Living Like You Say You Do

“The eye is the lamp of the body.  So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

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“It is a tenet of liberal Enlightenment faith that belief and knowledge are distinct and separable and that even if you do not embrace a point of view, you can still understand it.  This is the credo Satan announces in Paradise Regained when he says, ‘most men admire / Virtue who follow not her lore” (I, 482-483).  That is, it is always possible to appreciate a way of life that is not yours.  Milton would respond that unless the way of life is yours, you have no understanding of it; and that is why, he declares in another place, that a man who would write a true poem must himself be a true poem and can only praise or even recognize worthy things if he is himself worthy.” (Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle, 247).

I remember being in a history of preaching class my first year in seminary.  Different styles.  Different points of emphasis.  One of the early issues that preachers had to deal with was whether or not it was possible to be a good preacher while living a life uncommitted to the gospel.  That is to say, are there good preachers who are bad people?  Or, is it impossible, by definition, to be a good preacher and a scoundrel?  You’ve probably thought about that.

I remember thinking at the time that what one said as a preacher stood on its own—that the truth of my speech was unrelated to my actions.  I thought, “Sure you could be a jerk and still be a good preacher.  Look at Peter.

Getting it right first has never been a prerequisite for proclaiming the gospel.”  A study of Scripture reveals that God is constantly calling on the crooks and deadbeats of the world to be standard-bearers for the new kingdom (Jacob, Rahab, David, Paul, etc.).  I didn’t think the integrity of the preacher’s life impinged upon the integrity of the preacher’s words.

But the more I step into the pulpit, the more I am inclined to think I was wrong about the potential disconnect between the preacher’s life and the preacher’s words.  One thing my professor said during our classroom debate that I continue to see demonstrated in ministry is that if your primary job is telling the truth from the pulpit, you can’t lie with your life and expect people to listen to what you say on Sunday mornings.  If preaching is about telling the truth, you’d better get in the habit twenty four hours a day.

Ostensibly, he meant that preachers must always live truthfully—not just behind the pulpit—because there is no way after awhile to keep the different roles straight.  In other words, it’s impossible to sustain faithful ministry in a life that is schizophrenically removed from faithfulness.  If you live one way, while professing another, you’ll forget your story.

But not only will you forget your story, you will lose the ability to tell what a true story looks like.  The church has maintained through most of its history that, after awhile, there’s no way to recognize the beauty of truth while continuing to stand in a dunghill of lies.  You might be able to get away with it on a temporary basis, but sooner or later, you will lose the ability to discern truth from deceit.  “If your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

“So what?” you may be asking.

Your life is a proclamation of the gospel; it’s either a true account of who Jesus Christ is or it’s not, but you’re telling the world something about Jesus with every word you speak and every thing you do.  Neither virtue nor Jesus can be loved from a distance.

The truth of the gospel is that you can’t really even love Jesus if you refuse to live like him.