It was one year ago that the website Ashley Madison was hacked, leading to their client list being published for all to see. On August 18, 2015, a group calling itself ‘The Impact Team’ leaked tens of thousands of Ashley Madison client profiles, a list that included many high profile leaders and well-known celebrities. The consequences were immediate. The outing included 1,200 Saudi Arabian clients, a region of the world where adultery is punishable by death. The list also included a number of pastors and spiritual leaders.
Not surprisingly, the past year has been filled with heartbreaking stories of well-known Christians and their moral failures. Like you, my heart hurt as I read story after story of those who have crossed lines, been caught in their sin and subsequently, according to those close to the situation, repented. It appears that every week brought (and continues to bring) new revelations. In the pastoral community, the outing of Ashley Madison client’s led to a steady stream of confessions, resignations and, in some cases, what seemed like repentance.
I have been deeply troubled over the past year as I have head story after story of pastoral repentance. Many well meaning articles have been written by respected leaders declaring fallen leaders repentant – only weeks after the initial exposure of sin. My concern is grounded in the fact that all too often, identifying an act of sorrow as repentance is premature, misleading and unbiblical.
While repentance can certainly happen in a moment, identifying repentance usually (not always) takes much longer. PastorServe is regularly asked to work with pastors in the aftermath of moral failure. We very rarely if ever use the word repentance during the first year. Why do we wait? Because, while a pastor may show every conceivable outward mark of repentance, we simply don’t know the heart. Only God knows the heart.
Expressed repentance and the hatred of the consequences of sin look exactly alike, for a time—and then the paths separate. Over and over again, PastorServe has been called into a church crisis where an overseeing board tells us, “Though the church is wounded, we are on the right path, because we know our pastor has repented of his sins.” Our response: “You have no idea if your pastor has repented of his sins, and you won’t for some time.” I could share a number of stories of superstar pastors and repentance. Here is one…
A well-known pastor, (I’ll call him Mike, not his real name) called me in the early evening. Through his tears, he informed me that his wife had just informed him she was leaving with no plans to return. He pleaded with me to immediately meet with the two of them. I reluctantly agreed. I had known Mike for close to five years. I knew him as a supremely gifted, intelligent, well-spoken, skilled communicator and master manipulator. I wasn’t surprised that his wife was permanently ready to walk out the door.
As we spoke that evening, the wife calmly, unemotionally explained that she could no longer live with her husband’s addiction to pornography and alcohol. She simply couldn’t take another day of lies, excuses and heartache. She was tired of the flirting with other women, his prolonged unexplained absences from the home and his propensity to ignore her. Furthermore, she was tired of Mike’s addiction to work and his need to seek the approval of others. She had pleaded with him over and over again to seek help, but he had refused. She saw no other options. She wanted a divorce.
Mike got down on his knees and literally began to beg. “Please sweetheart, please” he said over and over again through his tears, “I’ll change. I am so sorry. I repent. I’ll do whatever it takes.” I sat by silently watching the heartbreaking agony of a dissolving marriage. After nearly half an hour of begging, the wife relented. “All right,” she said. “I’ll give you one more chance. But if you aren’t sincere, we are done. Done!”
Mike immediately confessed his litany of sins to his board of elders. They acted with grace and did not immediately release him, instead placing him on probation while significantly reducing his pastoral duties. The elders committed to walk with Mike and his wife through the difficult months ahead. The couple immediately started weekly counseling. Mike began attending AA meetings. He installed accountability software on his computer and smartphone and began attending a weekly sexual addiction group. He regularly met with a small group of elders as well as fellow staff. His wife expressed cautious optimism. Mike frequently expressed repentance and gave glory to God for repairing his damaged marriage. Everyone who knew Mike marveled at his newfound commitment to sobriety, moral purity and marriage fidelity. Following the three-month probation, Mike was restored to full pastoral responsibilities. The elders openly spoke of Mike’s repentance and his rekindled commitment to his marriage and to Jesus.
Unquestionably, Mike did change. For about six months.
After six months, Mike was right back in the same rut, only deeper. His wife, true to her word, filed for divorce and moved to Florida to be close to her parents. Mike’s pastoral ministry subsequently came to an end as his addictions erupted in every imaginable manner. What happened? What motivated Mike to temporarily change?
Mike hated the humiliation of losing his marriage; he feared losing his good name in the community and the thought of losing his job at the church (and the accompanying salary) scared him to death. But his appetite for lust, alcohol, attention and affirmation had only been temporarily suppressed because Mike never hated the sin; Mike only hated the consequences of the sin. Was he sorry? Of course he was sorry. Hard-hitting consequences will produce profound sorrow in the hardest of hearts. But overpowering regret and Godly repentance are two very different things.
The greatest model for repentance can be found in Psalm 51, after David has been confronted by Nathan. David pens a Psalm of repentance, truth and trust. Some selected verses from David’s heart cry:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:1-4, 10-12, 17 (ESV)
The key to David’s repentance can be found in verse four when he says, “Against you and you only have I sinned!” Wait a minute – what does he mean by the phrase "You only"? What about Uriah and all the men killed alongside him? Wasn’t David’s sin against everyone? How can he say that his sin was against God alone? That sounds like he is shirking responsibility! That can’t be right! Keep in mind that David isn’t writing a doctrinal thesis. He is writing a heartfelt prayer of repentance.
Let’s put this in language applicable to you. If you are brokenhearted today over some persistent sin in your life, you say, “Against my wife I have sinned, against my children I have sinned. Lord, against your church I have sinned, against your law have I sinned – look at the mess I have made out of my life. I’m going to change! I have to change!” If those words express your heart, sadly I can tell you, you will not change.
Stated another way: if your motivation is, "I have to change or else I am going to lose my wife, my children, or my job. I am going to lose my self-respect, my friends and my good name in the community", that won’t ultimately address your pain. These are all consequences! You have failed to repent of the root sin. Your motivation to repent has to be Jesus! Anything short of genuine, godly repentance is counterfeit repentance. If your “repentance” is to bring immediate personal relief rather than lasting glory to God, you are mocking the true purpose of repentance.
In most cases, repentance is a process rather than a singular act. Repentance is a process to be continued and deepened over time. Fruit trees take time to produce real fruit.
You may be terribly sorry for the mess you have created and you convince yourself that you will make a lasting change – but, chance are, you are not repentant. So many believers are desperate for change, but honestly, they only want the consequences to go away. They hate the guilt. They hate the shame. They hate what the sin may do to their future. But, deep down - they love the sin.
I hope and pray that public figures who have sinned and subsequently been pronounced by others as repentant are indeed repentant. I pray that the Lord Jesus will wash over their life in a manner that produces deep and extended genuine repentance. But, we won’t know that today, tomorrow, next week or next month. Again, time will separate a self-preserving hatred of the consequences and a godly hated of sin.
So, when your friend, your pastor or your spouse is outed and subsequently displays deep heartfelt sorrow with a thousand promises to change, it may or may not be Godly repentance. Let’s give our fallen leaders the necessary time before we pronounce them genuinely repentant.