Be true to yourself

I was appointed minister of a Baptist church in Aberdeen, Scotland. The congregation had gone through tough times since its previous pastor left nearly three years earlier. With a leadership vacuum, divisions had formed. Two months before I took up my new position, a friend met people from the Aberdeen church at a conference. He reported back to me that one said, ‘It’ll be great when Alistair Brown comes to be our pastor, because we can get back to being what a traditional Baptist church is about.’ Within a half hour, he’d met someone else who said, ‘It’ll be great when Alistair Brown comes, because we can finally get away from being a traditional Baptist church’.

Two views, representing two ‘parties’ in that church, and each thought I was ‘their man’. I made up my mind that I’d be fair to all and pastor to all, but also true to myself and true to what I believed was right. And I was. A few, including some leaders, left the church but the large majority accepted the new leadership, set aside their differences, and inside three years we’d grown so much in numbers we’d moved to larger premises.

Being true to yourself is essential for both personal and professional well-being. It can come at a cost, but there’s a higher price to be paid by living a lie.

What does being true to yourself mean?

It means living out what you believe. The UK runs a national census in every year that ends in a ‘1’. The census is done now by answering questions online but in earlier years everyone filled out census forms. In one of those past ‘1’ years, I was a student looking for summer employment and got hired to help deal with the millions of census forms. My job was in a very large warehouse, almost entirely filled with shelving holding boxes of forms. A small team of ‘experts’ sat at one end coding each answer for entry into the rudimentary computer system used back then. I was a much more lowly file-picker. All I did every day was take an order for a batch of files, find their boxes among the shelves, and transport them by push-trolley to the coders. When the coders were finished with them, I put them back on the shelves. It was brain-numbingly boring work. But they paid me to do it, so I was grateful to have the job.

A fellow file-picker told me one day that when he was given an order to bring a batch of files, he was told not to use a trolley, just bring them one box at a time and walk slowly. He thought it hilarious that he was ordered to take as long as possible to do his job. I didn’t think it funny, just strange, perhaps too strange to be true. Until one of the bosses gave me virtually the same instruction: to fetch files but not to use a trolley and to take my time.

Eventually the explanation dawned on me. It wasn’t just the file-pickers who were temps; so were the coders and so were many of the bosses. Almost everyone working in that warehouse had a financial interest in their job lasting as long as possible, hence a secret ‘go-slow’ policy.

That first time I carried the files one by one to the coders and back to the shelves. And I did it the next day. But then I couldn’t do it any more. This was wrong, just wrong. Deliberately slow work cheated the top officers who needed census results processed promptly, cheated the tax payers who were paying my wages, and, for me as a Christian, I felt I was cheating God by not giving my best. I didn’t sleep well that night; I knew what I had to do next morning. I got my first order for files, went to the shelves, offloaded the boxes on to a trolley, and wheeled it to the coders. Later I did the same in reverse to put them back on the shelves. I kept doing that through the day. No-one said anything.

But they did the day after. I got an order for files, and found my way to their location in the centre of the ‘stacks’. Two file-picker colleagues were waiting there for me. One pinned me against the shelving, while both of them made their views very clear. ‘You do what you want to do, but you’d better not show us up by how you do it.’ I can’t reproduce the hostile tone they used, and I haven’t included the words beginning with ‘f’ and ‘b’ that littered their warning. With a last shove they let me go, and disappeared. It was a moment of decision. But the only decision I could make was to be true to myself. I had to live what I believed, and that was to do the job right. Which I did, day after day. And, as with most bullies, the file-pickers didn’t go through with their threats.

Living with a clear conscience, living as you believe you should – it’s the only way to feel good about yourself, to honour others and God, and to get a good night’s sleep.

It means being honest about experience and abilities. I’ve read hundreds of job application papers. Often they’ve seemed too good to be true. In some cases, they actually weren’t true.

Let’s imagine how Dishonest Joe – DJ – secured the job of his dreams. DJ wrote a great application, sold himself at interview, and chose referees he knew would write positive references. DJ got the job. ‘We’re impressed with what you can do’ they told him.

