In 2006, Ted Haggard joined the “pantheon” of fallen megachurch pastors after being caught red-handed in a gay sex and drugs scandal. Most Christians weep over such incidents, grieve for the damage done to the church of Christ, pray that the man will repent and find forgiveness with God, and hope that he will take a quiet and unpublicized place in the church of Christ for the rest of his life.
Usually it’s a vain hope. As it was in this case too.
After a short period of “restoration,” the Haggards returned to the public eye with books, television interviews, and a re-launched ministry.
I suppose we all still hoped that despite appearances, there had been true repentance, that Haggard really had owned his sin, taken responsibility, accepted the blame, and sincerely confessed his guilt.
But a recent blog post raises a huge question mark against that hope. In Suicide, Evangelicals, and Sorrow, Haggard used the recent suicide of another megachurch pastor’s son, Isaac Hunter, to continue his attempts at resurrecting his name, reputation, and ministry. His post really is an almost perfect example of how not to repent.
So why highlight it? First, because it will help us to spot these characteristics when dealing with others who have fallen into public sin and scandal. Sadly, there are predictable patterns to these things that we’d do well to acquaint ourselves with so that we are not duped. And second, because we can use it as a personal heart-check to examine how we respond to our own sin.
1. I’m no worse than anyone else. In a number of places Haggard basically says, “OK, I’m not perfect, but neither are you. We all fall short. We’ve all had sin intrude horribly into our lives. Only Christ is perfect.” In other words, why make such an example of me when you’re no better.
2. My problem was not spiritual. ”The therapeutic team that dug in on me insisted that I did not have a spiritual problem.”
3. It was something that happened to me. “Contrary to popular reports, my core issue was not sexual orientation, but trauma.” It’s not so much about what I did, or who I am, but about what someone else did to me.
4. I wasn’t responsible; someone else was to blame. ”I had a physiological problem rooted in a childhood trauma.”
5. I needed therapy, not faith and repentance. ”I needed trauma resolution therapy….I went through EMDR, a trauma resolution therapy.”
6. It wasn’t a personal choice. Haggard asks: “Do we actually believe that the many pastors who have been characterized as fallen decided to be hateful, immoral, greedy, or deceitful?” Then answers: “I think not.”
7. Christians are cruel and unforgiving. In a number of places Haggard attacks Christians saying that they lack sympathy, grace, and forgiveness. “My sin never made me suicidal, but widespread church reaction to me did.” He also speaks of the “brutal mail” and “hurtful communications” he received, and he imagines the Warrens and Hunters did too. He lambasts an “evangelical culture that alienates those who fall and spiritualizes their struggles.”
8. Attack the accusers. Throughout this piece Haggard is continually swiping at his accusers and those who initiated church discipline against him. They are “flat-earthers,” “Judaizers,” “scrutinizers,” “Pharisees” who are “too busy with the sins of others.”
9. You just don’t understand me: “When I explain [my trauma and the trauma resolution therapy] to most Evangelical leaders, their eyes glaze over.” He goes on to characterize Christians who rejected his excuses as simplistic fundamentalists.
10. My sins were not as bad as you think. ”My accuser failed his lie detector test and refused to take another, and I passed four lie detector tests given by three different polygraphers saying that the primary accusations were false.”
Sadly there is no shortage of naive people who will swallow this self-pitying self-justifying narrative hook, line, and sinker. (And sadly there’s no shortage of media outlets who will happily use Haggard as a stick to beat the “unforgiving” church with.)
Even more sadly, our own hearts can also do a Haggard when we are confronted with our own sins.
Real repentance looks and sounds radically different. It says: “I’m worse than you, worse than you think, and did worse than you can imagine. No matter what was in my past, I deliberately chose these sinful actions and accept full responsibility for them. I deserve whatever consequences result from them. I shamed my Lord and His church. If some Christians treat me badly, that’s OK, I understand. I can’t and won’t complain. I won’t say or write anything that will portray the Church or Christians in a bad light. I’ve brought enough damage on the church already. And I certainly won’t use the tragic suicides of others to further my own public rehabilitation.”
That’s the kind of repentance that leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).