When others fall down
“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself.” Then the apostle Paul adds: “You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out.”(Galatians 6:1)
Over the years I have seen Christians fall, some very far. The big question is: “How are we as their fellow Christians to respond?” If we show acceptance, are we condoning their actions? If we keep our distance, are we being judgemental? If we simply behave as if nothing has actually happened, are we, in effect, showing our tacit support?
The answer, according to author Mark Stibbe, is to be kind. He should know, his fall from grace was spectacular.
I first came across Stibbe about ten years ago as the speaker for the morning Bible studies at New Wine : excellent. His academic background gave depth to his expositions, especially as he explained what it means for Christians “to receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:5). I later understood why he gave such a detailed description of the Roman adoption process: he himself had been adopted.
Stibbe was then the vicar of the church which, under his predecessor, had launched New Wine. So I was shocked to hear that he had left his wife and four children for another woman, in the process giving up his livelihood and reputation. What he now calls his Fall.
His process of restoration hasn’t been easy nor, I imagine, complete. However, he has shared his experience in his book written with his second wife, Cherith: Restoring the Fallen with the subtitle Creating safe spaces for those who fall.
The church isn’t good at restoration, welcoming the prodigals. “Our Father is too kind to leave the prodigals in the ‘far country’, and too compassionate to neglect those hurt by their actions,” he concludes. And it is the Father’s kindness which is the key. Here Stibbe quotes the remarkable Teresa of Avila: “God is even kinder than you think.”
For his template Stibbe refers to how the risen Jesus gently restored the broken Simon Peter over the lakeside breakfast at Galilee.
It seems it was the kindness of friends which helped Stibbe come to terms with his actions, to repent and seek restoration. “Far from judging Peter, far from castigating him, Jesus accepts him, sits with him, eats with him, encourages him and heals him.”
Stibbe explains from his own experience that kindness is not to be interpreted as approval for things that are wrong. We need to know that those people who continue as friends accept us unconditionally, even if they cannot and should not approve of our actions.
“Kindness is everything,” Stibbe explains but kindness does not mean condoning sin. It means gently helping people who have fallen to their feet again.”
“When we look past a person’s failure and penetrate beyond their shell of shame to the core of their personality,” he writes. “When we choose to stop judging what presents outwardly to our senses and move beyond that to the light within their soul, then we are closer to the Father’s heart than we can possibly imagine.”
Not an easy read. Stibbe understandably gives little away as to why he fell so spectacularly and again, understandably, what has happened since. He uses the picture of the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer mixed with powdered gold.
The end result – thanks to the craftsman’s delicate skill – is even more beautiful than the original.
However, more than anything else, as Jesus teaches: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1. Or in the Message paraphrase: “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment.”
Stibbe is very conscious of being adopted. “In 1960 my twin sister and I were left in an orphanage in London by a single parent mum who was unable to bring us up.”
Then: “the most terrifying day of my life was my eighth birthday. That was the day I started ten years at boarding school. I felt terribly abandoned and afraid.” The teacher who welcomed him that morning, “later that evening stormed into my dormitory with a cane and thrashed my bare backside in front of all the other new boys all for dropping a bag of marbles.”
This was his life for ten formative years, most of the time away from his family. Even worse, while at Christian summer camps of all places, he came under the spell of John Smyth QC, Christian leader and serial abuser.
Stibbe writes of traumatic memories, “memories of not only being groomed and abused by John Smyth but memories of the damage he had done to my closest friends at school and university.” A close friend, in fact, had attempted suicide “to avoid being abused in a horrifically savage way.”
You can’t experience such abuse and not be profoundly damaged. Not that this excuses his adultery and betrayal – we are all responsible for our own actions, especially those which damage others. But it does give them context – and shows the need for good counselling.
We all fall; the knack is knowing how to get up.