Foibles. Even the great have them.
Sometimes the great have more than foibles; they have character flaws that in any other circumstance but the one that thrust them into the role of hero, could have them hung from the gallows. When we are desperate enough to need a hero we are willing to waive that factor.
We tend to deify heroes when we have to depend on them and vilify them when we are done. Rarely do we offer them the privilege of being neither gods nor devils. Rather, we fail to recognize them as fellow-pilgrims who struggle with temptations (some greater than any of us will ever know). I’ve been thinking about fallen leaders and grace. I’ve no one in particular in mind; there have been so many.
No doubt a higher level of responsibility requires greater purity of thought and character. When a leader falls he drags a lot of people down with him. Collateral damage can be significant. But sometimes the pedestal is not of his own making. I read this interesting verse about John the Baptist today:
A man named John, who was sent by God, was the first to clearly articulate the source of this Light. This baptizer put in plain words the elusive mystery of the Divine Light so all might believe through him. Some wondered whether he might be the Light, but John was not the Light. He merely pointed to the Light. The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the cosmos. (John 1:6-9 The Voice)
It seems that some who felt drawn to his message were tempted to think he was The Light. Jesus said that up until that point there was no one born of woman who was greater than John, but even John succumbed to one of the greatest sins for a man in his position -doubting God’s word. In Matthew 3 we are told he saw the dove descend from heaven, he heard the Voice declare, “This is My beloved son.” Nothing subtle requiring interpretation there. Yet later, in a moment of weakness, when he is in prison, (Matthew 11) John sent his own groupies to ask if Jesus was actually The Light or if they should look for someone else. (Like Elijah he seemed to be seriously intimidated by the King’s wife.) I wonder how confused this must have left John’s followers?
I don’t remember this part of his character being taught in Sunday School. Most of the time we were told to be like John the Baptist (who also doubted), be like Esther (who also used sex to collaborate with the enemy), be like Gideon (who also created a false item of worship), be like Hezekiah (who also didn’t care about his sons’ futures), be like David (who also conspired to murder to cover up adultery)… The teacher ignored the parts about their failures. Bible characters were as one-sided as the flannel board avatars placed up on the easel.
We still do it. We take a leader with remarkable gifts of encouragement, or teaching, or healing or prophesying and stick them way up in the air on a pedestal with barely enough room for feet of clay. Then we hang our hopes on them.
No doubt many servants of God are tempted to use this position for self-aggrandizement — especially those with unhealed wounds of rejection — and by so doing hasten their own fall. Some folks, who consider it their calling in life to point out weaknesses and to make sure no one is disappointed like they once were, drag people in public life down and hit them with their own shoes, as if proof of failure in one area invalidated everything they ever did or said.
Confronted with the evidence of John’s weakness, Jesus chose to publicly honour him, to point out that others in the crowd were also guilty of unbelief and to replace John’s words of doubt and fear with words of truth.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:27)
I wonder if the only way a leader can survive on a tiny platform in the air, not of his or her own making, is to know who they are and who they are not and just keep pointing to Jesus Christ.
I wonder if, in some instances, a public fall may actually be a manifestation of grace to shift people’s adoration away from the hero and toward the Saviour Himself.
I wonder if the best way to support leaders is to earnestly pray they will be kept from the evil one and not be led into temptation.
We need to stop turning fellow travellers into false idols, take our eyes off them and look instead to where they are pointing — toward the Light.