Thinking about sin and leadership

I’ve been thinking about sin lately. I know it’s not a popular subject to talk about. But don’t worry. My finger is pointing in one direction. Me. Actually, it’s a thumb because it’s easier to point at yourself with a thumb than a finger.

I was reading a book about Apple Inc. and Simplicity and strangely enough, the author who is decidedly not Christian compares complexity to sin nature, and simplicity to that place we all love, but can never seem to stay. In case you missed it, here’s the analogy: complexity = sin (easy to do, we drift there naturally, we hate ourselves for it) and simplicity = holiness (not easy, but when we’re there we feel a relief, there’s a sense of cleanness and beauty).

Throughout life I find myself drifting away from God constantly in the same way that most of us drift toward complexity. Sometimes, especially if I stop looking in a mirror, I find I’ve drifted so far that I end up doing something stupid and regretful. When that happens it’s usually a wake up call. I drag myself back to God who of course playing the role of the prodigal son’s father, picks me up from the mud, hoses me down and brings me home.

That’s a nice thought, isn’t it?

But then what? So I’m home. I’ve got a warm towel wrapped around me. A hot meal before me. A loving Father watching me from the adjacent couch with a gleeful twinkle in his eye.

And I’m sitting there overcome with guilt.

That is a hard place to be and I think, like me, it is also exactly where a lot of Christians end up.

That guilt comes from a sense of unworthiness. That I don’t deserve this warm blanket or hot meal or unfailing love from God.

And of course that is what grace is all about. But as easy as it is to say, the guilt persists. Because though we sin against God, we also sin against others. And sometimes we sin with others.

And coming back to God doesn’t magically make everything alright. I wish it did, trust me. But it doesn’t.

If it did, David’s first child with Bathsheba wouldn’t have died. (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

There are consequences that persist, even after forgiveness is had.

Everybody always talks about how David was a man after God’s own heart. And they always compare David to “evil” King Saul.

But as I was reflecting on David and Saul a thought struck me: David sinned more. His sins were far more overt. Saul’s “big” sin, the one that lost him the throne, was pride. Whereas David was at times a ruthless murderer, a terrible father, a rapist and an adulterer. Both kings began humble. Both kings grew more proud and entitled. So why is one villainized (Saul) while the other endeared (David)?

I don’t think it’s because of how they sinned, or how much they sinned, or how bad they sinned, or how persistent they sinned.

I think the difference is in how they repented.

Here’s how Saul “repented”:

“I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord… I have sinned. But please honour me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.” (1 Samuel 15:24-30)

The key phrase that gives us insight into Saul’s “repentant” heart is this one: “I have sinned. But please honour me before the elders of my people and before Israel.”

In other words, Saul was more concerned with his appearance, than his relationship with God or the consequences of his sin.

Now here’s how David repented:

“I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13)

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10-12)

The contrast between David and Saul here couldn’t be more stark.

Saul’s concern was for himself and how he looked before the people. David’s concern was also for himself, but it was about his relationship with God which, it would seem, had gone adrift.

What I find interesting in both cases, and particularly in David’s case, is that even with his totally explicitly sinful actions (what with murder, adultery, and all), he still had to have his sin pointed out to him. Think about that. What if Nathan had not come to do so, would David have ever repented?

We can’t say. But one thing I think we can say for sure, David’s sin was his wake up call. And that call didn’t sound until someone confronted him on it.

Unfortunately, I can related with that. I wish it weren’t so. But it is. Even as a church leader, even as a preacher, the drift happens and the heart grows calloused and the message becomes about others. It stops piercing the preachers own heart.

And when the wake up call happens, the guilt becomes almost unbearable.

Frederick Buechner captures this well in his book Telling the Truth. In it he describes the time when Henry Ward Beeching was about to deliver the first Beeching Lectures on preaching at Yale back in 1872. Beeching, who was set to deliver his lecture within the hour, had cut himself with a razor while shaving. From here I’ll let Buechner pick it up:

“So when he stood there looking into the hotel mirror with soap on his face and a razor in his hand, part of what he saw was his own shame and horror, the sight of his own folly, the judgment one can imagine he found even harder to bear than God’s, which was his own judgment on himself, because whereas God is merciful, we are none of us very good at showing mercy on ourselves.” (p.2)

The reason guilt persists, even after God our Father extends mercy and forgiveness, is because as Buechner says, we are not very good at showing ourselves mercy.

One part that I forgot to mention. It was in that moment, with his face half shaved and a sliver of blood dripping down his chin, that Henry Ward Beeching picked up a pencil and paper and began scribbling down the notes that he would preach an hour later at that first Beeching Lectures on preaching. And the reason for that, a reason I don’t ever want to forget, is that as a preacher, I am also a man broken at times, prone to the drift. That when I preach, I preach to myself too.

By the way, I’d love to think that after David’s wake up call he went on to live a holy life. Such was not to be as the scriptures testify. He went on to plot the murder of Joab and he continued to be a terrible father and the adulterous husband of multiple wives.

And a part of me says, “Thank heavens!” Because that means there’s still hope for me.

Question: As a leader, what measures do you take to avoid the subtle drift towards sin? You can leave a comment by clicking here.