“So why did you come all this way just to see me?”
It hadn’t been that far really, only a three hour drive. I had scheduled other business in the area, but called him a few weeks before. I had never spoken with him previously, but we had for a time ministered in overlapping circles and what I kept hearing about him made me want to meet him. He’d heard of me, too, had even read my book, he said.
“I’ve heard a lot about you and wanted to get to know you if you would have some time to spend with me?” He agreed and we had arranged a four-hour span together. It would prove not to be near enough time for either one of us.
“The truth?” My mouth twisted slightly as my eyebrows raised. He nodded
I gazed across Denny’s Formica-topped table and glared into his eyes. He was nondescript, somewhere in his early 50’s. I had only met him 15 minutes before where I picked him up at his office and drove to the restaurant. His desire to know why I had wanted to meet him was our segue from sizing each other up by family facts and ministry resumes.
His was impressive. Pastor, Bible college teacher and administrator, conference speaker, had been heir apparent at one of the most influential churches in Southern California. But all that had been three years before. Since then, if my sources were accurate, he’d just been through the biggest trial of his life.
“I heard some things about you,” I said. “As I understand it, you’ve made some very difficult choices and paid an incredible price to be faithful to your conscience. Such men fascinate me. I wanted to know if it was true. And if it is, I want to know what you have learned.”
“No one has ever said anything like that about me,” he responded, his eyes noticeably moistened. Recovering, he shook his head and chuckled. “I hope you’re not disappointed.”
For the next two hours he told me his story. He didn’t embellish it to make him look better, he didn’t gossip by name about anyone who had failed him. It started with a church the denomination had sent him to help resurrect after a brutal power-struggle had left the people wounded and bitter. Through the course of the next year that church chewed him up and he never got the denominational backing he was promised. He and his family had come to the brink of financial ruin and those who had been his colleagues abandoned him. He told me he only had three close friends who had walked him through the most painful part of his life, and one of them was an unbeliever and none of them were fellow-colleagues in ministry. To be sure I was not disappointed and though that encounter was brief we have since become good friends and confidants.
He’s a precious commodity. I’ve only met a handful of people in full-time ministry I could honestly say walks with an integrity of conscience that defies all logic. By that I mean they have made incredibly costly decisions not to serve their own interests, but truly put the kingdom first. I know I risk sounding cynical here, but what I just described is an incredibly high standard. Over the long-haul full-time ministry wears at our conscience. It is easy to link our success to the responses of other people, and prefer it over the success of the kingdom. Under the cloak of servanthood we can substitute people-pleasing for honesty. In the guise of false humility we can capitulate on our convictions to get along with those who carry agendas other than God’s and to keep a salary they control.
Compromise Made Easy
I failed my first compromise test within 30 days of beginning ministry. Fresh out of college, I took to my first ministry assignment with hopeful idealism. I was employed by a church I had attended during summers when I was home from college. Now that I was on staff, I was required to join the denomination.
I sat in my office reading over the membership application form. As I recall there were 15 statements on the back of the form that I had to sign-off stating I agreed with them. Thirteen of those were easy, but two were not. One was a matter of Biblical interpretation and though I would always vote for a pre-tribulation rapture if God ever decides that by popular vote, I was not Biblically convinced it was so. The other was about abstaining from alcohol. Not a problem for me, since I didn’t drink anyway, but I struggled with signing a statement suggesting I had theological aversion to it.
Uncertain what I was to do I sought out a pastor in the denomination to voice my struggle. I couldn’t sign it in good conscience and I couldn’t continue on staff without it. “Oh, that?” He motioned toward the form in my hand and waved it off. “That’s just a formality. No one pays attention to that anyway. Sign it and be done with it.”
So I did. But I felt bad about it–that day and for a whole week. I signed something I didn’t believe to keep a job I deeply desired. Not only had I compromised something, but in the week that followed I learned how to override the nagging conviction of my heart for the expedience of job security. It was the first step down a slippery road that has sought more than this to trip me up in ministry.
I’m not talking here about big things here we usually recognize as ministerial failures–embezzling funds, adultery or some other obvious breech of trust. Those are different issues all together. I’m talking about things that are so easily justified, many might consider them straining at gnats. The art of embellishing facts to put the best face on them, can be seen as optimism instead of the deceit it is. Selectively passing out partial information to advance our agenda can be exalted as tact when it is only designed to manipulate.
