20My child, pay attention to my words,
Listen closely to my sayings.
21Don’t let them escape from your sight,
Guard them deep in your mind.
22For those who find them find life,
They bring healing to the whole person.
23Above everything guard your mind*,
Because from it flows your life.
24Turn your mouth away from crooked speech,
And keep lying speech far from your lips.
25Keep your eyes looking straight down the path,
And gaze only at what lies ahead.
26Clear the path your feet must follow,
and all your ways will be firm and safe.
27Don’t turn to the right or the left,
Keep your feet away from evil. — Proverbs 4:20-27 (my free translation)
* Literally heart. In this case the seat of thoughts, wisdom, and rational processes.
One of the things that I notice in American culture, and particularly in the church is that people are not discriminating in what they read, hear, and watch. I’m not pushing censorship, or heavy limitations on what you give a listen or look to, but rather with how you listen or look.
Ads on television, for example, are designed to leave you with an impression. If you actually watch most TV ads, and analyze the words and the information content, you’ll find that there is very little there. A certain insurance company informs you that by spending 15 minutes on their web site, you could save 15% or more on your insurance. Now you really haven’t learned that much new, have you? It didn’t say you would. It couldn’t. The company doesn’t know how much you’re currently spending. But their intention is to leave you with the connection between their brand name and saving money. I don’t object to them doing that–it’s what advertising on television is about, and they’ve been very successful at it.
Political and church ads are very similar. An ad from my denomination (United Methodist) informs viewers that our hearts, our minds, and our doors are open. What exactly does that tell you? Really very little. Again, the idea is to place in your mind a connection between the church and welcoming. In practice you will find somewhat varying levels of welcome in different United Methodist churches, which should be no surprise. Methodist churches, like all others, have people in them, and people aren’t always the same.
Political ads are very much the same. Have you noticed how hard it is to find concrete information on a candidate? You have to go to a variety of issue related web sites, various journalistic sites, and so forth, then you have to evaluate your various sources, because they each have their own agenda, and finally, if you put in the effort, you may be able to get a substantial picture of a particular politician.
Why is this? The politician is counting on a large enough number of voters not checking them out thoroughly. They want to create a particular impression. Why is it that negative political ads tend to work, even though substantial percentages of voters claim not to like them? Because the impression is left. Normally we take breaks during television ads. We see them out of the corners of our eyes, and we don’t concentrate on them. “Who could?” you say. True, but by looking but not thinking, we allow the impression the ad maker desires to get into our minds. The handsome candidate in front of his church with his perfectly angelic kids is giving us the impression that he’s a family man with family values. His opponent might show his image with various other scenes along with it–scenes of guys with cards in a smoke filled room, of money being exchanged in a furtive way, or of other negative images. It won’t matter if the man is really the someone who launders money and makes shady deals in smoke filled roooms, nor whether or not he actually is a church-going family man. The point is that his image is associated with that particular image in enough people’s minds. And believe me, if you don’t actually give full consideration to the candidate and factual information about him or her, you will be influenced by the image.
I refuse to vote based on my image at the time. I look up each and every candidate and find as much hard data about him or her as I possibly can. I make lists. Then my wife and I sit down and compare notes. Sometimes one of us will have found information that the other missed, or will see a flaw in some plan that the other didn’t notice. We sit down with the complete sample ballot and look at each item. Sometimes we find we’re going to vote different ways. Sometimes we change our minds. But we guard our path carefully and keep focused on the right way, looking for the truth to the best of our ability.
Christians face another trap–the piety trap. By this I don’t mean that you want to avoid candidates who tell you they are Christian. But as the saying goes you can walk into a garage, but it doesn’t make you a car, and you can walk into a church, but it doesn’t make you a Christian. Even further, we know that being a Christian does not make you perfect, and we have many fallen Christian leaders as examples. We also have many Christian politicians who have not behaved in an exemplary fashion. Claims and associations do not guarantee good character.
I have seen this come up in business as well. I once was contacted by a man who was creating a Christian business directory for the area. He told me he thought that Christians should give their business to other Christians. He was quite put out when I told him I was all about being in contact with people who were not Christians. I had no problem doing business with people of other faiths or of no faith at all.
But I’m most concerned with the reverse. There are many fads and scams out there, and they offend me, because they prey on people in need. Just join our marketing scheme, they tell you, and you will become healthy, wealthy, and wise. I do not mean to disparage all business opportunities for all people. You need to exercise judgment here as well. There might be that business opportunity that is just right for you. But check it our very thoroughly. Talk to other businessmen. Check small business support organizations in your area.
What does this have to do with Christianity? Well, some scam artists know very well that there are vulnerable Christians who are in need, and if they just suggest that this is God’s plan, and that they are simply fine Christian people sharing God’s blessings with you, they will seem very safe. But many, many people have lost huge sums of money by investing it in supposedly “Christian” scams. The claim of being a Christian is not proof that one is honest; it is even less relevant to the claim of being wise.
Don’t go with the impressions! Seek the facts. Apply wisdom. Let God’s wisdom into your heart and guard your paths. The book of Proverbs is in the Bible for a reason. God has given you a brain. Use it!