When the Church Doesn’t Shine
“Grace always has about it the scent of scandal,” Philip Yancey wrote. That’s true individually. It’s also true corporately. Jesus didn’t die for a perfect church; He died to make her perfect. At times, Jesus allows His bride’s imperfections to be revealed publicly in a way that is best described as scandal. How should we respond in the midst of church scandal? I’ll suggest three ways: feel, pray, and hope.
First, you should feel. I can’t tell you what to feel, because I’m not in the middle of your specific experience. Nor should you let anyone—including yourself—tell you how to manage your feelings. Instead, process those feelings—even the ones you keep deep down inside—with God through prayer.
God encourages us to do that in the book of Psalms, which John Calvin called “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul.” He explained, “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” The psalmists take those emotions and show us how to process them with God in prayer. Feel and join the psalmists in talking with God about your feelings.
Second, commit yourself to prayer, not just for yourself, but also for others and for the church.
Pray for those whose sin is exposed. Pray for yourself that you would not be tempted to follow in their sinful ways (Gal. 6:2). Pray for those affected by the exposed sin. Pray for the leaders who deal with the often-widespread implications of that sin. Pray for those who hear of the sin and believe it confirms their rejection of Jesus and His church. Pray for the church.
Pray prayers of thanksgiving. One reason sin becomes scandal is because it takes almost everyone by surprise: God was clearly at work in the church; gospel transformation was taking place in people’s lives and in their neighborhoods. And then this horrific sin was exposed.
In the midst of scandal, there is a temptation to invalidate all the ministry done in and through the church. That cannot be the case; God is not made impotent by our sin. Fight that temptation and fight despair by thanking God for the specific ways you’ve seen His good work in the church.
Pray for the restoration of the sinner. That can be the hardest thing to pray for, especially if you are impacted by their sin. We sinfully desire that they experience the same pain we are experiencing. We entertain private fantasies that include our rejoicing at their demise. Fight that sin by praying for repentance and restoration.
Finally, hope. Hope that God will answer your prayers as you’ve prayed them. Write down your specific prayers. Look for the ways God answers those prayers.
God is masterful at taking evil and turning it for good: “This Jesus … you crucified and killed … God raised him up” (Acts 2:23). In the middle of scandal, it can be tough to hope. Allow yourself to at least entertain hope. Struggle to follow Abraham who “in hope, believed against hope” (Rom. 4:18). Remember Jesus, crucified, dead, and buried, but now risen and reigning over everything.
Fight against things like cynicism and gossip that destroy your hope. The cynic is certain that nothing good will come of the scandal and so refuses to hope. The gossip doesn’t believe change is possible and so speaks against hope by spinning a story that is worse than it really is.
Only speak of what you know is and will be true. Stick to the facts of the situation and the truth of Scripture. You know for sure that God will work this for good (Rom. 8:28). You don’t have any idea what that good will look like. If the Israelites received their hoped-for, postexilic good, they would have received another king like David. Instead, God gave them David’s greater son, Jesus.
Resist the temptation to explain the good that God will work in the midst of scandal before God shows what that good is. Don’t title the chapter before God has shown you the last page. As you talk with others—both Christians and non-Christians—speak with confidence in a Redeemer who is in the business of taking a horrific mess and turning it into something beautiful, even though you don’t know exactly what that good will be.
Scandal might shut down the specific congregation most affected. Those directly affected by the sin may live with wounds that never fully heal. The sinner may never repent. Or, the congregation may come back stronger, and in ways you never expected. The deep wounds from sin may eventually heal.
In all of it, God will show once again that He is more gracious to His people than we could ask or think.
Sin’s widespread destruction is often shocking. In the midst of the sin, God’s restoring grace often surprises us. Mourn the destruction; rejoice in the restoration.
As John Newton—who knew a lot about sin-filled scandal and God’s amazing grace—wrote in “Pensive, Doubting, Fearful Heart”:
All thy wastes I will repair,
Thou shalt be rebuilt anew;
And in thee it shall appear,
What the God of love can do.