The opportunities come every day and may seem minor but they all chip away at the foundation of ministry itself–the quality of our character. Will I be honest about the self-centered nature of the person whining at me about their difficult circumstances, or will I prop them up with empty platitudes and a half-hearted prayer? When I find out I’ve been the object of someone’s gossip in their attempts to discredit me with power-brokers in the church will I respond in kind to demonstrate that they are much worse than me? Will I use my time to teach God’s Word to harp on some pet peeve hoping to motivate my hearers into more institution-serving activity? Will I prefer my perspectives above others, and what means will I use to advance them?
In a hundred ways over 20 years of professional ministry, I’ve seen the demands of ministry battle my conscience. Of course it doesn’t happen every week, but every so often a choice comes that would vex my soul. The purposes of ministry are so laudable, that corners cut too sharply and less-than-honorable methodologies are easily rationalized. How easy it is to override what we would admit to be wrong in every other case, arguing that the mitigating circumstances in this instance warrant the exception.
In that environment expediency becomes our master at the expense of conviction. The outcome is not what’s essential here, it’s the methods we use to get there. I am convinced that a person’s character is tested most severely not by evil intent, but in what he or she is willing to do when they are absolutely convinced God is on their side.
That’s why people who have paid an incredible price to follow their conscience fascinate me and why I’ll go out of my way to sit down with them–men and women who have gone so far as to give up ministry opportunities and the security of their income because they found a corner they wouldn’t cut, a conviction they would not squelch, a person they would not placate just to save their reputation. Truly these are the men and women of whom the world is not worthy.
I have found no better guide to this lesson than the Beatitudes; especially as they have been translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message. I’ve changed the names of the people involved, not because they wouldn’t deserve the honor, but that the giving of it would be an affront to the very character we are celebrating. Here are eight incredible lessons I’ve learned from people who walk in the joy of the power of a cleansed conscience:
You are blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
Men of conscience have been through the fire and come out transformed.
I’ve had a lot of thoughts when I’ve dangled from the end of my rope, but I’ll have to admit that feeling blessed was never one of them. Jesus said there is no better place for us to be than beyond our own ability to save ourselves, for only then will we learn to trust him.
As I’ve listened to people who have survived the conscience wars, I am not only impressed by the struggle they’ve been through, but also the fact that they look back in gratefulness not bitterness. Even when their grief was caused by those who did them injustice, they are even thankful for that. Somehow, in the fire of anguish they had come to know God in a way they had not known him before and had discovered a freedom they wouldn’t trade for their past positions.
The man who sat across from me at that Denny’s table is a case in point. He went from being one of the rising gifted men in his denomination to near obscurity. I heard nothing more of him for a number of years, when his name finally surfaced in a conversation. “How is he doing?” I asked.
“He’s been through hell,” a friend told me, his head shaking in disbelief, “but God has really touched him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it. But I know it was painful.”
When he finally told me his story, I could only shake my head in disbelief. Broken promises by key people in his denomination had left him out of work and out of money. When he was asked to go to that wounded congregation and help it heal, he said he would as soon as his house sold. They told him to get there right away and they would make the payments until it sold. So he moved his family 500 miles to the new church.
For 18 months he hoped his love would win over those who demanded control of the church, but when they went over his head to the denomination he did not get the support they had promised. Meanwhile his home had not sold and despite pleas for help, no money ever came. Finally broke, certain that he was no longer helpful in his new church, and in need of surgery for a medical condition he had developed, he moved back home. In the months that followed not one fellow pastor or denominational executive extended a hand to him. At one point he even had to take food hand-outs from an ethnic church in his neighborhood to feed his family.
What had he learned? “I learned that people will fail you; that the body of Christ can be a pretty dysfunctional family when the heat is on; and that God is big enough to take care of me anyway.” For all he’d been through–repeatedly wounded by his closest friends and his reputation shattered on the rocks of other men’s expedience–he wasn’t bitter at all. On the contrary he was thrilled with how God was using his life now to touch people who are disaffected from church systems and the thrill of living without a salary with incredible needs and seeing God provide for him every day.
No doubt, men like him get into far deeper trouble than if they would just compromise more. But they’ve learned that only in the fire is God clearly seen and his rule more able to take over their lives.
You are blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.
Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
People of conscience have the most profound relationship to the Father I’ve known anywhere. They are not legalists bowing to an oppressive code of conduct, but men and women who trust
God so much to accomplish his work and demonstrate his love to them over and over again that they have absolutely nothing to win or lose. Which usually means they’ve already lost something incredibly precious to them. Having survived that, they don’t fear it happening again, knowing that God’s presence in their life is really the only thing worthy of value.