Except DJ didn’t have the experience he said he had, and couldn’t do what he’d said he could do. His application was a very generous statement of abilities and accomplishments. And every answer at interview could have been a model response in a textbook. Actually, that’s exactly what they were, answers DJ memorised from textbooks on interview technique. He wasn’t at all the person the employer thought he’d hired.

So, how long before DJ was found out? Not long. Anyone can bluff it for a while, and DJ’s early mistakes and uncertainty were written off on the grounds that he was ‘new to this job’. But after a couple of months, who DJ really was and what he really could do was obvious to all. Pretence doesn’t last.

Nothing but problems and unhappiness would lie beyond that point for DJ. If this was real, probably he’d be fired after a few more months, and he should be. If that didn’t happen then he’d find his deceit had landed him in a place of incompetence, with disillusioned colleagues, and challenges he’d no idea how to meet. Perhaps DJ would leave after a year, write another dishonest application, and try to persuade the next potential employer that the last role simply ‘wasn’t a good fit’ for him.

The DJ-like people I’ve met were one of two types. Either they’ve been unaware of their limitations, and think they’ve just been unlucky in the past but now, if they can secure a great job, everything will miraculously ‘work out’. Or they’ve been cynically intentional when overstating their character and abilities, believing that’s the only way to get on in life.

When someone can’t or won’t get real about the kind of person they are and what they can do, only bad consequences follow. It’s hurtful for them, and causes anguish and extra work for those around them.

It means living out your values. I’ve known a lot of travelling sales reps. They were on the road most of the week, trying to persuade existing customers to buy more or cultivating ‘leads’ to win new orders for their product. The company car was their office and hotels were their accommodation.

I asked Harry how his week had gone, and apparently it had been a good one. He’d closed several deals, and he was looking forward to a bonus. Then he added with a smile, ‘One day I drove 200 miles south in the morning, and 300 west in the afternoon.’ I asked how he’d fitted in time with clients along with so many miles. ‘By averaging about 90 mph almost all the way,’ he said, ‘which I don’t like doing because I know it’s wrong. But I couldn’t do my job if I kept to speed limits.’

I thought about that a lot afterwards. My reaction was, ‘If your job requires you to do wrong, you’re in the wrong job.’ But I also realised that ‘sales’ was likely Harry’s only skill; finding an alternative that didn’t create a moral challenge wouldn’t be simple; and he had a mortgage to pay and a family to feed.

But – while sincerely acknowledging the real-world situation Harry faced – I still wonder how someone can stay in a job which requires them setting aside their values. How do they suppress the unsettledness that must generate? Being true to who you are means being true to the values you must live by.

And that doesn’t just apply about a job. It’s a truth for every area of life. If a relationship isn’t right, then it’s not right to be in that relationship. If the cost of a holiday, or new car, or golf club membership is causing financial damage, then these are wrong expenses. If building a career requires everything else to be sacrificed, it’s wrong to wreck your health, weaken your marriage, and alienate your children.

Most people wouldn’t say these things are what they really want. But if it’s what they’re getting, then they’re not living true to their values.

I’d never tell anyone that change is easy. We don’t just wake up one morning, decide to be different and easily start living a new life. But it can start by waking up one morning, realise we’re not living true to our better selves, and begin a journey to the right place. That journey may be long and rough, but supremely worth making.

The art of the good apology

I should have a degree in apologising. Perhaps MA could stand for Master of Apology. My qualifications? Only that I have decades of experience. I have needed to apologise many, many times over the years.

Big apologies were needed, for example, when I was late for a speaking engagement. That only happened twice, but it’s a bad thing to do. As the clock ticks down, the people waiting for your arrival start to panic that you’re not coming at all.

One time my lateness was because of an accident on the motorway resulting in a two mile go-nowhere-fast traffic jam. I arrived 20 minutes after the church service started at which I was to speak. I was ushered straight to the front to join the pastor. ‘Good to see you,’ he whispered. ‘I was just beginning to feel anxious.’ ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, and said it afterwards at least another ten times.

