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Part-time obedience

The public/private split doesn't fit in God's scheme of things

Issue: "Clinton: Under seige," Feb. 6, 1998

As the big scandal in Washington was unfolding a couple of weeks ago, and the U.S. presidency was unraveling for the second time in my lifetime, my thoughts turned strangely to a good personal friend and a member of the board that publishes WORLD magazine. Bentley Rayburn is a brigadier general in the United States Air Force, and serves right now as commanding officer at Prince Sultan Air Base just southwest of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. That base is the U.S. installation that was truck-bombed a year-and-a-half ago. Gen. Rayburn was assigned to go there last summer to rebuild morale, ensure security, and guarantee that our air command in that region is ready to respond to whatever dirty tricks Saddam Hussein might have up his sleeve.

What prompted me to think of Gen. Rayburn was all the talk about the duty we American citizens supposedly have to separate the public and private lives of our leaders. One commentator and analyst after another droned on with the same weary wisdom: What a president does with his private life shouldn't be a big concern to us citizens; it's only what he does in the conduct of his official responsibilities that matters.

Try telling that to Bentley Rayburn. Try telling it to any of our military officers, or enlisted men and women, spread around the world and putting their lives at risk to defend policies being established by a halfway attentive commander-in-chief. Try telling it to Bentley Rayburn's wife Debbi and their four children waiting for him at home. Try telling any of those folks that a terribly wounded man at the top leaves them feeling just as secure as they did before.

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Yet the impact of a distracted president on military preparedness is only the most dramatic of what follows in a never-ending chain of unintended consequences. How could he possibly devote himself as he needed to-and as the world needed him to-to visitors like Israel's President Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Arafat? How can he possibly provide leadership in the establishment of national budget and tax policy here at home? How can he even effectively lead his own political party?

God has made us as whole beings. We can deny it all we want and pretend otherwise, as our president, his defenders, and many in the media have done for the last six years. We can keep asserting that we're allowed to ignore God's rules on one level and not let it affect us on other levels-but when we do that, we simply show how naive we really are, and how profoundly we misunderstand God's order of things.

That naivete can take on a sophisticated shape and sound for a period of time. We can persuade ourselves, as Adam and Eve persuaded themselves, that we will be wiser people after ignoring God's commands than we were before. For a while, we can even kid ourselves into thinking it has really worked out that way.

What we always forget is the interconnectedness of who we are, and the manner in which God has so closely knit our personal beings and the outworking of his providence. We tend to think very narrowly, focusing only on the specific wrongdoing or failure of the moment. Can we get away with it without immediately facing God's judgment? Can we sneak this one past him (or past Mom and Dad, or past the boss, or past the church officers) without being struck down by lightning?

Then amazingly, we discover that yes, we can. And we are emboldened in our sinful direction. We are encouraged either to repeat our sin sometime soon, or to enlarge on it-because our experience has taught us now that we can get away with what we've done. We think we've actually succeeded in separating that one particular wrongdoing from all the rest of our lives.

What we always conveniently leave out of such equations is that God is the judge of all the universe. His response is not limited to us, right now, right where we are. His judgments sometimes are fashioned quite simply in his allowing the effects of our sin to rumble on among other people in other places and other times.

So when I sin, the results might be that I get caught. The results for the president of the United States might be that a special prosecutor can gather so much evidence that he has to leave office in disgrace.

But the results might also be that neither one of us gets caught, in the usual sense of the word. Instead, a whole string of bad things happens offstage that no one ever expected. Because the president was so consumed with his problems, he missed the little nuance that would have helped bring peace in the Middle East. Because his staff was so wrapped up in protecting their boss-thousands of man-hours just in the last few days-they failed to give him the assistance he needed to do his main job.


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