“Everybody’s great until you get to know them,” or so the saying goes. I don’t remember the first time I was disappointed by an authority figure, but I’ve lived long enough to know it won’t be the last. The closer we get to people, the more likely they are to disappoint us on some level. The same is true with those who lead us. Whether it is your husband, your pastor, your boss, or your parent, the greater the proximity the greater the sin becomes (or at least is revealed to be).
My family has a running saying: “the best of men are men at best”—meaning, even the ones we admire the most are really only men (or women), human beings with a propensity to commit grave sins, even sins against us. When I am confronted with this sin, my tendency is to retreat. You hurt me, I leave you. It’s easier. It works for me. It allows me to distance myself from the pain, rather than face it head on. It frees me from having to forgive the person if I don’t have to look him in the eye.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. From the first human beings, Adam and Eve, until the last word in Revelation, people have been letting each other down throughout history. Relationships have been damaged. Leaders have failed.
Before I go any farther, one thing must be clear: just because the one who hurts you is a leader does not mean that leader is absolved of consequences. Some sins (abuse of all forms, moral failure, murder, and so on) require immediate removal from a position of authority. David sinned by taking advantage of Bathsheba and murdering her husband (2 Sam. 11). While he was repentant, his child still died as a consequence of his failure (2 Sam. 12:18-19). Sin has consequences, even for leaders.
But how should we respond in our hearts towards such failings? Do you retreat, like me? Do you face it head on, refusing to be victimized again? Do you leave the church, fed up with hypocrisy? Do you cut off the one who has hurt you? Failure of leadership is a grievous offense against God’s people. It stings, sometimes for years. It plants seeds of distrust that often grow into choking weeds that are difficult to remove. It muddies our judgment of all levels of leadership. It dulls our senses to true leadership because our eyes have been clouded by pain and betrayal.
Moving Forward from Hurt
The Bible is full of leaders who missed the mark. In some sense, the human experience presented in Scripture reminds us that we never suffer in isolation. We follow in a long line of sinners, a long line of people who have been sinned against, and a long line of redeemed people. Abraham put his wife in danger by lying about her being his sister (Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20:1-18). Aaron followed the people he was charged to lead and gave them a golden calf, rather than pointing them to God as the one deserving of their praise (Ex. 32). Moses responded in anger, thus failing to enter the Promised Land (Num. 20:10-13). Saul cared more about himself than obeying God (1 Sam. 15). David’s sin with Bathsheba tainted his ability to lead for the remainder of his reign (2 Sam. 24:1-17). Zechariah failed to trust God completely in providing a child for him (Luke 1:18-20). Peter could be rash and proud (John 13:36-38). The list could go on. A survey of church history, or even our current relationships, would reveal even more disappointment.
If we are called to live as redeemed sinners in a world full of disappointing people (and we can count ourselves as both the disappointed and the disappointer), we must recognize that our circumstances do not define us, nor do they dictate our responses. With every failed leader in Scripture God was doing something powerful in the failure—he was showing his people that he alone is God. The same is true for us today. Like the Israelites before us, we are prone to worship what is in front of us (leaders) rather than the God our eyes cannot see. And when leaders fall, or sin against us, our reaction toward their demise reveals just how much stock we put in their ability to save us.
Any discussion of leadership would be woefully incomplete if it failed to mention that in imperfect leadership we have hope of the perfect one—Jesus. But looking to Christ, as the head of all things, including the church, is no mere platitude for weary hearts. It is honest truth we can take to the bank when a failed leader has sucked dry the bank account of our hearts. No one faced more disappointment from leaders than Jesus (Luke 22:66-23:25). He was scorned and crucified by the political and religious leaders of his day. All for us. When all the leaders around us fail (parents, husbands, teachers, pastors, bosses, politicians, and so on) we have a leader who stands for us to the end. He died to secure us, his children, and he lives to bring us safely home.
The same Jesus who is the hope for sinful leaders (and that includes all of us in some capacity) is the hope for victims of bad leadership as well. He transforms bad hearts and gives hope to broken ones.
In all our disappointment with those who lead us, we do not grieve their sin as people who have no hope. They are not ultimate; Christ is. They are not our savior; Christ is. They will not fulfill us; Christ will. Leaders come and go. Christ remains the same, faithful and true to his sheep. We grieve failed leadership (and deal with it biblically). But we find shelter from the storm of their failings in Jesus Christ, our perfect leader.