A Gentleman’s Agreement

I have been thinking the past several days about a recent comment made by a friend of mine. She has been married for nearly two decades, and she told me that her husband has confessed more sin in the past few months than during the previous twenty years of marriage.

What is truly amazing about this is how virtually everyone around them has “checked the box” as far as accepting them as the “normal” or acceptable example of the Christian life. This couple has passed the “test” to the point to where they are models for the Christian community at large. This husband and wife love the Savior and have sought to please him by their life. Yet there is a problem. The problem is not on the surface, where blatant hypocrisy resides. To unearth this issue, we must drill down to the causal core. See Luke 6:43-45. In my reflection, I do not see these hidden issues as being exclusive to this couple. This is my story as well. Again, neither of our families are actively seeking to live the life of a hypocrite; but in actuality, we’re wittingly and unwittingly playing a charade without realizing the awful ramifications of such a lifestyle.

I think the big issue in our lives is that no one is drilling down to this causal core and asking insightful, probing questions that matter at the level of the heart, our character. It sometimes seems to be an unspoken gentleman’s agreement not to be this intrusive. In the back of our minds, at the level of the subtle and/or subliminal, we know something is amiss but we don’t say anything about it. If we do say something it is simply dismissed and we go on. In short, we are marginalizing the essence of biblical friendship. This unspoken gentleman’s agreement allows us to live within the acceptable norms of hypocrisy, enjoying one another’s company, and approving the “I’ll check your box if you check my box” approach to living. None of this is verbalized; it is the “unsaid” that contributes to this kind of sub-Christian existence.

I was sharing this with a counselee recently about how these thoughts have worked out in my own life. For example, I was motivated to enter the workforce as a 12-year old because of a survival mentality that existed in our home. We were on food stamps, welfare and lived just above the poverty line for a period of time. In addition, my dad was very abusive verbally as well as possessing a pension for alcohol which absorbed a good part of our family income. These “environmental” and sin issues, along with my own personal sin, created a craving for attention, approval, and affirmation from someone, from anyone. Unwittingly, as I entered the workforce to survive, I worked hard and was rewarded with attention, approval and affirmation. This unguarded craving was being satisfied. Again, unwittingly, I worked all the harder and in process received more and more praise. It was a closed, endless-looped system: I worked, they praised; they praised and I worked. I was getting my desires met, and all I had to do was perform with a hearty work ethic.

To make matters worse, when I became a Christian I went into the church and made a new discovery. I not only had an intense work ethic, but also an ability to understand and communicate spiritual truth. So an unguarded strength, because it was unguarded, became a double weakness. In short, I unwittingly discovered another means to receive the applause of people. My approval drive was being tickled and it felt good. For a person in shoes like mine, the natural rationale was to seek vocational ministry. Therefore, carried on by a wave of fan support and a desire to be accepted and appreciated, I entered the ministry. (Please be reminded that these thoughts regarding my motives never entered my mind at the time.)

Unfortunately, the kind of illumination I’m now writing about on these pages was in the mind of God back then, and not in mine. I was not thinking about motive for ministry. If anyone was, I was unaware of it.

Nevertheless, the beat went on and these cravings did as well. In retrospect I see these cravings as insatiable. They could not be satisfied, and the owner of them became the slave to them. This kind of bondage spoils all that is in its path. Regrettably, the first people to be hurt were my immediate family.

From the bleachers everyone was checking the boxes in my life. I was married; I had 2.5 children; I was gainfully employed and a Christian heading into ministry; I had 3.42 acres of land—check, check, check and check. No one was examining my character, the motives of my heart, my cravings, conflicts, or the unedited me. Everyone saw the edited version and it appeared to be okay. The reason the edited version was okay was because it was carefully edited. However, the real issues of life flow from the heart, the causal core of who I really am, that part of me that cannot be easily detected. See Proverbs 4:23. Praise be to God that I now live in a context where the unedited me is being discovered. The gap between the real me and the edited me is closing. I am experiencing biblical friendship, which goes into those places of the heart. The people who are in my path are reaping the blessing. The box is not being checked too quickly. Good questions are being asked. Behavior is being examined for motive. I’m not graded on a curve anymore. Someone cares what is happening at the causal core and they have the insight, compassion, wisdom, grace and love to go deeper. The obvious is not good enough anymore. It’s the secret places that need to be drawn out. Praise be to God!

It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are – even if we tell it only to ourselves – because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.

Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets, P. 3.

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