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You can run on for a long time…

In March, Michael Cover wrote about James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. I have not read the book, but I have watched the Masterpiece Mystery series based upon it, Grantchester. I enjoyed the series and appreciate a depiction of clergy dealing with personal issues that rise above buffoonery.

One issue the show brought into stark relief for me, is the tension that builds between Sidney’s desire to investigate and seek the truth — and to share that truth with his detective friend — and the expectation of pastoral discretion. How often can Sidney betray the confidences of his flock before he is no longer trusted by any of them?

The juxtaposition of Sidney’s compulsion to investigate, and his use of his pastoral role to gather information, highlights a contrast I’ve noted between one of my past jobs and my vocation as a priest.

Before I went to seminary I spent four years working as a private investigator in my dad’s investigative agency. But while I was officially employed for four years, I had many more years of exposure, if not experience, as I started going with my dad to work cases — largely worker’s compensation cases in the early years — when I was around seven years old.

This formed me in the experience of knowing things about people that others do not, and in keeping that knowledge largely to myself. (Of course, until I was ordained, there was no absolute requirement of secrecy).

Since I have been engaged in pastoral ministry, and my dealings with the people of God have revealed that the secrets that sometimes come to light are incredibly convoluted, I have been reflecting on the difference between the role of an investigator and the role of a priest.

For lack of a better paradigm, but recognizing its limitations, I have come to think of the role of the investigator as being a bit more “Old Testament.” Wrongdoing is sought out and exposed, letting things — really, people’s lives — sort themselves out as they may, raw and painful as that may be. Like lancing a boil or exposing a wound to air, one comes to expect that a quick revelation of the truth is just, and will therefore bring healing.

But our lives are tangled webs, and it is not true that truth is painless. The old adage that “the truth hurts,” although too often used as a cover for asinine opinion, remains accurate. I came face to face with this reality in college, when a friend and I were talking and he suddenly became angry.

After he found out about the work I did and who my father was, he realized that one of his parents had hired my father years before to confirm that their spouse was having an affair. The truth was exposed, and the marriage ended in divorce. Justice was served, some might say, and the investigator simply provided the knowledge necessary for both parties to make informed decisions about their future together. And yet the whole family, guilty and bystander, dealt with the fallout.

It is easy to say “Well, so and so had the affair, blame their failing, not the exposure of it,” but I don’t believe that quite takes into consideration the reality of how children look at their family unit. Rationally, it was an individual’s offense that was the nail in the coffin of the relationship, but it was the work of a private investigator that provided the evidence that was acted upon.

Contrast this with the role of the priest. I know as much or more about the foibles and sinful failings of people as their priest than I ever did as a private investigator watching from a distance. And, as a priest, people tell me about these things: I don’t seek the knowledge out. I also don’t expose it. Instead, I counsel particular acts of honesty and restitution on the part of the offender, or of confrontation and honesty on the part of the aggrieved, to try to let things come to a head in a way that may, God willing, preserve something of the fragile ecosystem of interpersonal relationships. In other words, it is using the truth in the service of something greater, as a means of strengthening and nurturing as opposed to exposing and punishing.

But we live in a world where exposing and punishing is more the norm. People confuse it with nourishing, nurturing, and strengthening. We are prone to reveal truths that are not ours to reveal, while covering ourselves with the cloak of prophetic righteousness.

This is happening more frequently now through online mediums. Not long ago, a dating website catering to married people who desire an affair was hacked, and client information was leaked online (see this article from a divorce lawyer for one take on it). When I heard about this, I wondered how many families were going to experience the same sort of disruption my friend’s family experienced. Is this really justice? Is it right to roll a hand grenade through the middle of a relationship or a family without being there to help pick up the pieces? Is it really justice that is being served, or is it our own form of selfishness and self-satisfaction?

The reality is that, as Stanley Hauerwas has written, “there are some fragments [of every life] that are only worth throwing into the dustbin (even a decent “Hell” is too good for them) …” (Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, p. 36). This reality should lead us to be careful with the truth, not only in its recounting, but in its revealing.

Nevertheless, we live in the time of eternal digital memory, and while I have written about how forgetfulness can be a grace, it is one that fewer and fewer of us will experience. How do we approach this new world where private acts are no longer private, where hidden sins are revealed to the whole world, and where thoughts that once, when uttered, would have disappeared into the aether are now captured for later publication and consumption (just ask Donald Sterling or Hulk Hogan, among others)?

