The Insidious Evil Of Smugness

Just when I thought I had gotten over my hang-ups about what my aspirations to become a published writer might really be saying about my character, along comes David Brooks with an op-ed column that reinforces my self-doubt and suggests that my earlier hesitancy might have been a sign of prudence after all.

I am a pretty good communicator. In some respects, it is a natural ability or, some might say, a gift from God. Even when I don’t work at it very hard, I am still better than average in the communication department. When I do work at it, I can be very good.

Years ago I took something called the Johnson O’Connor Aptitude Test for Career and Educational Guidance. I was serving as a pastor in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and things weren’t going so well. I had reason to believe I was in the wrong field of endeavor, so I drove to Washington, DC, for two days of testing at the Johnson O’Connor Testing Center. (In those days, it was located in a large house within sight of the Supreme Court building. It has since moved.)

It was a helpful exercise. According to the organization’s own website:

Aptitude testing provides an objective assessment of abilities, independent of one’s work or educational history, interests, or self-estimate. This helps people focus on personal strengths, on getting past being discouraged by those activities that prove more difficult to master.

Being able to get a sense of direction, to narrow down the very many options out there in the world of work, can be a strong stimulus to finding a satisfying niche in life.

At the end of the test, the administrator shared my results and helped me interpret them. I learned that I have no aptitude at all for anything that requires precision in the use of my hands. I am all thumbs. (No career as a surgeon or jeweler for me.) I also have no aptitude for memorizing shapes or thinking geometrically. (There goes my hope of ever being an architect.)

Apart from those red flags, I learned that I had many other aptitudes strong enough to sustain a career and provide an ample measure of fulfillment and personal satisfaction. Strongest of all, however, was my aptitude for communication—written and spoken.

That was the course I pursued. Every aspect of my career has, in one way or another, involved the application of my ability as a communicator—whether as a pastor, a broadcaster, a parachurch executive, or a college professor. All of those roles drew mainly on my competence as a public speaker. I never had a problem with that, since, invariably, I used that ability only in settings where I had been invited to use it.

When the invitations to speak or preach or teach stopped coming (and I admit that was painful to experience), many encouraged me to turn to writing. Their motives were pure. They just wanted me to use my gifts in some productive endeavor. I wasn’t so sure.

But, you might ask, did their encouragement not constitute an invitation for me to use my gift for communicating in written form? Not as I viewed it. There is a big difference between having my gift acknowledged and being invited to submit an article for publication or a chapter for an upcoming book.

Maybe it has something to do with money. It’s one thing for people to say, “You should write a book.” It’s quite another for someone to say, “If you will write a book (or an article or an essay), I will print it and I will pay you for your effort.” It may be too materialistic to look at it that way, but it does matter.

Even apart from sermons and lectures and addresses, I have written thousands of pages of material over the years. Almost none of it has generated any income. That is to say, almost none of it has been written in response to someone’s specific invitation for me to write something for which they were willing to pay.

There is, however, another reason why you will find no titles under my name on Amazon.com and very few articles or essays with my byline if you do a Google search. In all seriousness, I have struggled with the question of my own motivation for wanting to be a writer. More than that, when I looked at the vast quantity of written material which the internet and the self-publishing industry now encourage, I had to ask, “Is there any reason, any merit, any purpose for me to add to this mass of prose? I’m not really saying anything new. And much of what I might say has already been said by someone who might very well have said it better than I could anyway.”

Well, as I wrote in the first paragraph of this post, I had just about gotten beyond that obstacle to the use of my writing gift. In the last few months I had begun to say, to myself and to others, “I’m only making my stuff available. I’m not forcing anybody to read it.”

But of course, I hoped it would be read. I don’t write merely for my own amusement. It is far too difficult a task to do that. This is not a hobby. I write because I have something to say. I want to have influence. I want to make a difference.

But why do I want that? And here is where David Brooks’ op-ed piece (and a brilliant analysis of it by Tim Suttles) comes in. Do I want to be read because I honestly believe that God has given me something helpful, something God-honoring and Christ-exalting to say? Or do I want to be read in order for people to think of me as somebody with something to say? Do I want to be a “Thought Leader” or, what Jesus calls me to be, a “servant-leader?” What is my real motivation, service or smugness?

I hope you will take the time to read both David Brooks’ essay and Tim Suttles’ blog post commentary on it. They are both filled with wisdom and perceptive insight. And there is no more insightful paragraph than this one, in the Suttles piece.

For all of our well-trained bluster about “calling,” most pastors become pastors, at least in part, because we crave attention. If we cannot find a way to recognize that, tell the truth about it, and make that reality part of what we confess about our own lives, then we will slowly become pathetic, and will probably look an awful lot like Brooks’ Thought Leader.

Pride and hubris are insidious evils. They are at the heart of most scandals that ruin reputations and destroy ministries. They are the main reasons the Christian church is so divided, driving away more people than it attracts.

Here’s the question I am asking myself as I ponder what I have read (by Brooks and Suttles) as well as what I have written here. If I knew that everything I write would be guaranteed a wide and diverse audience, that it would have the potential of reaching millions of people and, thus, of changing at least a few minds and hearts, BUT every publication would be under a different byline and nobody would EVER know who the real author was, would I still write? Could I endure a career as a writer if I were always known only as “Anonymous?”

I’m thinking about that. I’ll get back to you.

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