“‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting…weeping, and…mourning; and rend your hearts….’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (vv. 12–13).
God is, I believe, calling Willow Creek Community Church to repentance. WCCC should take a strong position on the sin of its founder, Bill Hybels. Even if he, at this point, cannot confess and repent, the church must in no uncertain terms declare that Bill sinned in his sexual abuse of numerous women and must call him to repent. If the church does not do this, they are, in essence, complicit in viewing what he did as less than what it is, a sinful violation of the dignity of women. He sinned. The church must call him out of hiding and back to repentence and restoration. The church must in clear ways call Bill to confess to the women that he has sinned and in the strongest way possible declare that he must repent.
No loyalty to his past behavior that may have been good should block the church from its duty to call out sin and to call Bill to repent. The world is looking at how the church treats the sexual abuse of women and the perpetrators of this horrific violation of the dignity of its sisters in Christ. If, for some reason, the current leaders of Willow are so indebted to the legacy of Bill that they cannot boldly point out his sin, they must step aside. They are not suitable leaders whose loyalty should be to God over fidelity with a charismatic man. Those who lead must, in a clarion call, declare that Bill’s sin is intolerable. Anything short of this is unacceptable.
The church, in being the context in which his behavior flourished, must repent. In multiple ways Willow served as the environment that supported and sustained the sense of narcissistic entitlement that characterized Bill Hybels. Every person who failed to stand like Nathan and call out his pushy, arrogant, overpowering, and self-centered abuse of power must repent of their failure to contain the destructiveness of this kind of person’s behavior.
So Willow, repent already!
And, as evidence piles up about the sinful behavior of Bill Hybels’ towards vulnerable women, the growing question becomes “Why does he not confess and repent?”. It seems simple on the surface. Here is a man who has spent over 44 years at the helm of a mega church, sharing the awesome grace of God available to any repentant sinner. Come one, come all, to the fountain of God’s grace , available no matter how broken and sinful one is, and your life can be restored to one of purpose and meaning. The appeal to grace is so straightforward and uncomplicated. Bill shared it as if he believed it, and would easily turn to grace for all of his own shortcomings and sin. He presented it as if it should be second nature to anyone who called themselves a Christian. It was so hopeful and refreshing to all that suffered under the burden of sin to just repent, confess, and access the life-giving grace of Jesus.
A book by Lewis Smedes “Shame and Grace” , focuses on how shame exposes our defects to the piercing eyes of our critics, and drives us to hide in whatever way that we can figure out. Some people hide from shame by trying to be perfect, some by turning shame around and attacking others, some by minimizing their behavior, and some by justification and rationalization. The word “shame” literally means to hide, to try to protect oneself from the blow torch of pain that shame evokes in us when we become aware of our vulnerability to the judgement of others. Our understanding of the word “mortification” is instructive in understanding the power of shame. To say “I felt mortified” reflects what a person experiences when they feel deep shame. Literally, the idea is that one wants to die, to go out of existence, to be swallowed up by the earth and be no more, in order to no longer be the visible object of other’s ridicule. Lewis Smedes points to the only true covering for shame for a Christian, and that is the grace of God. When we stay inside the cloak of God’s grace we can feel safe and lovable. Outside of this covering, we feel vulnerable.
So why cannot Bill Hybels just repent already!? Do what you have told thousands to do. Experience the freedom and exhilaration that comes when repentance and confession lead to the incredible safety of grace. No more hiding. No more trying to protect the self in all the old and unhealthy forms of covering. Why Bill, do you not taste and see that the Lord is good and provides a safe place of protection through His grace? Do you trust God’s grace?