My other late arrival was because the city of Halifax in Yorkshire was temporarily removed from the planet. Well, not actually removed, but for me it had vanished. I just couldn’t find it. My crime had been overconfidence. I was so sure I would get to a city of 88,000 population easily I never really plotted my route. Eventually I stumbled across Halifax, and reached my destination half an hour after the church service had begun. By then there were less than five minutes before the sermon should begin. I took a deep breath, and started with… an apology.

So, is there such a thing as the art of the good apology? By that I don’t mean putting on a performance, but apology best practices. I’ve noted down five.

  • Recognise the need to apologise

Apologising is almost automatic for me. The words, ‘I’m so sorry…’ come out of my mouth easily. In the days when we handed over cash (do you remember cash?) in shops or restaurants, I’d apologise if I didn’t have close to the right money, as if the time and effort to give me change was my fault. Our dogs have a habit of lying on the floor in our dark hallway, and occasionally I’ll accidentally nudge one of them with my foot. I immediately bend down and apologise. The dog doesn’t understand a word, but I say sorry anyway.

But not everyone is wired to apologise. Perhaps that’s for one of two reasons: a) they never see themselves as being at fault; or b) they can’t admit to being at fault. Maybe I should feel sorry for people like that, but actually it’s hard not to be angry with them. Are people really unable to recognise they’ve done wrong? Or are they just super-arrogant, thinking they’re perfect in all they do? And maybe a psychologist can explain to me why some are unable to say the word ‘sorry’ and just apologise for what they’ve done.

Whatever the reasons, many don’t see any need to apologise. In which case, of course, they’re likely not reading this blog post.

  • Be utterly sincere with your apology

We’re all familiar with the scene: teacher stops two children squabbling – who’s at fault isn’t obvious – both children are told ‘apologise or you’re in serious trouble’ – grudging children squeeze out the words ‘I apologise’ through gritted teeth. Are they sorry? Not in the slightest. The word ‘apology’ is there, but sincerity isn’t.

Adults are also far from blameless. There’s a tendency to be more sorry for being caught than for being guilty. Such as the driver stopped by police for going through a red light, who says: ‘I’m so sorry officer. I didn’t see it had gone to red.’ What’s true in that statement? Well, it’s hard to know whether or not the driver saw the red light. Of course, he should have seen it. What is not true, I suspect, is that the driver is sorry. The offender isn’t appalled for doing something dangerous but hopes an apology will lessen the penalty. It’s a plea for leniency, not a confession of guilt.

Perhaps an instinctual apologiser is so conscious of doing wrong, their apologies come over with obvious sincerity. Therefore they’re readily accepted. Sincerity has its rewards.

  • Our apology mustn’t suggest we’re not the one at fault

I often hear weasel-wording in a supposed-apology: ‘I’m sorry if you misunderstood me’; ‘I’m sorry if you found my humour offensive’; ‘I’m sorry if my offer isn’t acceptable to you’; ‘I’m sorry if you felt bullied’.

The implication is the other person is the one with the problem: for misunderstanding, for not having a sense of humour, for not finding the offer acceptable, for feeling bullied. Statements like those are accusations, not apologies.

A real apology never blames someone else. It’s an unqualified acceptance of fault with sincere sorrow for what’s been said or done.

  • If possible, ask for forgiveness

Asking for forgiveness – assuming it’s done sincerely – is the ultimate confession of having been in the wrong. And being forgiven is a major step towards righting a broken relationship.

So, asking for forgiveness is a good thing? It is, but sometimes it can be done only at the right time and in the right circumstances, because a wronged person may not be able to give instant forgiveness. Imagine you made a big promise to a friend – perhaps of money, or support, or practical help – and your friend’s whole future depended on you. But you got distracted, and did nothing for her. All she had planned and hoped for was lost, her life changed forever. But, casually, you say, ‘Sorry about that. I had something else to do. But you’ll forgive me won’t you?’ Ruin a life and just ask forgiveness? Not reasonable. It’s no better than the old caricature: commit a sin – buy an indulgence – move on. I don’t believe forgiveness has to be earned. But I am saying something has to occur in the life of the offender and something has to occur in the life of the one offended before forgiveness may be possible.

