Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The problem is that I’ve yet to meet a family that fits into Tolstoy’s tidy categories of “happy” and “unhappy.” The reality is far messier. Put tears and laughter, love and betrayal, fights and hugs into a blender and out will come a family. Even in homes where the walls are decorated with portraits of grinning moms and dads and kids, there’s usually a closet door that’s kept shut. Last week we were reminded of that, when the media flung open that door in the Duggar family home. And the skeletons came spilling out.
Josh Duggar, now twenty seven, the oldest son in TLC’s hit show, “19 Kids and Counting,” sexually abused five underage girls—four of them his sisters—when he was in his early teens. On the family’s Facebook page, Josh, his wife, and his parents have acknowledged this, as well as described how they addressed the abuse a dozen years ago when it occurred. Josh, who had been a lobbyist in Washington D.C. for the Family Research Council, has since resigned his position. And TLC will not be airing any episodes of “19 Kids and Counting” for the foreseeable future.
What happened within this family is many things—tragic and abusive, shameful and selfish, destructive and deceptive. It is all manner of evil, no matter how you look it. But there is one thing that it is surely not: it is not surprising. Not in the least. The only ones stunned by this revelation of abuse are most likely those who assume that the Duggar family image on their reality show does, in fact, accurately reflect reality. But there is no reason why this family’s secret should be shocking, especially to the Christian. The Duggars are not the pristine, ideal family that their television show portrays them as being. They never have been, nor will they ever be. Nor is any family. They are parents, sons, and daughters who have a civil war raging within each of them. It just so happens that Josh’s particular battles, and the pain he inflicted upon others as a result, have taken center stage.
Consider these words: “I don’t understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” These are the words of Paul, the one we’ve dubbed Saint Paul. He frankly admits that he’s anything but a model of moral perfection. “I do the very thing I hate,” he admits. He’s got a civil war raging inside him, too. He’s fully sinful in himself and fully righteous in Jesus Christ, all at the same time. He is what the Reformers called simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner). What Paul’s particular struggles were, what those things he hated were, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t have to. He’s simply upfront about his condition—the fallen, curved-in-on-itself human condition.
As it was with Paul, so it is with the Duggars, and so it is with every Christian: each of us lugs around an old corrupt nature that we won’t shed this side of the grave. Of course, that nature rears its ugly head in different ways with each person, sometimes in ways that must be addressed with spiritual as well as psychological help. With Josh, sadly, it was through sexual abuse; with others it’s through addictions and greed and hate and selfishness of every kind. But one thing is certain: not just Josh but all of us harbor our demons. And the sinful nature within us is daily clawing its way out to manifest itself in ways great and small, public and private. Only liars and fools pretend otherwise.
The sooner we as individual Christians, as Christian families, and as churches present ourselves to the world that way, the better. Believers face more than petty allurements, make more than “mistakes.” We fail and fall in mega ways.
Dear world, do you struggle with alcohol or drug abuse? So do we believers. Dear world, has your family been wounded by infidelities? So have ours. Dear world, have your children hurt each other through sexual abuse? Yes, ours too.
Dear world, do your families members commit crimes and end up in prison? Ours too.
Dear world, do you have a closet full of skeletons? So do we Christians.
The greatest witness that Christians can present to the world is not their own morality, their ideal family, or their dream marriage, but their weaknesses and sins and failures, all of which have been atoned for by the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Our witness is never, “Look at how well we’re doing at being good,” but always, “Look at the good Savior who died for our evils.”
Here’s what happens inside the closed doors of Christian families: sinners live together in very close proximity. And you know what that means. Husbands who are righteous in Christ, but sinful in themselves, do and say mean and hurtful things to their wives. Wives who are righteous in Christ, but sinful in themselves, do and say mean and hurtful things to their husbands. Christian children mess up big time, rebel, and yes, sometimes sexually abuse others. We do terrible things. Tempers flare, eyes lust, tongues yell. In other words, sinners act the way sinners are. We are no better than the world is. Nor should we claim to be. We are far from perfect. We are by nature sinful and unclean. And because of that, we return, again and again, to the blood Christ shed that atones for our sins—the same blood, dear world, that has atoned for yours as well.
Christians families do not live on the mountaintop of morality but at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. In his shadow is shelter from the burning sun of iniquity. Whatever repercussions Josh may experience from what he’s done, he will find at the foot of the cross a God who does not punish him, but says, “I love you. I have forgiven you. My blood has made you whiter than snow.” If this seems scandalous, then you’re beginning to understand the grace of Christ. Christ’s love is a scandalous gift. He didn’t die for the not-so-sinful portion of humanity. He was crucified for all. He died for sexual abusers, murderers, gossips, hatemongers, adulterers, pornographers, and you—whoever you are, whatever skeletons may be piled in your family closet.
