The Virtue of Struggle

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There is something quite shocking about the Rev. Ted Haggard scandal.

But it’s not what you might think.

The allegations leveled against Rev. Haggard are obviously salacious, but in today’s world, unfortunately, they are not shocking. This wasn’t the first nor is it likely the last such scandal involving a religious leader.

Actually, what was really unprecedented was the tone and tenor of the reverend’s written apology. In an age when personal responsibility is usually eschewed for blaming others and claiming the mantle of victimhood (often to be followed by entry into some sort of rehab), a statement actually acknowledging mistakes and accepting culpability is nothing short of shocking.

In his letter – read to thousands and now heard by millions – Haggard declared matter-of-factly that, “I am a deceiver and a liar.” Furthermore, he stated that, “The fact is that I am guilty . . . and I take full responsibility for the entire problem.”

While there is probably nothing that can completely undo the great pain felt by Rev. Haggard’s multitudes of followers, this statement – especially if followed by meaningful repentance – has the potential to serve as a profoundly positive lesson in spiritual rehabilitation. It was only a first step – but sometimes that is the most difficult step to take.

There is another part of his statement that, if properly appreciated, may prove even more helpful in addressing the broader challenges of religious life and which is relevant to all people, Christian and Jew alike.

In the course of his apology, Rev. Haggard acknowledged, quite frankly, that, “There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.”

In other words, he has been struggling. At times he prevailed in his struggle and other times – apparently with some regularity – he did not. But, it appears, he has been struggling throughout.

The issue of spiritual struggle is one that is commonly misunderstood. Too often we associate struggle – in ourselves or others – with a lack of commitment and as a sign of weakness. Truly righteous people, we presume, aren’t tempted by vices – certainly not by sins of the flesh.

Both of these assumptions are mistaken.

In fact, there is great virtue in struggle.

The easiest thing to do when one has succumbed to temptation is to rationalize that the behavior is actually not illicit or immoral. In one magical moment the guilt, shame, and struggle all disappear. It is only when one clings – stubbornly and with great inner strength – to the truth as it was previously understood that there is any need for struggle.

There is a highly original insight of the famed R. Meir Shapiro of Lublin which indirectly speaks to this very issue.

The Rabbis in the Midrash (Tanchuma, #22) famously describe the Satan’s various attempts to convince Avraham not to listen to God’s command to sacrifice Yitzchok. Disguised first as an old man, then as a young lad, and, finally, in the form of a river, the Satan tried valiantly – but unsuccessfully – to get Avraham to turn back.

In light of this tradition, asks R. Shapiro, why did Avraham ultimately listen to the plea of the angel (Bereishis 22:12) not to lay a hand on Yitchok? How did he know that this wasn’t just another attempt by the Satan to frustrate God’s plan?

R. Shapiro explains that the authenticity of this command was confirmed in the next verse when Avraham noticed the ram “caught in the thicket by its horns” (ne’echaz basvach). The ram’s struggle symbolized the truth of this final charge because emes, truth, is always accompanied by struggle, whereas sheker, falsehood, is characteristically simplistic and without struggle.

In a similar vein, when confronted with spiritual shortcomings it is much easier to adjust beliefs to conform with behavior than it is to confront the reality of personal fallibility and weakness. A life of struggle – or “warring” in the words of Rev. Haggard – is the result of flawed individuals remaining steadfast to the truth of their principles.

In other words, struggle and truth are companions, not strangers; and certainly not enemies.

There is one additional – and related – point which must be made as well.

Because of the misunderstandings mentioned above, many people who are struggling in all or part of their spiritual lives are down on themselves and depressed. This is equal parts tragic and mistaken.

In fact, over forty years ago one such person wrote a letter to R. Yitzchok Hutner wherein he apparently used numerous negative adjectives to describe himself. In a remarkable reply (Iggeros u-Kesavim, #128), R. Hutner maintains that the very letter itself and the struggles it describes belie any negative self-description. On the contrary, all supremely righteous people had to struggle to reach the exalted heights which were their ultimate destiny.

The essence of our soul, R. Hutner continues, is not found in tranquility but in struggle. In fact, he too uses the metaphor of war in explaining that the goal of religious life is not necessarily to win every battle but, ultimately, to win the war. And that can only be accomplished through perseverance and, yes, through struggle.

Even as we disapprove of Rev. Haggard’s illicit behavior, we can still admire the fact that he has taken personal responsibility for his failings and remained honest about the demands of living a moral lifestyle.

We can also hope that he keeps “warring” with himself because his willingness to struggle can serve as a model for others. And if he should be victorious in this war he will further serve as a beacon of hope for all those in similar situations.

I wish him success in this fight of his life.

