Can God Work through Corrupt Spiritual Teachers?


There is no shortage of teachers with profound messages who have stumbled or worse.

What do we do with the teachings that come through flawed vessels?

“The teacher is inseparable from the teachings,” a respected esoteric thinker recently wrote on Facebook. If their lives don’t match their ideals, the teachings are worthless.

Is that true?

Last year a charismatic and brilliant teacher whose work I have followed for years fell from grace yet again. I’ve found this person’s teachings profound and even life-changing, including, ironically, the best response to the question of evil and suffering in the world I have ever encountered. I had planned to blog about that teaching before the scandals erupted anew. Previously there had always seemed room for reasonable doubt when charges of sexual improprieties were leveled against this person. There were two camps for and against this person with respected people on both sides. Then someone my wife and I trust and respect came forward with a personal story of a horrendous experience at the hands of this wisdom teacher.

Does seeing the positives of the teachings legitimize teachers who do harm?

This teacher is not alone. Nor is any tradition immune. Too many teachers stand accused of lack of boundaries with students, personal ethical lapses, and worse.

And it’s not only individual teachers, but also organizations. In the last year I have witnessed morally reprehensible behavior, wholly lacking in compassion, by a New Thought umbrella organization I have supported my entire adult life. Do I separate the organization in my mind from the teachings that have changed my life?

How many times can we pull the curtain back on the great Oz only to find weak and flawed human beings?

Did Napoleon Hill really meet Andrew Carnegie to be charged with the task of talking to successful people? That story is well known, but has been widely questioned in recent years. Who knows? Questionable scholarship persists in pointing out other possible ethical lapses of Hill’s. For the purposes of argument let’s say these shaky allegations are true. Do we stop reading Hill’s work?

The consensus on the late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa is that he was brilliant but deeply flawed. He both served and harmed people.

The Deeksha healing energy movement known as the Oneness Blessing traveled widely via Tony Robbins and New Thought churches, but the guru who originated it may have engaged in questionable behavior.

It is profoundly sad when a teacher’s behavior discredits dharma the world so desperately needs.

The philosopher Ken Wilber argues that trouble follows when the depth of a teacher’s spiritual realization exceeds their moral, ethical and psychological development.

It’s my theory that at a certain point the teachings transcend the flawed vessel, becoming more about the intention and energy of the people using the teachings and practices.

Mastermind groups practice and expand on Hill’s teachings, changing lives for the better and helping others via Hill’s Golden Rule-based vision of success. Does it matter whether he met Carnegie?

Deeksha groups’ collective energy created a powerful field around that energy-healing modality. That intent to channel Divine healing to my mind would in fact manifest that result, quite apart from whether the founding guru was on the up and up.

I was recently discussing this issue with my friend and fellow seeker Clay.

“The teacher and teachings are a Zen master’s finger pointing at the moon,” he reminded me. “We must look beyond the finger to feel what is being pointed at.”

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9 thoughts on “Can God Work through Corrupt Spiritual Teachers?

  1. The short answer is yes to the question can a flawed teacher inspire greatness in his students! First, the time of the guru has passed. It’s up to individuals to discern truth and tread their own path. That said, an inspiring leader may demonstrate enough light that the student in some respects surpasses the leader. According to Dr. David Hawkings the student is sometimes more diligent then the teacher. Anyone in a position of authority will face great challenges of ego, and one must be diligent and have integrity. This is not a pass for leaders or teachers misbehaviors. Accountability!

    • I agree accountability is key. In the major example I cite above understandably angry people were challenging not only the indefensible behavior , but also the validity of the teachings.

  2. If we believe that God is within each of us, the answer is resoundingly, “YES!” God works through all vessels.

    The concept of a corrupted vessel, however, speaks more to the human body’s belief in, acceptance of and reverence for the Divine within. There are certain things we simply do not do if we knew that God was observing from such a close proximity. In the cases of the individuals you mentioned, they appear to have relinquished control of their souls’ outcomes to their short-sighted human body costumes.

    But this is also a testament to the judgement-free nature of a god who has granted us free will. God can watch our foibles with neutrality, understanding that everything balances out: Whatever we do will return–every kindness, every harm–an “eye for an eye.” It is why the world’s most famous rabbit encouraged us to do nothing to others that we would not want done to us.

    These sages know this Truth on an intellectual level. Their karmic experience now will be their teachers.

  3. Great blog article today Harv.
    Several years ago I was asked to be the Sunday keynote speaker at the Canadian New Thought Conf. in Edmonton. I choose as my topic ‘It’s the message and not the messenger’. Now in truth as I am not a CSL minister and the majority of those gathered were from CSL I was speaking with the intent of bringing a focus on broadening a consciousness of acceptance within an entrenched thinking, however I believe even in the context of that forum the message is still the same: can someone deliver a profound and truthful message and do so as a flawed individual.

    I have been told that in and within communication it is what is received that determines what is communicated. So the question ultimately rests on how we, as individuals, accept the message. If we are focused on the flawed messenger then , I believe, for us the messenger is the message and so therefor also is the flaw. If we focus on the message and what it presents rather than the messenger, then for us that will be the message and it may become for us possibly the Rosetta stone in unlocking our spiritual understanding of Truth. Having said that, a flawed individual must be held accountable for their actions. As one who has received what is perceived as a great spiritual message, which may have already brought change for the good into our life, do we revisit the message and then diminish the power of the message because we learned of the flaw with the messenger? Do we now allow that knowledge to be the filter, because of our personal judgment of the one who brought the message to us? I think that just as we can learn good from tragedy so also can we learn great spiritual insights and truths from tragically flawed teachers. Our life journey , I believe, is one of learning and the learning comes as life comes at us. Not by our choosing are we exposed to truths but by our willingness to see truth where it is shared. I think history is full of great teachers that were great in the lacking of the beingness that is Spirit’s gift to those who wish to express it. My thought I guess Harv, is simple, the communication of the message really is determined by the consciousness of the receiver. Is it the message, or the messenger?Learn the lesson, love the being but if necessary recognize the consequences for the messengers actions must be a part of the equation, the messengers equation, and not a part of the message. Love and Law, now that is a novel concept. LOL.