But there’s still more that Jesus did. Christ took upon himself the shame that others inflict upon innocent victims. He lived and died and rose again for the girls that Josh abused. The battered wife, the rape victim, the child whose bedtime lullaby was the screams of a drunk father—these who have been physically, emotionally, and psychologically harmed by the evils of others, they too find peace and wholeness in the battle-torn, broken body of the Son of God. He didn’t just die to forgive us for the wrongs we do, but to provide us with healing from the wrongs others do to us. For in Christ, the Spirit puts us into communion with a restoring God. He gives us the peace that passes understanding. Not the evil that others have done to us, but the good Christ has done for us, is what defines who we are. We are God’s sons and daughters. We are adopted into the family of a Father whose greatest joy is loving and embracing us as the dearest things in all creation to him.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have said, “We pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family.” We would echo that prayer, and add to it. I would pray that as people watch their lives—and as they watch the life of my family as well—they would see families that boast only of their weaknesses, that do not deny their flaws, and that find peace and healing only in Jesus Christ.
We are all the Duggars. We are all dysfunctional sinners living in flawed families upheld by grace. There is only one who is perfect, the one who became our sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God. And in his wounds, bleeding with love, all of us find healing.
A Word to Self-Righteous Christians Attacking Josh Duggar
I have been terribly grieved by some "Christian" responses to Josh Duggar, as if there are some sins God cannot forgive or some people that He cannot transform. Such an attitude betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the gospel of grace and is actually a slap in the face of the Savior.
When I shared some redemptive thoughts about Josh's situation earlier in the week, I did not for a moment minimize the gravity of his acts. Specifically, I wrote that "he did sin grievously"; I put his actions in the category of "wicked things" that some of us did as teenagers; I stated that, "There's no excuse for sin, so own up to it"; I referred to Josh committing "serious sexual sin"; and I said "there are consequences to our actions" but that God can redeem, also stressing the importance of the church helping the victims of abuse.
And although I have never been the victim of sexual abuse, I have listened to the stories of abuse victims for years, often devastated by what they shared.
I remember reaching out to a blind, facially disfigured teenage girl at a church service one night. She told me that her problems began when she was sexually abused as girl, after which the pain was so great she got into drugs, finally making a death pact with her boyfriend and another friend. The other friend would shoot each of them in the head and, hopefully, not get caught.
Tragically, her boyfriend died as a result of his wounds, the other boy did go to jail for his actions, but instead of dying, she was blinded.
I thought to myself, "What kind of divine judgment awaits the man who abused her if he does not repent and find mercy before that day?"
A number of our ministry school grads work tirelessly in several nations to combat human trafficking, and I support their work however I can. They tell me in detail about the trauma experienced by these kids and teens sold into sex slavery, with full recovery being extremely difficult and rare (if they even manage to survive and are rescued).
In no way would I dream of minimizing the sin of a sex offender, even a younger one like Josh was, but I absolutely believing in maximizing the grace of God, who delights in saving the worst of sinners.
That's what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, using himself as an example. He explained that "I was previously a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and an insolent man. But I was shown mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. The grace of our Lord overflowed with the faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, first, Jesus Christ might show all patience, as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life" (1 Tim. 1:13-16).
Sadly, professing Christians have written to me, assuring me that God could never forgive Josh for what he did or that "once a molester, always a molester." And they also assure me that they understand grace and believe in the power of the gospel.
Responses like theirs make me wonder if they have ever experienced God's mercy themselves.
The fact is, the very best of us are worthless wretches outside of His grace, and on the holiest day of our lives, in ourselves, we are utterly depraved in light of God's perfect brightness.
If you have ever come under deep conviction of sin, either as a sinner or a saint (meaning, as a nonbeliever or as a believer), you know what I'm talking about.
Suddenly, your flesh is revealed, as happened to the prophet Isaiah when he encountered the Lord, crying out, "Woe is me! For I am undone because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts" (Is. 6:5)
Suddenly, you become aware of the depth of your guilt and depravity, of the impurity of your motives, of the corruption of your actions, of your selfishness or greed or envy or lust or hatred or pride or rebellion or bitterness—or all of the above.
You feel as if the worst hell is too good for you, and you are completely overwhelmed when you realize that not only is God willing to forgive you, but that Jesus died for you and paid for every one of those sins, pronouncing you righteous through faith and bringing you into His family as a fellow child of the Father.
In the words of John Newton, the former slave trader, guilty of committing atrocities against fellow human beings, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."
I know extraordinary men of God today who used to be in involved in terrorist activities or who were once sexually depraved or consumed by hate, and they are some of the saintliest people on the planet. And all of us, no matter how we lived our lives, were sinners in need of salvation and mercy.
Those who have been shown mercy should lead the way in showing mercy; those who have been forgiven should lead the way in forgiving others; those who have been transformed should be the first to believe for the transformation of others.
We should exercise wisdom when it comes to putting certain people in certain positions (for example, no matter how transformed a convicted former child molester might be, I would never put that person in the church's children's ministry, for many obvious reasons), but we should absolutely believe in the power of God to forgive the worst of sinners and trust the power of the blood of Jesus to make us truly clean.
I really do fear for those who do not recognize the depth of their own sin in light of God's holiness and who do not understand the principle that "he who has shown no mercy will have judgment without mercy, for mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jacob [James] 2:13).