  • Learn from your mistakes

The old saying ‘the one thing we learn from history is that no-one learns from history’ is an uncomfortable truth. We make the same mistakes more than once. But constantly repeated mistakes undermine apologies. Some people are always late for meetings, and they always apologise. After the first few times, who takes their apologies seriously? Those who aren’t making a serious effort to do better lose respect, no matter how fine their apologies.

One final point. When I was a freshly-minted pastor, a more experienced pastor friend, Alex, told me: ‘Alistair, if you love your people, they’ll forgive you anything’. He didn’t mean you could murder half your church members and get away with it. Rather, Alex was trying to say, ‘You’ll make mistakes. You’ll say something you shouldn’t, you’ll let someone down, you’ll insist on a plan that doesn’t work, you’ll preach some really boring sermons. But if your people know you love them – really love and care for them – they’ll forgive these things.’ I did care for my people, and Alex was right. They forgave me many things. But I’m sure my apologies helped!

And this blog is posted a couple of days late. I apologise.

Misplaced certainties

From about the age of ten I loved photography. My parents’ Kodak Box Brownie camera was as simple as a camera could be, but occasionally I got to push the shutter button, always excited to see (eventually) the photo I’d taken.

But I didn’t have a camera of my own. And I desperately wanted one.

Then, a magazine ran a competition with ten prizes of cameras. All you had to do was answer simple questions and write a slogan for a firm’s product. I begged my mum to let me enter, and together we worked out the answers to the questions. The slogan, which would be the tie-breaker between entrants, was more difficult. You were only allowed about 12 words, but I wrote something like: ‘Tasty Coffee gets you going and keeps you going through the day’. Clearly, my future wouldn’t be in advertising, but mum said the slogan was good, so my entry was posted.

The entry details had said winners would be notified by post soon after the competition closed. My answers were right, and my slogan was brilliant. So I waited for the letter. Mum pointed out that thousands would have entered, so it was unlikely I would have won. But obviously she was wrong. Even if winning was unlikely, it was possible. Within a couple of weeks possible had become probable in my thinking. After two more weeks, probable had become certain. I knew I was a winner, but where was the letter? I hurried home from school every day, and asked my mum: ‘Has the letter come?’ She’d shake her head, and my shoulders would slump. Every day for a month that happened. ‘Any letter?’ – ‘Sorry, no.’ Then my mother took pity on me, and contacted the company who’d run the competition. As gently as she could, she told me I was not one of the winners. I was devastated. I had believed so strongly that I must have won, it had become a certainty.

I had convinced myself something was true which wasn’t. My certainty was misplaced. Not unusual for a child. But it doesn’t happen only with children.

Unjustified certainties can occur at any age and at any time when we let our wishful thinking become more than wishful.

Here are other examples of misplaced certainties.

Prejudice    I went to live in the USA in September 2008, and Barack Obama won the US presidential election eight weeks later. (I don’t claim a connection between my presence and his victory!) The following January Obama was inaugurated as President. His appointment to the highest office in the land was a major conversation item.

I had that conversation with a friend, Sally. Now, Sally was one of the godliest people I’ve ever known, a gracious Christian lady who seemed to love and want to help everyone she knew. But she didn’t seem to have much love for her new President. I asked her if that was simply a difference in politics?

Sally hesitated, looked embarrassed, and then said, ‘I just can’t trust a black man.’

Wow! I hadn’t seen that coming. Perhaps I would if I’d been raised in certain parts of the US. Sally knew her distrust was a contradiction of her Christian principles, but it was a deeply embedded idea with which she’d grown up and which still controlled her thinking.

Prejudice is wrong and often downright shocking. But it’s so innate we may not recognise its existence or find it hard to shake off. It’s one of the worst kinds of misplaced certainty.

Over-rating our own abilities    Have you ever tried to tell someone they’re a bad driver? How did that conversation go? Or, have you ever had a bad boss who knew they were a bad boss? Do you know many preachers or other public speakers who’d admit they’re boring?

