"Sandusky Guilty of Sexual Abuse of 10 Young Boys." That was one headline last week after a jury found former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, once a local hero, guilty. Here's a letter I wrote to my four sons, ages 15 to 21:
A reputation built carefully over many years can be destroyed in minutes. The Bible tells us it is better to choose a "good name" than great riches. Your parents and schools have exhorted you through the years to behave in a way that will bring honor to your name-and not insignificantly, bring honor to your parents and schools as well. We meant well, but for this you must forgive us.
A reputation is ephemeral, a haphazardly created sketch that may or may not reflect the reality of the person connected to it. Regarding achievements or recognition, "You don't always get what you deserve and you don't always deserve what you get." The same is true of your reputation. Groundless gossip can destroy a good reputation. Cover-ups and lies can preserve a good reputation, for a while.
The focus must never be on your reputation, but on the reality of the man you are: a sinner, redeemed by God. We should never be surprised at our own sin or at the sin of others. Given the right circumstances and temptations, we could be vulnerable to commit all sorts of sins. But, that is not the whole story. You also have been redeemed. Through your union with Christ you have the power to triumph over temptation. You know that even when you fall you have a way forward-a well-worn path through repentance, confession, forgiveness, restoration, and hope.
The Bible tells us the truth will make us free, but the truth may be at odds with a good reputation. The truth might disappoint. The truth might bring shame in the eyes of the world upon you, your family, or your school. But truth brings freedom and hope.
A good reputation can be nothing more than an idol-something worshipped instead of God. And like all idols, the idol of a good reputation can enslave you.
Two recent stories bear this out.
Last fall a young woman in Hendersonville, Tenn., suffocated her newborn twins and stuffed them in a laundry basket. She was living in a Christian home, involved in her church, and single. She became pregnant, hid her pregnancy, and killed her babies. Though her case was exceptional, every day, similarly situated young women make the same choice through abortion.
Her friends told reporters that the young woman was so good: an obedient daughter, a devout Christian. The reality of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy would have destroyed that reputation. Did she sacrifice her children to the idol of her reputation?
And think of the tragedy at Penn State. Grown men, confronted repeatedly with distressing incidents, either failed to act or acted half-heartedly. Perhaps they were personally scared and didn't want to be involved. Perhaps they kept silent to preserve unsullied the reputation of their storied football program.
I hope when you witness abuse of any kind, you will take action, not fearing for your own safety, job, or reputation. I trust you will not stand by, and through your silence enable a classmate, teammate, or fraternity brother-or even a boss or coach-to harm another. And action without follow-through is not enough. You might be the only one with courage enough to act. Real men are willing to take risks and suffer. Assistant coach Mike McQueary may have looked like a man on the football field, but he didn't act like one in the locker room.
Most moral dilemmas are not too complicated. Usually simple application of the Golden Rule suffices. The complication comes when we pause long enough to come up with arguments why we ought not do what we know we ought to do.
If those Penn State coaches and staff had just seen their own sons' faces on the bodies of the boys being abused it would not have been complicated at all.