I coined a phrase a few years back, one I’ve never heard anyone else say. Since its realization, I share it with regularity among the students in my theology and catechetical classes, both young and old. It almost always comes up while studying the 8th Commandment and its explanation in Luther’s Small Catechism.
Before sharing it with you, I think the best way to tee up the phrase’s instantaneous formation in my mind is to compare it with the process of information transference in the film “The Matrix.” If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know what I mean. In one scene, Neo doesn’t know Kung Fu. In the very next, he’s a Kung Fu master. Everything necessary was instantaneously downloaded to his brain.
In my case, the phrase came to me in the middle of realizing a troubling situation had grown beyond my abilities to solve it. All along the way, my intentions were good, even Godly. I had followed the Word of God the best I knew how. I’d maintained confidences. I’d spoken to the right church leaders. I’d reached to both friend and foe alike through steady communication, all along the way doing what I could to navigate toward peaceful shores. But things didn’t work out as I’d hoped. The harder I tried, the worse things seemed to get, eventually coming undone altogether. As it would go, there was one moment when I knew I’d become infected by the undoneness.
It happened in a small meeting room in our school. It involved me and three other people. In short, what started as a calm conversation became heated, and at one point in the fray, a rather nasty word was used to describe my wife, Jennifer. Almost without hesitation, I rose from my seat, put my finger in the face of the person who’d spoken the word, and with a shout, I warned that if such a word used to describe my wife ever passed through the lips of that individual again, the results would be unforgettably severe.
In all my twenty-three years in ministry, that was the first and last time I ever lost my cool and shouted at anyone.
Unfortunately, the room and its uninsulated door are along a primary thoroughfare for church and school staff traffic, and it just so happened that a longtime staff member was passing by the room. Having no idea what I said or why I said it, but only that it was me who was shouting, the word spread quickly among my detractors, serving as evidence that I was a ruthless dictator more than capable of measuring the pastoral office against others in a threatening way. Less than a day later, when I realized what that single moment had produced among the people I was attempting to bring to repentance, a thought surged into and through me as if I’d touched an electrified wire. I was alone in my office when I heard my voice say as if in conversation, “Chris, your reputation is the only thing you own that everyone else keeps for you. Guard it.”
Since that moment, I fight for my reputation and the integrity that underpins it as if they were gold. Say something nasty to me. No problem. Post derogatory comments about me across the span of social media. I’ll brush it off and continue forward. But recast my credibility in a way that undermines my ability to serve, and things are going to get rough between us. Why? Well, not only because God’s Word describes pastors as ones who must be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2), or because one of the lessons I’ve learned in ministry is that the people willing to exert energy in this way must be dealt with firmly, but primarily because, as I already said, if my credibility becomes questionable, who am I to bring God’s authoritative Word of correction to anyone? For example, who am I to say that shouting at someone in anger is sinful if I live my life doing the same thing? With that, I’m a firm believer that one’s credibility is tied to his or her own integrity; or as I was moved to write on social media this past week in response to Will Smith smacking Chris Rock, “An act’s integrity is relative to the moral soundness of the one performing it.” I wrote this because Will Smith hit a man who insulted his wife, Jada. And yet, Will Smith lives in an open marriage, meaning he and Jada allow one another to have sex with others. Because of this, I’d say Will Smith has very little credibility when it comes to defending his wife’s honor.
This is an incredibly important thing for all of us to consider as sometimes we, too, discover ourselves required to rebuke someone else’s behavior in defense of what’s right. What’s more, it has me thinking about something else.
Do you remember that commercial from the 80s in which a mother shouts at her son after discovering drug paraphernalia in his room? Essentially, she asks him in a rage where he got the stuff, but more importantly, how he learned about any of it. Frustrated by her hypocrisy, the boy shouts back, “I learned it from you!” The camera then pans and refocuses on her bedroom, revealing a bag of marijuana beside an ashtray full of ashes. For as hokey as the acting in the commercial was, the message was stingingly true. If you’re doing it, you have no credibility for dissuading a child from doing it, too. And this matters to more than just drug use. If you are willfully living together with someone outside of marriage, don’t be surprised or angry if your child does the same one day. And if you try to dissuade them from doing it, what can you say to them when they reply, “I learned it from you”? Not much, that’s for sure. The list goes on from here. If you swear a lot, don’t be surprised or angry when your children swear a lot, too. If you speak abusively to your spouse, don’t be shocked when your daughter-in-law reveals the man she married, your son, is verbally abusive to her.
By now, I’m guessing that some, if not all of you have already whispered to yourself something that sounds a little like, “But I’ve done these sorts of things, so what credibility do I have for steering anyone else toward what’s right?”
Well, the answer to this is relatively simple. When your sinful deeds are your only history, then you have no credibility. However, when through confession and absolution your sins are snatched away from you for all time, having been instantaneously consigned to the shoulders of Christ through faith in His sacrifice on the cross, you are no longer who you were before. Things begin again. You are remade. Or better yet, re-created as one whose credibility is not his or her own history, but Christ’s. Such newness has no baggage, at least nothing God could ever conjure up to use against you. Don’t believe me? Listen to the Psalmist speak of God’s forgiveness in a remarkable way, saying, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (103:12). Just as potently wonderful, God reminds us by His Word that when He forgives us, He also forgets the sins completely (Hebrews 8:12). Do you know what that means? It means that the only way for God to recall them will be for us to remind Him. And why? Because He looks upon us through the blood of His Son. He sees us adorned in the white baptismal garment of His love fashioned from the threads of the Law-fulfilling credibility of Christ’s perfect righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:27; Revelation 7:14).
Knowing this, no matter what you’ve done, through humble contrition met by God’s mighty redemption, you can say to an onlooker accusing you of having no credibility due to the same sins, “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. It was a sin against God and the ones involved. I know this. Thanks be to God that my Lord paid the price for this and all my failures by His death and resurrection. Now, by the power of His Holy Spirit, I want to be faithful to Him. This faithfulness moves me to want to warn you from falling into the same destructive traps I fell into. I don’t want that for you in the same way Jesus doesn’t want that for you.”
Believe it or not, such a confession can be disarming.
Of course, even such sincere communication might not win the heart of someone holding tightly to his or her transgressions. Trust me, I get it. And yet, that’s where the right handling of God’s Word, the divine courage promised to believers by that same Word, and the viscera for trusting that God will bless your efforts for faithfulness all come into play.
I need to remind myself of this regularly, especially as one who works to guard his own credibility with ferocity. The fact remains that no matter how hard I try, I won’t always succeed. I’m a sinner. But through genuine confession resulting in absolution, the script gets flipped and I can keep on keeping on. As I do, I know there will always be people out there laboring to defame me, doing all they can to bring me into the same state of despair and lostness in which they dwell. In the end, I don’t have to take it sitting down. But I also know that no matter what happens, ultimately, God’s forgiveness cements my credibility to Christ. With that knowledge, my work becomes less about trusting myself, and more about being confident in Christ, the One who’s always running point. From my perspective, that’s an impenetrable place from which to launch an offensive against this world and its terrible armies.