This is the first of a two-part post offering advice to ministers fighting secret sins (See part 2 here)
I have written this because there are currently disturbing stories of people in gospel and Bible ministry whose long-term secret sins have come to light. I want to encourage those already in ministry to appropriate and godly vigilance. And I want to encourage those who are thinking about full-time ministry in the future—and those who are about to begin their ministry—to take this issue seriously, but not to despair or give up.
It is possible to continue in ministry with a godly life. God is in the business of sustaining us and keeping us in his grace.
Because it is possible to continue in ministry with a godly life. Most people in ministry have done it, and most people currently in ministry will do it. God is in the business of sustaining us and keeping us in his grace by the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Here are some suggestions about how to be vigilant. Sometimes long-term sin continues because it is invisible to the person committing it. Sometimes the person recognises the sin but does not repent, does not stop committing the sin, and tries to keep it a secret from others.
People sometimes say to me: ‘It must be wonderful being in gospel ministry because there are so few opportunities for sin’. I reply: ‘Gospel ministry brings more temptations and more opportunities for sin!’
Remember that what hinders our usefulness to God is not our lack of energy, time, gifts, or resources, but our sins. It is sin that distorts our thinking, feeling, deciding, and doing; sin that clouds the glory of God in our lives; sin that diminishes our authenticity and compromises our spiritual effectiveness.
Remember: The punishment for secret sins in ministry is certain; the rewards for faithfulness in life and ministry are great.
God knows the secrets of our hearts (Ps 44:21).
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve (Jer 17:8,9).
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).
Those who teach are judged with greater strictness (James 2:1).
We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:12).
I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:27).
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:7,8).
People in ministry are likely to engage in secret sins, because public sins would end their ministries.
These secret sins include the dramatic and newsworthy sins of:
- sexual immorality;
- sexual, physical, psychological or spiritual abuse (in ministry or in the family);
- drug abuse;
- sins within marriage and family;
- financial gain or irregularities.
These secret sins include the undramatic and un-newsworthy sins of:
- prayerlessness—not being continually being transformed by the Spirit’s words in the Bible;
- pride in your body or mind or instincts, or in your pre-ministry work, or in your ministry ability or achievements;
- personal ambition for success, fame, or glory;
- avoiding any kind of accountability;
- having an inflated sense of your own importance or infallibility;
- control and micro-management; having favourites;
- ignoring people; using people for our own purposes;
- refusing to benefit from the correction of others;
- divisiveness; doctrinal irresponsibility;
- believing that the end (the glorious and urgent gospel) justifies any means, even if the means includes controlling, manipulating, coercing, using or abusing people;
- cynicism about God, the gospel or people;
- superficiality in relationships and responsibility, in listening to people, in reading and thinking, in preparation,in theology, in supervision and in oversight;
- escapism through dependence on social media or netflix;
- unrealistic or unbalanced projection on online image;
- trying to impress people rather than God;
- allowing the urgent to crowd out the important in ministry, and the good to get in the way of the best;
- laziness or lack of productivity in ministry;
- constant short cuts in preparing sermon or Bible teaching, including trivial use of the Bible, constantly riding hobby-horses, or pinching other people’s sermons;
- an inflated estimate of your importance, insights, knowledge, gifts, and abilities;
- taking personal credit when things go well, and avoiding personal responsibility when things go wrong;
- a habit of self-deception, or a habit of deceiving others;
- a lack of the fruit of the Spirit;
- a significant gap between your public values and your private life.
You may be conscious of these sins, or they may be invisible to you. You may think that your ministry is satisfactory even though you commit one or more of these sins. You and your ministry would be much healthier if you did not!
How do you Fight Secret Sins?
1. Avoid a Dangerous Ministry Culture.
First, do your best to avoid a ministry culture in which:
- Loyalty to you is required to belong to the church, to be a leader, or to be involved in ministry, when loyalty to you means that people cannot question you or disagree with you.
- You subject your people and your fellow-workers to a ‘benevolent dictatorship’.
- Everyone is accountable to you, and you are not accountable to anyone.
- You assume such a divine call or superior status or unique ministry that you are above lesser mortals
- You practise the idea that ‘the end justifies the means’, so that you can do anything because of the great purpose of your life and ministry.
- You are too important and too busy to be questioned or called to account.
- You control everyone and every feature of the ministry you lead.
- You are so successful in ministry that your life must be OK, because God is blessing you.
- You use the accountability that you impose on others to demean them, shame them, gain power over them, and use them for your own needs.
- You ignore complaints about your behaviour, and reject, ignore or demean or dismiss anyone who makes such a complaint.
