What does it mean to be an “ethical” person of faith?
I have wrestled with this for many years, ever since spending three seasons at Asbury Theological Seminary and earning my M.Div. I saw fellow students, and at times myself, hiding out. And then I immersed myself in church leadership as an associate and then senior pastor, and I saw my parishioners, and at times myself, hiding out.
How does one “hide out” in the seminary? It’s easy. The world is rough and cruel. The world has rejected me. At the seminary, people have to embrace and accept me. People have to love me. It doesn’t matter how lazy I truly am, or how much I refuse to hold myself accountable. Barricade myself in the sanctuary of the spiritual academy, and I am safe for a while.
How does one “hide out” from behind the pulpit, from within the walls of the clergyman’s office? The world requires me to produce. I do not have the confidence or ability to produce. I’ll stick to ideas, selling people on abstract theories to encourage them to tap into something powerful and unseen. It doesn’t matter how cynical or egotistical I have grown, or how sloppy I allow my appearance to be. People will have to embrace and accept me. They’ll have to love me. Barricade myself behind the pulpit and behind the cluttered desk-and behind my lofty public prayers and proclamations–and I am safe for a while.
How does a layperson “hide out” within the walls of the church? The world requires me to deal with dog eat dog mentalities, massive commercialism, a palate of temptations. In the church, people will tell me how to think, how to push away all the secular distractions. They will be safe to hang out with. It doesn’t matter how much my hidden sins are tormenting me day and night; keep on the game face, and everything will be all right. Barricade myself in the sanctuary of the pews and the classrooms with mismatched furniture, and I am safe for a while.
An ethical life is one that embraces doing the right thing and thinking long term, with the trust and faith that these two building blocks will translate into what the world defines-or more importantly, what we recognize with a sense of peace and satisfaction-as success. Notice I said nothing about safety.
John Eldredge, in his stirring book Wild at Heart, calls for men to not shrink from life’s difficulties or morph into bland “nice guys,” but to be godly warriors, to fight for what is right and for those they love, to be romantics at heart, adventures at will. Not people who hide out in the church, in their Bibles, in their degrees and titles. He calls for women to not allow themselves to become overburdened and exhausted doing churchy, religious tasks, but to give themselves permission to be swept up in the adventure of vital relationships.
An ethical person of faith, then, does not run from society and all of its trappings, afraid to compete or to be tempted, content to wear his game face rather than his God face. An ethical person of faith will utilize the seminary, the priesthood, the church membership as an instrument to equip, nurture and release the ever-emerging spiritual passion that is flowing forth through an authentic effort to have a quality impact on others and society.
The challenge for the ethical believer is that the very institutions that are to encourage his long term, healthy framework for worshipping, relating, teaching and nurturing, are inherently dependent these days upon a certain amount of hiding out. The feeding of the bureaucracy, be it the academy, the denomination or the local congregation, all too often is the unspoken priority. The leaders themselves are frequently hiding out, resisting reforms that may threaten their power base, expose them as being all too human, require them to be far too reliant upon…their faith. They have traded their youthful vibrancy for a conservatism that resists changes that may chip away at the safety of nicety and blandness, that shuns reforms that may thrust them into the fields of adventure they’ve avoided for years out of fear of being mauled.
Not very long ago I came to the sobering conclusion that I, too, was hiding out more than I was living wild at heart. I stepped out of my safety zone, and now I am fully immersed in the unknown as I build a new season of vocation, location and relationships. It is frightening, but it feels alive. It feels ethical, because in my heart I know it’s the right and long term thing that will enable my greatest potential to be unleashed.
The temptation is there each day to hide out, to hide from seeking new clients, to hide from rejection, to hide from hard work. Each of us makes a decision each day to live the adventure or to hide in our own version of the academy, the pulpit or the pews. Our challenge is to be re-energized, moment by moment, to live the ethical life.