“. . .but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you," Psalm 32: 9b
Just a few years ago, Bernie Ebbers, who is, according to Forbes, “perhaps the most powerful American businessman ever to face a criminal trial,” was found guilty and went to jail, his sentence yet to be determined. His crimes?—securities fraud, conspiracy, and filing false documents.
On hearing the verdict, Ebbers hugged his wife and step-daughter, and then cried. His lawyer continues to plead his innocence.
Bernie Ebbers was a celebrity entrepreneur who turned a small, long-distance company in Mississippi, into one of the largest communications providers in the world, WorldCom. He was WorldCom’s CEO from 1985 to 2000, and, when his company’s stocks were flying, his personal worth reached close to a billion dollars. Today he’s dressed in a yellow uniform provided by the state.
The government’s case was that, faced with a more grim business future than he’d seen in years, Bernie Ebbers cooked the books. In decisions that involved millions of dollars, he flat-out lied.
I feel closer to Bernie Ebbers than I do to Kenneth Lay, the other CEO who was, several years ago, deeply discredited by gigantic financial fraud, who presided over the power giant Enron before its demise. I feel closer to Ebbers because I know where he went to church when he was a boy. I know the songs he sang in Sunday School. We learned our catechism out of the same books. We were both Dutch and were reared in the Reformed faith.
What Kenneth Lay and Bernie Ebbers share, in addition to the notoriety that has come from the demise of their businesses and their having been colored by accusations of deceit, is this alarming truth: they both taught Sunday school.
The purgative power of tragedy, Aristotle said, was that we suffer, all of us, when basically good human beings fall on their faces. We see ourselves in those people because tragic stories begin in good hearts.
A significant part of me hurts for Bernie Ebbers—not because I believe him to be falsely accused or convicted, not because I don’t regard his crimes as evil. I find myself in him, even though my greatest weaknesses don’t include greed.
The second half of verse 9 of Psalm 32 bites and bites hard. God is speaking, as David hears him, and what he says is that too often his own can be mulish. Without a bridle, we go where we damn well please, even good, good people. Too easily, maybe, we bray like that mule in Jeremiah, “sniffing the wind in her craving—in her heat who can restrain her?”
As Spurgeon says, “We should not be treated like mules if there were not so much of the ass about us.”
Today, I hope—and I should pray—that Bernie Ebbers has been jerked back to a path he knows very well, one that’s straight and narrow.
But in its tragic dimension, what his story and his fate make clear is that I too—too often—require a steel bit through the teeth to hold me back.
Wish it weren’t so.