Shortly after I joined the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) staff in 1992, I went on a two-week ministry trip to Moscow, Russia, that was preceded by a very long car ride from Oak Brook, Illinois, to JFK airport. Somewhere between this car trip and returning from Russia, I learned a very important rule of Advanced Training Institute (ATI) etiquette: the holiest Christians are those who find hidden/overlooked Scriptures and find a way to translate them into some life change.
One young woman told me how she’d used to exclaim, “Oh mercy!” But she was convicted about using the expression flippantly, quoting some random verse that spoke about both God and mercy.
Then there were the ATI students who publicly repented for the sin of exaggeration, usually illustrated with some testimony of how the fish was “THIS BIG!!!” but in reality, it was only “this big.”
It wasn’t too long before I took to the Scriptures to find my own overlooked verses that needed to be applied with all diligence. Because all good ATI families began their mornings with Wisdom Searches (reading five chapters from Psalms and one from Proverbs each day), it shouldn’t be surprising that I found mine in Proverbs 26:18–19 “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death, so is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘Was I not joking’?” I recoiled in horror as I realized how frequently I would say something outlandish in an effort to be funny, only to follow it by saying, “Oh, I’m just kidding!”
Oh no! I was violating some Scriptural principle here. I purposed in my heart that I would no longer do this and that I would use this as a testimony of what God had shown me in His word — secretly hoping that everyone else didn’t know this already and that I would be thought of as extra-Godly for being so wise in discovering and applying this Biblical truth.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard. I’d find myself slipping here or there. Immediately, I’d sorrow over my sin and seek forgiveness. More often than not, I’d find myself asking for someone’s forgiveness for my deception.
As if my own personally found nugget of wisdom weren’t enough to burden me, I found myself burdened by those others had shared with me. I remember one time sharing my testimony in a staff meeting and trying to illustrate how even though I was familiar with a concept, I managed to completely disregard it, I said something along the lines of, “I knew that thing backwards, forwards, and in Chinese!”
That night I was haunted by what I had said. The next day, I stood up in a staff meeting to ask the entire staff to forgive me for not being truthful. In fact, I only knew the concept forward (not backwards), and I do not speak Chinese.
So what happened?
First, there was the very well-known and respected speaker at ATI events who happened to visit the Indianapolis Training Center. After a few days of listening to all of us share these nuggets of Scriptural truth we’d all found, he spoke at a staff meeting and chastised us for building doctrines from verses in Psalms and Proverbs. These were wisdom books, he explained. Doctrine should come from the Gospels and the epistles. I had a lot of respect for this guy. Everyone did. Were we making things more complicated than they needed to be?
A year or so later, after I’d left IBLP staff, I was at a large local Bible study on Wednesday evening and the nationally-known speaker was talking about Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 about the hypocrite with the log in his own eye offering to help his brother with the speck in his. The speaker said that Jesus was using “hyperbole” (a term I’d never heard before), which he explained was “exaggeration for the sake of illustration.”
Say what? Jesus exaggerated? How could that be? Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. How could He exaggerate? This really got me thinking. Was exaggerating really untruthful? The conclusion I came to was: it depends. Sometimes it can be — such as when you’re selling something and you overstate its properties. However, at other times, in certain contexts, everyone understands that you’re exaggerating to make your point. Such as when I said I knew the concept backward, forward, and in Chinese. Or with the fish stories. Everyone understood the points we had been trying to make.
This line of thinking prompted me to go back and re-review my little “pearl” of wisdom. As I looked closely, I noticed something I’d skimmed over previously, “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, so is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘Was I not joking’?” Had I really been deceiving my neighbors when I ran around saying “I’m just kidding” all the time? Unlikely. I had no design to deceive anyone, and everyone had understood that I was just being silly for humor’s sake.
With this realization came the freedom to relax a little and enjoy life. To enjoy spending time with my brothers and sisters in Christ. To crack some jokes here or there. And to laugh a lot. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding that laughter and joy typically go hand in hand. And in my experience, a joyful Christian is a much better testimony than a heavily burdened Christian. I kid you not.