Most people agree that “Honesty is the best policy.” But as a writer and ministry leader who has made honesty her central message and MO, I wonder if it’s possible to sometimes be “too honest.” Not a few times as I’ve posted unflattering, embarrassing, content, I’ve wondered: am I hurting my influence by being so raw and real? After people read this, will they still look up to me?
I’ve found that honesty, at the level I go, can be hard to find in Christian writers, teachers, and leaders. Many I’ve observed in this group like to use honest illustrations and anecdotes…of other people’s struggles. Or, if the stories are first-person, they tend to remain on a safe, surface level. I once read an article by a Christian who used the analogy of scrubbing her floor to illustrate the filthiness in her heart. But she made no mention of what, exactly, was in her heart. “Scrubbing my dirty floor made me think of how God has to scrub my heart clean of sin. I thought, how much better if I kept it clean daily, instead of letting it all pile up?”
Illustrations of the gospel like this one don’t resonate with me. It’s not that they’re bad or untrue, it’s just that they’re so general, so vague so b-o-o-o-o-ring. Worst of all, illustrations like these are generally unhelpful when it comes to making real changes to behavior.
At the risk of assuming other humans think like I do, I would submit that humans long for authenticity. Especially when we’re talking about faith. If our sources of inspiration don’t hit close to home, addressing real issues we battle daily, they will be perceived as impotent, laughable, and even painful (because they minimize our struggles)—and they will be quickly abandoned.
That’s why I chose to be vulnerable in the memoir I wrote about discovering my new life in Christ.
It’s why I choose to be vulnerable almost every time I post on this blog.
I believe people are hungry for other people to relate to them—to say “I’ve been there, too. Look how screwed up I used to be, and how I still struggle sometimes. And yet, look what God was able to do with that mess!” I believe messages like this bring hope.
But what if I’m wrong? What if messages like this do the opposite? What if brutal honesty breeds distrust in God and disaffection for his “honest, messed-up followers?”
When leaders decide to be honest, this is a very real risk we take—the risk of our followers unsubscribing because we are not perfect.
I am willing to take this risk, not only for the reasons I listed above, but because a genuine Christian faith should not hinge on the words and deeds of any human being. (In other words, no one’s faith should hinge on me.) It should hinge on the person and words of Christ.
When Leaders Disappoint
A few years ago I was deeply disappointed when I learned that one of my spiritual heroes, Leo Schreven, committed suicide. Honestly, I felt betrayed and somewhat deceived by this man who previously appeared to “have it all together.” But I was able to weather this bad news by clinging to the truth that God is not, and never will be, totally represented by those claiming to be his followers. When we see good in Christians, that is from God. But when we see bad, that is from the enemy. We can’t lay every quality at Christ’s doorstep, because not every quality is from him.
One quality I do believe is of God is the quality of honestly engaging our struggles as we seek His healing. I think I would have still respected my deceased spiritual hero if, in life, he had openly admitted his struggles. Perhaps I would have respected him even more for choosing bravery, rather than bravado—even though his brave sharing would have painted him as a fallible, sinful, wounded human being.
I have to add something here, to be fair. A family member of Leo Schreven’s contacted me after reading my blog post about Leo’s suicide, to tell me that my “hero” had struggled with psychological problems the public knew nothing about. This family member wanted me to have a fair, truthful view of Leo. The truth included mental illness, and as a former sufferer of mental illness, I empathized with that. I understood that I had put Leo on a pedestal. I also understood that his mental state may have precluded him from the type of honesty to which I am calling spiritual leaders.
Given the state of Leo’s mental health, it’s actually amazing that he enjoyed the long and successful career as evangelist and motivational speaker that he did. I have had similar thoughts, of course, about the late Robin Williams. Leo and Robin show us that there are exceptions to the standard of honesty I am putting forth. The exception applies to those who are not able to help themselves, or not able to let God help them, because of mental illness, or a genuine medical problem. Maybe they keep up the façade for the public for awhile, but in the end, we find out they are not the leaders we wished them to be. But then again, no one in whom we place our trust is immune to struggles, and to sin.
The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so we know every person, Christian or non, ministry leader or not, has a mix of good and bad.
No matter what we know to be true about our leaders, hopefully we can sift the good from the bad, and remember and respect them for their good qualities. Hopefully we can go on learning from them, no matter what their lives reveal. Sometimes we may observe the right course, other times the non-example. As long as we are looking up to human beings, we should expect both. And if we are the ones being looked up to, we must trust Christ to be the one shining example our audiences need; we must be okay with being imperfect representations of him.
That said, I believe that we in positions of trust—ministry leaders, Christian writers, etc.—should do our best to represent Christ, and this includes being honest about how God is working in our lives and transforming our sinful patterns. We should also be honest about “wilderness” times, times when we struggle with our faith…but we should do it wisely.
Guidelines for Christian Leaders
Here are two guidelines I’ve found helpful in my own writing and ministry that can help Christian leaders determine when, where, and how much to share.
1) First, we should consider timing. You can read various sins and struggles of mine on this blog that occurred at various stages in my life. I blog about problems long past and problems of last week.
The safer type of post is the one about problems past. These problems are ones I have likely had victory over. They are problems that have yielded personal lessons I can use to teach others. These types of posts, and this type of sharing, should be an absolute “yes” for all ministry leaders. Why wouldn’t we use our stories of redemption as teaching tools? What better examples of the gospel could we present than the ones that have played out in our own lives?
