Keith, some people at my church asked me to lead a Sunday School class, and I agreed.  One Sunday recently the subject of living by faith came up.  After I talked about a couple of my own experiences of faith, I was surprised by the reaction of some of the people in the class.  Most of them had a very different idea about it and thought I was being too narrow and rigorous.  I’m trying to live my entire life for God, and I began to doubt myself.  Now I feel uncomfortable going back to teach for fear I might cause another argument.  Yet I want to be free to say what I think God wants me to say.  Have you ever had a hard time standing for what you believe in?


Yes.  I was converted in a car, alone, when I first tried to give my life to God.  And because I hadn’t been in a tradition that even talked about “conversion,” I didn’t really know what had happened.  But my experience of life was very different.  For a long time after I became a Christian I did not speak about my faith publicly.  But after a while people began to ask me to “tell my story,” and I began to travel and talk about the Christian life as it was unfolding in my own experience as a businessman.

This was a good experience, but a strange thing began to happen.  As I traveled further and further from home, wrote a book, and spoke to larger groups, some people stopped treating me as an ordinary layman who had made an exciting personal discovery, instead reacting to me as if I were something other than a struggling Christian.  And a few even started to treat me as some sort of “authority” or a “program personality” and to look after my personal comfort with great care and thoughtfulness when I was with them. 

Naturally I found this very pleasant.  And before long, without ever realizing it, I began to expect this little bit of special care and status being bestowed upon me.   And, in retrospect, I noticed occasionally more than a tinge of resentment for those who invited me to speak and did not make “adequate” arrangements for me while I was in their city.  After all, I thought, I was often exhausted, since traveling and being with people constantly is very tiring for me.

But one day when I was praying a new thought hit me about what was happening.  I was becoming the thing I have rebelled against all of my life:  a pampered professional “religionist.”  With a kind of shocked reflection I could see what may sometimes happen to ministers, bishops, and traveling evangelists.  People seal them into a sort of emotionally padded traveling compartment and pass them from one religious group or situation to another.  They do not treat such visiting pros at all the same way they treat so-called “regular” people. 

And after a while the effect can be very corroding to the speaker’s integrity.  At least it was for me.  At one level or another I began in self-defense to fit the expected role of being a religious authority, instead of just being a person who wants to live out his or her life trying to find and do God’s will in the nitty gritty business of ordinary living.  And to the extent to which I surrendered to this temptation to be “outstanding,” I felt uneasy, and woke up one day realizing I might be on the brink of becoming an “approval-holic:” hooked on constant favorable attention and approval like an alcoholic gets hooked on alcohol.  And when I move in that direction—wanting to fit the role that people expect— it subtly affected the content of my speaking as well as its freshness.  Looking back, I’ve heard myself toning down the unpleasant aspects of what I am discovering about my own sin and selfishness.  Finally, I realized that I was accentuating the points that affirmed the existing beliefs and prejudices of the group to whom I was speaking.  I caught myself justifying the whole procedure by telling myself that I should “be gentle and go slowly with people.”  And of course there is an important truth in that.

Several ministers over the years have told me in one way or another, “Keith, I really believe in a serious committment of one’s whole life.  But my people are not ready for that kind of commitment yet, or that kind of confrontation.”  So they admit they preach something less than the best they know and have experienced, because they are afraid people “are not ready” for the best. 

But when this happened to me recently and I said these same words to myself, I discovered that the meaning hidden behind the words in my case was that it was I who was not ready to risk a certain group’s rejection of me if I said things that were too threatening to their beliefs…and thus to the status quo.  And I was horrified to see whenever I spoke from the perspective of that “ non-threatening, no-risk” mindset— for that occasion I became what the scriptures call a “false prophet”—more interested in approval and admiration than in speaking any creative, freeing truth God had given me for which people “might not be ready.”

But the tragedy was that with all of my recognition of and rebellion against these things, I sometimes still find myself very subtly doing them.  At the time my reasons seem so sound, and sometimes I realize they are sound.  And often I catch myself, come out of denial, and am able to speak the truth as I see it.  And I’m grateful that I am part of a small group of people who meet regularly to deal with these kinds of fears, and from whom I receive encouragement and help to be more real and loving

But here in this time of prayer I know that often I am still full of myself and concerned about what people think of me.  And even with the incredible increase in my willingness to face my faults and sins, I know that in an instant I can become again a living example of the problem for which Christ died.

A Prophet:

“He broke fresh ground—because, and only because, he had the courage to go ahead without asking whether others were following or even understood. He had no need for the divided responsibility in which others seek to be safe from ridicule, because he had been granted a faith which required no confirmation—a contact with reality, light and intense like the touch of a loved hand; a union in self-surrender without self-destruction, where his heart was lucid and his mind loving…”

– Dag Hammarskjold, Markings

Character or Tolerance?

            “All too easily we confuse a fear of standing up for our beliefs, a tendency to be more influenced by the convictions of others than by our own, or simply a lack of conviction—with the need that the strong and mature feel to give full weight to the arguments of the other side.  A game of hide-and-seek: when the devil wishes to play on our lack of character, he calls it tolerance, and when he wants to stifle our first attempts to learn tolerance, he calls it lack of character.”

– Ibid

Lord, help me to begin again with your strength and Spirit, and to be one of the free and honest loving children of your family.  Help me to speak whatever you would have me say—and not to try to please important or “brilliant” people.  Allow me to transmit something of the love and creative courage you showed us in Christ to people I meet today.   Forgive me when I am afraid to chance rejection or failure to tell people about your amazing love and forgiveness.  But thank you for the times I am willing to risk being honest and lovingly vulnerable.  May there be more and more of these times.   In Jesus’ name, Amen.

             “We had just been given rough treatment in Philippi, as you know, but that didn’t slow us down. We were sure of ourselves in God, and went right ahead and said our piece, presenting God’s Message to you, defiant of the opposition….  Be assured that when we speak to you we’re not after crowd approval—only God approval.

– Paul, the Apostle

1 Thessalonians 2:2-4, The Message

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