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Ashley Madison and the leader’s soul

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Hackers 'Impact Team' have stolen and leaked personal information from online adultery site Ashley Madison. Ashley Madison website hacked by group Impact Team, Jul 21, 2015 (Rex Features via AP Images)

“Life is short.  Have an affair.” This is the tagline of Ashley Madison, a Canada-based online dating and social networking service marketed to married people. At its height, the service’s membership included 39 million people in 53 countries.
 
On July 15, 2015, the site was breached by a group calling themselves “The Impact Team.” The hackers threatened to release the data unless the site was immediately shut down. After the site’s owners refused, the group released part of the data on August 18, with another section following on August 21.
 
Fallout has been enormous. The company’s CEO resigned; suicides have been linked to the exposure. The scandal highlighted the scope of adultery in our culture: when the hackers made public their threat, 37 million people paid to have their names removed from the site. According to Forbes, that number means that one in four men in America were on the site.
 
And the Ashley Madison scandal has brought adultery home to the American church.
 
Last Sunday, some 400 pastors and church staff members resigned from their positions in the wake of the Ashley Madison scandal. That’s 400 out of 32 million people who registered on the adultery website, constituting 0.00125% of the database. And it’s 400 of the estimated 600,000 ministers in the U.S., or 0.067%.
 
Nonetheless, 400 spouses, families and congregations are grieving today. Following the Josh Duggar story and recent exposes of televangelists’ lavish lifestyles, it’s another black eye for the body of Christ.
 
What leadership lessons can we learn from the Ashley Madison scandal?
 
BE ALERT
 
Many years ago, I was teaching philosophy of religion at Southwestern Seminary when a noted pastor resigned following allegations of numerous affairs. The week after the story broke, a guest speaker in seminary chapel began his message by recounting the pastor’s well-documented failure.
 
Then he made a statement I’ll never forget. Pointing to the thousands of students seated before him, he said, “There but for the grace of God go you.” Then he pointed to himself and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
 
He was right: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). As a wise pastor once reminded me, there is no sin we cannot commit. And our enemy longs for our moral destruction: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Why does Satan seek our moral failure?
 
First, he attacks our Father by attacking his children.
 
The devil knows that God prioritizes the health of our relationship with him above our work for him. Oswald Chambers notes:
 

The trap you may fall into in Christian work is to rejoice in successful service—rejoicing in the fact that God has used you. Yet you will never be able to measure fully what God will do through you if you do not have a right-standing relationship with Jesus Christ. If you keep your relationship right with him, then regardless of your circumstances or whoever you encounter each day, he will continue to pour “rivers of living water” through you (John 7:38). . . .
 
Our tendency today is to put the emphasis on service. Beware of the people who make their request for help on the basis of someone’s usefulness. If you make usefulness the test, then Jesus Christ was the greatest failure who ever lived. For the saint, direction and guidance come from God himself, not some measure of that saint’s usefulness. It is the work that God does through us that counts, not what we do for him. All that our Lord gives his attention to in a person’s life is that person’s relationship with God—something of great value to his Father.

 
Satan realizes that “private” sin breaks our fellowship with our Holy God. He knows that such sin grieves the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).
 
Second, he wants to hinder our ministry.
 
Sin prevents the Spirit from working in and through us. The more visible our service, the more we are threatened by private sin.
 
Counselors speak of “cognitive dissonance” as the internal conflict that emerges when we are not the same person in private as we are in public. Christians are especially subject to this problem: “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).
 
The most miserable people on earth are believers who are out of the will of God. Such people have the Holy Spirit indwelling them (1 Corinthians 3:16) and convicting them from within. They know that something is wrong, and are grieved by their guilt.
 
When we are ashamed of our private thoughts or conduct, we conclude that God cannot use us effectively. We cannot give what we do not have, so we are less likely to help others know Jesus passionately. Our personal sin handicaps our public service.
 
Third, he seeks to hurt as many people as possible.
 
Satan is a murderer (John 8:44). He comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). He knows that our moral failure will hurt everyone who loves us, every person whose lives we influence. This principle applies especially to leaders. “The higher we climb, the farther we fall” is true. But it is also true that the higher we climb, the more people we hurt when we fall.
 
Lions roar only when they attack. If Satan is a “roaring lion,” we must conclude that he is attacking us now. Expect such adversity, every day.
 
BE HONEST
 
If you have fallen to temptation of any kind, admit the fact right now. Cancer starts small, but it always grows. Listen to God’s word: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
 
Do a spiritual inventory today. Get alone with God. Take a piece of paper and a pen. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring to your mind anything that displeases God, and write down what comes to your thoughts. Be very specific and honest. Then confess these sins individually to God. Claim his promise to forgive all you confess (1 John 1:9). Shred the paper, and rejoice in the grace of your loving Father.
 
