Beliefs about original sin aside, many of us typical Christian believers probably have an image of ourselves as relatively good and decent people. So what happens when someone close to us—someone we know, trust, and perhaps identify with—suffers a humiliating public fall from grace?
I've been thinking about this phenomenon that has happened quite a few times in recent years, of finding myself just one degree of separation away from a person who has suddenly become notorious, perhaps even infamous, in some way. Whether the person is a friend, a family member, a former colleague, or simply an acquaintance, the effect of watching someone I know come under the glare of the public spotlight is downright chilling. Not many of us could withstand having our lives publicly dissected, virtually every decision and motivation questioned, discussed, and evaluated, mostly by strangers.
This is true not just because of the questions that arise in my own mind about how I could have failed to see these events coming, or how I could have missed the clues that something wasn't right in that person's life. I'm a Calvinist, after all, and I believe the doctrine of total depravity. Moreover, I get it. I get how deep, how hidden the past and present pains, failures, and problematic realities of people's lives can be.
However, for me the real chill factor in such situations comes when I realize how easily that could have been me up there in the pillory of public opinion, being asked to explain (and answer for) my worst life choices, my stupid mistakes, my most humiliating moments of characteristic or uncharacteristic infamy.
I—along with most other adults, no doubt—have truths about myself that I find difficult to face, even in private. To have them dragged out before a national audience would be painful, mortifying. But then, mortification, as I recall, is something people of faith and conscience are supposed to do to themselves. Regularly. Mortify (literally, “to put to death”) is a word people don't use much in everyday life, and rarely, if ever, in its original sense. Scripturally speaking, the word means to subdue, control, or overcome the parts of ourselves that, left uncontrolled, will almost inevitably lead us to damage, shame, and self-destruction.
I suppose we're called upon to mortify our own fleshly failings—our out-of-control egos, our selfish passions, our covetousness, our concupiscence—all sorts of incontinent desires and inordinate affections, so that the world doesn't do have to do it for us. Even King David realized this truth when he declared, “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands” (1 Chron. 21:13b).
I am thinking of people I have called friends and coworkers, brothers or sisters in my church, community, or ministry who are now or have been recently in the news. Some of them are merely under heavy scrutiny, being subjected to difficult questions and rampant, mostly uncharitable speculation. Others have been openly discredited and disgraced in public and in publication. A few are even convicted felons now, their families, reputations, and future prospects destroyed.
You probably know people like that too. So what if, rather than engaging in self-congratulatory condemnation whenever we hear of someone we know who has fallen under the light of public scrutiny, we pause to pray for them. And then take a hard look at our own need for personal mortification.