How Do Great Christian Failures Happen?
The recent fall of a major figure in the evangelical world leaves some people, including non-believers, shaking their heads asking how this can happen. He had the power, prestige and position to be wiser than his actions revealed.
The answer is simple.
We begin with the false belief that Christians have it all together; they are close to God and, therefore, far from the spiritual and behavioral precipice. Nothing could be further from the truth. What’s worse is not when Christians fall into this trap but they subject others alienated from Christianity to self-condemnation.
There is a saying in Catholicism — You can go to Hell imitating the short-comings of saints. The root of these great falls is pride, the mother of all sin. People believe they are close to God because of their good works or their position. How could someone in their position fall, after all: “Do you know who they are?” They become blind to their own faults and, therefore, soon become slaves to them.
Jesus addresses this when he commands us to focus on the log in your own eye and not the mote in another’s. Christians understand that they are close to God because of His grace not their own strength. They gratefully respond to His mercy, joyful that God’s love is constant. Take for example St. Paul. If you are not a believer and do not know the faith well, you may not know that St. Paul in two of his letters proclaims his failures in the fight against sin. In both cases, the solution is trusting in the grace and mercy of God. The alternative is spiritual blindness or spiritual despair.
In Romans 8 he admits to doing the wrong he does not want to do and not the good that he wants to do. He never mentions what that is but suffice it to say that he does not come across
as the popular definition of saint.
In 2 Corinthians, he admits that he has an angel of Satan, a thorn in his side attacking him. Many believe it is an affliction, but Satan is the tempter. It is more accurate to accept at least that he encounters severe temptations.
The apostle recognizes it is through his weakness and not his strength that Christ works. He acknowledges he needs Christ and cannot do it on his own. Once he does he becomes a channel of grace more powerful than he could be on his own.
This is the definition of humility. It is the core to the holy life. We rely on God’s grace and not our own strength. If we do the latter, we end up in disaster. That is what happened to King David.
The great leader famously committed adultery and then murder to hide it when his mistress becomes pregnant. Her husband was away at war so obviously he was not the father of the child. I love to remind people David’s cover up was so ineffective that three thousand years later we still talk about it.
He relied on this own strength and his power as king and turned away from God. Despite his position and that he was a prophet, he failed miserably.
Holiness begins not by accomplishing great powerful examples of piety and prayer, but by acknowledging our need for God’s strength and grace.
This leads us to my favorite saying in Christian lore: That which the devil fears the most is the worst of all sinners on his or her knees in prayer.
Obviously, in the Catholic Church we have had our source of failures and they indeed lead others to question what we believe. If you study well the abuse crisis, you will find what was never reported — covered up by the media is a better explanation —every priest returned to ministry did so after a doctor declared him cured. What did the bishops do wrong? They listened only to the human solution and not also to the channels of grace. The human solution failed because the issue also needed a spiritual response in humility. This is not what happened.I believe at the base of this was a loss of a sense of true spiritual evil.
A famous media priest suffered a fall from grace and he left the priesthood. Many were shocked. Prior to that time, he was popular and people loved to be inspired by his words. I, however, had my doubts about him. He was a convert after living a sinful life. He studied for ordination and became a popular media preacher on the speaking circuit.
I remember hearing one of his talks and something did not ring well with me. He preached that he chose to come to Christ because he did not want to sin anymore. That set off an alarm bell. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We seek Christ because he is the incarnation of truth which we pursue to become the fullness of humanity. Sin is a distraction from that truth but it is a powerful distraction.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote in her Way of Perfection that it was a stupid idea to believe that the road to the greatest of all treasures is not filled with thieves marauders and obstacles. Putting it another way, if you ever saw the TV show Survivor, the contestants go through hell. Why? Because there is a million dollars at stake. It cannot be easy to win a million dollars. We seek Christ because he leads us to the fullness of truth and humanity. We seek to avoid sin because it distracts us from knowing Christ. There is more to avoiding sin than choosing against it just because we do not want to do it anymore.
We live a lifelong journey seeking to know Christ more every day by being in communion with Christ daily. We pray and ask Him to recreate us more in His image. The closer we draw to Christ, the more we live in his mercy and grace and the more we realize how much we rely upon it in our lifelong journey. It is in that that journey we learn that the attractions of sin are obstacles, thieves and marauders. We cannot make that journey without Christ and we do not have the ability to avoid sin completely without massive amounts of his grace.
This is why I grow so angry at seeing many suffer words alienating them from the church and her grace and holiness. They learn that they need to turn from sin by their own efforts so that God will lead them to Heaven. That is not Catholicism!!!!! We respond to God’s invitation in grace and he strengthens us to choose not to sin because we seek a deeper truth in Him. We seek to grow in wisdom so that we may become filled with his grace. The door to that process is to accept his grace in humility.
The first saint in the Catholic Church is St. Dismas whom I like to say did one thing right in his whole life and it is the only one that counted. Christians know him as the good thief on the cross. He acknowledged he was a thief and repented of his sin seeking forgiveness from Christ hours before his death. Jesus promised him Heaven that day.
Great leaders who believe their own press and turn from the source of grace they need, end up trying to become holy on their own. These we read about in the news.
Why is this so important to know, even if you do not believe? Many feel alienated from Christ because others demand they do exactly the same thing — use their own strength and live a good Christian life. That is the recipe for failure. If the great leaders in the faith cannot do it then no one has any right demanding that of others who some label the worst of all sinners. St. Alphonsus Liguori said that those who pray go to Heaven and those who do not don’t. The first step to being a person of prayer is simply to stand before the Lord and speak from the heart. That terrifies the devil.
The others who stop praying because they feel they reached the greatest heights as others applaud their every word lead the devil to laugh joyfully. His successful efforts we can read about in the news on a regular basis.