Chapter 12 – Cheaters Never Win
“Keep your eyes on your own paper!” So goes the final instruction before a test, and every student understands the consequences of failing to heed them. Sometimes teachers add a little philosophy to their warning: “If you cheat you are only cheating yourself.”
To be honest, the fear of getting caught always frightened me most. When I was young I wasn’t worried about having to apologize to myself. But as I have aged, I have come to appreciate this wisdom, especially as it applies to life’s trials.
We cheat when we compare our circumstances and God’s response to others. In so doing, we risk damaging our relationship with God and inhibiting our spiritual growth. Yet we do it. We can’t help but wonder why others have fewer trials, lesser trials, and shorter trials, and why they sometimes seem to tolerate them better than we do.
The problem with these kinds of comparisons is they frequently overlook the unique story God is writing in each of our lives. Our test sheets are one-of-a-kind. God teaches us with the same truth, but we apply what we learn through the filter of our personal calling. Some share their struggles openly and look for opportunities to counsel others. A few find less revealing ways to pass along the grace they have found, perhaps with simple acts of kindness. Our wounds and healing processes differ and we shouldn’t be anxious if we think we are failing in our response. God’s grace and comfort are available to all, but His work in our individual lives is distinct.
People cheat to meet expectations. They are driven to bad choices by the opinions of others and their personal dreams. There is no good excuse for cheating, but most of us understand the power of the human desire to succeed. This is no less true in the spiritual realm where we are reluctant to admit there is anything deficient in our faith.
When David ruled as king over Israel, his son Absalom usurped his throne. David was forced to carry the burden of hunting down his own son along with failures in his own life that helped fuel the rebellion. Eventually, Absalom was killed in battle. When David heard the news, he cried out, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). The commander of Israel’s army, Joab, confronted David for humiliating the soldiers who had just saved his kingdom by failing to praise them, but instead grieving for their enemy. He also warned him his behavior might encourage them to serve another king. David pulled himself together and put on an act for his troops, because that’s what leaders do when there is an expectation.
I must make a confession. Actually I must make two confessions. I am prone to look over other people’s shoulders, and I am also good at telling people what they want to hear. That’s right! I am a cheater and a liar! Before you contact my home church to have my ordination certificate revoked, let me explain.
On Sunday mornings I try to be at my best. I go to bed early Saturday evening, double-check to make sure my clothes match, and “pray up” before meeting the public. But sometimes I am not in the right spiritual, mental and emotional place necessary to deliver God’s truth to His congregation. This might be due to a head cold, distractions, discouragements, or even a mild case of depression. On these days, a staff member or elder who knows I am struggling will see me in the hallway and ask me how I am doing. I offer my standard response: “Great!” They smile because they know better, but we also both understand how it is. As leaders we have to be confident and strong for the sake of those who are hurting.
Incidentally, if I know I am lying and another church leader knows I am lying, and I know he knows I am lying, is that the same as telling the truth? Never mind. I know the answer.
I actually think staying focused and standing strong as I prepare to preach is a thing. I don’t want my problems to be a distraction. Yet, I must find a way to be authentic, even if it involves confessing my hurt in a purposeful way in my sermons. I am not afraid to pour out my heart to others and ask them to pray for me in my distress, as long as I don’t add to their distress. If I can’t be honest, I become a slave to expectations and a spiritual fraud. More than one servant of God has shipwrecked on the shoals of such pretense.
I would like to encourage you to participate in a small exercise. Try it right now if possible. Imagine for a moment the only expectations in life are the one’s God has shared with you in His Word. This means the agendas other people in your life have for you are non-existent. The voices from your past that often drive your actions were never spoken. There is no such thing as a self-help book and those magazines on the grocery rack that promise a “better life now” were never printed.
If these things were true, would it be easier for you to be honest with God about your needs, and less consumed with comparisons? Obviously, other people’s expectations are not necessarily negative. We need accountability, which is why God has put others in our lives to reinforce His truth and encourage us. But in the final analysis, God’s will for our lives is the only thing that ultimately matters, and the only burden for conformity we should allow others to put on our shoulders is that we be transformed into His image. The apostle Paul articulated this goal in his letter to the church in Rome: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
I avoid man-made spiritual super-systems that are loaded with self-help jargon and led by experts who claim to have unlocked the secret of a happy life. It seems to me they are heavy on guilt and human compliance and weak on the abiding grace of Jesus. A good rule of thumb is to be careful about trusting our souls to anything that requires the three-digit code on the back of our credit card.
Therefore, if your faith has been shaken by your circumstances, resist the urge to use someone else’s answers. Instead, surround yourself with people of faith who are committed to helping you discover how God is moving in your life. Make sure they are the kind of believers who understand God’s unique design for every individual and His infinite wisdom in putting the pieces of our lives back together. If you are blessed with these kinds of companions on your journey you will never need to cheat. Were you to do so, you would truly be cheating yourself.