It is a truism of life – and especially for the Christian – that the crowd is often wrong, and the best thing you can do is avoid what others are doing. The masses are often heading in the wrong direction, and we should not even consider following along with them.
It takes courage and strong principles to resist the crowd and to head in a direction you know to be right. When it seems like everyone is doing something, there is tremendous pressure for you to simply do the same, and just tag along with the gang.
The Lance Armstrong debacle which is now making headlines all over the world is – at least in part – a perfect illustration of this. The recently-confessed drug cheat has spoken about wide-spread drug use in his sport. As one news article reported:
“A cancer survivor who inspired millions with what had seemed like a fairytale career, Armstrong said he did not believe he could have achieved what he did without breaking the rules due to the culture of drugs in cycling. ‘Not in that generation. I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to talk about the culture. I don’t want to accuse anyone else. I’m here to acknowledge my mistakes.’ He said he never considered himself to be a cheat and was sure he would get away with it, until out of competition tests were introduced and testing procedures dramatically improved.”
It was obviously very easy for him to think something along these lines: “Well, plenty of other folks are taking performance-enhancing drugs – so why can’t I? After all, if the crowd is doing it, then it can’t be all that bad, right?” While this type of thinking of course in no way excuses what he did, it would likely have been part of his rationale over the years.
And it is quite commonplace. ‘If others can, why can’t I?’ When we take our standards from the surrounding mob or culture, instead of fixing on a transcendent and unmovable standard, then we are almost guaranteed to go astray. We will simply go with the flow, even if the flow is heading in the wrong direction.
The Bible speaks much to this theme of course. It often exhorts us to walk with God even if it means to walk against the prevailing culture. But let me simply highlight just one verse which I came upon in my morning reading. I refer to this great little passage: “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong” (Exodus 23:2).
This is part of a series of commands given to Israel by Yahweh through Moses just after the giving of the Ten Commandments. This particular injunction is clearly true and relevant for all of us. As Douglas Stuart comments:
“The NIV translation ‘crowd’ (v. 2) is not the only option. A better translation might be ‘majority,’ and the temptation warned against here is that of being swayed in any action that would be wrong by the fear of looking foolish, incorrect, odd, or dishonest because of taking a position different from that taken by everyone – or virtually everyone – else.”
The fear of man, in other words, is a big part of this. We don’t want to look different or out of place. We want to blend in with the crowd and we want to be accepted by the masses. We sadly prefer, far too often, to seek the pleasure of men rather than the pleasure of God.
Resisting the crowd takes a lot of effort and much courage. It is always easy to go with the masses but often quite difficult to take a stand against the prevailing customs and directions of a culture. Spurgeon gave a sermon in part on this in which he said:
“Beloved, the home of God should be the great goal to which we are always pressing forward. You see that the men of the world are coming this way in a great crowd, all in a hurry, rushing after their gods; and we, what are we doing? Threading our way, as best we can, pushing our way against the stream, going in an exactly opposite direction to the rest of mankind. Some of you cannot do this; you keep getting carried off your legs, and you are swept along by the torrent; but the man of God must go against the current. He is not to be swept back; but he is always pressing forward, ever seeking to make an advance, contending for every inch, and making up his mind that, come what may, he cannot go back.
“That is not his way; he must go forward, ever pressing on toward the city that hath foundations. Christians are like a live fish that goes up the stream, always up the stream. If the fish comes down the stream, and you see it floating with its white belly on the top of the water, you know that it is dead; and we can see plenty of these dead fish floating down the stream nowadays. But the live Christian is going straight up the stream, straight up, up, up. Whichever way the tide may be running, whether it is at the ebb or at the flood, he is going straight up the stream; and, God helping him, he will proceed in that way right to the end. So, brethren, as we are going to the same heaven, let us have heaven begun below as we live in love one towards another.”
Yes quite right: any dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a living fish to resist the current and head in the right direction. But as I mentioned above, the pressure is great to simply conform and go with the flow. Indeed, you will even be seen as a nutter if you resist the crowds and seek to take a different path. As C.S. Lewis once said, “When the whole world is running towards a cliff, he who is running in the opposite direction appears to have lost his mind.”
The Bible as well as church history is replete with those brave, godly souls who have resisted the masses and scorned the popular, and have done what is right and true instead. In that sense the true follower of Christ will often have to walk alone.
As A. W. Tozer said in his classic essay, “The Saint Must Walk Alone”: “The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world.”
And again: “Always remember: you cannot carry a cross in company. Though a man were surrounded by a vast crowd, his cross is his alone and his carrying of it marks him as a man apart. Society has turned against him; otherwise he would have no cross. No one is a friend to the man with a cross. ‘They all forsook him, and fled’.”
One more: “The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve restful ‘adjustment’ to unregenerate society they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are. And this is the saddest thing that can be said about them. They are not lonely, but neither are they saints.”
The real saint will always resist the crowd. The real saint will always recognise that the mob is almost always wrong. The real saint will not go with the flow, but go against it. Better to be a living fish heading in the right direction with God’s approval, even with the hatred of the masses, than to be a dead fish which goes with the flow and has everyone’s approval but God’s.