In my work as a redevelopment pastor I’ve encountered a somewhat similar situation in churches: troubled, perplexed, confused, discouraged Christians who have witnessed some really disturbing behavior from brothers and sisters whom they had thought were really good people. I’ve seen believers quit serving, quit growing or even “quit the church” altogether because of their confusion and discouragement. I’m also happy to say that I’ve seen believers and churches come to grips with the devastation they’ve experienced and move onward and upward for God’s glory. I’ve found that understanding why good people do bad things can really help. The following are three reasons. More will follow in subsequent articles:
(1) Sometimes good people do bad things because they are deliberately defiant. In the book of I Corinthians we find the apostle Paul writing to a church that was full of good people (see 1:2-9), some of whom were doing very bad things. The worst thing he mentioned was in chapter five verse one, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife.” That this man was a bona-fide part of the Corinthian church is evident from the fact that Paul commands in verse two that he be “put out of your fellowship” and in verse thirteen, “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
This begs the question of whether or not this man actually was “a good person.” In the New Testament a “good person” is one who has been regenerated (or born again) and made (II Corinthians 5:21) “the righteousness of God.” In I Corinthians chapter six, verses nine through eleven, Paul implies that, should this man not repent of what he was doing, he will be demonstrating that he was not a real, genuine, justified believer, which would make him a bad person doing bad things, not a good person doing bad things.
But it is possible that he was a real believer because while the believer is justified (pronounced eternally innocent in God’s court of law) and regenerated (made into a new person at the very center of his being), he is still saddled with the power of sin within him and therefore capable of doing some really bad things. I’m sorry to say that a Christian who is not filled with, empowered by, walking in, or in step with the Spirit (I think all these terms mean the same thing) is capable of just about anything that the unbeliever is capable of, though not on an ongoing basis.
Our response to the deliberately defiant believer (or professing believer) should begin with humility, because however “spiritual” we may be, look or feel on a good day, we are all capable of doing vile things. This truth ought to drive us to our knees exclaiming “it could have been me,” where we re-present our bodies to God, because we so desperately need the Spirit of God to control and empower us.
Our response should also be one of outrage – Paul “breathes” it in I Corinthians five and six – because our professing brother has brought disgrace to the name of Christ. Paraphrasing J.I. Packer, God is jealous for His name so we must be zealous for His name. It is right, not self-righteous, for us to be upset about anything that gives a “black eye” to the name of Christ.
Finally, our response toward the deliberately defiant professing brother should be one of compassionate action. Sooner or later, this person is going to suffer for his sin and we are no more worthy of God’s love than he is. Following the command of Galatians six, verse one, we need to join other caring Christians and “get in the face” of this person to try to rescue him from his sin. What we must not be is weak, passive or defeatist in the face of such sin. The spirit of the “church discipline” found in the Bible demands that we confront destructive behavior in the church with the same “calm, assertive” behavior with which Cesar Milan (the Dog Whisperer) confronts the most aggressive canine: “No dog needs to be ‘put down;’ no dog is too much for me to handle; any dog can be rehabilitated.” If Cesar will put himself at risk to “redeem” dogs, surely we must put ourselves at risk for the sake of people! Here’s a second reason why good people do bad things:
(2) Sometimes good people do bad things because they are self-reliant and weak. This may sound surprising. You would expect me to write “self-reliant and strong.” But the Christian is a creature who is weak when he is self-reliant and strong when he has a desperate dependence upon God. As the proverb puts it “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18). Wisdom dictates that we live in the spirit of the great old hymns, “I need thee every hour” and “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart.”
On a plaque in a cabin where I enjoy monthly retreat days is a great prayer: “Dear Lord, So far today I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or over-indulgent. I’m thankful for that. But in a few minutes God, I’m going to get out of bed. And from then on, I’m going to need a lot more help. Amen.” It’s funny, but it’s also theologically “right on.”
