Moral failure: the backstory

I was listening to a Christian radio talk show the other day. The topic under discussion was how to affair proof your marriage and thereby avoid the kind of moral tragedy that has become all too common.

The moral failure of GODTV co-founder, Rory Alec, had been the trigger for the discussion..

Stories of both pain and deliverance were told as listeners phoned in with their advice and their accounts both of marriage breakdown and also of marriages mended.

Advice went along the lines of boundaries, accountabilty and, of course, the need to pray and do battle on a spiritual level.

What seemed to be missing, I say seemed, as I wasn’t able to listen to the whole programme, was the emotional health dimension.

Sadly, society’s discomfort with issues of mental and emotional health is often reflected in the church. However, having pastored for years, I am convinced that the kind of meltdowns that we have seen amongst Christian leaders and that happen no less destructively, if less publicly, every day, are often catalysed by a backstory of poor emotional health.

And I am convinced that there are some good biblical grounds for believing a pattern of emotional unhealth can lead to poor moral choices. Yielding to temptation isn’t just a choice. it is a choice made in a particular context. The trouble is that temptation often presents itself in a context which makes giving in to it very attractive.

A simple illustration might perhaps help to explain.

If someone were to ask you “Would you like an ice cream?” You have a simple choice. You can say “Yes” or “No”. However if the offer is made on a July day in thirty degrees of heat, you might be more like to say “Yes” than if the offer is made on a freezing cold day in mid January.

In both contexts you have a choice, but one context makes accepting the offer more likely. (I do appreciate that for some people it is never too cold to have ice cream).

Emotional health is a bit like the climate in the above illustration. When you are emotionally healthy – in a good place, as we might say – you are less likely to make decisions that have the potential to damage you and or your family or ministry or church.

For example, Satan did not tempt Peter to deny the Lord immediately after the transfiguration, he waited until the night on which Jesus was betrayed. Satan knew a backstory of pressure and uncertainty would yield a better result than a backstory of glory.

At least three major biblical leaders experienced spiritual meltdown at one point in their ministries: Moses, David and Elijah. The meltdown occurred in each case in an unhealthy emotional climate.

In Moses’ case the meltdown occurred against a backdrop of bereavement and loss. Numbers 20 records how the people complained about a lack of water. God told Moses to speak to the rock. Moses struck it instead. And in consequence lost his inheritance.

What is often overlooked, is that a few verses earlier Moses is having to cope with the death of his sister Miriam. It is hard to believe that Miriam’s death left Moses unaffected. She was his sister. She had effectively saved his life when he was a baby.

Handling a crisis is not ideal at a time when you are grieving. When you are trying to deal with your own pain, it is hard to deal with the needs of others. The pain of loss is not necessarily restricted to the death of a loved one. Any loss in life cause us to grieve.

A climate of boredom can also set us up for trouble. In 2 Samuel 11, David should have been at war, but instead he was at home. He was at a “loose end”. It was then that he noticed Bathsheba. And you know the rest of the story.

It is hard to believe that this was the first time Bathsheba had bathed in this location. Perhaps it was just that this time David noticed her. Why? Because he had lost focus on what was really important? He had done it all. Won battles. Conquered kingdoms. What was left to achieve?

Oddly enough, success can leave us bored or even depressed. Success can become addictive and leave us chasing a higher high. And that can set us up for meltdown.

Finally, the results of burnout can result in choices we would never otherwise make. Elijah’s flight into the wilderness in 1 Kings 19 reveals a weak, fearful prophet who wants to quit. If you read 1 Kings 18 and had never read 1 Kings 19, you would never predict the kind of deep depression into which Elijah sinks.

After winning a massive victory on Mount Carmel and opening the heavens once again, he is emotionally drained. His human frame just cannot cope. God understood and one cannot help but be moved at the tenderness and kindness of God as He nurses his prophet back to health.

Emotional health in no way explains completely why we make bad, even sinful, choices. And it certainly does not excuse our sinful decisions.  However, emotional health is a dimension in the battle that rages for our souls that we cannot afford to ignore. If we paid more attention to it, we might spare ourselves and others much pain.

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13 thoughts on “Moral failure: the backstory

  1. Interesting article. I agree that the emotional health of leaders is often something that is totally ignored – to both their and their congregations detriment. Leaders often feel the need to have it all together and be strong for those they lead but too often this results in an almighty fall because they didn’t have the support for areas in their own lives that they were struggling in. I’ve recently undertaken a survey about the issue of openness and authenticity – all the leaders that commented said they didn’t feel they could share openly with their congregation because of their position but the overwhelming response of those in congregations when asked how they think openness, honesty and non-judgementalism can be fostered in churches said it needed to be modelled by leaders. Interesting to see the gap in perceptions… I’m obviously not advocating a warts and all approach in which everyone shares everything with everyone else, but I wonder if that gap has an affect on a leader’s emotional well being…

    • Thank you for your comments. The findings of your survey are very revealing. A bit of a “catch 22” situation – an open and honest climate is produced by leaders modelling openness and honesty / leaders unlikely to model openness and honesty where there is not an open and honest climate! I am sure the gap does affect the leader’s emotional well-being – or at least can affect it. A very valuable discovery you have made. I wonder if part of the problem is that we still confuse weakness / temptation / and sin?

  2. Certainly agree! May our Lord Jesus give us all the strength to stand and say no just like he did when he said to Satan to get way from him he would bow down to God and God alone.

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