To Tell You the Truth…
A few weeks ago we were getting quotes for a re-do of an old heating system and one of the contractors we were talking to had a rather odd habit. In response to our questions he often started his answer with “I’m not going to lie to you…” He did it so many times that I was sorry I hadn’t been keeping a tally from the beginning. The more I heard it the more concerned I became that he may have, in fact, been lying to us, or at least exaggerating.
Ben Carson, has been coming under fire from various sources for what are being seen as lies or exaggerations in his personal story; a “troubled youth to brilliant surgeon” story that would surely be compelling enough without any help. He has pushed back and called the whole thing media bias, a claim that will always get widespread support from people.
As an evangelical, the whole matter seems very familiar. We love good conversion stories. When I heard his account of a three-hour prayer session in the bathroom where a raging kid went in and a changed man came out I nodded my head. I could not help but smile at how fully changed he was. His sedate monotone public image now, one that leads to his being mocked about being on Ambien, certainly gives the impression that when God extracted Carson’s anger he took every last drop.
The best conversion stories are the most dramatic. We love John Newton’s story of conversion from slave-trading sailor to pious evangelical. We love his “I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see” lyrics from “Amazing Grace.” Never mind that there is an eight year gap between his conversion and his opposition to slavery, we get the point. We love the transformation C.S. Lewis made from Oxford atheist to Christian apologist.
We are so infatuated with dramatic conversion stories that some of us feel cheated that we don’t have one. My wife’s story of transformation from “pretty good kid” to “pretty good Christian kid” sometimes causes her to wish it had more pizzazz. When we were transitioning to go to the mission field she was often called upon to give her testimony and knew that it felt, well, kind of dull.
Theologically, at the point of conversion, we are aware both of our own sinfulness and the magnitude of God’s grace and, frankly, it is an amazing feeling. Newton’s song is as well titled for pre-kindergarten girls as it is for slave traders. But when we combine that awe-inspiring sense of grace with our evangelical hunger for good conversion stories it can lead to the temptation to exaggerate. We can paint our pre-Christian selves a little worse; we may even remember ourselves as worse.
I once had a Christian boss who was a great story teller. I was always impressed with him. Once, after hearing him tell an exciting tale of a mission trip we had taken together, I was bemused by the way it sounded much more dramatic in his telling that it actually was. When I asked him about it he said, correctly, that “the point of the story was true. Obsessing about the details would just get in the way.”
The transforming power of God’s grace is amazing. But that power can cause us to be tempted to stress it in an attempt to give Him the glory. God is the active agent and we want the world to know. But we need to be aware that this can cause us to drift into exaggeration. This is what I think Carson did. Did he lie? I doubt it. Did he exaggerate? Probably. As an evangelical I can sympathize. But he, and we, must be aware that exaggeration can surely be found out, that it does not glorify God, and that those who point it out may well be right. God simply doesn’t need our help to be sure He is glorified.