“The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” (1 Tim. 5:24)
The apostle Paul tucks those words into his letter to a young pastor named Timothy just after telling Timothy to be careful with making others leaders in the church. Long, hard experience speaks these words. You have to have lived a little while, paying attention over time, to know this truth. My mama used to say, “It’ll all come out in the wash.” I’ve heard other older saints say, “Your sin will find you out.” Paul, my mama, those old saints—they were all correct.
Ask Bill Cosby. The now-convicted comedian isn’t laughing and joking about sexual assault allegations brought against him by dozens of women. What was done in darkness sometimes decades ago has now come to the light.
Ask Larry Nasser. The serial pedophile and sexual predator isn’t hiding behind medical expertise and doctor-patient confidentiality. The heart-breaking, mile-long parade of courageous women have brought his years of sin into the light of day.
Other examples abound. Consider the pastors whose sins have crawled out of dark secrecy recently to speak against them on spotlit stages. Praise God most of these pastors have not been as heinous as Cosby or Nasser, but that doesn’t mean their failings aren’t serious.
This morning the trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary issued a statement announcing that Paige Patterson will no longer be president of that institution. Though the statement doesn’t mention the swirling controversy over Patterson’s comments about a young girl’s body or unbiblical counsel to women in abusive situations, the decision is at least linked by timing. Patterson’s comments were flat-out wrong and a pretty serious misrepresentation of the Bible he defended. This marks the sad end to a long and at times valiant career in service to the church and the gospel.
I suspect the reaction to the news will be mixed. Some may be of the opinion that a good man was unjustly pressured out of service. Some will cheer the decision with a furrowed brow, wondering why Patterson’s comments regarding women was not stated as partial basis for the action. Others will see the move as essentially continuing the same culture of disregarding women that led to Patterson’s comments in the first place.
No matter our reaction to the trustees’ announcement, it seems wise to ask, “What might we learn as we think about these things in our culture and in the church?”
Luke 13 provides one-word guidance: repent. When we see tragedies and sin around us, it’s at least an invitation for us to do some appropriate self-examination. Regarding the exposure of sin and folly, nothing has happened to others that cannot happen to us.
No matter the examples we bring to mind, we can be sure that the God who is publicly just, holy, and righteous will deal publicly with sin. It may appear for a time that we’ve gotten away with things. We may learn to breathe easier and even come to forget details and incidents as we “safely” try to “put things behind us.” But our sin is a pretty good tracker. It observes the footprints we leave, and it follows. It will follow us all the way to judgment—whether the judgment rendered in the court of public opinion or the judgment rendered at the bar of Christ. The record of our sin will appear.
The public revelation of our sin causes not just scandal but profound shock to our system. It’s not easy to recover—if recover is even the right response. This means we’re better off dealing with our sins before they “appear later.” We all are. And perhaps we all have things to deal with.
It’s also better to deal with these things while we are young. Older people fall harder and get up slower. We can spend our youth attempting to avoid these things, hoping they won’t shipwreck a ministry or a career. We can then spend our ministry ignoring these things, justifying them by pointing to our apparent “success.” Then when we’ve passed through middle age into retirement, we can justify continuing silence by saying, “Why ruin a good reputation?” Consequently, the weight of long life, perhaps the added weight of some success, gain crushing force when our sins come to light later and our good reputations are harmed.
Of course, depending on what we’re hiding or ignoring, it’s not really a good reputation, is it? It’s a fabrication, an image, a curated personal persona. But it’s not a reputation, hard-earned and deserved. We may convince ourselves the illusion is true and treat the truth as illusion. Believing the lie we protect ourselves rather than the truth. We imprison ourselves since the truth makes us free.
Finishing well means, in part, finishing without scandal. Every pastor I know (myself included) wants to finish well. But I wonder if we haven’t sometimes defined “finishing without scandal” as covering the scandal so no one knows rather than actually addressing the scandal like a Christian because God already knows. The only One who can rightly cover our scandal is Christ, who covers it with his blood. But a blood-covered scandal ought to make us free to confess it and deal with it. If we continue to hide it, it’s evidence we haven’t yet understood how great a covering his blood is. Then our sin will find us out, and we’ll doubly mourn—for the sin itself and for the failure to claim the blood so much sooner.
Don’t think that because sin sometimes shows up on CP time that it won’t show up at all. Instead, let us “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that we may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).