When Standing Strong Means Running Fast
by Robert Walter
Imagine being wakened early in the morning to find the back of your house and your neighbor’s pool have been swallowed by the earth. Such was the case for homeowner Michael Dupre in Dunedin, Florida last month.
When he went to bed the night before, everything looked fine. But by the time the cavity stopped yawning, it was 90 feet across. Both Dupre’s house and his neighbor’s were condemned and four others evacuated.
Sinkholes may appear to be sudden events but actually are the result of ground water erosion over a period of months or years. Acidic water begins to dissolve rocks like limestone or gypsum, and before long the weight of the overburden causes a collapse.
A ministry collapse often happens the same way. We are shocked when we hear reports of Christian leaders who are exposed in sexual scandal. “We may wonder, “How did that happen?”
One thing is for sure… it didn’t happen overnight.
Prominent ministries that once were the envy of other Christian leaders collapse after long-standing character issues come to light. Character does not suddenly implode—it erodes bit by bit.
When King Solomon started to rule, he was a man full of promise. God told him that his kingdom would stand as long as he walked in integrity of heart. But bit by bit his heart was eroded through his attachment to his wives and his wealth and his kingdom ended in ruin.
Was there a day that seemed different to King Solomon from the previous? I don’t think so. But at the end of his reign he was in a very different place from where he was at the beginning of his reign. What probably looked like small decision—neglect, distraction, complacency in the face of temptation, accumulated over time and exerted a terrible weight that brought his kingdom down.
Dr. Robert Clinton of Fuller Seminary estimates that 75% of leaders—both biblical leaders and contemporary Christian leaders, fail to fulfill their calling. Some end their ministry in crisis, others just fade away.
The good news is that we don’t have to be victims of spiritual sinkholes. We can make sure our foundation is secure by understanding how temptation undercuts us all and what we can do about it.
Do You Think You Are Standing Strong?
Sinkholes form only in certain kinds of sedimentary rock—carbonates and evaporites. These are the ones most likely to be dissolved by acidic ground water. When it comes to temptation, we are all carbonates and evaporites. No one is impervious.
In the midst of spiritual success, especially one marked by the power of God, it’s easy to assume we are rock solid. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church, which was both incredibly spiritual and incredibly immoral, warning them, “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”
Gordon MacDonald was the pastor of the largest church in New England, a professor at a major evangelical seminary and the president of InterVarsity. Success as we generally measure it was his. Then all of a sudden, a crater opened that swallowed up his ministry. What had been inconceivable to the Christian world and even to MacDonald became reality.
In his book, Rebuilding Your Broken World, MacDonald recalls an interesting exchange that reveals his state of mind before his downfall:
My friend asked a strange question: “If Satan were to blow you out of the water, how do you think he would do it?”
“I’m not sure I know,” I answered. “All sorts of ways, I suppose; but I know there’s one way he wouldn’t get me.”
“He’d never get me in the area of my personal relationships. That’s one place where I have no doubt that I’m as strong as you can get.”
A few years after that conversation my world broke wide open. A chain of seemingly innocent choices became destructive, and it was my fault. Choice by choice by choice, each easier to make, each becoming gradually darker. And then my world broke—in the very area I had predicted I was safe—and my world had to be rebuilt.
MacDonald’s example is a warning for all of us.
In addressing sexual immorality in the Corinthian church, Paul reminds them that supernatural experiences are not a “get out of temptation free pass.” As a case in point, he reminds them of what happened to God’s people during the Exodus.
The Hebrews experienced all kinds of signs, wonders and miracles—a rescue through the Red Sea, water from a rock, manna each morning. Yet none of these experiences prevented the chosen people from falling into idolatry and immorality when temptation came. Paul states flatly that these things “were written down as warnings for us.” He concludes, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”
Let’s be real. No matter how successful or spiritual we are, we are not immune from temptation. If anything, the more successful or spiritual we are, the more of a target we become. When the enemy brings a leader down, he knows a lot of other people will fall with him.
So what do we learn from the example of Gordon MacDonald? How would you answer the question that was posed to him, “If Satan were to blow you out of the water, how would he do it?”
When I Least Expected It
Sinkholes surprise us. They build slowly but remain underground.
I had just completed a long and difficult ministry assignment in China. I was on a plane heading to the capitol city where I would spend my last night before catching my international flight home. These trips were always demanding because the days were long, the stakes were high, and the ministry was intense.
Relieved and rejoicing that everything had gone well, I was indulging in one of my rewards—reading a novel on my electronic reading device, a Kindle.
While I was reading, the pretty girl seated next to me interrupted to ask about the Kindle. She had never seen one. Since it was new to me too, I gladly pointed out the features. The more we talked the more animated she became. With a smile, she snatched the Kindle out of my hands and started scrolling through the pages herself. Her playfulness caught me by surprise, and so did the interest that was ignited. While she studied the Kindle, I studied her.
Exactly when my thoughts crossed over the line into lust, I am not sure, but I know I was enjoying her company and the conversation far too much.
When it was all over and I was by myself again, I was shaken. How could I have been so easily snared? Paul was right. If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.
Here are some of the things I have learned about temptation since then:
- Temptation is not the same as sin
In Hebrews 4:15 we read that we have a high priest in Jesus, “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.” Jesus faced temptation but did not fall into sin.
It is an incredible thing to realize that we don’t have a priest that is unable to sympathize with us. He knows the temptations we face because he has faced them himself. Therefore, he truly understands our battles, our weakness, and our failures. For that reason, we can approach his throne with confidence knowing that we will receive mercy and grace rather than judgment and condemnation in our time of need.