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10 Responses

  1. Eric Bauer says:

    AlanLaz-

    If you are interested, Rav Dessler talks about the difference in Eliezers story between what happened and what he told Besuel & Lavan – how it was b/c Eliezer was an interested party in finding a match for Yitzchok (he wanted his daughter to marry Yitzchok). As Rav Dessler says, when he asked “what if she won’t come” and then about bringing Yitzchok out of Israel, he didn’t even realize that he was asking b/c of his own personal interest, rather it was only after the fact did he realize this, and then correctly state the way things really were.

  2. L.Oberstein says:

    I am impressed that the male escort outed Rev. Haggard without any attempt to sell his story to a tabloid or to profit in any way. He was sincerely affronted that here was a regular customer of his who also snorted drugs and he saw him on TV as a leading opponent of Gay Marriage. It was the hypocrisy that upset him.

  3. One Christian's perspective says:

    Thank you so much for your gentle and kind words that teach rather than ridicule. It was such a blessing for me to read what you wrote today because this week I have been studying suffering and learned that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character produces hope and you have just confirmed that this is a Jewish perspective. (I shouldn’t be surprised. ) Additionally, after a quick search on suffering in the Hebrew Bible, I just saw where (Psalm 132) David speaks of the same things – suffering, perseverance, hope.

    G-dly people will stumble but when truth is revealed, their suffering is not wasted when G-d is glorified. When G-d is glorified, their character has been refined and their hope is in the Lord. Even Isaiah said “woe is me” and look at his life.

  4. Naftali says:

    Wow! If only we can learn to be as generous to our fellow Jews and to liberals of all religions and political stripe. It seems that Orthodox Jewry’s infatuation and identification with Evangelical Christianity is deeper than I imagined. I wish R. Haggard the best, as I do for all men and women, and I hope that he is on his way to recovery now that has been forced to face himself. However, Rabbi Gottlieb’s paean to R. Haggard doesn’t do justice to the chronology of the episode. R. Haggard initially denied the charges against him, and made the confessions that Rabbi Gottlieb finds so admirable only after he was fired from his position by the elders of his congregation, i.e, when he was left with no choice but to go down with “dignity.”

    R. Haggard was outspoken and harsh in his criticism of homosexuality. He did not address moral failure in others with the same charity that Rabbi Gottlieb does. R. Haggard was fighting his own demons. As one of his congregants explained to the NY Times: ”He struggled with the same issues he preached about,” Rabbi Gottlieb says something similar when he writes that “…struggle and truth are companions, not strangers; and certainly not enemies.” One wonders, then, whether the Hareida community’s blunt, uncompromising and often violent campaign against the gay parade in Jerusalem also carried that same hidden dimension of personal struggle.

  5. AlanLaz says:

    “Truly righteous people, we presume, aren’t tempted by vices – certainly not by sins of the flesh.”

    The Torah begins the story of Avraham trying to find Yitzchak a son by telling us that he was rich, and he made Eliezer take a shvua. Sforno asks: who cares if Avraham is rich; and why would he make his prized Talmid take a shvua…did he not trust him? Answers the Sforno that it had to say that he was rich in order to tell us that which he made Eliezer take a shvua for; specifically, Avraham was worried that there would be people that would ONLY be concerned with his son’s family wealth and would bribe Eliezer to take their daughter for Yitzchak. Ayyy, you ask – how could Eliezer, one of only 7 people to go straight to Gan Eden, have accepted a bribe? The obvious, but equally important lesson, as you speak to in this piece: he was human. It doesn’t matter how frum or rabbinic one is, we’re all suceptible to taivos.

  6. Fern R says:

    Toby–but how do those two facts lessen Haggard’s mea culpa or the fact that he was in fact struggling? Maybe G-d used Haggard’s paramour to help Haggard stop? Maybe G-d, in His infinite wisdom, knew that Haggard would only be able to win this particular struggle if he was forced to admit his shortcomings in public and feel the embarassment associated therein? I don’t think anyone is arguing that Haggard’s confession and apology can undo the hurt he has caused his family and followers. Rather, I think was Dovid Gottlieb is saying is that there is something for all of us to learn from Haggard’s situation, and that even though Haggard is far from perfect, that there are still aspects of his behavior that can be admired.

  7. joel rich says:

    Is that the famous it takes 7 falls to make a tzaddik letter?
    KT
    Joel Rich

  8. Toby Katz says:

    Haggard’s confession and apology cannot undo the fact that he acted in a manner totally inconsistent with what he was publicly preaching, and he would have continued sinning and would never have repented if he hadn’t been outed by his paramour.

  9. AlanLaz says:

    “The easiest thing to do when one has succumbed to temptation is to rationalize that the behavior is actually not illicit or immoral. In one magical moment the guilt, shame, and struggle all disappear. It is only when one clings – stubbornly and with great inner strength – to the truth as it was previously understood that there is any need for struggle.”

    Classic cognitive dissonance.

  10. Baruch Horowitz says:

    In the letter mentioned, Rav Hutner gives as an example the Chafetz Chaim
    (from a JO article):

    “Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, z.t.l., considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer horo (evil inclination)?”