- There are not publicly available ways in which church workers or church people or anyone else is able to make a confidential complaint about abusive or inappropriate behaviour, confident that it will be investigated by an impartial person, and that the appropriate action will be taken.
2. Maintain a deep, constant, and fervent dependence on God to sustain and keep you as a believer, and to sustain and keep you in integrity and faithfulness as a minister.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin …
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me …
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:1,2,10-12,17).
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it (1 Thess 5:23,24).
You will ‘do your best to avoid secret sins’ if you depend deeply and prayerfully on God, because he is the only one who can rescue you and transform you from the inside, as he has promised to do. Here are some ways you can do this:
Pray every morning:
- Pray fervently and constantly to God that he will protect, guide and strengthen you; that he will show your sins, help you to repent and turn away from them, and establish you in godly patterns of life and ministry.
- Pray that God will show you the sins that are invisible to you, and help you to repent. And pray that God will remind you of your continued sins which are damaging you and your ministry, and help you to repent.
- Pray a proactive and preventative (and prophylactic!) prayer about your habitual sins: that God will alert you to their presence, help you to resist them, and help you to respond and act in the right way. (e.g. ‘Help me not to lose my temper, but instead respond with love, understanding, and calmness.’)
- That your first responsibility is to live as a Christian, a believer, a follower of Christ, and that if you do not do this, your ministry will suffer.
- To confess your sins as soon as you commit them; and reflect on your day before you sleep at night; and repent of the sins of that day. Put sins to death every day, and live for righteousness every day. (If the idea of putting sin to death is not familiar to you, see my https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/sins-killing-today/)
- To consider your personal sins, and also your sins in the way you do ministry, and the sins your ministry enables you to commit. (If you are not used to thinking about ministry sins, read my post on the topic here.)
- To be on the lookout for habitual sins of life, of relationships, and of ministry, and ask God to help you repent of them and change the way you live.
- That your heart—including your emotions, automatic responses, assumptions, reactions, decision-making, patterns of life, sense of identity, and perceptions of reality—is powerful, wicked, and deceitful. It is powerful because it shapes who you are and what you do. It is wicked, because it is corrupted by sinfulness and sin. It is deceitful, because it blinds you to yourself, blinds you to your sin, blinds you to reality, and blinds you to God.
Remember that your chief and main comfort is God so that you do not suffer a consolation deficit, and so turn to other people, things, or sins.
- That your chief and main comfort is God, his love, faithfulness, compassion, understanding, and grace. Do this so that you do not suffer a consolation deficit, and so turn to other people, things, or sins, to provide the comfort that only God can provide.
- To read the Bible not only as a means of ministry to others, but also as God’s word to you, your life, and your ministry. Be continually reformed by the Bible.
- To counter sin by doing the opposite, following the example of the thief no longer stealing, but rather working to give to those in need (Eph 4:28). If you are tempted to steal or worship mammon, give money away generously! If you are tempted to sexual immorality, increase your devotion to your spouse and to God, consciously and continually offering your body to them. (To God alone, if you are not married). If you are tempted to control others, serve them instead. If you are tempted to find your comfort in food, drink, or mindless entertainment, increase your joy in the countless and wonderful good gifts of God that do not damage you.
- Not to weaken yourself by being too busy, working too hard, or not allowing time in your life for personal reflection and awareness. Don’t be so focused on your ministry that you forget to live as a believer and fail to sustain your own life with God.
- Not to forget that your sins not only affect you but others and God.
- To ensure that you have a regular pattern of taking time each week or each month to reflect before God on your life as a person, and your life as a person in ministry.
- The old saying: ‘Sow a thought, and you reap an act. Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit, and you reap a character. Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.’
- That the greater your gifts and the greater your ministry, the more rigorously you need to discipline yourself lest you fall into sin. Yet we all need to exercise vigilance.
- To praise and thank God for people in ministry you know, and saints from the past, who have lived godly lives and done godly ministry.
- To pursue holiness in life and ministry at any cost and by every means.
- That every believer is fighting the same battle against sin and for godliness in their lives, for their hypocrisy could also bring disgrace on the name of Christ.
When you feel able to do so, pray these prayers:
Our God and saviour, please give me such a great passion for your glory and honour and reputation, that I will do anything and everything I can to adorn your doctrine.
Dear heavenly Father, please do whatever it takes to transform me into the image of Christ by the power of your Spirit, from one degree of glory to another.
Dear heavenly Father, please make my sins as odious and unpleasant and displeasing to me as they are to you.
Dear heavenly Father, please end my life rather than letting me disgrace you in life or ministry.