Our first thoughts are not necessarily our real thoughts. That means we don’t have to own or act on every thought that passes through our mind. As Luther used to say, “You cannot keep the birds from flying overhead but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
- Temptation is attractive
When Adam and Eve were tempted in the Garden, Satan offered something appealing. Eve looked at the fruit he offered and saw three benefits:
It was good for food
It was pleasing to the eye
It was desirable for gaining wisdom
Temptation offers us something we think will make our life better, less painful, more fulfilling, less threatening, more stable. If it didn’t look good, temptation wouldn’t be enticing. We tend to think in terms of black and white, but temptation shifts categories on us. Evil doesn’t come looking like an enemy—it comes looking like an ally. And we begin to buy into Satan’s slanderous implication that it is God who is holding out on us.
When I am tempted to indulge in forbidden fruit, it’s amazing how good I am at rationalizing that I am the exception to the rule and that my circumstances justify my actions. I almost want to be seduced by my desires.
What we fail to see are sin’s consequences. Temptation blinds us. Eve was so mesmerized by the one tree Satan offered that she lost sight of the hundreds of trees God had offered. She only saw what she thought she lacked, so she was blind-sided by Satan’s onslaught. She failed to see what her choices would cost her and all creation.
Temptation is like that. It offers sweet fruit but hides the fact that it will cost the world.
- Temptation is powerful
Sin is not just an act in which we do something we regret or fail to do something we should. Sin is a power that exerts itself in our life. To say that it is powerful does not excuse our failure to deal with temptation in our life. But to fail to recognize sin’s power is to fail to guard our heart.
Temptation opens us to sin’s power—a power that is relentless. Paul the Apostle describes it just like an addiction: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do…. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
It is clear that Paul is really wrestling here. This is not a matter of praying a polite little prayer and claiming the victory. This is not a matter of will power. Will power cannot stand up to sin’s power. Christianity is not a spiritual version of trying harder. Paul rejoiced because he could depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to enable him to battle the power of sin (Romans 8).
When Fleeing is Better than Fighting
The devastation that comes from a sinkhole is overwhelming. And so is the devastation that comes from sexual sin. Once a house is destabilized by a sinkhole, the only solution is to tear it down. It is uninhabitable. Once the leader falls, it is impossible to put all the pieces together again.
Family members may be able to forgive, but how many church members are disillusioned and lose their faith? For that reason prevention must be a first line of defense and restoration a second line of response.
In hopes of preventing a fall, Paul doesn’t coach people on how to fight sexual temptation—his command is to flee temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18). A criminal flees the scene of a crime after it is committed; a Christian flees the scene before a crime is committed. Joseph did not stand to fight the temptation of Potipher’s wife, he stood strong by running fast.
Prevention is not building a stronger house over a sinkhole, it is recognizing when we are in the danger zone and running to safety.
The Danger Zone
Every leader is liable to temptation, but certain leaders are in the danger zone—a place where there is increased vulnerability to immorality or idolatrous attachments. God made us for relationships that are characterized by love and joy. When loving and joy-filled relationships are lacking, we try somehow to fill the hole.
Christian psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Lehman observes that you will move toward whomever or whatever brings you love and joy. His wife Charlotte adds, “If you get more joy being with someone other than your spouse, you are in the danger zone. If your spouse is the one you share your hopes and dreams with, your fears and pain with, you are in good place.”
We all need multiple sources of joy, so there is nothing wrong with having other joy-filled relationships. But if someone besides your spouse is your main source of joy and appreciation, you are in the danger zone (especially if the person is of the same generation and opposite gender). If you find you are overjoyed to be with that person and not your spouse, you are prime for an affair.
Building on Solid Ground
We need to be proactive about temptation. That means we start working on the problem long before it becomes a problem. Here are some suggestions for staying out of the danger zone:
- Get healing for the wounds in your life
Childhood abuse and neglect inflict damage that time doesn’t heal. The heart ends up broken and “looking for love in all the wrong places” just like the old lyrics of the song say. A broken heart is like a sieve—no matter how much love you pour in, you still feel empty.
There are now many Christ-centered and effective healing ministries like Sozo and Theophostic to help people restore their heart. I am a fan of the Immanuel Prayer Approach.
- Renew your relationship with God
The same brain circuits that are stimulated when we feel close to another human are stimulated when we feel close to God. But concepts about God are no substitute for a relationship with God. That’s why Paul prays that the Ephesians will know the love of God “that surpasses knowledge.”
It is far too easy for those of us in ministry to get so busy doing things for God that we have no time for God. I made that mistake myself when I was a pastor in Texas. At the point of burnout, I had to take radical steps to renew my relationship with God. Week-long silent retreats were one of the best things I did to reconnect with God and rediscover healthy ministry. What a difference it made.
- Renew your relationship with your spouse
The same busyness that can steal our heart from God can steal our heart from our spouse. Busyness with kids can do the same thing. We have to be purposeful to spend time together and renew joy together.
One way to do that is to ask God to remind you about your partner’s good qualities and deliberately speak words of affirmation to one another. Affirmation and gratitude are powerful influences on our brain. They help us to connect to the person we are focusing on. Another way to stimulate joy-filled connection is to recall and retell positive stories of your life together. A renewal of joy can lead to a renewal of passion.
Those who are not married (and also those who are) can benefit from the next idea.
- Find a friend who will fight for your heart
Accountability partners are often recommended as a first line of defense. But if a person is cheating on their spouse, what makes us think they won’t also cheat on their accountability partner? It takes a special kind of relationship to keep us open and honest about what’s brewing inside.
After I succumbed to the flirtatious girl on the plane, I told my wife what had happened. But I also told two friends and asked them to check up on me. Both are pastors who understand that no one is perfect and I don’t have to pretend with them. Best of all, they believe in me, and when they check up on me it feels more like care than accountability. They lead me to higher ground.
Robert Walter is a former geologist who became a pastor and now trains pastors in Asia.