At the end of the movie The Emperor’s Club there is a terse exchange between Kevin Kline who plays a teacher and his ex-student. Kline is clearly shocked that his gifted, talented, charismatic student is the same liar and cheat that he was in grade school twenty-five years before. In the privacy of a restroom where the two are standing, the student (who is now running for public office), launches into a bold declaration:
“Who out there gives a [expletive] about your principles and virtues?…I live in a real world where people do what they need to do to get what they want. And if it’s lying and it’s cheating then so be it. So I am going out there and I am going to win that election…and you will see me everywhere. And I’ll worry about my contribution later.”
At that moment the man’s son emerges from a bathroom stall where he had been hiding and listening to the conversation. The boy is clearly disgusted with his father’s moral manifesto and exits the scene.
The cautionary tale can’t be missed—that character deficiencies not only have destructive consequences, but they damage the trust of onlookers. Sometimes the deficiencies get passed down like bad DNA to the next generation, similar to the way King David’s weakness for women got into Solomon and ruined the kingdom of Israel.
When character flaws crop up in the lives of Christians a major short-circuit occurs. Disillusioned onlookers begin to ask Does anybody actually believe anything or is everybody just a hypocrite? As Christians we hold a certain amount of gospel credibility in our hands. Our living advertises either the truth or the denial of it.
That’s why being committed to our own spiritual development in many respects, has a lot to do with being committed to Christ. Our lives and the reputation of the gospel are linked. The Apostle Paul was careful about the way he carried himself. He said, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way so that no fault would be found with our ministry” (2 Cor. 6:3). Sinners fault God and His children for any convenient reason. How much worse when we give them ammunition?
I remember the first time I saw a Christian in a moment of lapse. I had no right to judge him because I was on a highway to hell myself and couldn’t have cared less about righteousness. But one night at a movie theater this guy came in with a bunch of fellows and grabbed a seat. I sat about five rows behind him. During the film, a risqué scene came up and he made an inappropriate remark that echoed around the theater. I remembered feeling disappointed.
I was a louse going nowhere. He, on the other hand, was the resident Christian. He represented hope and lived a life proving there was something worth living life for. But not at that moment. Briefly, the light of his testimony flickered.
After thirty-three years, I can’t tell you anything about the movie that night except that I was disappointed. For an instant, however fleeting, a serious Christian hadn’t exhibited Christ-like character. It didn’t make me happy or want to dance around saying, “Aha!” Odd, but somewhere down deep inside I needed him not to fail. He represented truth. If that collapsed in his life, a man like me had no hope at all.
Thankfully (and with the help of that same Christian guy, no less!), I went on to meet Jesus later. Since that time, my light has also flickered on a number of occasions and let some people down. I shocked and disappointed them. I confused them.
The latest was during a car ride with my wife the other day. Traffic had jammed at the entrance of a parking lot and I hesitated a bit too long turning in. The driver behind me honked. That would have been okay, but I saw the woman acting out her aggravation with gestures, facial expressions, and a tiny puppet show that fit right in my rearview. So I expressed some aggravation back to her with hand signals of my own. Later I had to apologize to my wife, who seemed shocked that her normally pleasant Dr. Jekyll husband had a Mr. Hyde streak. We disappoint those we’re close to because we’re sinners. We also hope the disappointment is not so steep it becomes disillusioning. When I’m not fully committed to Jesus I turn into a wrecking ball.
As Peter composed his spiritual formation list, he told us to “Add…godliness” (2 Pet. 1:5-6 NKJV). Godliness relates to carrying myself and expressing myself in a manner that reflects God. For sure nothing gets closer to performance-based legalism than when godliness comes up. That’s because of the way we manufacture it—with elbow grease and mimicry. Yes, we get the adding part. Create. Try harder. Succeed a little bit. Fail. Create some more. Try even harder.
But somehow while adding all this godliness it’s easy to forget the God part. Leaving God out of godliness is a lot like making chocolate chip cookies without flour. And if there’s no “God” in our godliness, our expression of Him becomes a weird, incomplete “cookie,” a human creation “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). I don’t simply add what I think God would be like. I add the convictions, glory, and corrections I’ve received while being in His presence and beholding Him with unveiled face through an opened Bible (2 Cor. 3:18).
Yes, people will still mock. They’ll still try to pick you apart. But at least now they’re doing it to something real. And you can bet somebody out there is privately watching, and strangely enough, hoping you won’t fail. They’re not ready to talk to you yet. But they’re thinking if things get much worse in their life, they will.
Make sure you leave a light on for them.