoughts that sweep through my mind when someone I respect has been called out for abuse or mistreatment of women. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive. I know there are clear conduits of evil in this world — people who harm others and abuse their positions of power. But when it’s a Christian leader or someone you have personally worked with in ministry, respected, and looked up to, the devastation hits on another level.
When our heroes fail us (and seemingly fail God) it raises so many questions:
Where was the Holy Spirit?
When did they stop listening to Jesus?
Were they ever truly listening to him?
Did the allure of power become so strong that it blinded them to the voice of God?
Were there warning signs that I missed?
Does it negate all the good they have done?
Is it wrong to re-think all my memories of them?
Even our spiritual heroes get sidelined by sin. When they have seemingly failed to live up to the standard of the Christian life that God has called them to, what do we do?
Does chaos reign?
It can feel like our hope and the weight of gospel proclamation lands on the shoulders of certain people and leaders. And when they fall, so does the hope that people will hear about Jesus.
The very name of Christ can feel tarnished when the people who are supposed to exalt Christ fall so deeply into their own brokenness.
This is not unlike the feeling I get when a faith hero dies young. There is grief not only for the loss of life, but also over the loss of their potential impact for the kingdom of God.
It can feel like evil is winning. It can feel like chaos reigns.
It can make us question and wonder if God is really in control. Doesn’t God need this person to carry out his work? Isn’t the future growth or advancement of his kingdom lessening without the earthly involvement of this person? What is God doing, or even thinking, when he allows these things to happen?
God reigns in darkness
Recently, I have been working through the end of the book of Mark in my quiet times, slowly working through Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and death. It was a time of great darkness: deep betrayal by multiple people, deception, injustice, abuse. Chaos seemed to reign. God even seemed silent. Jesus himself didn’t fight his accusers.
The darkness was real and heavy. Two of Jesus’ betrayers, Peter (who denied Christ) and Judas (who deceived and sold Jesus to the High Priests) felt the weight of their sin and failure against Jesus. They were faced with their own brokenness. Peter responded by weeping (Mark 14:72), and Judas responded with suicide (Matthew 27:5).
Yet the story is filled with irony. While Jesus dies on the cross, the people passing by, high priests, and even other prisoners, all mock Jesus. They taunt, “Aha! You would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” and “He saved others, he cannot save himself” (Mark 15:29-31). They had no idea that in that moment of great darkness, God was still in control the entire time.
It was ON the cross that Jesus destroyed the temple, when the curtain separating man and God ripped from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). The barrier between God and man was destroyed forever. Jesus rebuilt the temple three days later when he arose from the grave. The new temple was Jesus. Worship and connection with God was no longer bound to a place, but now a person.
To be with God is to come to Jesus, to know him and to believe in him. Jesus pointed to this long before his death and resurrection when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
In the midst of great and utter darkness on the cross, filled with grief, betrayal, and destruction, God was completely in control. It was through all those things that God reigned victorious over darkness once and for all! Through his death (and everything leading up to it), Jesus made a way for us to come and know God and be restored to him, be made new, and find eternal life.
What should we do now?
When our spiritual heroes fail us, it’s perfectly normal to feel the pain of betrayal. The process of this is a journey, one in which God invites us to draw near to him. It’s a vital process and, hopefully, helps us learn from others so that we won’t make the same choices. This may look like stepping back for a season, creating some new boundaries, or surrounding ourselves with healthy people to lean on.
It’s also helpful to ask ourselves difficult questions throughout this process. Have we placed them on a pedestal we never should have? The higher the place in our hearts, the more painful the impact when they fall. Perhaps they also wanted to be on that pedestal and grappled for power and position, and we supported and enabled them. Maybe we minimized warning signs because we wanted to hope for the best, or it felt awkward to ask deeper questions. It’s also possible that we haven’t done anything at all to enable their sin and betrayal, and we’re the ones who were on the receiving end of that abuse or betrayal.
We don’t always have to feel ownership of somebody else’s failures or shortcomings. These situations are never easy to work through, but deep, honest, and critical reflection, is a key component to processing these events. And yet still, God can seem so small and distant in the midst of it.
He is— however painful it may seem—at the center of the story. No matter what the person has done, how we feel, or the details, God is in control the whole time. That may be comforting, or it may fill you with more questions. I’ve been there. Was he in control the whole time, allowing things to happen?
Part of the processing may involve confronting God, or verbally processing with others about any bitterness you may feel towards God. Mary and Martha both confronted Jesus, feeling distraught and bitter that Jesus allowed their brother Lazarus to die. He could have stopped it but he didn’t. Yet, this didn’t make Jesus uncaring, he still wept at the death of his friend (John 11:34-36). God isn’t insecure; he can handle your confrontation and is willing to walk with you in your times of processing.
Bitterness easily grows when we assume how God feels, or his response when he allows bad things to happen. On this side of eternity, I think there will always be an unresolved tension where we won’t fully understand why God allows the things he does.
The incredible truth of the gospel is that there is no situation or person beyond God’s ability to restore and redeem. It may seem impossible, but we need to persevere in prayer toward that end. He also has this totally miraculous ability to take what seems most evil and broken (like Jesus’ death on the cross), and turn it into beauty, hope, and restoration of all that is good.
Elisabeth Elliot rightly concludes, “God’s story never ends with ashes.” In the middle of the darkest nights of our souls, God is there. He isn’t done. We can cling on to him.