Michael founded and edited a Christian magazine that after a number of years had reached a measure of national prominence. One day he felt impressed by the Lord to discontinue publication of the magazine. He shared it with his managing editor, who also happened to be his best friend. His friend was as resistant as Michael had been when the thought first occurred to him. They agreed to pray about it for a month before talking of it with anyone else. After a month they both were certain that God had indeed spoken to them and they were to close the magazine.
They shared it with their board members, who were not surprisingly shocked at the prospect. Having suffered through the early, money-losing days of the venture, they were excited to see it operating in the black. “After all we’ve been through, how can we stop now?” But they agreed to pray about it for a month.
At the next board meeting, when Michael asked the board what their thoughts were, a sordid tale unfolded. The board wasn’t about to stop publication, and the mere fact that Michael had suggested it convinced them he was no longer qualified to be its publisher. They fired him on the spot, and by obvious, prior arrangement elevated his best-friend to be the new publisher. When Michael left the meeting, his friend wouldn’t even look at him.
Over the next few months the betrayal of his friend had pained him the most, but through the process God changed him even as he opened up to him new avenues of ministry. When I met him, the friend who had betrayed him was leading worship at the seminar he was hosting. “How did that come to be?” I asked.
“It took eight years, for God to heal that relationship. He still publishes the magazine, but I know that God called me to other things.”
During that period of time Michael had left a flourishing congregation to start on a fresh journey with some believers in a rural community. He still has no steady means of income, except the Father’s provision as he continues to let God use him to touch lives. Michael’s ability to trust God is second to no one I’ve met anywhere on the planet. Having lost what he deeply valued, Michael found the touch of a loving Father far more precious still.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are–no more, no less.
That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
People of conscience are genuine all the way to the core. They make no pretense to be what they are not. In knowing them you are aware both of their wonderful strengths as well as their struggles and failures. They’ll be the first to acknowledge them and apologize for pain they might cause others. But they will not hide them, or seek to build a reputation on false notions about who they really are.
They are not defensive when challenged, but they won’t cower either when others try to manipulate them. One of the greatest things I’ve noticed is that they are the same people in public that they are in private. That’s a major contrast from what I have encountered in many people in ministry. About their own weaknesses they contend, “What people don’t know won’t hurt them.” Or, as one successful pastor said to me as our relationship began, “I really worry about getting too close to you. I am afraid you’ll get to know the real me and you won’t respect me anymore.”
But respect doesn’t arise from oneupsmanship, or well-hidden faults. It comes from openness and honesty. When books I had written were opening doors for more extensive ministry beyond the local church I was pastoring, I struck up a relationship with someone who had been involved in a similar ministry for 25 years. When I asked for his help, he opened wide the doors of his life to me–inviting me into his home and office. He showed me how he did things and why, shared with me his contacts and vendors he used for various publishing needs. He told me the pitfalls and the joys. I warned me where to be cautious and how to trust the Lord in this new environment.
Whenever I’d go through doubtful moments in the transition, he was right there to listen and encourage. “Don’t forget, Wayne. If you’re being obedient to Jesus then time and truth are on your side.” His message was clear. don’t waste time trying to put the best face on things, or defend yourself to your detractors. Be genuine in every encounter and leave the results of that up to God.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.
He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
People of conscience never stop seeking after God. They have realized that the essence of faith is relationship with him. Each day holds new opportunities to see his character and share in his wisdom. Never do they lie down content with past successes, for their successes were never the object of their pursuit. Knowing him is their only goal, and that is what they seek every day.
John was an engineer at a high-tech defense firm in the Northeast, as his five children were entering their high school years. Unchallenged by the church program they were apart of, John began a Friday night Bible study in his home for them and their friends. Before long 50 – 60 kids packed their home every week. Some of their friends got saved and they in turn lead other friends to Christ. John felt God’s call to walk away from his profession and devote his life to helping youth discover the fullness of God’s life.
Fifteen years later in his mid 50’s, John oversaw a regional youth ministry that helped churches in small communities band together to jointly hire and oversee a youth worker. The ministry flourished as students were saved, and graduates became youth workers. Someone donated an historic mansion to coordinate their activities. Yearly they hosted youth retreats and a yearly fundraising banquet that included many of the region’s notable pastors and professional sport stars.
Was John content? No. A few years ago, he began to catch a fresh hunger to know God. He felt the ministry had become a big machine, now engineered more by man’s wisdom than God’s provision. He ended the banquets and committed the ministry to prayer and the pursuit of helping people know the living God. As the luster faded, so did support from many of their wealthiest supporters and most consistent church sponsors. By all outward signs the ministry languished.
