Bill Hybels and the illusion of “private” sin

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Bill Hybels is making headlines again. The New York Times tells the story of a woman who worked as his personal assistant at Willow Creek Community Church. She is now describing multiple occasions in which he behaved toward her in extremely inappropriate ways I will not describe here.

Hybels denies her allegations. “I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time,” he stated in an email to the Times. He has already taken early retirement following other allegations of misconduct. Ten women in total have now made such accusations.

Willow Creek’s elders have stated: “We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth.” Yesterday, the church announced that it plans to launch a new independent investigation into the charges against Hybels.

After Hybels took early retirement, Steve Carter became Lead Teaching Pastor at Willow Creek last October. He resigned his position on Sunday, stating that he and church elders disagree about ways the church can move forward. “I cannot, in good conscience, appear before you as your Lead Teaching Pastor when my soul is so at odds with the institution,” he wrote in a letter to the congregation.

The personal assistant making the latest allegations against Hybels worked with him some thirty years ago. Whether we believe he is guilty or not, we should take note of this fact: the public consequences of personal sin can come to light years after the sin is committed.

A satanic strategy

Satan loves to tempt us to sin, then use the consequences of our sins against us. But he wants these consequences to devastate us and the people of God as much as possible.

I think he sometimes waits until Christian leaders are even more visible so that their public disgrace can be even more traumatic. The higher we climb a ladder, the farther we have to fall.

We can see this in the timing of the latest allegations against Bill Hybels. The Global Leadership Summit he began more than twenty years ago will take place again this Thursday and Friday. Some 445,000 people are expected to participate in more than six hundred satellite locations around the world.

However, the controversy regarding Hybels has led to more than one hundred churches and other organizations canceling their plans to host a viewing site. Actor Denzel Washington and author and speaker Lisa Bodell have withdrawn from the summit. And several publishers have stopped printing books by Hybels.

If we think we’re getting away with private sin, we’re not. Scripture is clear: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). And it will only get worse: “Desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15).

Three deceptions

The New York Times article points to an insidious problem for Christians: the illusion and allure of “private” sin.

Satan wants us to believe that no one will know or be hurt. We know we can confess our sins and be forgiven for them (1 John 1:9), so we think we can harbor an area of private sinfulness that will never be made public.

There are at least three deceptions here.

One: Private sin seldom stays private. David’s sin with Bathsheba soon became part of his public legacy. Computers can be hacked; internet cookies can track web traffic; others can discover what we thought was secret.

Two: God can forgive our sin, but he cannot reward us for it. Every moment we spend in disobedience is a moment we cannot get back. And a lost opportunity for obedience that our Father would have rewarded eternally (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:14).

Three: Private sin hinders the work of God through us. Sin grieves the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) and “quenches” his work in our lives and ministries (1 Thessalonians 5:19). The Holy Spirit cannot fully use an unholy vessel. If we are harboring private sin but think God is using us anyway, imagine what he could do in and through us if we were completely his.

A powerful key to defeating temptation

Let’s close with a crucial element in defeating private temptation. Several years ago, I attended a clergy workshop on the dangers of pornography. One of my colleagues made an observation I have not forgotten: we must love Jesus more than we love sin.

It is one thing to love Jesus but another to be in love with him. So, ask the Spirit to help you be more in love with your Savior today.

And remember all that Jesus has done for you. Charles Spurgeon: “If we know but little of the excellencies of Jesus, what He has done for us, and what He is doing now, we cannot love Him much; but the more we know Him, the more we shall love Him.”

Would Jesus say you’re in love with him today?