When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)
The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.
During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)
A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.
To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.
I hate the presidential election season, the rhetoric, emotional responses, hushed conversations, and mud-slinging candidates. I especially hate those damned, political phone polls! Don’t worry, this is not about the election. It’s about when good Christians do bad things.
And yet, weeks after the elections, the rhetoric is still meteoric and the mudslinging has not abated. Friends of mine from both political camps willingly participate in this mud bath. And it gets nasty. Winners ooze smugness and losers dribble bitterness. We all get spattered.
And both believers and non-believers, from the right and the left, hurl slurs. Their opponents are racist or communist, uncaring or unthinking, dumb or dumber.
This absence of distinction bothered me. I had hoped Christians would handle their victory or defeat with better grace. But we didn’t. Just this morning a thought raced through my mind:
A “good” Christian knows that our atheist neighbors are often better people than us.
I recently met with three friends to discuss a Saturday event we were hosting. I thought a previous decision was a spiritual mistake, and I pleaded that we reconsider. Not only did I plead, I urged and pushed, and then I rammed my point home with a metaphorical baseball bat.
My counsel, intensity, and insistence backed them into a corner. And it all backfired.
I’ve always pictured my flesh driving me to obviously unhealthy action: greed, power-lust, sexual immorality, oppression, and that third helping of Moose Tracks ice cream.
But even when my flesh fights for good things, it always corrupts. And then it destroys. My flesh may resist that unneeded extra dessert, but then it gloats, I thank you God that I’m not like all my gluttonous friends.
Beware whenever our flesh agrees with the Spirit. It’s a smiling crocodile.
My grandfather was a missionary in China from 1917 to 1936. He once told me of some early Pentecostal missionaries to China. They decided it was unnecessary to study Chinese before traveling because they “spoke in tongues.” But when they disembarked in Hong Kong, their abysmal language skills made them a laughing stock.
My grandfather (who was also a Pentecostal missionary) said to me,
“They refused to be of the world, which was good, but they completely forgot that they still must live in the world.”
Discouraged but determined, they took language classes. One man learned quickly, so they paid for him to study the advanced art of Chinese oratory. He would be their primary preacher.
After months of preparation, the missionaries organized their inaugural evangelistic event in a local town square. They shook their tambourines, sang several songs, and soon a crowd gathered. Their confident preacher began to speak.
To hear a foreigner speak such grand rhetorical Chinese was a novelty, and the crowd grew, but soon the yawns began, hecklers laughed, and the crowd shrunk. A less fluent missionary stood up and urged the crowd to listen. He bumbled his way through his own conversion history, and he stumbled through his story of hearing God for the first time. The crowd listened in silence.
Those missionaries traced their first convert to that botched-up-Chinese testimony.
“After learning to be in the world,” my grandfather reflected, “they forgot not to trust in it.”
Sometime God speaks through a careful choreography of life events: conversations, readings, observations, and even the occasional media clip. Suddenly, all the pieces snap together, and we sigh (internally so no one hears us), “Aha!”
This morning, I had one of those moments of clarity. Over the past couple weeks:
I pondered with friends why some people and ministries are wildly successful while other people and ministries—equally gifted—struggle for survival;
I heard a quote by Oswald Chambers: “Is He going to help Himself to your life, or are you taken up with your own conception of what you are doing?”
I read a passage using the Scripture Meditation Plan: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)
These three events were preceded by a video I watched that smelled … funny. And the odor lingered. The creator of the video is a famous Christian writer who has morphed his verbal skills into marketing skills, and he wanted to help churches sell themselves.
In his video, a pastor shared the key to his own wildly successful church. I forget the exact words but he essentially said:
“I realized that too many churches make the pastor the hero. I decided to make the congregation the hero, and my church’s attendance exploded.” (Name withheld)
It reminded me of a conversation early in The Lost World movie. Repentant Jurassic Park creator John Hammond cries: “Don’t worry. I’m not making the same mistakes again.”
To which Ian Malcom retorts: “No, you’re making all new ones.”
I once told a friend of a recurring temptation of mine. Over the next month, he shared my secret with a dozen other friends, spicing up the tale with the fib that I had yielded to the temptation—even though I hadn’t. His betrayal shocked me. I skipped several lunch and dinner appointments, unsure who had heard and what they thought.
His disclosure also angered me. I obsessed over his treachery: How could he have divulged my secret temptation? And why worsen my shame with the sneering proclamation I had done it! I would never have betrayed a friend like that.
One day, as I fumed over his relational-adultery, I sensed God’s voice speak into my seething self-pity: Sam, why are you so angry? I thought the answer obvious: My friend had stabbed me in the back! Then I remembered a verse:
“I tell you, when one sinner repents, there is joy among the angels of God.” (Luke 15:10)
I thought, Sure, I suppose there would be joy in heaven if this jerk (I mean, friend) repented. His public confession might even bring me a bit of joy here on earth.
And I sensed God say, “I’m not talking about his sin; I’m talking about yours.”
Over the last month or so, I have heard of, witnessed, and (sadly) perpetrated several damaging acts of offering advice, examples where the counsel backfired and the recipient was worse off than before.
And I’m talking about examples of good, sound, wise, practical advice. Instead of strengthening the listeners, the guidance pulled the rug out from beneath them; instead of encouraging, it discouraged:
A grown man told me how his father’s advice on how to handle school bullies made him feel like a lifelong coward;
I saw a man offer his wife excellent principles for dealing with her incompetent boss, and his advice shriveled her spirit;
I suggested to a friend three guidelines for strengthening a daily prayer habit, and the man’s prayer time went from ten minutes to two.
How many times have you received unsolicited advice and you wonder, Do I really look that stupid to you? Why does advice—and I’m talk about good, practical guidance—so often boomerang?