Was John discouraged? No doubt there were times he questioned his resolve, but always came out on the side of hungering more for God, and refusing to just caretake machinery that had outlived its purpose. His salary dwindled even as people who didn’t understand spread false information about the ministry and its objectives. Today the ministry is only a shell of what it was formerly, and yet John and his wife are two of the most fulfilled people I’ve ever known. It was never about the numbers, or the money, or the acclaim. It was about loving Jesus first, foremost–and only.
You’re blessed when you care.
At the moment of being ‘care-full’, you’ll find yourselves cared for.
People of conscience never kick someone when their down, never take advantage of someone’s weakness or sin. They know how merciful God has been to them, and can find it in their heart to share no less with others.
None of these I have sought out in my own times of personal struggle ever refused me their time or their help, even when they didn’t know me before. Because they had been through the fire themselves, they did not seek to save me from it by encouraging me to the path of least resistance or greatest self-service. They asked me the tough questions and gave me the difficult advice, because they cared so much that the outcome in my life would be God’s.
During a recent season of betrayal by a good friend in my own life and ministry, one in particular often sat with my wife and me night after night at our table or theirs. He had been through almost the exact same experience 20 years before. He had been made the object of rumor and innuendo by people who were threatened by his influence. He chose to walk away rather than join the fight. It had eventually cost him his ordination, his vocation and his pension. In the years since he had labored in a construction-related trade while he taught avocationally wherever God opened doors.
“You’re living in denial,” he would tell me whenever I tried to put the best face on the motives of others involved in the conflict. He encouraged me to trust the perceptions of my wife, when I refused to admit what she saw so clearly, and which turned out to be right. He told us we could throw ourselves on the lap of God and not be disappointed. In the moments we doubted that, he would tell us to hold on, that the final paragraphs of the chapter had not yet been written.
When I finally walked away from my vocation, the church I had helped plant and the salary I’d relied on for over 15 years, he and his wife were among the first to share their support with us until God opened other doors. He was a friend who truly stuck closer than brothers I have known far longer.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world–your mind and your heart–put right.
Then you can see God in the outside world.
People of conscience, care more about the inside of their lives than how it looks on the outside. All of these stories I have related would never had happened had they cared more about their reputation before men than their reputation before God.
They had ample opportunities to defend themselves or prevail in the power games and took themselves out of the picture rather than stoop to the tactics of those who worked against them. Even when they had the ability to unmask their opponents they sat silently. They helped me see in the flesh, what always amazed me about Jesus–how he stood quietly by as the leaders of the day heaped false accusations and undeserved ridicule on him.
Bob, a co-pastor of a church in a neighboring town, visited his former parish on the last day of his vacation. As he walked in the door before service, people rushed up to him, welcoming him back as their pastor. He tried to correct their misunderstanding. “Just visiting today,” he kept saying. But the people were persistent. They had heard he was coming back.
Confused, Bob returned from vacation to clear up the confusion. As he walked into the office of his church, he was notified that he was no longer employed there. While he had been away his co-pastor has pushed forward a resolution to terminate his employment and hire someone in his place. His office had already been cleared out for the new pastor and his things stacked in the hallway. “We got your old job back for you,” they said with a proud smile as if they’d done him an incredible favor.
As Bob told me the story, no bitterness came with it. “God lets these things happen for a reason he said. If we’ll respond to him in them, he’ll transform us.” The victim of such gross injustice cared more about what was happening inside of him, than getting revenge for how he’d been treated. In the time since God had opened up new ministry opportunities that would never have arisen had he stayed where he was..
“But didn’t you care how all that made you look?” I asked him.
“Of course, who wouldn’t? But is that really the important thing?”
“If I were still trying to please men I would not be a bondservant of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s conclusion is steadfast. If you worry about what you look like before men rather than who you are before God, you’ll never end up following God’s course for your life, nor let him change you in the most painful circumstances. If you do, you get to see him work in ways you never imagined.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.
That’s when you discover who you really are and your place in God’s family.
People of conscience don’t fight. This is the first of two common threads that unite all these stories I’ve related and on which we’ll bring this article to conclusion. Each of these people refused to fight, even when they were in the right or had the power to change their circumstances. They refused in times of pressure to demand their way by their own hand. Like David who walked out of the Jerusalem instead of going to war with Absalom, they are content to leave that kind of fighting to God.
