I was a communications major in college, but in my small Baptist school that meant that I was part of the theater department. In my junior year I got my first big part in a musical – Arvide Abernathy in Guys and Dolls. I was 19 years old and had to play an old man. I just wasn’t getting it – I couldn’t find the soul of the character.
One day, during rehearsal, the director said some words that stung me deeply. ”Dave, you sound like you are reading a phone book.” Now, I am not sure all that is encompassed in that statement, but I am pretty sure of one thing, it is not a compliment. The director was unhappy with me.
So, the assistant director and I went to work. He helped me with characterization and the physical aspects of moving like an older man (its a lot easier now). But he also taught me how to speak in a Scottish brogue. (I should have kept it – no matter what you say, a preacher just sounds good with a brogue.) One day, I tried out my new stuff at rehearsal. Normally, the actors not currently in the scene mill around, chat and ignore the stage. But I broke out the brogue and things got silent. When I finished the scene and exited stage right, the entire cast broke out in applause. That felt really good.
But the high point came after the two week run of the musical. After closing night we had a cast party and everyone passed their playbills around and signed them – like high school yearbooks. I can’t remember any of the comments, except one. The director took my playbill and signed these words:
“Dave, you get the part every time.”
That meant more to me that the applause of the cast or the applause of the crowd. The director was pleased with my work. His “well done” was worth more than anything else.
Now, I perform on a different stage. I am not following a script or trying to learn a character. I am seeking to become more like Christ and proclaim his Word. My stage is behind a pulpit or at the keyboard. My goal is to communicate the Word of God and apply truth to people’s lives, to the life of our convention and to our culture.
The question still applies today, though. Whose applause do I live for?
Do I seek the applause of the crowd? I have a lot of people shake my hand at the back of the church or leave comments on this blog that affirm me. It is always nice to receive that. But there is a danger in that. It is so easy to begin to live for the audience’s applause, to gauge my success by backsides in seats or page hits on the stat counter. Encouragement is wonderful but it can easily become an idol in my heart. I like to be liked.
One of the biblical truths that is hardest for me to process is the reaction of people to God’s most faithful servants. The prophets were beaten and beheaded, they were rejected, imprisoned and persecuted. Jesus? The only perfect person who ever lived, the person who always spoke the precise truth and never sinned against anyone was nailed to the cross. And Paul? He had the most unique resume I’ve ever read.
But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 2 Corinthians 11:21–30
He is the only man I know who has put his frequent imprisonments and persecutions on his curriculum vitae.
If they persecuted the prophets, crucified the Savior and imprisoned Paul, what does it say about me if everyone loves my sermons? I cannot assume that just because the crowds applaud that Heaven is adding its approval. The two do not necessarily coincide.
So, do I seek the applause of the cast? Having the cast pay attention and applaud me was wonderful that night. But it would be a mistake for me to live for the cast’s applause.
I have never liked being disliked or criticized. Years ago, I ventured into online writing with a devotional which I called “WORD Processing.” After a couple of years, I was sending it to several hundred email addresses. And some of my devotional thoughts got picked up by other online newsletters and distributed widely. One post got picked up by several of them and distributed all over the world. One of the posts was picked up by Pulpit Helps magazine and appeared on the front page of their magazine.
And then, I quit. I just stopped writing the posts. Why? It is hard for me to admit it. I got a few negative comments. A couple of people told me they did not like what I wrote and it cratered me. I was so dependent on the approval of others that getting criticized caused me to back off.
Then, I found blogging. Several people wish I hadn’t, but I did. But my five years of blogging has taught me something. You can’t accomplish anything if you want everyone to like you. I have had my mental health analysed and questioned by one of blogging’s brightest stars. I have been called just about every name in the book. Just yesterday, I received an email telling me I was a liar; a spiritual fraud who is so filled with evil that the only way to deal with me is to completely shun me from here on out. And I have to admit that I still don’t like hearing words like that. But neither am I crushed or cratered, as I once would have been.
I have learned that the approval of the cast, the approval of other pastors or other bloggers does not equate to the approval of God. More than that, I have found that the disapproval of other pastors, of denominational leaders. or of other bloggers does not necessarily mean God is upset with me.
I do not hear voices in my head very often (despite what some have suspected.) But I was in church one time several years ago, trying to prepare my heart to preach. It was a struggle, because I knew that a woman in the church was really angry at me. I was devastated by what this person thought of me and I was having trouble through the song service with her disapproval. How could I preach when someone hated me as much as she hated me? That is when I heard these words in my head. I know some of you do not believe God speaks like this. I’m not really interested in debating that today. I can only tell you that I heard these words.
You are not what she says you are. You are what I say you are.
It is not the approval of the crowd or the cast that matters most.
No, I need to seek the approval of the director. In everything we do, we must seek to hear the amen of Heaven. If all men speak well of you but God is displeased, it means nothing. And if others criticize you, call you names, question your sanity or your honesty and spiritual integrity, but God approves, then all is well.
That is the most important lesson that I have begun to learn in my life. I say “begun to learn” because it is a process that is far from finished. But it is a victory that God is winning in my heart. I am what God says I am. If God says my heart is sinful, it doesn’t matter if everyone else applauds. And if God knows my heart is pure then I need not be devastated by accusations of impurity by others.
The greatest moment of any believer’s life will be that moment when we hear the voice of the Master saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In the meantime, we should always respect others and attempt to treat them well. But we must ignore both the applause and the shrill criticisms of others as we seek the one thing that matters most – the only thing that really matters.
The Amen that comes from Heaven.