  • Most drivers think they’re great drivers; it’s everyone else on the road who make their life difficult.
  • Most bosses think they’re great bosses; they just can’t get equally great staff.
  • Most preachers think they’re great speakers; if only the congregation would stay awake and pay attention.

Some of that may be an exaggeration, but you get my point.

In his 1786 poem To a Louse, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion

Very roughly ‘translated’ it’s a wish for the gift to see ourselves the way others see us, freeing us from blunders and foolish notions.

But we don’t see ourselves as others do. And wishful thinking all too easily gives us a misplaced certainty about how gifted we are.

Over-confidence about our decisions    I hear many news stories about people tricked into parting with their money. Scammers persuade them to invest by promising fantastic returns from bonds or shares. People empty their low interest bank accounts to hand over all their cash. And then it’s gone. At best the investment opportunity was a super-risky venture. At worst, there never was a legitimate investment, just a scheme to give cash to criminals. When those stories are reported, the last question the interviewer asks those who’ve lost their money is: ‘Why didn’t you get an opinion from family or a responsible financial advisor?’ Typically the answer is: ‘I didn’t want anyone to talk me out of the investment. I was so sure this was a wonderful chance, and I didn’t want to miss out.’

‘I was so sure… I didn’t want to miss out.’ Reckless over-confidence about a decision, a misplaced certainty with dire financial consequences.

By no means have I exhausted all forms of misplaced certainty to which any of us might succumb. It’s a weakness we don’t know we have until it’s too late.

Are there avoidance tactics we can use, or ways to diminish the danger? Yes there are. Here are four.

Stop and think.    Rationality can’t be the sole guide for every decision, but mustn’t be excluded from every decision. Our minds are not enemies. Using them is not a failure of faith. Jesus commanded us to love God with ‘all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. (Matthew 22:37) We are meant to think.

Here’s a true but sad story. Four friends felt convinced they should buy a flat. They didn’t have enough money, but were sure the money would come in time. In their gut they felt it right to go ahead. So, in faith, they submitted a binding offer to buy. The money never came, and they couldn’t pay the seller. The flat had to be rushed onto the market for as much as they could get to diminish the large debt they’d incurred.

Impulses and intuitions are both friend and foe. They can serve us well, but they can also tempt us into seriously unwise actions. We need to look (to think) before we leap.

Talk to a real friend.    There are times when protecting your private ideas is just stupid. You can be sure the four friends who went ahead without money to buy a flat wished they’d got good financial advice from an expert or wise friend.

Share your big ideas with someone who knows your abilities, your impulses, your dreams. The temptation is to ask someone guaranteed to agree with you. Avoid them. Ask someone who’ll be ruthlessly honest. A superficial friend will tell you what you want to hear, but a real friend will care enough to tell you what you don’t want to hear.

Slow down.    We live in a fast-paced world, and it seems everything must be decided immediately. Yes, there’s a danger of delay, but also a danger of rushing ahead irresponsibly.

As a youngster I dragged my sledge to the top of a super-steep hill, took one glance, felt the adrenalin, and launched myself on the ride of my life. It was a ride that could have ended my life. What I hadn’t considered was the road at the bottom of the hill. My sledge propelled me down that hill so fast it didn’t stop until I was right in the middle of that road. I scampered out of the way of an oncoming car just in time.

It’s dangerously easy to allow heightened emotions and desires to launch us down hills towards disaster if we go too fast. When we ask someone ‘Are you having second thoughts?’ it seems there’s an implied criticism. There shouldn’t be. There are decisions so consequential that we ought to slow down and have second thoughts.

Be ruthlessly honest.    The more we want something, the more we find arguments to have it. Inconvenient arguments we push aside. That’s the weakness behind a lot of misplaced certainties.

Ruthless honesty is possible because it’s a choice – a choice based on willingness to accept either the conclusion we want or the conclusion we don’t want. In other words, a willingness to accept whichever conclusion is best.