Do this regularly. Whenever you realize you have sinned, stop then. Confess then. Make restitution then. It will never be easier than it is at that moment. Stop the cancer before it grows.
 
BE PROACTIVE
 
When you think of Pope Francis, what adjectives come to mind?  For most of us, humility is at the top of the list.
 
And appropriately so. After he was elected pope, Francis rode back to the St. Martha guesthouse with the other cardinals rather than using the papal car. He chose to stay in the guesthouse rather than the opulent papal apartment. He regularly welcomes trash collectors and cleaners to daily mass, carries his own luggage on planes, and is driven in a Ford Focus.
 
However, a recent article in The Atlantic reports that such humility is part of a deliberate strategy on Francis’s part. In April 1973, at the age of 36, he became head of all Jesuits in his home country of Argentina as well as neighboring Uruguay. He was forced to deal with a number of divisive issues, some theological and others political. By his own admission, his leadership style was divisive and autocratic, leading to significant controversy and opposition.
 
In light of this difficult experience, he identified the authoritarian and egotistical elements of his personality. And he adopted behaviors intended to counteract these weaknesses. For instance, he developed the habit of ending all encounters by asking the other person to pray for him. He began spending much more time with the poor. He chose to take public transportation, live in his own apartment, and cook his own meals.
 
By the time he became pope, his commitment to acts of humility had become his lifestyle. And they will form a significant part of his legacy.
 
We can learn from his example. What character faults regularly trouble you? What temptations consistently defeat you? Name them, and take proactive steps to defeat them. If you are tempted by pride, find ways to act with humility. If you are tempted by anger, look for ways to serve those who anger you.
 
Erasmus was right: nothing frustrates the devil so much as to have his temptations used for good.
 
BE ENCOURAGED
 
Temptation is a persistent challenge for Christians, especially those who engage in leadership. But know that the final victory is yours, and that your omnipotent Father stands ready to forgive your last failure and to prevent the next. Keep these principles in mind:
 
First, you can defeat any temptation you face.
 
Scripture is clear: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). If you cannot defeat a temptation with God’s help, you will not face it.
 
Conversely, Satan knows what temptations you can defeat in your strength. For instance, I happen not to be tempted by substance abuse. Drug dealers can offer me their products all day, and I am able to resist them. As a result, I never meet drug dealers. But Satan knows what temptations I cannot defeat in my strength, so these are the only temptations I face.
 
So know that every temptation you face is one you cannot defeat in your ability, but one you can always defeat in God’s power. Name the temptation immediately. Turn it over to God. Ask for his help, and claim his strength as yours.
 
Second, when you resist, God gives victory.
 
Jesus assured his followers of two facts: constant tribulation, and continued strength. John 16:33 is especially relevant for our discussion: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
 
“Tribulation” translates the Greek term thlipsis, a word used to describe the weight by which grain was crushed into flour. So long as you live on this fallen planet, you will bear such weight. But your Father bears it with you. And your Savior has already overcome the world.
 
So “submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8). And remember: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
 
Conclusion
 
Vester T. Hughes, Jr. is my spiritual father.  For the seventeen years I have lived in Dallas, he has been my mentor, hero, and friend.
 
Vester graduated with a 4.0 from Rice and a 4.0 from Harvard. He clerked for the Supreme Court, and he owned his own law practice at the age of 36. He is widely considered the finest tax attorney in America, and has regularly argued before the Supreme Court and testified before Congress. I cannot begin to list all the accolades he has received.
 
Vester is not only one of the most accomplished men I’ve ever known, he also one of the most humble. He steadfastly refuses to allow schools to name buildings for him, despite his magnificent charity. He keeps as low a profile as he can. He is gracious with all and humble in all circumstances.
 
Here’s an example.
 
When Vester turned 80, the law firm he founded, without telling him, flew in attorneys and friends from around the world. They filled a convention hall to standing room only, where they spent two hours lauding his significance and greatness. I was there for the entire event, and agreed with every word.
 
At the end of the evening, the group prevailed upon Vester to speak. He had nothing prepared. He stepped up to the stage, walked to the microphone, looked out at the vast throng, and said, “For so many to know the man I wish to be, know the man I am, and forgive the difference, I am most grateful.”
 
God knows the person you wish to be, knows the person you are, and forgives the difference. (Tweet this) What’s more, he will also help you become the person you wish to be.
 
This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.