It is an all-too familiar story. A pastor was forced to resign from the church when his affair with a staff member came to light. Another church was devastated. Another set of believers, both young and old, was left to wonder what had happened to the man they had loved and followed—a man who had led many of them to the Lord, baptized their children, conducted their weddings, visited them in hospital and prayed with them for their needs. There was no question of his guilt; the actions were admitted and indefensible. But many longed for an explanation. Why did it happen? How did it happen?
The temptations to sin that we face are as numerous and varied as devilish ingenuity and human depravity can conspire to concoct. And after the fact, the explanations, rationalizations and excuses are as varied and numerous as those sins. But if we take the Scripture seriously when it promises that along with each temptation comes “a way to escape” (1 Cor. 10:13), each sin indicates a failure on our part. I believe that, in the final analysis, all sins spring from twin failures—a failure of fear and a failure of love.
“By mercy and truth iniquity is purged, and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil” (Prov. 16:6).
In a steamy Vietnamese jungle more than forty years ago, a young lieutenant led his patrol into an ambush. Within seconds, withering enemy fire had killed or injured half the platoon. The cry for a medic went up from the survivors. But unknown to the wounded soldiers, the medic who came to treat them was a drug addict who had removed the morphine from the syringe for his own selfish pleasure. The wounded received an injection of something that looked like the real thing, but did nothing to relieve their pain.
In the same way, the modern church has replaced the biblical concept of the fear of the Lord with a watered down “reverence” that may look the same from the outside, but does not produce the same effect that truly fearing God does. The many references in Scripture to the fear of the Lord, taken in their clear context, are talking about far more than just reverence; they are talking about what Paul called “the terror of the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:11).
If we truly appreciated how much our high and holy God hates sin, we would flee from temptation in fear. God hates sin because it is antithetical to His nature. It is so revolting to Him that He can’t even stand to look at it (Hab. 1:13). God hates sin because it destroyed His perfect creation and placed it in bondage (Rom. 8:19-23). Most of all, God hates sin because of the price it required to be paid in order to purchase our redemption—a price that was paid gladly and willingly by Jesus Christ, but a high price nonetheless (1 Pet. 1:18-21).
Living in a culture that constantly bombards us with a false picture of the nature and character of God (and one which has infected many churches as well) makes it hard for us to view Him as the “great and terrible God” (Neh. 1:5). But if we lose that view of Him, we lose the basis for fearing Him. C. S. Lewis vividly illustrated this truth with these words regarding Aslan: “ ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.’” As good and loving and merciful and patient and kind and tender as our Father God is, He is most certainly not safe. And we fail to fear Him at great cost to ourselves.
But it is not just a failure of fear that leads to sin; it is a failure of love as well. Each time we yield to temptation, we are demonstrating that we love sin more than we love our Heavenly Father. We dress it up with all sorts of rationalizations and justifications, but the fact remains that each sin proves we do not love Him as we should. When we are forced to make a decision, we choose what we love most. It may not be what we proclaim to love most, but our actions speak far louder than our words when it comes to revealing our hearts.
When Jesus confronted Peter after the resurrection, He had a singular focus. He never mentioned Peter’s failure or his denial. He never reproached the inner-circle disciple who had failed in the moment of testing. He did not speculate on the causes for Peter’s collapse under pressure. Instead Jesus asked Peter about his love. Three times He forced Peter to consider whether he truly loved the Lord. Peter was grieved by the questioning, but it clearly revealed the source of his failure. A Christian who loves God with all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength will not deny the Lord.
He will not indulge his sinful appetites, because he has chosen the greater feast. He will not be “charmed by the world’s delight” because his affections are set on things above (Col. 3:2). He does not choose to indulge in the short-term pleasures offered by sin, because Christ offers greater, lasting riches (Heb. 11:25-26). We seek the things we love. We choose the things we love. We do the things that please the ones we love and avoid those things that would displease them.
One of my friends told me about a time in his life when he had been far away from God. He was dating an unsaved girl in violation of the rules of the Christian college he attended. Once he was caught on a date with her in a restaurant and, to escape punishment, pretended to be witnessing to her. When the opportunity presented itself one night, she was more than willing to be immoral with him. It was not the threat of punishment from the school that deterred him; it was this thought: “I can’t do that to my father.” Love for his earthly father prevented my friend from great sin that night; love for our Heavenly Father does so as well.
Many Christians do not properly love God because they suffer from “elder brother” syndrome—failing to appreciate the riches of grace made available to them and taking God for granted. This is an especially grave threat for those who have been saved for many years. David issued a warning that we “forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:2). If the basis for our love for God is His love for us (1 John 4:19) then forgetting how much He loves us and what He has done for us is the first step away from loving Him as we should.
The warning of Jesus to the church at Ephesus is instructive (Rev. 2:1-7). Leaving their first love is what led them to abandon their first works. There had been a time when their love had governed their conduct so that it was pleasing and acceptable to God; now the absence of that love had placed them in a situation where only repentance could stay His hand of judgment.
I will never forget watching the chairman of the board of deacons as he read the statement to my home church that night, announcing our pastor’s resignation because he “had not been wearing his wedding ring.” At fourteen I didn’t know everything that meant, but I knew it was bad. The deacon struggled with difficult and carefully chosen words, trying to help our church process a pain we should never have had to feel. I watched as the pastor’s sons, young men with whom I went to school, were forced to process the revelation of their father’s failure in a very public setting. I watched our church be shaken by the sin of a Christian.
I wish that my pastor had feared God more. I wish that my pastor had loved God more. I pray that I will do both.
Robert Byers has helped produce numerous book and curriculum projects for a wide variety of ministries and pastors. He received BA in theology (‘84) and Master’s degree in education (‘85) from Hyles-Anderson College. Robert and his wife Brenda have two adult children, Rhonda and Bryant, and live in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he works as a freelance writer. He is eagerly anticipating the kickoff of the 2010 football season when the Alabama Crimson Tide will defend their national title.