Blog No. 4(a): The Sword of Damocles
“When I kept silent, My bones wasted away …” ~ Psalm 32:3
In terms of my work, last year was probably my most productive, the ending notwithstanding. We were gaining momentum and drawing attention to the right issues—the danger of Islam, the persecution of Christians globally, and the agenda of the Cultural Left. The Around the World in 80 Days initiative was building toward a powerful conclusion, not simply to wave the Red, White, and Blue, but to bring greater understanding to what actually makes the quality of life in some countries better than in others. (And the answer is, I believe, directly correlated to a given society’s view of God—or god(s), as the case may be—and his character.)
But I always knew that the sin in my past threatened everything. It hung over me like the Sword of Damocles. I lived in perpetual fear that it would be discovered. I feared hurting those that I loved. I feared disappointing those that I had led to Christ or had, with great joy, mentored in The Faith. And I feared letting down my “team,” that is, my side of the cultural struggle. So, I said nothing. It was like a time bomb. You knew that it would, sooner or later, go off. But what to do with it?
“Talk to me.”
These were the words of Oxford Professor John Lennox. In 2016, he came to Birmingham and we did an event together downtown. But he made it clear that he wasn’t coming to do an event. He was coming to see me in the aftermath of my accident, and he requested that the two of us spend time alone. With that in mind, we went to Alabama’s beautiful Lake Martin for the weekend. One evening after I had given him a tour of the western part of the lake by boat, we sat in the cabin enjoying light conversation over a meal. Then John became serious.
“You know, I came because there is something I want to discuss with you.”
I took a deep breath like a son bracing for a rebuke from his father. “I figured as much.”
“I sense your isolation and your loneliness, Larry,” he began, his voice full of concern. “You need the fellowship of other Christians who do what you do. I’ve been trying to think of some, but I haven’t come up with any who are Christians. It’s a unique and lonely work.”
I just nodded in agreement.
“Sally and I were alarmed by how rapidly you went back to work after your accident,” he continued. “Perhaps others don’t know the degree of trauma you suffered, but I do. I know that Lauri didn’t think it was a good idea either.”
I still said nothing.
He leaned forward onto his elbows and held my gaze. “You’re not well.” The last word had a distinctive Irish flavor.
John Lennox is well-known as a man who has used the great intellect that God has given him to defend The Faith and make that faith intelligible to Christians and non-Christians around the world. What is less known is that John Lennox has a tender, pastoral heart. Not only has he been a frequent ministry partner, but he has been something of a spiritual father to me. After my family, he was the last person I wanted to disappoint.
But he was right. I was not well. The effects of my massive internal injuries lingered (and still do). In addition to everything else, I had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). That had left me frequently feeling like I was in a fog. I might, without warning, lose all hearing for a few seconds or longer. My short-term memory was spotty. I was (and still am) perpetually in pain. And as is typical of a TBI, I was emotionally off-balance and fragile. But I had learned to hide all of this. Or so I thought.
“You seem like something is burdening you. Talk to me.”
“I’m just tired, John,” I said, laying my head back on the sofa exhausted. “I have a lot to do. But I’m fine. Really. I just need a vacation.”
At that moment, I felt a deep weariness of soul that reverberated to the marrow of my bones. I had repented of my sin. I had moved on from it. But I had not confessed it to anyone but God himself—and I prayed it would remain that way. So deeply did I fear discovery, that I prayed (repeatedly) that the Lord would take my life before he let me bring dishonor to his name or to that of my family.
John didn’t press further. “You know, as I travel around the world, in past when people came up to me and mentioned you, it was as an organizer. Not anymore. They talk about your writing, Larry. The Lord is using it.”
A few days later, as John was saying goodbye, his roller suitcase in one hand, he gripped my forearm with the other and, with the compassion of a father said, “When you want to talk, just call me.”
I nodded appreciatively but knew I would not share my burden. The consequences? I shuddered to think of them. Perhaps I’d lose my family. The Left would rejoice at my self-inflicted wound. And my own side? They would not rally to my aid. That, at least, was my thinking.
Almost exactly a year later, as elements threatened to make my sin public, I called John and told him what I had done.
“Is this what was so burdening you when I came to see you?” He asked.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me.” I felt crushed. “I was afraid you would never speak to me again.”
“You silly, lad!” He exclaimed. “Of course, I would speak to you! Sally and I love you and Lauri! This doesn’t change that.”
There was a brief silence.
“Larry,” he added. “I am far too old not to have seen this before. There was no need for you to carry this alone.”
“I was just afraid you would write me off.”
“That’s a lie of the Devil.”
“I can see that now. But it’s a lie I believed.”
“Larry,” John said with calm and compassion. “There are people you know who have been through this, dealt with it biblically, and their ministries flourish. You’re not the first to do it and you won’t be the last. You should have talked to me!”
“I didn’t think I could talk to anyone.”
“You just hoped it would go away,” he said, as if completing my thought. “You poor lad. You’ve been suffering under the weight of this all this time.”
I had not expected compassion for me. For Lauri, yes, but not for me. I had expected anger. That is more a reflection of me and what I thought of myself than it is of John or Sally Lennox. Then and in the coming months, John and Sally exhibited great compassion for Lauri and me, offering us encouragement and advice and even the hospitality of their home.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When I was discussing this story with our pastor and whether or not it should be a part of this blog, he said that he leaned to the side of thinking that it should be, because guilt, shame, and confession are major issues for people in ministry and the answers to the problem are all over the map. Some urge confession and purging of the conscience while others caution against it because people, even well-intentioned people, usually talk, and that can lead to the destruction of ministries and livelihood. A counselor friend said the same thing.
“Blog it! It’s a huge problem!” She said.
“But once I’ve told the story,” I admitted, “I’m not sure where to land it.”
“You don’t have to. Making people aware of the problem is enough. People need to know that they aren’t alone. That there are people all around them who are suffering under the burden of their own guilt and shame and aren’t sure what to do with it because not everyone has a John Lennox or a Lauri.”
In her opinion, people in general, and people in ministry most of all, carry their secrets like millstones. They feel isolated. And the solution isn’t easy.
Another one of my many pre-readers made it unanimous: ”My tears made this one hard to read,” he said. ”Because I know the pain of being loaded with the millstone of false guilt, and I know that others will also connect to what you are saying.”
Former Auburn football coach Pat Dye once famously said: “Hindsight is fifty-fifty.”
While 20/20 is undoubtedly what he meant, he might have been closer to the truth than he knew. Things are not always clearer in hindsight. Do I wish that I had talked to John Lennox (or another mature Christian friend) earlier? Yes. But as Lauri and I have learned in our own experience and that of many others, most Christians, most people, don’t respond as John Lennox did or, for that matter, as my wife and many others did. The Christian response—grace, pointing people to the work Jesus Christ accomplished on the Cross and in his bodily Resurrection—is not a natural response. The revelation of sin has a way of begetting sin in others: the judgmental, judge; the person given to gossip, gossips; the opportunist seeks to capitalize; the bitter person refuses to extend grace; the proud exult in their own righteousness or just because they never really liked you, and so on.
I have said that this blog is messy, midstream, and raw, and so it is. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But this much I know: to keep the secret of one’s own sin is to rot the bones. The problem is, what do we do with it?
That is the subject of the next blog—Blog 4(b)—later this week.