When we sin in terrible ways

I did not know Ravi Zacharias.  I certainly knew of him and I have a couple of his books on apologetics, though I never read them.  I never attended a conference where he spoke, though I have had conversations with several people who were helped by his ministry of speaking and writing.  I heard of the allegations against him three years ago, but had no context or ability to evaluate anything that was reported about him, the allegations, or the legal resolution afterwards.

I was saddened to read the report last week of his massive failure and the years of apparent sin, deceit, and duplicity.  I wish it was the first and only report I’ve read like that.  It’s not.  And it’s likely not the first for you, either.

What should we make of these kinds of reports?  How should we think of people and situations where such terrible sin occurs?  I have three thoughts about “terrible sin” — sin that is extreme in its magnitude, and so out of proportion for the one who sinned because he/she is a leader called to a higher standard of accountability.  What follows does not come from my personal knowledge of anything about Ravi Zacharias, for I have none.  I only know some of the accusations and reported evidence against him.  I know nothing of what he was thinking at any time while he was sinning.  What follows does come from anthropology — my understanding of the nature of man — and from justification and sanctification, the hope of what God can do to redeem any person and any sin.

For years I have said, “no one sins in isolation.”  Part of what I mean by that is that there is no sin that is only personal.  Part of the temptation to sin is not just to a particular sin itself, but the temptation also says that the sin is personal, private, and will not impact others.  The temptation says something like, “It’s just in your mind, you aren’t doing anything.  It won’t harm anyone else; it’s okay.”  Or, “It’s just your sin; you can indulge that leering look, that gluttony, that silent anger and it won’t bother anyone else.  It’s private.”

Except it isn’t private.  It isn’t personal.  Your sin is not singular or solitary.  Your sin and my sin — any sin and every sin — always impacts others.

When we engage in willful sin where we intentionally suppress the truth we know about God and redemption, our minds and our hearts are changed.  When we cultivate sexual desires that are outside the provision that God has made for us, we change.  When we cultivate material longings for possessions that are beyond our ability or “right” to own, we change.  When we cultivate lustful desires for food or drink or mind-controlling substances or relationships or recognition, we change.  And when we change inwardly, Jesus says that will eventually result in the “fruit” of sinful words and behavior (Lk. 6:45).  We will say and do things that reflect the changes in our hearts.  And those actions will always leave a trail of influence — often a devastating trail — in the lives of others.  The life of Ravi Zacharias is just one more sad story that demonstrates that reality.  He stands in a line of men like Lot, Achan, Jonah, and Demas, who all at some point had a thought something like, “It’s just me; it’s just in my mind; it won’t harm anyone else.”  But it did.  It always does.

Part of the battle against sin needs to include the regular thought, “how will this sin impact ________?”  And we need to think about the specific people who will be harmed when our sin is carried out and revealed.  We (and I) do not think enough about that reality.  Our sin inevitably impacts and harms others.

Secondly, we need to see the freedom that results when sin is revealed.  After we sin, our conscience (as long as it hasn’t been cauterized or put to death, 1 Tim. 4:2) will condemn us for our sin (Rom. 2:14-15) and tell us, “you need to confess this…you need to tell your spouse, your parent, your boss, your neighbor, your accountability partner…”  But the flesh will push against that and say, “the worst thing that can happen is for the truth of what you did to come to the light of day.…What will you lose when you tell the truth and when you confess?  What pain will you inflict?  What greater harm will come to you and others?  It’s better to just stay silent and keep the sin in the dark.”

That’s a lie.

Jesus said it most succinctly:  “…the truth will make you free.…everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin…” (Jn. 8:32. 34).  There is no freedom in hiding sin; freedom only comes when sin is exposed.  Sin loves the dark and hates the light.  Truth and freedom and joy hate the dark and love the light.  As Jesus taught, “…everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (Jn. 3:20).  Sin always wants to stay hidden.  The more one willfully sins, the more he will be tempted to keep the sin covered and hidden.  Lies will be uttered and hiding schemes and “cover stories” (isn’t that an interesting phrase? — we cover what we don’t want exposed) will be constructed.  And it will be to our ruin.