That has almost always come at a high price–forsaking well-paying jobs, successful ministries, and thriving churches. I never understood it until recently. Fighting changes people, and they who prevail in a war with another brother or sister is marred by that encounter. Having prevailed by their own hand, they have to protect and defend what they confuse to be their own. They rationalize the most ungodly behavior, because they imagine it for a higher good, usually the preservation of an institution. They never seem to realize that God’s kingdom isn’t in institutions but in people.
The most miserable men and women I’ve met in vocational ministry are those who have conquered by the force of their own will. They create authority structures that leave them unchallenged, or scheme by deceit and gossip to manipulate others to their ends. They can make it work for some time, but all of it eventually collapses, as do they under its weight. We seem to only hear about the days that appear successful, for no one talks about the days of burnout and emptiness where they put the whole machine in someone else’s hands and retreat to a mountain cabin or a resort hotel for weeks on end.
People of conscience often end up as outcasts of the system. They visit occasionally, often to teach insights deeper than anything they’d found inside it. They hold no judgments for those still there, but have long-since realized there is a major distinction between the church of Jesus Christ and the institutions that dot our cities and countrysides today. They may occasionally overlap, but they are not one in the same thing.
Disillusioned with the system, many forsake its trappings convinced that it doesn’t always serve the higher priorities. One of these men summed up well, what I’ve heard expressed by them all: “Isn’t there something wrong with the way we do church if it allows the most selfish and manipulative to rise to the top of our institutions?”
Those who refuse to play power games, however, get to discover who they really are and seem incredibly secure about how they fit into God’s purpose. Don’t confuse their forsaking the trappings for forsaking God or his call. All of those I’ve written about here are actively serving God today, though mostly in unconventional ways. Their love for God only deepened through their trials, and their ministries only grew more effective. Whatever they left only taught them to trust God in ways they never had to before. Finally liberated from the confining expectations and demands of their detractors, they found out what God had really called them to be after all.
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
Not only that–count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me.
…You can be glad when that happens…for though they don’t like it I do…
My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
The second thread that unites the stories I’ve told in this article is that they all have suffered–deeply! Character costs something and nothing describes the price better than the list Jesus gave here. They’ve been put down by others who didn’t understand them, excluded when they didn’t go along with the crowd, or lied about as a means to disarm their uncomfortable example.
Regretfully most of this suffering has come at the hands of other people in the church who were convinced they were doing God a favor. The conclusion? People of conscience are usually not popular. They make us uncomfortable, because their willingness to be mistreated and misunderstood when they cling to the purity of their conscience exposes the compromises the rest of us make. If we don’t follow their example, we have to destroy them, lest others be influenced by their actions.
Surpringsly, however, they are not bitter for their experiences, but almost seem grateful. They don’t blame the failures of others, recognizing that we all have weaknesses and at times make poor choices. They don’t dwell on “what could have been…” but get on with God’s work in whatever new doors he opens. All the while, they will tell you of the freedom and joy they’ve come to know through their trials.
You can see it deep in their eyes when you tell them tales of your own suffering. Their heart will break for the pain you’re in, but they don’t despair. They know what that pain will produce. More than once I’ve heard one of them say, “Be grateful, Wayne. This will change you in ways you never imagined.” I knew they didn’t relish my pain, but they didn’t hate it as much as I did either. They knew what it would work in me. At its end there would be less of Wayne and more of Christ, and they were already rejoicing when I had no idea how I would survive.
* * * * *
I have a deep admiration for those who’re paid an incredible price to follow the Father’s voice. They inspire me to take the risk to live like them. They model for me a freedom from playing the political games that too frequently worm their way into our best institutions. They help me look past the false success standards of the day and care more about what God thinks of me than what other people do–even dear friends and colleagues.
As I look back on the compromises of my own life and ministry, I am encouraged by one other characteristic of these people that isn’t highlighted in the Beatitudes’ list. They are all at over 50 years old. Maybe living true to one’s conscience isn’t nurtured overnight, nor something one can choose by shear force of will. Perhaps it is only forged in the fire of human experience.
As I listen to their tales, I hear of past compromises that came back to haunt them. I hear their own failures toward others, that has given them greater patience toward those who have failed them. I heard of their past pursuit of less-glorious objectives, and their disillusionment when they had achieved them and found the result unsatisfying.
Maybe there is hope for me. Their lives have cheered me on to live in the danger of trusting God. None of them could promise me that I wouldn’t get burned for doing so, but they all made it really clear that there is no greater way to know life-long freedom and joy in the Father’s house.