I have deep empathy for Bill in many ways. He is Dutch, I am part Dutch, his parents were Christian Reformed, my father was Christian Reformed in his upbringing. My mother grew up in A.W. Tozer’s church on the south side of Chicago. Both my parents were immersed in the perfectionism of rules and regulations, and they passed that on to me and my siblings. I am sure that Bill experienced the same pressure to be perfect and felt the scorching heat of shame when failure occurred. I know that I learned early that one way to hide from shame was to strive to be perfect and to look like I had it all together. I had a deep fear of revealing my vulnerability because it was always coupled with the apprehension of social rejection. I know the power of shame to shape the way that I sought to present myself to the world. I am sure that the same trajectory of development guided Bill.
Narcissism and shame are kissing cousins. The narcissist adopts a mind-set of their own specialness in order to protect the self from vulnerability to shame. If the narcissist can view the opinions of others as inferior to their own, they can minimize the impact of judgement by others. In this scenario, the point of view of others is, by contrast, subordinate to the narcissist. As a result, they can dismiss all who oppose them as coming from a place of lesser validity. This is a powerful defense mechanism for the narcissist because it leaves them immune from the shame-inducing judgement of others. The arsenal of self protecting strategies is manifold for the narcissist. They can diminish or belittle any who oppose them or point out their wrong doing. What most people do not see is the smoke screen that obscures others from seeing that at the core, the narcissist is protecting a fragile sense of self. Confident people can easily embrace the reality of their failures because their commitment is to growth and the truth. The narcissist, on the other hand, has formed their character around a very defensive posture of avoiding and evading any hint of failure. Since shame lurks just under the thin veneer of the narcissist, it must be held back by any method available. Narcissists often rage at people who poke into their vulnerability. They do this to attempt to re-establish their emotional equilibrium.
Narcissists are often externally successful, because their underlying protective belief in their own specialness allows them to take risks that those who fear failure, avoid. They are not risk- averse because they have the mental weapons of being able to dismiss the opinions of others as inferior. As a result, they can often create new and innovative ideas and organizations. They manage the creation of these organizations with high levels of control, since their image is on the line. Developing “success” leaves the narcissist with a growing sense of entitlement, that further strengthens their ability to diminish the opinions of those around them.
So why do people like Bill, who clearly has narcissistic qualities, find it so hard to repent and own their own failures? Because their lives are built around the mental mechanisms of personal specialness that leave them immune from the ability to receive feedback from inferior outside sources. That is why Bill must view the women that he abused as inferior to him, and therefore, can discredit their stories as coming from anger at him because he rejected their needs in relationship to him.
Bill is clearly hiding. Hiding in Michigan. Hiding in his defiance towards any and all who dare to see him as broken or flawed. Hiding in his belief, that because he has created so much good, that he gets a pass on any bad behavior that he might have displayed. Hiding by getting people around him to support him in his sense of victimization.
Shame is a beach. For someone like Bill, entering into the arena of personal contrition and seeking forgiveness is weak. It would expose him to the underlying fear of being inferior and therefore, unlovable. The core angst of the shame-based narcissist is going from specialness to worthlessness. It is a binary process with no grey areas in between. They are either all good, or all bad, so extraordinary effort is utilized to shore up the defenses against the dreadful potential for exposure and rejection.
Think of where Bill is at right now. He was adored by so many. Now he has fallen with a mighty thud. Although everyone else can see that he wears no clothes, that he has sinned, he cannot, he must not repent, for fear of the dire immersion in shame. And that is why he is hiding, and may stay hiding. The reality is that he very likely does not trust the grace of people. I can relate to that. I deeply struggled with faith that people who saw me in my brokenness, could possibly respect or love me. Thankfully, God has allowed me to fail and to live in the reality of His grace and the grace of loving people in my life.
Hiding protects us, but also imprisons us. It diminishes our lives because we cannot move into a place of understanding our lovableness in the context of our brokenness. That is where freedom resides. This, I believe, is the place where Bill is at this time. The other side of shame is grace, but for the shame-based person, trusting grace is the greatest risk. But, it is also the greatest freedom.
May Bill boldly access the throne of grace and find the everlasting love of God and His people in that process.
Bill, repent already! Come back to the fold of the redeemed.