As a young minister, I would preach the value of people having the courage of their convictions. Nothing was more important, I would proclaim, than standing by the values you hold dear. I said that and believed it.
In time I met some church members with convictions that needed to be abandoned. Out of their steadfastness–some would say stubbornness–to their convictions, they were running their church into the ground and destroying its witness to the community.
That was the day I quit preaching about convictions as a positive trait.
Joanie’s husband suggested I call her at home. She was upset about some fundraising thing the young people were doing for their summer mission trip. She felt it was out of place in the church.
Over the phone, I explained to Joanie my deep sensitivity to this very issue, and how the youth minister and I had gone over every aspect of their fundraiser to make sure it was done right. But nothing satisfied Joanie. She was dead-set against the program.
Finally, I pointed her to some biblical principles on the subject. “These are very important, Joanie,” I said, and explained how we were in line with them. I thought I made a good case and was surely winning her over.
When I paused, Joanie said, “I don’t know what the Bible says, but I know what I believe.”
I said, “My friend, you have just ended the conversation. I thought the issue was about what the Bible teaches. If it’s only about what you believe, then there’s not a thing in the world I can do with that.”
I can still hear the echo from many years ago of a couple in my church who were taking issue with me over something I was doing or preaching. Again, I tried to move the discussion to biblical principles. The wife stunned me by insisting, “But we have our convictions!”
I tried as gently as I knew how to remind her that God did not send us to preach our convictions, but the Word of Christ.
A man I know has a conviction that the length of a person’s hair will determine his eternal destiny. He believes it as surely as I believe in the authority of the Scriptures.
I met a woman who believes that smoking one cigarette would send her soul to hell.
I met a man who believes he can live any way he chooses and never darken the door of a church and still go to Heaven because he belongs to a church of a particular denomination.
Convictions are not the same as truth. They may be, of course, and ideally should be. But we should never make the mistake of giving our convictions an equal place with God’s Word. I think it’s safe to say that Hitler and Stalin had their convictions. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door this morning have theirs. The Mormons have theirs, the Catholics theirs, and yes, I have mine.
One of my convictions is that physical exercise is part of Christian discipleship. I believe it, but the fact is, I can’t find a lot to support that in Scripture. In fact, the Bible actually declares, “Bodily exercise profiteth little.” (I Timothy 4:8) No doubt, in comparison to the eternal values, that is the case. I try to bend over backward not to preach as gospel something I happen to believe but for which there is not a great deal of Scriptural basis.
We who are charged with preaching the whole counsel of God must be careful about blending into the doctrinal casserole our own pet convictions and personal beliefs.
Going through some old papers, I came across something on this subject from a book by Jon Johnston. The note is in my handwriting, says it came from “page 139 ff,” but failed to note the name of the book! My apologies to Jon and to our readers. His points are worth listing here (with a couple of my comments).
1. Some convictions are little more than superstitions.
(In Singapore’s high-rise apartment buildings, architects could not put doors on opposite sides of the halls from each other. Residents would hang mirrors on the jambs to reflect evil spirits into the neighbors’ flats. To keep the peace, the doorways were reconfigured and oddly spaced down the hall.)
2. Some convictions are convenient excuses to indulge our giant egos, allowing us to stand out in the crowd.
(Someone said of Madalyn Murray O’Hair that if everyone in the world were atheists, she would be a Christian.)
3. Some convictions are merely our refusal to accept something new and different.
4. Some convictions are merely negative, things we hate or oppose, rather than what we believe.
(I always thought this explained the popularity of Governor George Wallace of my home state of Alabama.)
5. Some convictions are the result of ignorance.
6. Some convictions are the result of majority opinions. “They must be right because everyone agrees.”
Visiting with some friends who were members of a megachurch, I learned that their pastor was on a health kick. “His wife has him on this strict diet,” they said. Stay away from these breads, eat only these few foods, take all these supplements.
I said, “Does he preach that from the pulpit?” They laughed. “Never. I think he sees it as his wife’s thing. His thing is to preach the Word of God.”
Big, big difference. God give us the discernment to distinguish His revelation from our beliefs. And to be willing to conform our beliefs to that revelation as quickly as we begin to comprehend it.