Is There Such Thing as Too Honest?

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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.

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I had the privilege of meeting Leo Schreven in 2010 when he conducted a seminar at my church. My husband (left) had met him many years before and introduced me to Leo’s preaching through a set of seminar tapes that made me eager to meet 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.

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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.

My Role Model Committed Suicide

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(This photo belongs to Jay Tilston and can be found here.)

She wasn’t exactly my role model, but Mindy Mccready’s suicide yesterday got me thinking about an actual role model of mine who did recently kill himself. I’ve thought about writing about him many times since I heard the news in December, but until now, the pain was too fresh to face.

Mindy’s death came quickly and tragically for me, too; but it’s easier to write about her because I only remember her as a marginal figure in my youth. After her hit “Guys Do It All the Time,” which played on the radio during our school bus route in 1996, she kinda dropped off the radar for me. Aside from admiring her twangy statement against male chauvinism, I never counted her among my personal heroes.

Not like Leo Schreven.

A motivational speaker and evangelist, Leo was much lesser known than Mindy. At least in the secular world. But in both the secular and religious worlds, I’d have to say his impact was far greater than hers. That’s because Leo’s work was not just to entertain, but to inspire, even to save souls by leading them to Christ.

What I Learned from Leo Schreven

In 2009, a complex of factors brought me to my knees in search of divine intervention. Our family was in a state of crisis, I was beginning my second year of teaching, and I knew I couldn’t get through the stress of this time alone. As a result, I was open to God in a way I had never been open before. And He delivered.

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(This photo can be found here.)

Among the many ways God provided for my spiritual growth that year, He placed recordings of one of Leo’s Bible seminars within earshot. It was a twenty-plus-part seminar on Bible prophecy that also touched on how Christians should live in a secular world. The material moved me deeply, to the point that I changed a number of personal habits I’d had for years. Christianity was not about the weekly church visit, I learned that year, it is about the daily walk—and Leo had a huge hand in teaching me that.

In 2010, I was floored to learn that Leo would be coming to my church to present one of his newer seminars, this one called “All Power.” Unlike his previously Bible-based presentations, these were more secular, dealing with self-improvement in five areas of life (religion and spirituality being relegated to one-fifth of the seminar). Even though these presentations weren’t as “godly” as what I formerly remembered, I found this material helpful, too, so much so that I used it to build a series of lessons for my public school seniors the next fall.

Too Good to Be True?

As you can imagine, when I found out that Leo had committed suicide in December of 2012, I felt devastated. I also couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed. What had happened to his promise of finding “all power” in all the major areas of life? I didn’t want to be bitter, but I did feel bitter, especially because I felt Leo had let down not only me, but also my students.

More than feeling sorry for myself, though, I felt sorry for Leo’s wife and daughter. This was sure to sink the ministry, I thought, and it did. All Power Ministries folded just this month, with Leo’s poor widow announcing that it was just too much to maintain. The irony of the situation (motivational speaker commits suicide) was too obvious, or shameful, to receive comment.

As I thought back to Leo’s weekend-long seminar at my church, I remembered watching his energetic gait and mile-a-minute speech and thinking that his success seemed too good to be true…I remember hearing him rave about his vegan diet and how he only needed four hours of sleep per night…how he traveled for over two-thirds of the year to bring these life-giving principles to others…and the pace of his life seemed insupportable.

After his early days of evangelism in the nineties (which produced the audio recordings that partially led me back to God), He told us he, with his wife, had decided to place other priorities above family—just for a few years, so he could build up his ministry and his wealth (which he used for much good, I must say). And that was one of his recommendations in the All Power seminar: that you sacrifice some things now in order to set yourself up for success later. From what I understood, his plan was to build up his career and ministry first, then come back to his family life later.

But he never got the chance.

Leo died with millions of dollars, a thriving ministry, and what must have been thousands of followers (including yours truly). But, as it came out later, his wife had left him prior to the suicide, taking their daughter with them. His personal life was a shambles.

They had tried to work it out, his wife explained, but unbeknownst to the public, he had been suffering with a debilitating mental illness for many years, and finally, it got to be too much to bear. They urged Leo to get help, she said, but he would not.

Making Sense of Tragedy

What do you say when things like this happen? My husband and I mulled it over in shock for days. Leo seemed so happy, so healthy, when we’d last seen him. He seemed so in control and confident. He almost seemed larger than life.

But maybe that was the problem. I hate to speculate, but I can only imagine that the pressure of having to maintain an “all powerful” life must have been crushing. He must have felt the pressure that many Christians feel—although to a much greater extent—when others look to you to fill shoes you were never meant to fill—when you become a “God” figure for others.

I won’t fully understand what happened until I get to ask God in heaven, but in trying to understand my role model’s suicide, I have come to resolution in several ways.

  • Leo’s death reminds me that we should never put anyone in the place of God. We are all only humans—even the “best” of us—and we must remember that no accomplishments come from our own strength.
  • Though immediately I felt bitter that Leo had let me down, I eventually came to feel thankful for how the Lord had used him to bring me back to my true role model, Jesus Christ. Though it’s sad Leo won’t be able to convert any more hearts, I am thankful for the thousands of hearts that he did convert.
  • In the end, I just have to trust God’s wisdom and leading. He knows things we don’t, and although I don’t believe God caused this suicide, or Mindy Mccready’s, or anyone one else’s, I have to trust that He allowed it to happen. Though it won’t make it any easier for the survivors, I know that God works miracles through tragedies. Perhaps Leo’s death will be a call to other public figures, role models, and ministers to remember that only by the grace of God can they be successful, or remain that way.
  • Both Leo’s and Mindy’s deaths should spur the humility in us all. No matter how secure we seem, or even feel, we cannot be too confident in our own abilities. It is because of God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and for no other reason. Once we forget that, becoming too prideful to admit we have problems or to seek the help we need, we are on Satan’s playground—and he will stop at nothing to destroy us (John 10:10).
  • Life is short and fleeting. What is your life? It is but a mist that appears for awhile and then disappears (James 4:14). Leo’s life and death reminds me that no matter how much good I intend to do (even in the name of the Lord), I can’t get so busy that I neglect my health or my family. I’ll take success more slowly if it means I get to keep my life, my health, and my family.
  • God has already used Leo’s death to teach me.

Though there is no easy way to end this post, I would like to close by offering my sincerest condolences to Leo’s family, to Mindy’s family, and to all families of suicide victims. I pray that the “God of all comfort” with become very real to you in these inscrutable times, smoothing over the unanswered questions until that day when He will make all things plain, letting us judge for ourselves the tragedies of this life (1 Cor. 6:3; Rev: 20:12).