By T. R. Robertson
When I was 6 years old, my parents accidentally left me behind at the church one Sunday evening.
I’d been running amok in the basement with the other kids and wasn’t paying attention to what my family was doing. When I finally wore out and came to the front of the church, I looked around for my parents and my brothers with no luck. Worse, dad’s Chevy wasn’t in the spot where he had parked it every Sunday of my life. At the moment I realized my predicament, I heard a voice behind me.
“Why are you still here, Tim?” It was the preacher, Mr. Houck. “Your parents left a few minutes ago.”
My face must have shown my panic because he quickly turned it into a calming joke. “How long do you suppose it’ll be before your brothers tell your dad and mom they forgot you?”
“Probably never,” I said, “but eventually Mom will turn around to find out why they’re laughing.”
He agreed that was likely and suggested I stick with him while we waited. I followed him around while he turned out lights and locked doors. His son also tagged along the whole time, pestering his dad about whether I could move into his room with him if my family never came back.
Before long a familiar Chevy pulled into the parking lot. My brothers were smirking from the back seat. My mom started blubbering about what a horrible mother she was for leaving me behind.
“I was fine,” I calmly replied. “Mr. Houck was with me.”
“Well I’m glad,” she said. “He’ll always be there for you.”
Mr. Houck [not his real name] was my first preacher—the first one I remember, anyway. He was my first example of what a wise Christian leader could be.
When I was 8 years old we moved away, 400 miles from the city where I had been born and grown up. Shortly thereafter, within a few months, Mr. Houck showed up on our doorstep. I was not informed of what was going on. I was just told he would be staying with us for a few days. Of course my oldest brother, who was 14 at the time, was told. He, of course, told me.
Apparently our old church had hired a new secretary for the office. After a while Mr. Houck and the secretary began having an affair. (My brother had to explain to me what that meant.) Someone found out, his wife found out, and the church found out. Then he was out.
Mr. Houck came to our house to get away from the mess he had caused and to talk to my parents, the only friends he had who were not part of his congregation. He went back home after several days—to the secretary. He quit being a preacher and he quit going to church.
My first example of a spiritual leader had now become my first experience of someone falling away from God.
At the age of 8 I still saw the world in black and white: the good people (Christians like us) and the bad people (non-Christians and people who did bad things). Mr. Houck’s sudden abdication from the good team to the bad team introduced a baffling range of grays into my worldview. As a result of Mr. Houck’s fall, I learned a few lessons about faithfulness and faithlessness, none of which I’ve found any reason to doubt through all my experiences since.
Faithless in Hidden Things—Faithless in Public Things
As Jeremiah warned, it’s important to break up the fallow ground, to not allow any “small” compromise or indulgence to take root in the field of your heart (Jeremiah 4:3). I’ve watched many believers fall because they felt safe leaving just one small area untended.
Linda was never dirt poor, but she had grown up in a family where pinching pennies to make ends meet was the norm. She seldom had the things her friends and other peers could afford. Envy took root in her young heart, a wistful rebellion against life as she knew it.
That envious root grew as she grew older. She had a good job in a collections office, but it would never provide her with an abundance of expendable income. Instead she indulged her growing desire for things by piling up credit card debt. The debt eventually became overwhelming but not as overwhelming as her envy had become. Her job provided access to a steady stream of cash passing through her hands. The police took her away from her workplace in handcuffs, her embezzlement—and her envy—having finally caught up with her.
Those of us whose lives are firmly on the right side of the law are tempted to judge criminals harshly. We smugly assume they’re horrible people who were bound to end up incarcerated. If that assumption brings you comfort, you might want to examine your own heart. Is there some corner you’ve left untended? secret desires? boredom? unresolved anger and guilt? Those ignored issues are like cicadas. They burrow beneath the soil of the tree of your life, quietly feeding on your soul, waiting for the right moment to noisily reveal themselves.
Faithless to Loved Ones—Faithless to God
One faithlessness will eventually threaten to spread to the other. Like many men, the temptation to be unfaithful to my own family has been much less about sexual or romantic infidelity than about faithlessness in time and attention.
The temptation is strong for a young husband or father to hang on to that carefree lifestyle that was so much fun back before he became tied down to endless family responsibilities. After a few years the temptation tends to shift to expending more of yourself on your job, your hobbies, or even your involvement in church activities at the expense of devoting yourself to your wife and kids.
Nurturing those distractions is like driving down a winding back road until you realize too late you’re not sure how to get your soul back to where it belongs. You’ve not only created a life that exists separate from your family, you’ve become content with a life separate from your God.
Faithful to God—Faithful to Friends
It’s a sad truth that many Christians who publicly fall from grace because of their private unfaithfulness are shunned by the people they assumed were their faithful friends. Instead of empathy and compassion, they are met with whispering, finger-pointing, and ostracizing.
My parents didn’t throw Mr. Houck out when they heard what he had done. They welcomed him in, they listened to him, and they cried with him. They also refused to compromise God’s truth when counseling and confronting him.
Faithfulness to God and faithfulness to your friends are two sides of the same coin. The choices you make about your friendships will carry over into the choices you make about your faithfulness to the Lord and vice versa. The choice my parents made to welcome Mr. Houck led to a lifetime of being faithful friends to countless people in need, and to an ever-growing faithfulness to God.
Faithful in little, faithful in much.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.