“Do you think,” my mom wondered aloud, “that your boyfriend might be influencing you a little?”
I peered at her from under 42 pounds of (new) dark eye makeup, then looked down at my (new) Harley-Davidson shirt and my (new) leather pants. “Um, like, no,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I have always been totally my own person, you know?”
And so it goes. Most of us at one time or another have succumbed to someone‘s influence. For me, in high school, those influences were manifold and obvious. When I dated the 80s-rocker-wannabe, I dressed like a groupie. When I dated the godly-courtship-pastor-to-be, I wore shirts with literal crosses on them and chirped about the virtues of laundromat dates. (I was intolerable for that four month period, and yes, I am still sorry.) With my sophisticated friend Ashley, I wore all black and tried to drop casual French words into conversation like she did. With my laid-back friend, I stopped worrying about makeup as much.
Being influenced by someone isn’t always a bad thing, although we often assume that it is. It can have really positive consequences, actually. A friend of mine during grad school opened my eyes to the struggles and the circumstances of Native Americans on the reservation where he lived – and, indeed, across the country. His influence changed a lot of my thinking, and I’m grateful for that. My witty and thoughtful professors turned me on to new authors and thinkers and ways of being and living in the world. My Christian role models have given me inspiration for how to handle problems, face difficult circumstances, and reach out to others. All these people influenced me, and I am much better for it. It’s good to learn from others and to apply that learning to our own lives.
The problem is that those moments of “good influence” can lead us to turn those we admire (and who influence us the most) into little gods worthy of worship. It’s an unfortunate but natural occurrence: when we see people who think or say or do things that influence us heavily in positive ways, we often attribute awesomeness and greatness and super-humanness to them. We come to think that they’re special. And we put them on a pedestal without realizing we’re doing it.
Tell me if any of the following scenarios sound familiar:
A local pastor is enormously popular and deeply beloved at his church. He’s charismatic and enthusiastic, and the church grows by leaps and bounds during his tenure there. New members attribute a lot of their spiritual walks to his tutelage. Unfortunately, a public debacle reveals one one of his deepest sinful failings. It threatens to shatter the church entirely. Members who once adored this pastor feel personally betrayed; vast groups of congregants give up on the church altogether, disappointed that he wasn’t who they thought. What’s the point of even going any more?
You have a local Christian friend who has helped you grow a lot in the faith. Although you haven’t said it out loud, you make an effort to be a lot like them – they’re so Christlike, and you admire the way they live out the Word. Then one day, they say or do something that shocks you. It doesn’t really seem Biblical or Christlike at all! You can’t help but feel deeply, personally stung and disappointed, and it’s hard to look them in the eye afterward. You feel like you’ve suffered some sort of loss.
A particular Christian author is deeply beloved. Fans can quote passages of his books by heart. Many credit him with having changed their lives. In fact, there are quite a few people who know his books better than they know the Bible – and they don’t really mind. Indeed, he explains the Bible than they ever could just by reading it. But then one day he takes a doctrinal position that bewilders a lot of people and contradicts a lot of what they think they know. Confused and uncertain, some boycott his books and throw out his entire library with wholehearted anger because someone else told them he was wrong, while others buy in to the new ideas without knowing exactly why and without ever bothering to ask.
All of this is part and parcel of the Christian life. We’re influenced, largely to a positive degree, by all the people around us – by leaders, by writers and artists, by friends. Often this happens from an early age. And while that’s not bad in and of itself, it can result in a lot of problems when we deify people or receive our spiritual information, certainties, and entire belief systems from them. It’s dangerous when we depend on people, rather than on God and on Scripture, to inform our knowledge, our worldviews, and our ideas.
Because the truth is that people – even the very best and most gifted Christians we know – are flawed. And while we’d be well advised to learn from the ones who seem to be doing something right, we should also recognize that they are not perfect. They do not have unassailable Biblical knowledge. They sin. They fall. They stumble. Even Paul the apostle acknowledged his humanity and his struggles with the admission that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, and what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15).
When we let ourselves be too easily influenced by other Christians – even the really, super-good ones! – we run the temptation of idolizing them. And then we’re crushed and brokenhearted when it turns out that they’re not perfect after all. I’ve seen this run believers out of churches and even in some cases away from the faith, because they hung their belief on a person rather than on God. (Pro tip: people will always disappoint you. Even the really, super-good ones.)
And when we let ourselves be too easily influenced by other Christians, we lose the ability to think and discern for ourselves. We adopt other people’s positions and doctrinal stances and interpretations because, well, we trust them, and because it “feels right” – and we do so without actually ever studying for ourselves what the Word says or means. The result, in the end, is confusion and agitation when we’re confronted with questions we can’t answer, positions we’ve taken that we can’t explain, or knowledge that we don’t know how to assimilate. We believe whatever we’re told is correct because we trust who is telling us and we don’t bother to find out on our own. And it’s all because, in the process of being influenced, we’ve depended on someone else to know God for us – to do all the heavy lifting of becoming close to Him so that we can reap the rewards.
But the spiritual life doesn’t, or shouldn’t, work that way. Jonah 2:8 reminds us that “those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” While it isn’t wrong to admire other believers, to imitate them, or to learn from them what works or doesn’t work, we run into problems if their influence in our lives leads us into idolatry – into putting more faith in a pastor or a friend or an author than we do in God. And our faith will be crushed the minute our influencers disappoint or confuse us.
In the end, it’s only God who is worthy of worship, only God who should have sway over our hearts, and only God who can transform our hearts through the Holy Spirit. If you have a Christian “influencer” in your life, love and appreciate and serve them as much as you can – but be mindful, too, that you don’t put them on a pedestal that will hurt you both down the road.
Only God deserves worship, because He is the only one whose purity and holiness can bear it and stand up under the scrutiny. People simply can’t.
P.S. Writing this after the fact because a thought occurred to me: much like the ancient Israelites, we Christians really want a “king,” and have a tendency to “anoint” people to lead us and invest all of our hopes and faith in them instead of in God.