Remember the commercials Brett Favre did for Sears? I loved them. I especially liked the one that came out just after the new NFL season began. Brett Favre was trying to decide which television to purchase. Just as he (finally) picks one and says, with certainty, “I’ll take this one!” he changes his mind, saying, “I don’t know…” Why do I like it? Because he is putting on display his indecisive personality which, in popular NFL culture, was very frustrating. He always waffled. He could never decide whether he was staying in the NFL or retiring. What he does in these commercials is make fun of himself. He knows the culture is frustrated with his waffling. But instead of getting defensive, giving reasons for his waffling, and trying to saving face, he becomes transparent. He lets people know that he is just like them. He can’t make up his mind. What courage it takes to become so three dimensional!
I teach a Principles of Biblical Teaching course. One of the things I tell my students is to be careful not to always set themselves up as the hero. When giving an illustration on how a certain principle should be carried out, use personal stories sparingly if you are the one who triumphs. Not only does it start to sound arrogant, but the bridge between you and your students/congregation becomes weakened. To overcome this, I tell my students that more often than not, when they are illustrating failure, they should use themselves as examples. This not only adds dimension to their character, it also lets people know they are real. Don’t be like the old preacher who told his congregation, “I am going to preach today on humility, and may I say that it is the best sermon I have ever read.”
One of the most beloved passages in all the Bible is Romans 7:14-25. These verses show Paul letting his own failures shine through. Listen to this along with my parenthetical insertions:
“For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. [Me too. Now you have my attention, Paul.] 15 For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. [Wow! I can’t believe you admitted that. In truth though, I thought I was the only one.] . . . 19 For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. [Now you have my respect. I feel more comfortable admitting my own shortcomings. Thank you, Paul.] 24 Wretched man that I am! [Amen.] (Rom 7:14-24)
What a wonderfully transparent passage this is! Why do we love it so? We love it precisely because we can so easily identify with it.
The entire Bible is filled with the failures of so many. The Bible is the most transparent book I have ever read. If this is true, why do we feel such a burden to dress ourselves up so nicely and hide our sin? Adam ate the apple. Noah got drunk. Abraham gave his wife to a national leader for self-preservation. Lot found fellowship with debauchery and loved it. David took another man’s wife, and subsequently killed him to hide his initial sin. Peter denied that he even knew Christ. John, at the very end o f the story, when he should have known better, fell down and worshiped an angel. Transparency at its best!
Reasons we are scared of transparency:
Fear of rejection: “Its all about me. If I let others know about my struggles and failures, what will they think about me? They will reject me and all that I say.”
But it is not about you. It is about God. We already know you have issues. You are a sinner just like us. We are not going to reject you for exposing what we already know. In fact, you will gain our respect and have our ear more so than if you were not transparent. We don’t really trust people who don’t show some cracks here and there.
It might sterilize my message. “I will be seen as a hypocrite. If I let people know about this problem, then I won’t be able to preach, teach, or encourage its opposite with conviction.”
This evidences a very misguided philosophy of preaching. When you preach, you are first preaching God’s word, not yours. Of course you are struggling with these issues. Of course this passage is speaking to you. If you are not willing to apply the message to your own life and let it convict you, then you are a hypocrite. But you are not one just because you struggle with sin. As far as I can tell, this was one of David’s most chronic failings. He fell into sexual sin with Bathsheba. Later, he failed to confront Absalom when he fell into a similar sin.
I don’t struggle with sin that much. “I don’t really think that I am that bad. In fact, I am a pretty good chap. I have never committed adultery. I have never murdered. I don’t curse. I even eat right, for goodness sake. Therefore, I have every right to preach and teach others to avoid sin. And I don’t have any illustrations of my own failure.”
You are in denial. You have yet to realize how sinful you really are. You have not grasped how deep sin really is. Normally, denial of this sort comes from more legalistic types who have a veneer of righteousness, since they portray themselves as following the letter of the law. This type of person needs to experience brokeness. Until you can sincerely say, “Have mercy on me, the sinner,” I don’t think you are qualified to preach the word of God. Period.
Transparency makes light of sin. “Wearing your failure on your sleeve only encourages people to follow in the same failure. ‘Well, so-and-so struggles with this sin; therefore, it must not be that bad.’ That is the reaction you will get. Sin is too serious to be flippant about it. If we give people this excuse, how will we be able to curb their appetite for sin?”
You know what? Sometimes, the root problem is that people with this attitude are the ones who don’t like Paul’s transparency. In fact, for this very reason, many want to say that Paul, in Romans 7, is speaking of his former state of sin, before he was a follower of Christ. In my opinion, that view torches the passage and Paul’s argument. Paul is being transparent. He is telling us that he often does the very thing he hates. The solution is revealed in chapter 8, but that is not what this post is about. Your job is not to manipulate the truth, or put on a veneer of righteousness in order to keep people from sinning. That is the job of the Holy Spirit. Our job is to preach the truth, and this requires our own transparency.
Transparency need not make light of sin, either. So long as you are revealing your struggle with the sin, not your complacency toward it, you will encourage people to enter into the same struggle.
Where transparency goes sour:
Be warned. There are many ways that transparency can go wrong.
Fake transparency. I have seen fake transparency. It is not pretty. It’s not pretty at all. In these situations, all people want to do is identify with others. Therefore, they not only use themselves as the bad illustration all the time, but they overdress it. They act like they are mad at God so their audience feels better. They pretend to struggle with something rather than really struggle with it. They feign ignorance about a subject with which they are actually very familiar. They attempt to identify with issues with which they don’t actually have any experience. As a result, they come across as sloppy and weak. Because I value transparency so much, I often have to step back and see if this is what I am doing. This is not what transparency is all about.
Too much transparency. Sometimes, people get a taste of the reward of transparency, and then go overboard. There is a balance here. Wisdom, discernment, and tact are all very important. There are certain things you reveal in private and certain things you can reveal in public. I try to be transparent on this blog and in my teaching. However, there are things that I don’t talk about with regard to my family life. I am sure that talking about these things more would help a lot of people. However, there is trust with those closest to us that we should not breach. I remember one occasion when I went too far and threw my dad under the bus. He let me know that I crossed a line; I have been more careful since then.
Here is the key: Don’t throw up all over people just for the sake of identity. Pray about what to reveal. Despite the spirit of this post, some things are better left unsaid in many contexts.
Crass transparency. Refine what you say. Be delicate. Be somewhat timid in the way you reveal yourself. Be sensitive to the audience. There is a preacher near me that does not follow this principle at all. He talks about sex, covering details that are better left unsaid. This is not transparency, but a tactless attempt to be current with the insensitivity of the world concerning certain things.
Don’t forget that we do need heroes. We need those people who have triumphed. We need illustrations of success just as much as failure. I don’t advocate that you should always hide your strengths. I have seen people who try so hard to identify with others that they shroud their own strengths. Being transparent does not mean you have to look like a dope in everything. People will look up to you for both your strengths and your weaknesses. People will see your strengths eventually. You don’t have to put them on display, but you don’t need to shroud them in shame either.
If there is anything that politics (especially as of late) should tell us, it is that people don’t like a coverup. People are more forgiving than you think. Being real is risky business. But we need to show people our cracks. That is all I am saying. Transparency is something that God has already displayed in the Scriptures. He did not hide human failure. There is no reason for us to do that either. Be transparent, but do so with great wisdom. Let all of us take the cue from Brett Favre and not take ourselves too seriously.