  4. Harv,

    This is an important issue on several levels, and your post addresses it well. I, too, have had direct experience with a very gifted spiritual leader who also caused great harm to many who had trusted him. The organization that provided his credentials did nothing to reign this individual in, and remained silent as a series of lawsuits ensued.

    And yes, this teacher also benefited many, myself included. But how do we balance that against the harm?

    The issue of accountability is very important here. While many spiritual teachers are not affiliated with an organization, those in New Thought are. New Thought has a history of seeing clergy as “autonomous” and yet has codes of ethics that are enforced (if unevenly). The NT organizations have not as of yet addressed the larger issue of accountability of the credentialing organization(s) to the students or congregants of a corrupt spiritual teacher.

    I recently completed a blog series on toxic leadership. I believe that it is imperative for NT organizations to provide avenues for those in the membership of a church or center who are experiencing a corrupt or toxic leader to reach out to the organization. And when they do so (which takes courage and may well put them at risk), they should expect meaningful action from the organization.

    We are all human, and we all fail from time to time. But for those who have chosen to take on the mantel of spiritual leadership, there must be high standards. Those who come for spiritual direction and support are often people who are at their most vulnerable.

    Love and Light,
    Jim Lockard

  5. Your article inspired me, Harv. I enjoyed it so much I wrote one of my own here:

    If you don’t like clicking links then you can read the ending below that sums up my thoughts.

    What Teacher Am I Attracting?

    It has been said that a teacher and their teachings are like a finger pointing at the other side of the river. What I’ve come to realize is that both the finger and the teachings were the product of experiences showing me that I could cross the river. I can choose to fixate on the finger, but the truth as I understand it is that at some point I have to take personal responsibility for crossing the river myself, for making the teachings mine. Certainly, for as long as there is forgetfulness and incarnation there’ll be teachers out of integrity with what they teach. However, either the Law of Attraction is an Eternal Law all the time or it isn’t. If I’ve attracted such a teacher into my life, then I will eventually arrive at profound questions. What do I do with my beliefs, values and paradigms that would attract a spiritual teacher into my life experience that was somehow flawed? How can I grow from this experience? What do I need to release, translate, and learn so that I can truly forgive this person, and thus come to a deeper experience of oneness?

    When we can ask ourselves questions founded on personal responsibility, when we can focus on others as though they are one with us, then we’ll realize that the mud on the finger was a part of the journey of learning how to align with Love. Sometimes the river gets muddy, and sometimes we stumble. And through it all, our focus on what matters most, Love, will be what Spirit is most interested in.

  6. Thank you for a wonderful blog Harv. I think you are asking a complex question. 1.) It’s a matter of degree. We all have our limitations and weaknesses. Are they intentional? Do we own them when we are confronted with them? Do we take time to acknowledge and recognize them – they don’t go away, but the more conscious we are of them – we can take responsibility for the hurt we have caused. 2.) Those teachers who do not do self-inquiry about their hurtful behavior, do not own or take any responsibility for their actions – those are teachers I choose not to give any time to their teachings. BTW, All cult leaders teach truth, they just manipulate and twist it in very clever ways. 3.) The actual teachings…I think one thing we are evolving into is how to integrate these inherent personal limitations and weaknesses into our spiritual teachings, rather than pushing them away as anomalies. One thing I don’t like about reading of the New Thought pioneers is they all read like they are perfect…and whatever imperfection they had, they affirmed it away. We know that is nonsense – they all had weaknesses,they just weren’t acknowledged and integrated into the spiritual philosophy (being orange/rational stage of development where strength and excellence are the value, not sensitivity and vulnerability.) So there is the healthy integration of human limitations – shadows -into our spiritual cosmology that is happening that is wonderful. There are also very, unhealthy, unethical teachers who do not show remorse or take responsibility – those are the ones I stay far away from, teaching and person.

  7. Love your work Harv!
    Is God not everywhere…no discrimination, duality, judgment…the mystery creates the new born and the terrorist and at an enlightened level we embrace them equality even though it may seem they are on the opposite ends of the spectrum?

    We do have a choice though to respect someone’s spiritual realization and ‘see’ beyond their humanness and yet recognize that within the depth of their psyche there is an energetic tear that is calling for healing. We can judge them for this tear and extend love to them, and at the same time consciously choose whether to engage in their realm of teachings.

    Another ‘thought’ that is showing up here is are they practicing what they are preaching/teaching and what is the energy behind it…to be better than, guru status, to get the ‘girl’, control, narcissism etc., etc. or to truly be of service to others in the name of God…the great mystery?

    Our human error; unconsciousness…it does get us in trouble…do we learn from it and shift our behavior…it is a choice indeed. Yeshua…may say ‘Forgive them they know not what they do’.

    with love and light…dear Harv and all sentient beings, JoAnne

  8. I am reminded of one of the sayings of one of my Psychology professors: “Having a high tolerance for ambiguity is a sign of mental health.”