What I Couldn't See
A couple years ago, I met a church leader with a vision to start a revival overseas and ignite in others a passion for God. Several friends of mine believed that God was doing something big through him and decided to follow him overseas. A little less than a year later I heard he had been asked to step down as a leader.
Later, I spoke to one of the girls who had been under his leadership. As we spoke, chills ran down my spine as she told me about how he manipulated his vulnerable church members, how he had a secret inappropriate relationship with one of his female church members, and how he had a cult-like demand for loyalty. When she told me this I was furious – he sounds evil, I exclaimed. But she told me it was more complicated than that – people aren’t just villains.
Below is a letter I’ve written to him from this girl’s point of view. I don’t know if these are the words she would have used, but I did my best. Some details have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved – but stories like these are so common nowadays that everything blurs together anyway.
I remember being excited to meet you. You had just gotten back to the States from being abroad working with your new church, and you were eager to recruit me and my friends, telling us about all of the exciting things God had been doing through you and your church.
I remember your eyes being lit up with a fiery passion for the Lord, your voice quiet but fierce as our little group gathered around you and soaked up everything you said. We sat at your feet and listened in awe as you told inspiring tales of people who had come to follow Jesus. I remember thinking I wanted to be exactly like you.
Sometimes when I think back, I want to ask you why. I know how – through a web of lies and steady use of manipulation to gain trust from vulnerable people. But I don’t know why you did it. Why, if you really cared about people the way you seemed to, did you hurt them and use them to gain power and control for yourself? Was it intentional, or are you also wondering how it got to be so bad?
It’s terrifying and infuriating to look back on the time I spent with you. Terrifying because it feels like darkness almost won, and infuriating because it’s all so incredibly unfair. I think what scares me the most is that I didn’t see it right away. I didn’t see how your words of encouragement and the careful way you paid attention to me were characteristics of not just your effective leadership – but also the way you gained my loyalty and taught me to crave your approval.
After the sh*t hit the fan and the truth about everything came out, people would use the word cult – a word that I was afraid to use at first because of its confusing connotation and negative imagery – but now I use it too. It’s the simplest way I can explain why we believed you were a good shepherd even when the slightest hint of our defiance led to our being shunned. It’s the only way I can explain the psychological trauma myself and others suffered – the kind of trauma that never really leaves and even now finds its way into my dreams and dark corners of my mind.
Something I find difficult to explain to others is how I still believe you were closer to God than anyone else I’ve ever met. Why would God do this? Why would he put you in a position of leadership knowing that you would abuse it?
I don’t know if you’ve read it, but there’s a book called A Tale of Three Kings that narrates the story of David in the time of King Saul, and his struggle to understand why Saul, the Lord’s anointed, would persecute him. David wonders why this is happening to him if Saul is really the Lord’s chosen one.
I know that feeling. When you you’re confused and you don’t know what to do and you don’t know what God wants you to do. You don’t know if God is on your side anymore, and if you’re honest, something you wonder if He even cares. Because why would He let this happen?
“Asking this question may not seem difficult, but it is. Especially when you are crying very hard and dodging spears and being tempted to throw one back and being encouraged by others to do just that. And all your rationality and sanity and logic and intelligence and common sense agree. But in the midst of your tears and your frustration, remember that you know only the question, and not the answer.
No one knows the answer.
And He never tells.”
Those words used to seem cold and harsh to me, but now they are strangely comforting. Amidst the despair and the helplessness and probably hopelessness as well, David clung to God, because even when he didn’t know the answer to why, he knew that apart from God there was truly no hope.
I guess I don’t really need to know the answer as long as God does. That’s what faith is, right? You taught me that.
In a way, I do see some of the good that has come out of all of this. You showed me lies and manipulation and perversion of truth – but you also showed me how importance grace is, and what it means to forgive.
People call you manipulator, a bully, and a villain. And even though my wounds still haven’t fully healed, I don’t feel comfortable giving you that label. Because I still know you – and you are a person. You like to play soccer, you like buying giant stuffed animals for your family, and you like to fold pizza in half when you eat it even though that makes all the sauce drip out.
Looking back, I’m still not sure what was a lie and what was the truth. Did you really meet all of those famous people? Did you really give up your right to your father’s inheritance? Did you really start a bakery when you graduated college?
But I guess it doesn’t matter if I ever know. This letter lacks closure, but there isn’t much more to say now. I hope you’re doing well, and I hope you can at least find some of the answers to why. And maybe when you do, you can let me know.