My friend George was minister of a large and growing church which appointed an associate pastor to support George’s work. Some months later George realised his preaching wasn’t going over well with the predominantly student-age congregation who came to evening services. He made the associate the principal preacher for those services. Here’s how George described the outcome to me: ‘It’s wonderful to have my associate preaching at evening services because he’s much better than me and numbers attending are going up’. I was impressed by what George told me; impressed that he’d given his young associate the chance, and impressed he was thrilled about the result. I’m not sure I would have made his decision or reacted so generously at the outcome. But George was a ruthlessly honest man, and he wanted the best for his people whatever that meant.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote this: I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment  (Romans 12:3)

There’s wisdom there: don’t over-rate yourself, and always think with sober judgment. That’s hard, but not impossible.

We’re all prone to misplaced certainty. Our ego wants to believe we excel when we don’t; our will leans towards believing we should have whatever we desire; our hearts are drawn to every opportunity that attracts. So we convince ourselves things are right that aren’t right.

But what’s not right for us is also what’s not good for us. Knowing that – really knowing that – will save us from a lot of foolishness.

What will you do today?

In October 1996 I visited Stuart Cook, a Baptist minister in Leicester. He gave me a gift of a book he’d edited called In Good Company. It’s a collection of readings from Christian history, along with appropriate Bible verses, one for each day of the year. Sadly Stuart died soon after, but I’m grateful for his ministry and his wonderful collection of valuable readings. I want to share one here.

On June 12th, 1806, in the cool of a late Indian evening, William Carey* sat down to write a letter. In it he described what he’d done that day.  Here’s my summary of his letter.

Carey got up at 5.45 a.m., read a chapter of the Hebrew Bible, prayed until 7.00, and then joined family prayer with servants in Bengali. While tea was being made, he read a little in Persian with help from a language teacher, and then read the Bible in Hindustani. All this before breakfast.

As soon as breakfast was done, Carey began translating an ancient Sanskrit text, helped by a pundit (a knowledgeable teacher). That took until 10.00 after which he spent more than three hours on college duties. [He had been made Professor of Bengali at Fort William College.] When he got home he studied a proof-sheet of the Bengali translation of the book of Jeremiah. That took until dinner time.

After dinner, with the help of another pundit, Carey worked until 6.00 translating most of Matthew chapter 8 into Sanskrit. Then he met with a Telinga pundit to learn that language. At 7.00 he organised ideas he’d previously noted down into a sermon, which he preached at 7.30. At the end of the church service he received a sizeable gift from one of the attendees towards a new place of worship. It was 9.00 before the service was over and congregation gone. Then Carey began translating Ezekiel chapter 11 into Bengali, which took until almost 11.00.

At 11.00 Carey began writing the letter describing his day.

Carey’s letter fascinates me. By anyone’s standards, he had a busy day! It could be untypical, but I suspect it wasn’t, because everything that day was routine. There were no emergencies, no surprise callers, no unexpected tasks. All he did was ongoing work. This was how Carey lived his life.

I’m glad I don’t live my life like that, though there have been some crazily hectic times. One weekend, I spoke at a residential conference, and gave five addresses on the same day. In our office building, I climbed the stairs to the top floor to join others in a conference room, glanced at my watch, saw it was 10.30, and realised I was heading for my fifth meeting of the morning. That day could have been the nearest I’ve come to matching Carey’s pace of work, except my afternoon was quieter, and I didn’t start every day with back to back meetings. My life was busy, but not Carey-busy.

Carey’s crazily busy day is an example and a warning.

First, Carey’s example. I know a lot about Carey from his own writings and those of his contemporaries. Beyond question, he was a man of deep commitment – first his commitment to God, and second to the people he served in India.

Those two things are inextricably linked, because the second would never have happened without the first. Carey had a burning certainty that God’s plan for his life was to leave England and go east to India. He’d researched and written a remarkable book called An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (which was probably a great book title in 1792; likely not so great today). Carey’s book made the case for taking the gospel to the world, surveyed population numbers and religious facts, and argued for the formation of a missionary society.

The missionary society came into being later that year, and Carey ensured it sent him and his family to India. It was no small decision. His wife, Dorothy, was very resistant. She’d never seen the sea, and certainly didn’t want to cross it to a far-off land. Carey would have gone on his own, but just in time Dorothy agreed to accompany him providing her sister could come too. All of them knew that disease killed many who went to India and, in fact, their son Peter soon died of dysentery. Not long after, Dorothy’s mental health declined severely, and she died in 1807.