The murky area is problems of the present. How much should Christian leaders share about present problems? Here, we have to be wise about audience.
2) Audience is the second consideration. Consider who will be reading or hearing your message. If you are a preacher and it is your job to inspire hope, then it may not be the best time to insert a struggle that you do not have victory over, or at least cannot yet talk about in a positive way.
Sure, there are times when you are on the upside of a struggle—you can see the end in sight, and you are pressing through for victory. That might be material for an inspiring message, and if you are comfortable exposing that yet-unresolved pain, go ahead.
But other times, pain and sin is too raw to project to a large, or public, audience. That’s when you need a small, confidential audience. I’m talking a few trusted friends or advisors who can help talk and pray you through your problems. When you have worked through those problems, then they may become appropriate large-group material. But don’t rush it. Getting outside voices mixed up in your current personal problems could hurt the healing process, and you need to get healthy first so you can go back to being your motivational self.
One caveat for leaders working through personal problems: if your challenge handicaps your ability to do ministry, whether because the emotions involved take too much energy, or because a sin you are fighting “disqualifies” you to be a role model at the time, then it’s probably the right time to step out of ministry, at least for awhile. In the case of Leo Schreven, I would have much preferred hearing the news that he had stepped out of leadership for awhile to tackle some personal problems to hearing that he had committed suicide. We are ultimately the most helpful to others when we get the help we need, first.
On This Blog, What You See Is What You Get
To apply my guidelines to myself, I routinely post about my current struggles, but many times I have chosen to remain silent until I have prayed over them and exposed them to Scripture and the wisdom and counsel of a few trusted others. By the time I post on an issue, I want it to be, if not totally resolved, at least on the path to resolution. I want others to look up to me, yes, but I am happy to admit that sometimes the best example I can give is: “Look, I’m broken here, but I’m looking to Christ. And if you feel the same way, you need to do the same.”
By posting my struggles, past or present, I risk losing my readers’ respect, but I also keep myself accountable to Christ for resolution. I put a problem out there (such as my sleep-deprived, desperate, witchy state), and I say, “Okay, this is the mess this sinful world, or sinful me, has created today. But now, how am I going to find Christ in the middle of it?” My mission is to find out how Christ will come through for me, and then to share my victory with my readers.
Indeed, if “Superwoman Christian” is the role model you want, look somewhere else. Because on this blog you’ll just encounter a broken girl trying to depend on Christ, and trying to work out her faith, in all things big and little. After all, as so many examples in the Bible show (Kind David and the 51st Psalm come right to mind), a Christian leader worth listening to is not someone who claims to be above sins and struggles, but someone who fully admits their weaknesses; has learned how to let Christ lead in the hard times; and can discern which, of all their life experiences, will be helpful for lifting others up.
Love this! We have a pastor who is known for asking a small group of people their prayer requests. When it’s his turn he shares a very personal struggle someone else is going through. Nothing of himself, and who knows if he has their permission to share? I don’t think most people even notice the tactic, but he is fighting vulnerability with everything he’s got. I’m looking forward to the day when he can lay it all down and be real.
Great example of what I’m talking about. It’s a fine, and sometimes scary, line when it comes to maintaining a professional persona and being real. May God help us all as we try to live out his plan for us and encourage one another on the journey with our shared struggles.
We learn from stories of how others have learned, met challenges, or overcome obstacles. We learn from stories of positive experiences too — how to be in the world, love, work, and be a friend. It seems only natural that telling stories and sharing with others would be a natural part of writing (of course) as well as a ministry. Stories of past experiences are probably easier to share because of the emotional distance time affords, as well as the higher likelihood that the teller has figured out the experience and what he’s learned.
Complete honesty in all things is a supremely difficult thing to maintain, I think. Does that mean to include what we omit in our stories? What we choose not to reveal? Sometimes the story is more effective without weighing it down with too many details or people. That needs to be the teller’s choice. Fiction writers, for example, “lie” all the time because what they are writing is not real, but if they’re good fiction writers, they will reveal truths about the human condition in their stories. I wonder how Christian fiction writers deal with this and wanting to be honest.
Thoughtful and provocative post!
Great point that sometimes the story works better sans some details. I totally agree. Supreme honesty is probably not realistic, and I don’t think many people actual want EVERY single detail. This is where writers have to be discerning. Good question about Christian fiction writers. I have not dabbled in this area, so I don’t know…
I’m so glad to have discovered your blog! I often feel like maybe I’m being too honest in my poetry, and there is a line I don’t cross (for example, I never write poems that I feel would hurt my family if they were to read them). Thanks for this great post!
I am glad I discovered your blog, too! I feel like we are kindred spirits, grappling with the same issues that arise when Christians pursue art. Best wishes to you in all your artistic endeavors! (I also relate to the struggle to find time to write as a mom, but you sound busier than I am, and probably doing a better job of writing regularly! Maybe it gets better when babies enter the childhood phase.)
Hi I would love to get in touch with any family of Mr. Schreven because I want to ask if we could continue his ministry.
Hi Ramyr, I am not in contact with the family, so cannot advise you there, but I wish you the best as you seek to minister to others. God bless you!