A high-profile sex scandal is better than a car wreck for rubbernecking.
The Petraeus affair has provide ample salacious chum for a media shark feeding frenzy, now entering its spinning phase. Self-righteous finger wagging is easy. Self-reflective soul searching comes much harder. There are sobering lessons to be learned from this tragedy.
If it can happen to General David Petraeus, it can happen to anyone. From the outside, it would appear that few men were more disciplined and principled. And yet, the chink in his armor was exposed. In fact, those who are superrational and superdisciplined and supermoral are most at risk of such failure. It is far better to embrace one's weakness.
We all have our weaknesses—acknowledged and unacknowledged—and not many would be so cavalier as to open them up to the front page of The New York Times. Dallas Willard wisely reminds us, "Actions do not emerge from nothing. They faithfully reveal what is in the heart, and we can know what is in the heart that they depend upon." The call of the gospel, which is the universal recipe for human flourishing, depends on a kingdom life and reality that is beyond the natural abilities of any human person. If we try to secure our integrity on the basis of our religious or moral reputation or on our professional status or willpower, we will inevitably fail. There is no such thing as self-righteousness, only God-dependent righteousness.
We don't need to read a Kitty Kelley tell-all to know the dynamics of the human heart. Jesus spelled it out pretty clearly in his "Sermon on the Mount." Here he outlines the structure of the human soul and tells us that the sources of wrongdoing are never the actions themselves or the events surrounding them, but the contours of the heart.
And so the newspaper headlines of late are a ready reminder: How goes my heart? How dependently am I living each day? Am I working to become the kind of person each day that can, in spite of the natural pattern of life, fulfill the law without effort or struggle? We must focus on ethos more than ethics, the heart's condition as much as the law's demands.
I am aware that there is more that I can and should be doing in this regard. Petraeus' failure, like that of King David's, is a bracing reminder of the importance to attend to little things—to the first things of the heart. Here are some lessons we might reflect on.
- Guard the heart at all cost. Puritan John Flavel writes, "What the heart is to the body, that the soul is to the man; and what health is the heart, that holiness is to the soul. The state of the whole body depends upon the soundness and vigor of the heart, and the everlasting state of the whole man upon the good or ill condition of the soul." Sadly, Flavel concluded, "If the keeping of the heart be the great work of a Christian, then there are but few real Christians in the world."
- Affairs are incremental. Few jump from hello to bed. Rather it is a long pattern of fleeting glances, distorted emotions, publicly justifiable little choices, inappropriate texts and emails that corrode boundaries and wait for an opportune moment. It has been wisely noted that the true betrayal is not with whom you lie with but whom you lie to. The lies in a myriad of forms always start long before the sexual infidelity.
- Blurring of boundaries is always first—and emotional boundaries before physical ones. Few in today's world set appropriate boundaries around their marriages. The reason Billy Graham never had a sniff of a sexual scandal is that he never was in a room or car alone with a woman without first getting permission of his spouse. It may seem draconian to some, but it is a wise policy. The goal in marital boundaries is to create conditions in the marriage so that the spouse never has to even feel the potential for a problem.
- Hubris or self-pity can be a cause for alarm because they serve as a self-justification for poor choices. It's true of eating too much, drinking too much, or trashing marital boundaries—they all weaken our resistance. At times such as this, we do well to have a circle of accountability. When we feel either highly successful or particularly bad about ourselves, we are prone to moral failure.
- Secrets and anonymity serve no one any good. Psychologically, we become our secrets. We do well to hide our good deeds and confess our failings, but our tendency is to do the reverse. There are obviously professions where secrets are a part of the job—head of the CIA is certainly one. This needs to be acknowledged as intrinsically detrimental to marriage. The habit of secrets is a habit of subtle betrayal. We need transparency, accountability, and community—all of which, by the way, are weakened via cyberspace.
- Our weaknesses will be tested. It's hard to be judgmental when we have not been in the specific set of circumstances as those who have failed. We've not had the celebrity status and power of a four-star general. We've not had the cover of secrecy of leading the Central Intelligence Agency. We've not had the fawning flattery of a gifted biographer. Add it up and one is quick to say, "There but by God's grace go I." That said, we're promised in Scripture that the foundations of our life will be tested—the storms will come and the floodwaters will rise. If our trust is in our relationships, health, finances, power, or fame, these will all be challenged in time. Whether our lives have been built on rock or sand will be inevitably exposed. "The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash" (Matthew 7:27).
We should all grieve the relational wreckage from the Petraeus scandal, but far more of our energy should be spent on reflection. There is a reason we pray each week in church, "Lead us not into temptation." God knows that in our own strength, we are not strong. This is not a time for tabloid rubbernecking. It is time for heartfelt soul searching.