But on Carey went. Why? He was driven to spread the Christian message and to serve people in need.

If he’d stayed in England his life would not have been comfortable by 21st century standards, but relatively safe and secure. But he couldn’t stay. It wasn’t where he believed he was meant to be. That place was India, and he could not be anywhere else.

I’d question some of the decisions Carey made. But I can’t question his extraordinary commitment. The odd thing is that today we think such commitment is ‘extraordinary’. A person willing to give up everything they have, and accept hardship and sacrifice, is considered an extremist.

But are they? Or have we normalised the abnormal? Do we equate deep commitment to a cause with unacceptable radicalism? And think that we should be wary of people like that? Perhaps change-makers like Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa have always been considered too zealous. They weren’t easy to be around. Too much agitation for change.

But would the world have been better if they’d been ‘normal’, kept their mouths shut, and just did what ordinary people do? The truth is that we needed their agitation. We needed their commitment. We needed a Carey. And his example has been a challenge to every generation since.

Second, a warning. I’m moved by the sacrifices Carey made to meet need he saw every day. But I’m concerned in case we think days packed with activity from early morning to late at night are virtuous, and less hectic days are not.

With colleagues and trustees, I was interviewing candidates for a director-level post in our organisation. We asked one of the prospects about his commitment to work. Part of his answer was, ‘When the pressure’s on, I’m willing to work until midnight.’ I looked to my colleague David, and each of us silently mouthed, ‘Just until midnight…?’ And we laughed quietly, because both of us had, at times, worked well past that hour.

On occasions that’s fine. What’s not fine is when it’s all the time.

Commitment must be controlled, and commitment must be appropriate to the cause. I’ll explain both of those.

Two categories of people fail to control commitment to their work. One group can never leave anything undone. Their work controls their time. Some I’ve known would not turn up to their child’s school concert if they hadn’t got through everything work-related first. (Or they’d go back to the office after the concert.) The other group find fulfilment by being busy. I referred to a conference address by Tom Houston in the earlier blog ‘Dream on’. In one part of that address, Houston said ministers were often criticised, leading to low self-esteem. But what propped up their self-worth was a packed diary. They felt better when their personal calendar was full of appointments, because that proved they were needed. Finding comfort in excessive demands on their time is not exclusive to ministers. A good commitment goes bad if not controlled.

Commitment must also be appropriate to the cause. I’ve been close to people who ran their own businesses, or held senior positions in multi-national corporations, or others in less lofty yet important roles. Many were ‘driven’ individuals, pushing and pushing to grow the business or win the next promotion. Work is honourable, and deserves our best. But, for some, the work becomes their master and unhelpfully and unhealthily controls their lives. That causes marriage and family problems, with spouses and children left in no doubt they’re less important than the career. Health also suffers. They overeat to combat their stress, perhaps developing diabetes or ulcers or heart problems. Many sink into depression, and life gradually seems pointless. What is all this for? Often what’s happening is that they’re sacrificing for the greater profit of an already wealthy company. Commitment to that cause can’t be compared to the commitment of a William Carey to change lives in India. Their cause doesn’t justify the cost to themselves or their families.

There isn’t a single day when we shouldn’t be giving our best. There’s plenty to be done, including by the retired who usually wonder how they ever had time for employment. I’m all for commitment. Carey is a great example, and we need many more sold-out for what they believe should be changed in this world. But there’s also a need for caution. Work is not our god, and outside of careers there are people and purposes that matter greatly.

‘Expect great things. Attempt great things,’ said Carey.** Yes, with all our hearts, we should. So, what will you do today?

*William Carey’s vision and efforts led to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society (now BMS World Mission) in 1792, the first mission society of its kind. In 1793 he left for missionary work in India, spending the rest of his life there. Carey is regarded as the father of modern missions. He died in 1834, aged 72. From 1996-2008 I was General Director of the society Carey founded.

**Apparently these were the original words spoken by Carey, though he’d also have agreed with the more well-known version ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.’