“Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’
“But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18:21)
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)
When I was a senior at the Johns Hopkins University and a campus fellowship leader, I signed up with another leader (also a senior) to live in a shared dormitory room on campus. The idea was to be school-year “missionaries” to the freshmen, who were required to live their first year on campus.
It’s not that the idea wasn’t a good and valid approach to outreach. I had been contacted by fellowship members with clipboards standing outside the dining hall as a freshman. When they got to question 3, Would you like to hear more about a relationship with Jesus Christ?, I hesitated, made tentative eye contact with the other student, and said yes.
In hindsight, I don’t know why I was selected to be a leader as a senior, which included teaching and supervision of one of the small group Bible studies that met weekly in various locations. It must have been the gold stars I earned for nothing more than perfect conference and Saturday seminars attendance. Any clear-eyed, honest appraisal of my life would have indicated a pretty sparse “harvest of righteousness and peace” (Heb 12:11).
The only person that saw through me and was honest enough to tell me the truth was the woman I was dating at the time, now a physician in the DC metro area. She put her finger on my vulnerability: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7).
(I’m sure she didn’t realize it at the time she said it, and I know I certainly didn’t, but that one verse is the pivot on which my entire life finally turned in the right direction. It’s not sentimentality or an exaggeration to say that I couldn’t be writing any of this today except for that one honest assessment.)
That’s an updated NIV translation of the verse, which I remember from 40+ years ago as, “God has not given us a spirit of timidity.” A spirit of timidity is a timid attitude, not part of a diabolical cohort that takes over my personality like Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. So even if spirit is rendered upper-case, it’s obvious that the Spirit of God did not make us timid.
So what did? Fear of man (which will “prove to be a snare,” Pr 29:25) and loving human praise more than praise from God (Jn 12:43), which John tells us was why “many among the leaders . . . would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue.” They’re two sides of the same coin.
As an example of of my weakness as a student, one day I was stopped on the landing by a woman who lived on the floor beneath me. She was the embodiment of a pleasant personality, had possibly an Orthodox Church background, and she asked me a straightforward question with absolutely no hostile or aggressive overtones, which were more common in my university setting.
It was the proverbial hanging curve ball, just waiting to be driven into the bleachers. I don’t remember the exact topic, but it was essentially, “What does Jesus have to say about [sorry, can’t remember]?”
And I stammered and awkwardly avoided eye contact and the words that issued from my mouth were as tangled up as the 50-foot extension cord that is always a Gordian knot when I take it out of the trunk of my car.
At that point I should have just gone outside, gathered some stones and set them by her door, because an inanimate object would have “cried out” and done a better job (Lk 19:37-40) than me, who had in effect listened to an imaginary scolding voice like the Pharisees telling me to pipe down about Jesus.
Tangled, of course, is the perfect description of someone caught in a snare. You start out saying something, pick up negative body language and crossed eyebrows and make subtle on-the-fly adjustments to soften any sharp edge in your words, overcompensate and say something too watered-down, then make another adjustment, this time veering directly into incoherence.
The whole time you’re hoping they accept you and approve what you’re saying. Meanwhile, they cautiously back away and make a mental note to shop at a different grocery store next time, to avoid crossing paths with you again. As for you, there’s a slipknot around your ankle and the more you thrash around the tighter it gets.
Jesus made the generalization that no one can serve two masters (Mt 6:24): You’ll hate one and love the other. But you can toggle between personalities for a while, as I did for several years.
I was the teacher’s pet of a believer when I was at college. I went to all the fellowship events: training, small groups, social events like ice skating and volleyball. I was animated, highly motivated and happy among my fellow Christians.
But when I went home, fully aware of the rumors floating around that “Dave had changed,” I softened my approach to avoid conflict. I went out with my friends as before; I drank ginger ale instead of beer. There weren’t churches around like the one I attended in Baltimore.
I was—what’s the best word?—deflated. The happiness and enthusiasm I experienced at college were missing. But the problem was me. It wasn’t God that had given me a timid spirit; it was me holding onto it like a child does a security blanket. The arm’s-length treatment I received from high school friends was all the contrary wind that was needed to drive me onto the shoals of discouragement, weakness and silence.
And I was not Jekyll and Hyde. These two personalities were from the same sin. Loving or depending on man’s approval also implies fearing that you will lose that. You might not say it out loud, but you’re thinking, It would be unbearable for me to be ridiculed, slighted or patronized. I need their approval.
That’s not true of course. But no one—not any fellow students or staff at college for 3 ½ years, no one in the missionary community that I got to know when I did short-term assignments in India (I thought missionaries were the major leagues of the church), and no one in any church I attended in those early years—told me (1) what the root of the problem was; or (2) how to lay the axe to that root.
(Except for Jasmine, God bless her. But I needed someone to reinforce and elaborate on that. That never happened, but God sovereignly redeemed me through unexpected means.)
You can see where that left me. Just like the people who gathered to see the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
People who waver between two opinions—or who try to serve two masters—don’t have strong convictions, by definition. And people without strong convictions don’t have anything to say.