You will ‘do your best to avoid long-term secret or unrecognised sins’ if you depend deeply and prayerfully on God, because he is the only one who can rescue you and transform you from the inside, as he has promised to do. In my next post, we will talk about how being accountable to other Christians can help you too.
Here are some of my daily prayers, which are proactive, preventative and prophylactic against my secret and habitual sins. (You will be able to work out what my secret sins are from these prayers!) I pray some of them in the morning each day, preparing myself for the temptations to come that day.
- Help me to die to sin and live to righteousness every day.
- Rid me of my petty idolatries, and help me to repent of them.
- Please rid me of bad temper, self-pity, and constant regrets.
- Please rid me of arrogant and petty judgementalism.
- Please help me to do difficult tasks, and not avoid them.
- Please make me quick to admit mistakes and accept rebukes.
- Help me to be patient and gentle when others need it, not just when it suits me.
- Increase my forbearance and forgiveness.
- Please help me to know your sufficient grace, and your power made perfect in my weakness.
- Help me to be content in you, and your providential care: when you give, and when you take away.
- Help me to count every trial and temptation as joy, and as a chance to grow in endurance and maturity.
- Change me so that I do ministry for your glory and the benefit of others, not to meet my own needs, and give me a great passion for your glory.
- Help me to focus my ministry priorities, so that I do what is best to serve your purposes. Increase my usefulness and effectiveness in ministry, and protect me and my ministry.
- Please keep me in wisdom, gospel truth, and integrity of life and ministry.
- Help me love and forgive those who hurt me intentionally or unintentionally.
- Please make me wise in conflict.
- Help me trust your providential care of your Gospel work around the world, and not to confuse a good zeal for Gospel progress with an ungodly desire to get my own way.
- Help me to carry the burdens of ministry, trusting in your sovereign grace.
- Please protect me by the blood of Christ from Satan’s accusations, lies, and tricks, and help me stand in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
- Please give me a long life and ministry, and help me persevere to the end.
- Help me to guard my heart by your power and compassion.
- Dear heavenly Father, help me to: love lavishly, without recognition; serve generously, without reward; give cheerfully, without grudging; listen lovingly, without impatience, forgive fully, without resentment; forbear fruitfully, without frustration; minister patiently, without murmuring; serve hopefully, without hesitation; remember thankfully, without regret.
- Alert me to sin’s deceitfulness and especially to the deep sins and hypocrisies in my life that are currently invisible to me, and help me to repent of them and change the way I live.
- Today I offer my body to you as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to you.
- Please give me contentment and joy in you, your will and your ways. Satisfy me with your steadfast love, that I may rejoice in you all my days.
- I trust you: to provide all the gifts, time, energy and health for me to live for you and do the good works you have prepared for me to do; to place me where you want me to serve you; to use my life and ministry; and to hear and answer my prayers.
- Help me to stop comparing myself with others, feeling either jealous or superior. Help me to honour and love others in ministry and not compete with them. Take from me the desire to be noticed and praised by others, and from looking for immediate thanks and appreciation: instead make me desire your love, affirmation, approval, and acceptance, and to live for your glory and honour.
- Take from me the desire for happiness: instead help me to pursue holiness.
- Keep me from bitterness, anger and deep resentment when I am hurt. Help me to forbear, forgive and forget quickly and completely. Rid me of impatience.
- Please help me to not treat my personal preferences as if they are gospel principles.
- Please help me to learn to be content with your gifts and your will, to avoid self-pity, and to embrace your loving discipline.
- Help me to know that slight momentary afflictions work an eternal weight of glory, and that nothing is wasted in your economy.
- Please remove my intimations of infallibility: help me trust the insights and corrections of others.
- Please remove my intimations of irreplaceability: help me encourage others in their ministries, to rejoice when others take on ministries I used to do, and increase my trust in your sovereign and providential rule, and your sovereign grace and wisdom.
- Help me to trust you in times of weakness and frailty: help me to repent and pray each day, and not to fail through moral lapse.
- Renew my inner nature day by day by your Spirit.
- Help me to pour out my heart to you when I am distressed, stressed, disappointed, hurt, or depressed, and to find your compassion and comfort in times of trouble.
- Give me self-discipline in eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working and exercising.
- Please help me to grow in patience, wisdom, humility, grace, love, trust and openness.
- Please rid me of jealousy, competition, bad temper, self-pity, impatience, and constant regrets.
- Guard my tongue, and keep me from slander, lies, untruth, unbalanced or un-pastoral truth, and from causing unintentional hurt.
John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, Christian Focus, 1996
Tim Lane, Unstuck: A Nine-Step Journey to Change That Lasts, The Good Book Company, 2019.
 Bible refs NIV11.