February 7, 2007

Help, God! Everyone Knows What I Did!

2007 1504 page28 capN 1987 JIMMY SWAGGART TEARFULLY REPENTED before thousands for his escapades with a prostitute. Although no one would argue that God has forgiven the preacher, neither would they argue that his adoring public hasn’t. At its height in 1986, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries hauled in $141.6 million. The worship arena at his Family Life Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, held 7,000 people each Sunday morning.1 That was then. Although Jimmy continues to preach, it is to a fraction of the audience he once had. A bright star has become a shooting star, and, as far as celebrity status is concerned, burned out.
Is this and like discrepancies between God’s apparent short memory for our sins and humanity’s long memory due only to our failure to reflect God’s mercy and kindness? Are we just meaner and less forgiving than God, therefore unable to trust brothers and sisters who have broken trust? Probably. But there may be another reason why besmirched believers never regain the confidence of their fellow Christians. Perhaps they fail to observe certain principles of repentance and reconciliation in their attempts to enter back into fellowship. Perhaps those principles are the only measures strong enough to remedy the relational fallout of sin.
2007 1504 page28With little concern for the psychological demands of trust rebuilding, and even less for the steps of restoration mapped out in Scripture, some well-meaning believers wish that a quick “I’m sorry” would be sufficient to bury a person’s sin for life. Whether or not this is based upon solid theology, experience declares that the human psyche doesn’t respond to quick fixes. Spouses who have been cheated on, victims of abuse, congregations of compromising pastors, and betrayed friends need more than pat apologies before they are ready to forget what brought them such pain. They may outwardly profess to have forgotten, but the root of the problem remains—unless it is unearthed and destroyed, including all its tendrils of hurt.
The only action that can accomplish this and make relational recovery possible is the obvious, openly expressed contrition of the wrongdoer. Unresolved questions about the depth and character of a person’s repentance can’t be stifled. Unless evidence of a change of heart is given, vestiges of mistrust will remain, regardless of how willing people are to move on.
What better place to identify the signs of true repentance, and the steps to restoration with God and humanity, than the story of the greatest “repenter” of all—King David. The author of Psalm 51 knew a thing or two about what it really meant to be sorry. And he has a lot to teach this quick-fix generation.
Monarchy and Murder
No one but God knew that adulterous folly danced in the heart of David, the monarch of Israel—until a strange thing happened in Jerusalem. One of Israel’s most adept soldiers was slain in battle. His gorgeous wife mourned just long enough to fulfill her legal obligation, then married the king. Murmurs pervaded the city until most knew of the adultery, and suspected the murder. The moral climate of the city descended, emboldening the ungodly and grieving the faithful. Cynicism reigned.
God was too kind to leave David in his virtual reality. The prophet Nathan cleverly led David to the emotional breaking point with a metaphor. It was not a warm, fuzzy sermon he preached, but a searing diatribe. “Nathan fixed his eyes upon the king; then lifting his right hand to heaven, he solemnly declared, ‘Thou art the man.’”2 A prophetic rebuke sufficient to slap the king to his senses poured out of the lips of God’s instrument. This rebuke included a clear, concise indictment for the very crime of which David was guilty. “You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.” Not once, but twice, the crime of murder conspiracy was mentioned, followed by a glimpse of future retribution. “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.”3
Exalted by Grace
Because of God’s amazing grace, a heartbreaking sorrow for sin found itself within the king. The most famous repentance of all time followed. Today that repentance gives hope and direction to our own sin-shadowed paths.
2007 1504 page28How to break out into the light again? Follow in the footsteps of David, and God will save you as He saved David.
First, you must believe that God can forgive you. There is a delicate line between presumption and despair, and that line is faith. Presumption fails to realize the gravity of sin and its cost. It mistakes God’s forgiveness for the excusing of sin as if it is “no big deal.” One look at the cross cures that problem. For at the cross we see that sin was a very, very big deal. Despair is likewise a denial of the cross in that it refuses to believe what God made so abundantly clear—He can and will save. The narrow path between these two ditches is grateful belief in the gift of pardon and purification given to all—even really big sinners.
Second, you must confess your sin, in all its gory detail, before God. Why give Him the facts He already knows? Because He needs to hear it from your lips, and you need to get it off your chest. “True confession is always of a specific character, and acknowledges particular sins.”4 Confession of sin to the One we have sinned against awakens our awareness of the suffering we cause. David said, “Against Thee, and Thee only, have I sinned,” indicating that he had gone from egocentricity to theocentricity, self-centeredness to God-centeredness. Then and only then was he able to comprehend what he had done to his fellow man.
Third, under His grace, we will seek restoration with those we have hurt. This step is often skipped. Because God is invisible, He is easily fabricated in our religious imaginations. “I talked to the Lord about it, and it’s fine!” we might say, having talked to nothing but our own self-deception. Responses from flesh-and-blood beings are not so easy to conjure up, which is why the litmus test of our love for God is in our human relationships.
Likewise, the depth of our repentance toward God will be measured by our repentance toward those made in His image. We will confess to them the very sins that have brought them pain, even if they already know what they are. Sin should be as confessed as it was committed. For example, if it was a public sin, it should be publicly acknowledged. Only when the witnesses of our sin see the depth of our repentance for it can trust begin to rebuild.
Fourth, brace yourself. Some people will forgive easily. Others will need to express grief and disappointment. Still others may not be ready to forgive. Remember, you are the one who did the harm. You cannot police their forgiveness process. There is nothing that instills more skepticism in a penitent’s genuineness than a disposition to mandate that the sin be forgotten. Mercy is supplicated, not demanded. Humanly speaking, you are at their mercy. Let people tell you how your actions made them feel. This is a painful process, but a necessary and rewarding one. Don’t shield yourself from their grief, but make it your own, knowing that your actions brought it about. Connecting the dots between what you did and how they feel will serve as a powerful deterrent against repeat offenses.
Finally, bring a structure of ongoing accountability into your life. We all need this, but even more so if we have fallen in a given area. Many don’t realize that David’s sin was ever before him the rest of his life. Portions of Psalm 51 and Psalm 32 were read continually in public assemblies, recounting David’s sin and repentance for the entire world to hear.5
Can you imagine standing before your entire church body while a hymn about your sin and sorrow was sung? Yet, “instead of endeavoring to conceal his guilt, he desired that others might be instructed by the sad history of his fall.”6 David’s high profile made this openness more essential. Though the humiliation was not comfortable for him, it was a light burden in comparison with the crushing weight of secret sin.
A Strong Foundation
Not everyone will respond to even the most scrupulous efforts to rebuild relationships once a fall has taken place. But the good news is that many, many will. For the most part, we want to believe in each other. May heaven direct our steps as we strive to build, and rebuild, bonds of trust.
1“Prime Time: The Fall of Jimmy Swaggart,” by Randall Balmer. www.fathom.com/feature/35011.
2Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 721.
32 Samuel 12:9-12.
4Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 38.
5Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 725.
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, wife, mother, author, songwriter, and musician, writes from Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania.