Sally Fields, on receiving an Academy Award in 1985 for Places in the Heart, clasped her Oscar, crying and stating, “The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now. You like me!”
Funny thing was, this wasn’t her first award; not even close. She had won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar previously. But as she stood on that stage she felt validated, respected, and liked. That moment meant more to her than all of the awards before.
We all like to be liked. It is nice to feel important, cared for, validated and valued. We like to feel like we make a difference, that people appreciate us and know that we are there. We like the compliments, the accolades, the pats on the back.
Or, at least I do. I like to be liked … and sometimes that’s a problem.
This summer I have been preaching through the book of Jeremiah. It has been a daunting task; he isn’t called “the Weeping Prophet” for nothing! Jeremiah’s ministry spanned 40 years and five different kings. When he was called into ministry in Jer 1, God told him,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer 1:5-10)
Jeremiah’s task is daunting. Go to the people, kings and commoners, priests and prophets, and proclaim the words that you are given. That message will be one of judgment, destruction, and exile unless they change their ways.
As Jeremiah ministers, he is rejected by almost everyone he encounters. People from his own hometown, probably members of his extended clan or family, plot to kill him. His so-called-friends watch for him to stumble and fall. Priests have him imprisoned; false prophets attack him verbally, spiritually, and physically; kings reject him, malign him, and toss him into cisterns. He is never able to change the hearts of the people, and so he is forced to watch as the city of Jerusalem is destroyed, the temple is ransacked and ruined, and the people are sent into exile.
Jeremiah never shirks his duty or calling as a prophet … but there are times he sure seems to want to do so! As he writes in Jer 20:7-10,
You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot.
Jeremiah didn’t always like the task he was given; he often felt like God had “deceived” him into ministry in some sense. I am sure he longed for people on whom he could depend, a group of friends beyond the four or so that stick by him through the most difficult times. I am sure Jeremiah wanted to be liked. But his ministry and message were, ultimately, too important to worry about what others thought about him.
I like to be liked. I have been in full-time ministry for 12 years now, and there have been many times when it was an isolating experience. It is difficult to build friendships or have authentic relationships with those in your congregation. At least, that has been my experience. Many are uncomfortable if you share the problems you are facing in your life, family, or marriage, thinking you as the “minister” or “pastor” should have it all together. Not to mention if you ever express questions about faith! People don’t allow you to lose your temper, talk about politics, or delve too deeply into their lives. Your sermons should be insightful and inspiring, but rarely require anything of us. The congregation would rather you don’t dwell too deeply on issues that are divisive today, tackling issues like immigration, economic inequality, racism, or violence and war; those things don’t unite us and we will only disagree, so let’s stick to the things that we all have in common. Comfort, don’t challenge. Condone, don’t confront.
Or maybe that is just my preconception about how others feel. Maybe, in my desire to be liked, I am more comfortable talking about things that people want to hear rather than what we might need to hear. Maybe my desire to be valued and validated outweighs my commissioning to speak prophetically when necessary, to offer words of comfort and words of challenge. Maybe I allow one negative critique to outweigh and overpower 20 words of thanks and hope at a message that was spoken. I like to be liked, and that can be a problem.
Recently I was reminded of my calling while listening to a lecture given by one of my former professors. In an offhanded comment, he randomly remarked, “The question is, who do you preach for?” My mind instantly turned to my congregation, this group that assembles together in Houston to encourage one another and share the love of God with others. But the professor remarked that we are called to preach for God to others. Our calling and commissioning comes from God alone; we are tasked with bringing God’s word to people, even when it is difficult to speak or to hear; even when it challenges me or causes me to need to change. We are told that “the word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, [and] it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrows; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
As those who bring a word from the Lord, we are called to a difficult task. As one who likes to be liked, it feels even more daunting. I believe that is why Paul asked his fellow Christians to pray for him and his ministry: “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph 6:19-20).
That is my prayer for myself, and my prayer for you: speak fearlessly, boldly, courageously. May you be driven by your love for God rather than your desire to be liked by others. And may God bless you as you minister in God’s name for God’s glory.
Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.