Do I Really Have to Fit In?
By Ed Gungor
Courtesy of The B&B Media Group
“Fitting in is killing me,” Halley wailed. It was obvious she was frustrated.
Halley was a twenty-something, single registered nurse who had given her life to Christ during her college years. She was smart, well spoken, and stylish.
“What do you mean by ‘fitting in’?” I asked, certain that I knew exactly what she meant.
“When I first came to church here,” she began, “I loved how people would talk with me and encourage me in my faith. I felt a gentle accountability that caused me to grow spiritually. But about a month ago I ran into this group that seemed more invasive than encouraging to me. They are very nice, but they have kind of interrogated me about everything I do, from what I wear to how I vote and what music I listen to. It’s not that they’re judgmental, but it’s obvious that if I don’t buy into their predetermined set of values, they think I am on dangerous ground—that I am not pleasing to God, or something.
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” she continued. “I want to be holy. I want Jesus Christ to be my Lord. But does that mean I have to wear outdated clothes and stop listening to groups that don’t have overtly Christian lyrics? Do I have to act just like those folks prescribe or be unpleasing to God? I mean, they all act the same, dress the same, respond the same—they remind me of a clique from high school.”
I knew exactly the kind of group Halley was talking about. They are in every church: those wonderful believers who feel it is their job to play God and try to make others in their ownlikeness and image.
I don’t think we are all supposed to look and behave the same way. Paul wrote that we are all different, like the parts of the human body (1 Cor. 12:17), and he challenged each member to dare to be different—not to act and think the exact same way. Yes, we are all supposed to hold to biblical standards. Yes, we are all supposed to be moral. Yes, we are all supposed to live ethically. But I think we are to live our lives staying true to how we are wired—with our different gifts, passions, and personalities.
Some of us may be more fashionable than others, some more conservative, some more liberal and edgy. Some of us are quiet, some more bombastic. Some are tattoo-friendly, others tattoophobic. It was the apostle Paul who said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Maybe as we all express ourselves in ways that are congruent with our talents, passions, and personalities, we are best positioned to “save some”—because those “some” can relate to us.
I don’t think Christ ever wanted his followers to forfeit their distinctiveness and to be absorbed into some great cosmic oneness or sameness like a retread Eastern mysticism. But sameness makes it easier for us to tell who the insiders are. Just as black leather and a Harley-Davidson are the marks of a biker; and tight jeans, western boots, and a huge silver belt buckle are the marks of a cowboy, certain other external attributes are fancied by some Christians as the marks of Christlikeness.
Our two oldest sons, Michael and Robert attended a rather large Christian high school. Though Michael and Robert excelled as students, Michael fared the best. In fact, after being in school just a few months, Michael began to be showcased and honored. He was often publicly praised, received numbers of awards and ended up the Homecoming King at the end of his first year. My wife, Gail, and I believed he was an awesome kid, but something about the whole thing seemed a bit over the top to us.
Robert, on the other hand, kept getting the short end of the stick. There were times when the actions of the teaching staff and administration toward Robert were nothing short of unfair.
We were initially confused about this seeming disparity until we realized that many of the educators in this Christian school system had an image in mind of what the perfect Christian student should be like. It just so happened that Michael fit the bill quite well. Michael by nature is outwardly compliant, non-confrontational, and quiet. Consequently, he came across exceptionally mature for his age. When they saw the traits they had been trying to cultivate in others already present in him, they quickly showcased him. They wanted everyone to be like Mike.
Though Robert was talented, an honor student, and loved God with a tender heart, he opened his mouth too much. He would challenge rules, point out hypocrisies and loved to push the envelop – he colored his hair, yelled and applauded in public assemblies in a way that was overkill – Robert was always just a little out there.
If they would have taken time to really get to know Michael they would have seen that he saw many of the rules and regulations as any other normal teen would – as silly and non-essential. He was also just as opinionated and putout as Robert over the hypocrisies he saw. But he just preferred to leave things alone.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Michael, but my point is -- HE WAS JUST BEING MICHAEL. He wasn’t trying to appease and brownnose the teaching staff in hopes of becoming their poster child. Michael has enough integrity that if “being Michael” would have gotten him into trouble, he would still have been Michael and gotten into trouble.
I remember talking with Robert while we watched this unfolding. I said, “Don’t feel badly about all the attention Michael is getting here and about how you are being unfairly scrutinized. You are much too different in your personality to win in this system. I wouldn’t have won either.”
I told him, “Michael is just being himself and they like that – he is not compromising himself. For you to act like him would be a compromise. I could give you a crash course in brownnosing so you could pretend to be something you are not, but that would be a tragedy. The truth is, I love your edginess. Though you could use a little more wisdom, please continue to be yourself – even if you scare some folks who don’t get the idea of diversity. Chances are you will never get showcased like Michael, but that is OK with your Mom and me. We are proud of both of you.”
Actually, it is easier to make Christianity about externals and man-made rules. But the downside is, unless you already “fit” the predetermined collection of personality traits set by the Christian culture to which you belong, you will be pressured to be something you are not. Then Christianity will feel restrictive and hold little joy for you. Instead of being a life-empowering journey, the life of faith will be reduced to a synthetic, kiss-up belief system that rests solidly in the land of the suck. And that really sucks.
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Copyright © Ed Gungor 2009. Used with permission.
New York Times bestselling author Ed Gungor has been in pastoral ministry for more than 25 years.
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