Yesterday, I got a phone call from a young man I’d known from a past church. He’s serious about following Jesus, but now he’s hurting and calling for advice.
He’s made some mistakes, and now friends choose sides between him and another friend. In the whole mess, he feels like he has made compromises on his faith. He’s tried to make others happy, but has disappointed God by following friends more than his faith.
Now God is the only one who’ll talk to him. His friends are playing those “power games,” just like we did back in high school. And now he’s left alone.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but relate. Those games we played in school don’t go away once we become adults. Even at this point in my life, I’m still navigating between the bullies and the mean girls.
The desire to find a place to fit in follows us into adulthood. I’m no exception. I’ve always felt socially awkward, and I didn’t enjoy any popularity until my college years. So I’ve always felt like an outsider.
Another problem is my calling. Pastors don’t often get to be themselves, especially when everything they say and do get judged harshly by an impossible standard. So at times, I’ve sought friendships in the community outside the church. They offered me a breath of fresh air. Though they rarely shared my faith and values, it was nice not to worry about being judged at every turn.
But I’ve started to notice an uncomfortable tug in my heart. And like my young friend on the phone, I’m afraid I’ve made some compromises along the way to be accepted. No, I haven’t experienced some great moral failing. But I realize that I’ve been letting my values take a second place to friends with different values.
How did I compromise? Not as much in what I did, but in what I didn’t do.
There were too many things I didn’t say that I should have said. The same friends who didn’t judge my morality would have absolutely judged me if I’d ever pushed back on their morality. Their casual attitude toward a million vices bothered me, but I never spoke up.
Sure, I always rationalized that my life would preach the best sermon to them. But they never got the message. Sermons need words to hit home.
I also found myself shutting up about my faith more than expressing it. Why? Because I wanted to be the cool pastor who could take a joke, who wasn’t too “religious” all the time. Too much “God talk,” and I’d appear less sophisticated and open-minded.
So when they expressed disgraceful opinions, I found myself looking away. I rarely offered them my values. No, I just kept quiet. And maybe, on a couple of occasions, I think I even laughed along at things I should have been crying over.
The very first Psalm explains the problem:
Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful
– Psalm 1:1
Compromise starts as seemingly small missteps with people we choose as friends. You start listening to ungodly counsel. You begin traveling in the path of sinners, even if you’re not sinning yourself. Then you’re tempted to join in and become scornful of virtuous things they deride.
Why? Because you’re at the cool kids’ table. And the price of admission is to make fun of the things they don’t like.
This is why so many Christians today are publicly critical of the church. We’re so quick to point out every flaw in a believer. We often join our voices with those who see hypocrites in every pew. We think that by echoing their criticisms, we will win them to our side.
But by trying to make the “mean girls” happy, we’re just making fools of ourselves. They will never like us. Trust me.
The bullies and mean girls gain power through the threat of losing their approval. So you’ll be expected to prove your allegiance often.
They’ll expect you to laugh at the things they laugh at.
They’ll expect you to choose between being their friend and someone they deem unworthy.
They’ll expect you to put your own plans aside and prioritize whatever it is they need you to do for them.
The bullies let you stay at the table only as long as you do what they want. In school, they’d make you do their homework in exchange for their attention. Likewise, as an adult, I let many of my gifts and talents be used for their benefit, thinking it was all part of our friendship.
But when you stop doing their homework, when you stop shunning their enemies, you’ll be out. When you dare to say things they disagree with, your chair at the table will be gone.
Most of all, when you stop laughing off their abuse and insults and finally stand up as if you mattered, that’s when everything changes. When you finally remember who you are, that’s when you realize how they really see you.
You’re not their friend. You’re just a tool.
You kept jumping through every hoop because you thought that’s what good friends do.
It was never about friendship. It was just about them.
Now I feel like I just woke up from a trance, mesmerized by my own neediness. Honestly, I thought I’d grown out of wanting people’s approval so badly, I’d compromise to get it. I guess graduating and growing older doesn’t guarantee you won’t keep making the same mistakes you did in high school. Age and wisdom are not always delivered in the same package.
As the dust settles, I’m also trying not to learn the wrong lessons.
It’s not wrong to be generous with your time. It’s not wrong to help people. When you give of yourself to humble people, they’ll appreciate you. But the arrogant will use you up, spit you out, and expect you to feel honored they ever noticed you in the first place.
I wish I could tell my young friend on the phone that everything will get better—that adulthood would rid him of these childish games, that he would eventually grow out of the need to be accepted. But I know that’s not true.
Thankfully, God has led some new friends into my life. They treat me with respect and actually give back, instead of the one-sided friendships I was used to. One friend has used his gifts in photography to give me amazing headshots for my ministry use, at no charge. Another texts me almost every day to check on me. One couple surprised me the other week by coming over and fixing supper for my family, just to show their love.
But my biggest surprise was realizing how much they value my friendship. Actually, it shocked me. I’d forgotten I was worth the trouble.
Our teachers always warned us, “if you want to know whom you’ll become, just look at your friends.” Friends can pull us toward God or away from him. They can make us feel valued or worthless. It’s our job to realize when the tug is taking us in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, I don’t think I was unfaithful to God when I sought validation from the cool kids’ table. But I’m pretty sure I was unfaithful to myself. I put up with a lot of abuse for the sake of thinking I was a friend. I started to forget the value God had placed in me. I began to feel my worth rested somewhere within their approval.
But thankfully, the bullies and mean girls eventually overplay their hands. That’s when you wake up and decide to move to another table.
Seeing my own value anew as a friend was when I decided to walk away from the cool kids’ table. And with a little help from my new friends, I’ll keep walking and not look back.
Dave Gipson is a husband, father of 4 adopted children and one biological child, former foster parent, and pastor at Naples Family Church of Naples, FL. An author, Dave's new highly acclaimed book, "The Seven Surprises: Everyday Epiphanies on Being a Better Human Being," is now available. He also contributes regular commentaries to the Naples Daily News as well as other international publications. He has served churches for the last 25+ years, from Florida to the inner-city of Chicago. Rev. Gipson holds his ordination in the Southern Baptist denomination, and has two earned Masters degrees in Religion and Divinity. Read more at http://davegipson.net.Follow him on Twitter at @realdavegipson.