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It was two full days of answered prayer. We witnessed pastors and ministry leaders from all around the nation honestly confess their temptations to worldly power and encounter the grace of God in their weakness. Kyle and I dreamed of hosting “The Way of the Lamb” conference for years, ever since writing our book The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. As Kyle concluded the conference with a final plenary talk, with tears in my eyes I whispered into my friend’s ear, “Look what God has done.” 

Just a few hours later, what seemed like a dream felt more like a nightmare. That night I (Jamin) sat in my bed, silently staring at the headline on my screen, unable to scroll down and read more. The news of Jean Vanier’s abuse of six women made me sick to my stomach. Vanier, who died May 7, 2019, had spent a lifetime advocating for people with disabilities. He established a worldwide network of communities called L’Arche, dedicated to the care of people with disabilities.  

I called Kyle, and we sat silently on the phone together scrolling through the article, reading one horrifying paragraph after another. Kyle and I knew this man. Or, we thought we knew him. Years ago, in the process of interviewing sages of Jesus’s way of power for our book, we had traveled to Vanier’s home in France. That time together led us to include him in our book as an exemplar of Jesus’s way of power. As we read about what this man had done, we were crestfallen.

Devastating, Yet Sadly Familiar

Our initial mix of emotions—shock, horror, grief, confusion, anger, betrayal, embarrassment—would be our steady companions in prayer and conversation the following days. We are not alone. For thousands, the news of Vanier’s abuse has been disorienting and devastating. Vanier’s lifetime of advocacy and care for those with disabilities was inspiring for people around the world. He was not merely a Christian thinker—one whose ideas were informative and interesting—he was someone who seemed to model a Christlike way of being human. 

But even for those unfamiliar with Vanier’s work and writings, this turn in his story is sadly familiar. It’s just one story among too many to count of men in positions of spiritual leadership and authority who have used their power to manipulate, control, dominate, harm, and abuse. 

We are in the midst of a reckoning of spiritual leaders in the church today. God is shining his light on dark places. The question is: How do we respond? 

Three Ways to Respond

Through the lens of our own recent experience with Vanier, we hope to provide some initial responses to this question. We pray this might be helpful to those who have faced, are facing, and will face the disorientation and devastation of toxic and abusive power wielded by someone they trust spiritually. It’s worth mentioning: if you’ve experienced abuse by a leader firsthand—like the brave women who spoke the truth about Vanier—you are worthy of great support, resources, attention, and care, beyond the scope of this article. Our focus here is primarily on those who’ve learned secondhand of abuse by leaders they’ve trusted. 

1. Pray

As we faced the news of Vanier’s abuse, we were immediately tempted to think our way through the issue: to explain, to analyze, to generate solutions. It was tempting to read every article and constantly refresh our social media feeds in hopes that some new nugget of information might provide clarity to our confusion. In the midst of this, we saw in our own hearts a temptation to avoid what was most necessary: prayer. 

We are in the midst of a reckoning of spiritual leaders in the church today. God is shining his light on dark places. The question is: How do we respond?

In the midst of our disillusionment, grief, anger and sadness, two particular modes of prayer have been critically important: lament and imprecation. In both forms of prayer, we are invited to draw near to the Father in Christ by the Spirit. We are to pray as Christ prayed. We are called to lament: “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day?” (Ps. 13:2). We are called to imprecation: “For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted, to put them to death. He loved to curse; let curses come upon him!” (Ps. 109:16–17). We pray these prayers to God because:

The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Ps. 34:15–18)

God is not inviting us to “make sense of it all,” but rather to draw near to him in the dizziness of our emotions. We’re called to lament and imprecate, because we trust that God is the one who searches hearts, God is the judge, who alone calls all to give an account.

2. Listen

We must also respond to abusive power by listening to the abused—attending to victims’ cries of pain and grief. Immediate outrage is not the same as sustained compassion. Firing off a quick social-media post declaring solidarity with victims is a far cry from holding the horrifying reality of their abuse prayerfully in our hearts in a sustained way. The frequency of stories regarding spiritual abuse can desensitize us to their utter grievousness. We are called to grieve with the victims of abuse. To mourn with them. To weep with those who weep. 

We are called to grieve with the victims of abuse. To mourn with them. To weep with those who weep.

When we have an attachment to a leader who abuses his power, particularly when that attachment was positive, it can be easy to focus our attention on them rather than their victims. We can be tempted to respond by immediately trying to salvage the good this person has done in our lives, afraid of losing the meaningful contribution this person has made in our lives. Or maybe we feel a sense of embarrassment that we trusted this person. Did we miss something?

We have been confronted with this temptation regarding Vanier. We are learning to be careful that our initial response is not guided by our own desire to self-protect, to avoid difficult emotions, or to maintain the purity of our experience with him. But now is not the time to explore how we can keep the good work and good words of Vanier. This becomes particularly difficult with someone like Vanier, who was not only beloved by many, but also who founded a worldwide organization of care, who provided for thousands a calling to a certain form of life, and whose work has been undeniably meaningful. The victims’ voices should be heard right now, not Vanier’s.

Our initial response to stories like this should not be focused on immediate restoration of the fallen leader. Nor should it focus on what this means for the leader’s “legacy.” Rather, our first focus should be on the victims.

3. Speak the Truth

We must name evil as evil, for the sake of those harmed, victimized, abused, rejected, and marginalized. We must stand with those who have been cast down, and in doing so, we stand with Jesus. This must be done within the church.

Are our churches places where evil power reigns? Have we created systems of abuse and toxic leadership that fail to care well for God’s people? Are we giving gurus power, and when they abuse do we look the other way as they set up shop in another city, failing to reconcile or seek healing with the victims of their abuse? The church is quickly becoming known as a place where sexual deviancy, power, and charlatanism run amok. What would happen if Jesus returned to find his church in this state? It’s in the context of a parable on praying for justice that Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). This is the question we must consider as we address how evil power continues to warp us from within.

We still cannot fathom the abuse and silencing Vanier’s victims have endured, and what it must have been like to watch their abuser praised as a living saint. It is unthinkable. Our hearts have been gripped by the reality that we have pointed to Vanier as a model. We wrote The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb out of a desire to name evil power at work in the church, and to call the church to embrace Jesus’s way of power in weakness for the sake of love. 

As a result, Vanier’s inclusion in our book not only does not honor his victims, but also no longer honors the integrity of our message. We were betrayed by a man we trusted. This is why we have asked our publisher to no longer print the current edition our book, and we are beginning to work on a revised edition. We are rewriting, not to forget about Vanier, but to wrestle with the pain he caused, to try to prayerfully name the truth and lament as we do so, and to hopefully live out what we have written.

We feel the weight of temptation on every side. It can be painful to listen to the horror. It can be easier not to speak. But the Lord calls us to bear witness to his kingdom in this fallen world. May he lead us in his grace and truth.

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