I remember meeting with a man in his early 20s who was clearly on a search for spiritual truth. In our first meeting, he informed me, “I am not sure I believe in God.” We spent a good hour discussing the issue of God, and I shared with him my reasons for believing and then discussed his objections. I did not change his mind and assumed that there was no need to meet again. However, he wanted to continue and learn more about Christianity. So, we met three or four more times, and in our last meeting, he made an interesting confession: “I do believe in God, and I believe what you have told me is true. However, I am going to pass. Being a Christian might negatively impact my social life and my career.”
When all was said and done, he was worried about how being a Christian would affect people’s opinion of him. It also struck me it was easier for him to say, “I am not sure I believe in God,” instead of admitting “I believe in Him, but I reject him.”
The fear of rejection is a powerful force in our lives. We never seem to be able to shake it. I sometimes wonder if we realize how we gear our lives to meet the expectations and approval of others, particularly when it comes to our faith.
Dr. Paul Vitz is a psychologist who earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan and his PhD at Stanford University. He spent his career at New York University. Vitz was an atheist until his late 30s. His spiritual journey is quite interesting.
“The major reason for me wanting to become an atheist was that I desired to be accepted by the powerful and influential psychologists in my field. In particular, I wanted to be accepted by my professors in graduate school. As a graduate student I was thoroughly socialized by the specific culture of academic psychology. My professors at Stanford, as much as they might disagree on psychological theory, were, as far as I could tell, united on really only two things: their intense personal ambitions and their rejection of religion. In this environment, just as I had learned how to dress like a college student by putting on the right clothes, I also learned to think like a proper psychologist by putting on the right, atheistic, skeptical ideas and attitudes.”
Vitz is essentially saying that he wanted to be accepted by his peers and professors. He feared their rejection, so he adopted their views, whether or not he believed them to be true.
Journalist David Brooks of The New York Times believes one of the greatest truths he learned from his professors at the University of Chicago was to have intellectual courage. He says, “The hard part of intellectual life is separating what is true from what will get you liked.”
As Jesus was performing signs and miracles, many people, even some of the leading citizens, wanted to believe in Him. However, for fear of expulsion from the synagogue, they did not believe. John then makes this assessment: “For they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” (John 12:43)
It is amazing that we would allow the approval of men to set the boundaries of our faith. It has made me wonder how many of us have chosen a path of life not because it is the best and wisest path but because it meets the approval of the people in our sphere of influence, and the people we want to impress.
I do not think we are aware that there is one question we are always asking ourselves. It often seems to be the central question that must finally be answered before we make certain decisions, particularly on the issue of faith. It is a question that haunts the lives of many: What will people think of me? This question can impact us emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
However, when it comes to our decisions about God and spiritual truth, we need to realize how much is at stake. We all need to recognize that we are utter fools if we allow the approval of others to keep us from embracing God’s eternal truth.