It’s an extended story, but Erwin Lutzer wrote about the benefit of sin being exposed in his book, The Power of a Clear Conscience:

On the morning of December 21, 1975, fourteen-year-old John Claypool shot and killed his neighbor and his wife for no reason other than to feel what it was like to see someone die. Though the police questioned him and he was the prime suspect, he was let go for lack of direct evidence. He later admitted that his sinister deed lived on in his mind. He told no one about it, and planned to take his secret to the grave.

Eventually he married, had two children, and then his wife left him. God brought some Christians into his life and he yearned for the peace they had. “This yearning for peace with God was driven by the constant weight that I felt in my soul from my sin.” He purchased a Bible and realized that Jesus could save him from his sins. He was converted. Then his heart pounded in fear as the Holy Spirit seemed to say to him, “My child, you must obey Me by confessing your crime or you will never know My full blessing on your life.”

He told the woman he was dating at the time about his dark secret, and she broke up with him. Finally, on November 27, 1995, with the help of his pastor and an attorney, John surrendered to the authorities. While great fear gripped him as his deceit was exposed by the media, he said:

Yet God was faithful to his promise to uphold me. At the moment of truth, though I was now a prisoner of the law, I was set free before God for the first time in my life. I cannot describe the feeling of that burden completely lifted—the Lord now held his once-disobedient child in His loving arms; and true to His promise, He did not let me fall! A wonderful peace came over my soul, such as I had never known before…

I am now confined in a maximum-security prison, serving time for second-degree murder. But I am more free and more at peace than at any other time in my life.

January's wolf moon.As my wife and I discovered when we saw January’s wolf moon, it only takes a little light to dispel darkness.  And it only takes a little light to dispel the darkness and deceit of sin and give hope to the sinner and those who have suffered from his sin.  The best thing we can do if we are ensnared in sin is to let the light of Scripture shine on it, and reveal it to those we have sinned against and who have been harmed by the sin.  There may be consequences, but there will also be freedom.  And there will be no freedom and only bondage until the sin is revealed.

Finally, we need to see the hope of redemption that comes through repentance.  Just as I have no knowledge of Ravi Zacharias, I also know nothing about the ministry that bears his name and I know no one who is part of that ministry.  I know nothing about their hearts and motives.

But I do know what repentance looks like.  Paul tells us what repentance should look like and he commends the Corinthians for their genuine repentance in 2 Corinthians 7:11.  There we learn that among the actions that genuine repentance takes is an earnestness to reconcile, a full disclosure of the sin, an acknowledgement of the harm and debt incurred by the sin, a willingness to provide restitution for the debt, and a life of faithfulness after the repentance.

A few days ago, the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries released an open letter of repentance.  Only time will tell if the board is genuine.  But that kind of non-defensive, open acknowledgement of sin and its devastation, and willingness to make things right is the place where all true repentance begins.  And with that kind of repentance there is hope for transformation — for God to change enslaved sinners into saints enslaved to Christ.

Many, like Ravi Zacharias apparently, did not and do not believe that there is hope in repentance for their sin.  But there is.

Friend, if you are caught in a trap and life of sin, there is freedom in repentance.  God can change you.  The Corinthians were changed from those who overlooked incestuous sin that horrified unbelievers and those who hated Paul and his ministry and attempted to destroy his reputation to those who were washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11).  In fact, in his final letter to them, Paul says, “in everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter” (2 Cor. 7:11).  They had not been innocent initially.  In fact they were entirely guilty.  But God changed what they were.  And they then were able to live in freedom.

There is hope.  But the only hope begins with repentance.  If you have believed the lie that the worst thing that can happen is that your sin is revealed and that you will be humbled to repentance, friend understand that the greatest gift in your life would be for you to humble yourself to the point of repentance.

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