South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is a rising star in the Republican Party. He is bright, engaging and articulate on issues dear to the heart of political conservatives: smaller government, fiscal responsibility and lower taxes. He is also known to be bright, engaging and articulate on issues dear to the heart of social conservatives, taking stances that are pro-life, family-friendly, faith-rooted and more. His national profile has been rising rapidly and he has been mentioned as a leading light for the next-generation, post-Bush GOP.
The Governor was all those things—past tense—until the stunning revelations of the past two weeks. You probably know the outlines of the story. After leading his staff and family to believe he was hiking the Appalachian Trail to clear his head after a tough legislative session, it turns out the Governor was in Argentina visiting the mistress with whom he has been committing adultery for the past year. And this over Father’s Day weekend, while his four sons were at the family’s vacation home!
When he was confronted by the press (mostly because he had left the state without leadership for nearly a week), Sanford made a tearful, rambling confession, talking about how had hurt his family and disappointed the people who had voted him into office. A couple of days later, he apologized to his cabinet because he put them in a bad place. But then, he just kept talking, giving us way, way too much information about his still-passionate feelings for his Argentine lover. Even while claiming to work on reconciliation with his wife, Sanford said, ‘I can now go to my grave, knowing I have met my true soul-mate”—who is not his wife!
There are so many messed-up things in this sad story, but behind them all is this: Mark Sanford claims to be a Christian — a follower of Jesus Christ. And yet, he broke the marriage vows to his wife of twenty years—and the God before whom he spoke them. He betrayed his calling as a father, acting more like a lovesick adolescent from the 7th grade lunchroom than a grown man with a God-given responsibility for shaping the character of his sons. He played fast-and-loose with his political vocation and the promises he made to the voters of South Carolina to lead with their best interests at heart.
How did this happen? How is it possible to stray so far from serious commitments to his family and his constituents, much less to the One He claims to follow?
Now, it is so, so tempting to sniff and look down my Christian nose at the Governor. As if it is my place to pass a judgment on this man’s soul, his life and his destiny. But only the Lord of Glory has been given that place—and is not inclined to share it with me or any group of His followers.
As if there is some specific black mark (or group of black marks) that forever disqualifies a person from blessing or the hope of a second chance. But that would make me insanely forgetful that all of Christian life is by grace, from start to finish. Not one of us who walks with Jesus deserves our next breath, much less the thousands of blessings that mark a single ordinary day.
But mostly, as if I am somehow incapable of the same sort of soul-brokenness that distorts my vision, clouds my judgment and even results in the moments of life-altering stupidity God’s Word reminds me: “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12)
So, what can we all learn from Governor Sanford’s troubles? It seems obvious that he got off course because he misplaced his spiritual and moral compass. How did that happen?
+ We lose our compass when we begin to trust our feelings about our life more than what God says about our life. Feelings are fickle and can be so easily prompted, deceived, adjusted and confused by the circumstances of a moment. On the other hand, God’s Word is an objective, unchanging (Is.40:8), rule or “plumb line” (Amos 7:8) by which we can tell if we’re straight or crooked as compared to Holy God.
Much, if not most, of the Governor’s statements about his affair have been couched in the language of feeling. In an e-mail to his mistress, he wrote: “You are my love. … Sometimes you don’t choose things, they just happen. … I can’t redirect my feelings, and I am very happy with mine toward you. To the world he said, “”This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story. A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.” But God’s Word says that a married person who is intimate with a person other than their spouse – either physically or mentally and emotionally– is an adulterer. (Ex.20:14, Matt. 5:27-28) No matter how we rationalize or redefine or distance ourselves from it, the truth of God stands, firm and inescapable. The very second we allow the thought, “ I know God says, but…” our compass has strayed from true north and our lives are headed south—to Argentina or worse.
It is absolutely crucial that we keep our lives and souls lashed to the Word, because it will always lead us to Jesus (Luke 24:49) and the gospel word which alone sets us free (John 8:31-32) and provides the life for which we desperately long. (John 10:10)
+ We lose our compass when the people around us will no longer tell us the truth about ourselves or about God. One really disturbing detail of the Governor’s story is that at some point in the past year, he and his mistress met in New York with a “spiritual advisor” to discuss their relationship and that the three of them then went to church together!! There were no details given as to whether this “spiritual advisor” claimed to be a Christian pastor, but if so, they have betrayed not only the Governor, but their calling and the God they claim. It appears that, like the false prophets of old, this ‘advisor” assured “peace” when there was no peace. (Ezek. 13:10)
To walk faithful to Jesus, we need friends who love us dearly, deeply—but who love God and His glory more. Friends who will protect us and be the soft place of expressed grace and who will also “sharpen us as iron” (Prov.27:17), “spur us on to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24), and ask the tough question nobody else dares, like “what are you thinking?” Friends who will even get in our face and with humble tears cry, “This saith the Lord”.
The Word of God revealing the glory of God in the gospel of God often through the people of God will enable us to walk faithfully in the ways of God. If the Governor had kept these things as his compass and gauged his steps by them, he most likely would have stayed home and delighted in the wife of his youth, been a consistent hero to his sons and served his people with unquestioned integrity.
If you and I keep those things as our compass and hold tight to them, we’ll be protected from straying and enjoy the life of adventure, romance, passion and meaning that comes to all who faithfully follow Jesus.