As much as our society thrives upon exposing the sins of others, and seeing them destroyed by that exposure, the corollary is our desire to get away with things. I recall a silly ditty one of my friends and I used to sing in high school; it was just the words “If nobody had to know …” followed by some absurdity, ethical or unethical, moral or immoral. The reality exposed by that adolescent song is one shared by so many, and one that people convince themselves to act on: engaging in self-justified negative and sinful acts in the midst of the self-deception that they will never be exposed.

When we seek to reveal the sins of another, even for ostensibly pure reasons, such as informing others who deserve to know the truth, we easily fall prey to judgmentalism. Like the Pharisee in the temple, we can wind up saying “Thank God that I am not like this tax collector” and rather than confronting a sin in order to bring a brother or sister to repentance, we wind up throwing the light of day upon something suddenly and without support. In a manner akin to opening up someone’s chest for open heart surgery, and then walking away, we can take on ourselves the responsibility of exposing a sin, while avoiding the responsibility to aid at reformation and restoration.

There is a saying from the Desert Fathers that deals with this issue:

A brother questioned Abba Poemen, saying, “If I see my brother sinning, should I hide the fact?”

The old man said, “At the moment when we hide a brother’s fault, God hides our own. At the moment when we reveal a brother’s fault, God reveals our own.” (Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, 21)

Some might take this saying as granting license. I think that is an inappropriate reading. Instead, the saying builds on Jesus’ teaching about forgiving tresspasses and having our own forgiven, along with his admonition against judgement:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matt. 7:1-2)

When we respond with grace to another’s failings, when we respond to another’s sins with exhortation to repentance and with the offer of aid at restoration and restitution, we are sharing with others the same grace that we have received from God.

Responding with grace to people’s failings does not mean ignoring harm. Quite the opposite. But the focus is on healing and restoration and not on punishment or destruction.

At the same time, part of grace is warning people about the gravity of their actions, that destruction may well be the direction in which they are going. Those of us who have experienced the grace of forgiveness, and who offer it in turn to others, are called like Ezekiel to offer warnings of the peril of sinful actions (Ezek. 3:16-21). This peril certainly includes the possible immediate consequences of sin to the person and those in relationship with them, but it also means more.

One of the distinctive elements of Jesus’ teaching in regard to ethics is that being ethical consists at least as much in what we would do if given the opportunity as in what we have actually done. We speak and act out of what is in our heart, and seemingly small offenses, if ignored, can provide the foundation and the occasion for even greater sin. For example, uncontrolled anger can be the seed of murder. This points to the propriety of being judged for what is in our hearts, not only for our moral rap sheet. So, in the end, Christians must warn not only of the natural consequences of sin (while not usurping the role of judge), but also warn about the reality of God’s wrath toward sin.

I admit to being uncomfortable with this subject. Like many, I have a tendency to downplay and, even more often, to avoid consideration of God’s wrath. And yet it is unavoidable. I’ve found J.I. Packer’s explanation of it in Knowing God to be helpful. He writes:

The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 139)

The distinction between the natural consequences of sin and the wrath of God toward sin might be framed in this way: the latter is the final end, or the summation of, the natural consequences. In other words, we may avoid the consequences of our sins for a while, but eventually we’ll deal with them, and unless we repent and change, we’ll be dealing with them when our lives are interrupted by death.

In the end, the contrast between our culture’s obsession with truth telling and exposing other people’s sins to the cold light of day, and the work we are called to as Christians, is the difference between self-deception and self-awareness. Exposure in the service of destruction is a habit that cuts down indiscriminately, while reinforcing an attitude of superiority. In contrast, warning offenders directly that they — that we — will answer for our sins, ought to inspire humility, and humility can lead to healing.

And so, to all of us sinners, I offer the following folk song, as sung by the late Johnny Cash, as a reminder of how quickly judgement may come. May we take it to heart, and act accordingly.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time

Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, The gambler, The backbiter

Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down
Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down


(NB: I agree with Russell Moore that it would be hard to find an odder juxtaposition than the imagery of this video with the lyrics and especially Cash’s voice, recorded so close to his death. But one hopes the contrast is helpful not only for the listener, who understands and is “in on” the way the song calls out vanity, but also the celebrities that took part.)

The featured image is The Allegory of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach 1472-1553. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


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