May we be ambassadors of the transforming mercy of God, and may we glory in the life-transforming power of the gospel.
I have no desire to pile on with more comments about Josh Duggar, who appears to be a very serious and committed Christian and who has made no excuses for the sins of his youth and who deeply desires to make a positive impact for the Lord in the years ahead. I simply want to share some redemptive thoughts, supplementing some of the excellent statements made by others, including former governor Mike Huckabee and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore.
1. Jesus really does change people. While critics of the Duggar family want to indict them (along with other evangelical Christians, especially those with large families) for Josh's actions, and while many seem ready to throw Josh under the bus, the fact is that while he did sin grievously, through repentance, faith and counseling, he became a new man. Jesus really does transform sinners.
How many of us did wicked things as teenagers? I was shooting heroin at the age of 15 and broke into some houses and even stole money from my own father before being radically converted at the age of 16. I was profane, filled with pride, anger and lust, yet the Lord had mercy on me and totally turned my life around.
Some of us continued to live like this into our adult years, only to find mercy and new life then, meaning that the transformation was even more dramatic.
For me, the first lesson from this story is this: Whoever you are, whatever you've done, there is hope in the Lord. As Mike Huckabee said, "'inexcusable' ... doesn't mean 'unforgivable.'"
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
2. There's no excuse for sin, so own up to it. In today's culture, almost no one is guilty of anything. It's someone else's fault, someone else's responsibility, not our own. We're all victims, and the reason we do bad things is because someone else wronged us. Isn't that how we think today?
I've even heard athletes apologize for some really heinous actions by saying, "I'm not happy with the way things happened," rather than saying, "What I did was wrong and I have no excuses. Please forgive me. I'm seeking to get to the root of my problems and address them."
What a vast difference between the two attitudes.
As Proverbs states, "He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy" (28:13).
According to the accounts we've all heard, Josh confessed his sin to his parents as well as to the proper authorities, and as a family, they worked through the issues. Now, half a lifetime later (he's 27 and is married with four children), when confronted with a police report about his past, he did not minimize his sin nor did he excuse it. He also resigned from the fine Christian organization for whom he worked, not wanting to bring any negative attention to their work.
When I see someone respond like this, I am filled with hope. In fact, over the years, I've seen that people who committed uglier sins but took full responsibility and repented did far better than those who committed less serious sins and tried to sweep them under the rug.
3. Even godly families have kids who mess up badly. Nancy and I only had two kids, and we sought to be godly parents and set godly examples. Yet our older daughter went through a real period of rebellion in her teen years.
As parents, we felt miserable, and I would wonder what I was doing wrong.
Of course, we dealt with her rebellion head on and prayed like crazy for her to really encounter the Lord, but while it was happening, it was terribly deflating spiritually. What kind of father am I? How can I be so ineffective?
Today, we all laugh about those years, and our daughter, who is now 37 and is a devoted wife and mother, is so grateful for the way she was raised. (She and Nancy are the best of friends and are in constant contact.)
The fact that the Duggars, who successfully raised 19 children in the Lord (who can imagine that?), had to deal with one of their kids committing serious sexual sin at 14 should actually encourage other parents rather than discourage them. And perhaps, they can teach us today how this tragic incident helped them come together as a family and draw closer to the Lord.
4. Josh can be an ambassador on behalf of the abused, even helping the abusers, as well. While it can feel like your life is over when your past, largely private sins become public (how many of us would like for that to happen?), the fact is that Josh's future can be bright in the Lord.
He can call on others who are sinning to come clean and get help, using his own example redemptively. And he can encourage those who have been abused to realize that they are not guilty and should not feel shame, also encouraging churches to embrace those who come for help rather than making them feel as if there is something wrong with them.
Why should those who have suffered abuse be stigmatized? They should be our priority for healing and restoration.
5. We need to be careful how we judge. There are many fans of the Duggars who are upset with what they feel is a witch hunt against a godly family, representing one more attempt to remove them from reality TV. (Let me say without qualification that there is life after reality TV, and if the Duggars never do another broadcast, their lives can still be overwhelmingly blessed.)
But would we have had this same attitude of judgment if this was the child of a gay couple? Would we have said, "This proves that gay parents are no good!"?
I certainly believe that kids deserve a mom and a dad and that, optimally, they will do best with a mom and dad, but I don't indict all gay couples because of the failings of one of their kids
So, if you want to show mercy, be consistent. We can all fall into the trap of selective compassion.
6. There are consequences to our actions, but with God, our worst mistakes can become stepping stones to spiritual growth.
Most of us have done things we wish we could take back, and in some cases, the consequences of our bad choices and sinful actions last for decades. Yet with the Lord, no matter how great the stigma of our sin, if we will humble ourselves before Him, He can take those stumbling blocks and turn them into stepping stones, to the point that the worst things that ever happened to us become the best things that ever happened to us.
To the core of His being, God is a redeemer, and I'm personally praying and believing that for Josh Duggar and his entire family, God will turn this painful situation around for greater good.