The brother or sister I’m describing now is not deliberately defiant of God’s authority like our friend above (1); this person is deceived by his own heart (Jeremiah 17:9), means well and does wrong, like Peter on the night of Jesus’ arrest and trials, denying Jesus three times, or like Paul’s description in Romans seven of himself at his worst, doing the very things he abhors.
If we can forgive Peter and Paul for their failures – and most of us are pretty good at forgiving ourselves for our own – we can and must forgive the brother or sister (or even the pastor) in our church, who in a time of foolish, self-reliance, did or said something really stupid.
Since I’ve raised the subject, let me be frank about pastors. We are human. We ought to be the most godly of men but this is not always the case. Pastors can get seriously depressed. Pastors can get sinfully entrenched in power struggles and “slide into” sinful, reactive behaviors while thinking they’re “on the battlefield for the Lord.” I know. I’ve been there. I wish I could go back and get a “do-over” on a resignation I did. While totally convinced that I was doing it well, I can see now that in my “weak, self-reliance” I hurt some people with some foolish and unnecessary words.
Ten years ago I led a completely independent church to join a fellowship of churches, in part, because I believe that pastors can get into some pretty sinful behavior without even knowing it. Accountability to a church board isn’t always enough. Sometimes we need a firm and loving voice from a church leader from outside our church to pull us back from the brink of disastrously carnal behavior.
Here’s a third reason why good people do bad things:
(3) Sometimes good people do bad things because of envy, selfish ambition, rivalry, jealousy or pride. I find this truth to be rather shocking. It’s an ugly truth to face. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians at Philippi, he speaks about people in Rome, probably pastors, who are preaching Christ with some of the worst possible motives: envy, rivalry, selfish ambition and even the malicious desire to hurt Paul while he was in chains. I think this means that some of these men were “ramping up” their ministries with Paul in jail, with the idea that they could take over the position of influence he had held. Others may have hoped that Paul’s case would turn out worse for him because of the increased attention that was being paid to these “ladder climbing” preachers in Rome.
Here’s the awful truth as I’ve seen it: The best of us are capable of doing the best of all possible deeds, with the worst possible motives. As if that isn’t bad enough, the best of us are also capable of doing the worst of all possible deeds, with the worst possible motives.
From chapter two, verses three and four of the same letter, the Apostle’s pleas reveal more evil motives with which good people can take action, in the church: “selfish ambition” (the joy of being “a big fish in a small pond”), “vain conceit” (a desire to show off) and looking “only to your own interests” (“this is my Sunday School room” or “this is my slice of the budget”).
Even though he is writing to a vibrant church of which he has the fondest memories (1:3-8), Paul returns to the subject of bad behavior among the Philippians for a third time in chapter four, verses one through three. Two extraordinary ladies in this church, fellow workers with Paul who had “contended at his side” in the work of the gospel were “on the outs” with each other. No issue is mentioned by Paul. No sin committed by either of them is referenced. Neither is a heretic. It looks like a simple case of rivalry, an old-fashioned ugly, petty, power struggle. Somebody Paul calls his “loyal yokefellow” is urged to help these – apparently in some ways great – ladies to work it out. In contemporary language, Paul calls for mediation and pleads for all involved to demonstrate to all the sweet-reasonableness (a more literal translation of the word “gentleness” in verse five) of Christ.
Where have you seen yourself in this article? If there are behaviors you need to repent of you can do so with joy, knowing that God will joyfully forgive, cleanse and grant you a fresh start. Perhaps God wants you to respond to defiant, self-reliant (and weak) or carnal brothers and sisters around you with more humility. Perhaps it’s time to forgive. Perhaps God is nudging you to confront a brother in the loving spirit of Galatians six, verse one. Aren’t you glad that God has forgiven you? Aren’t you glad that He has promised the grace which turns every command of the New Testament into a promise? Are you glad that, in His way and time, He can turn misbehaving Christians into real pillars in their churches.