Mixed Signals

Sometimes you find spiritual lessons in places you never expected. Sometimes they even come rolling right down the middle of the street.

It was a beautiful October morning, and I was with family and friends at the Florida Forest Festival Parade in Taylor County. One of the dozens of parade floats featured a man singing karaoke, and the song he happened to be singing was Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” As the float passed by our group, the singer was crooning the lines, “But there’s booze in the blender / And soon it will render / That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”

The theme of the float, written in great big letters on the side, was “Say No to Drugs.”

Obviously, the fellow on the float didn’t grasp the absurdity. But several of us in the crowd did. And the worst part? Also on the float were a couple dozen children wearing matching “We say no to drugs” T-shirts, all smiling and waving obliviously while the sole adult in their midst sang about dependence on alcohol.

Let’s face it: sometimes we just don’t behave consistently. Whether due to brazen hypocrisy, or weakness, or just carelessness, we may speak or act in a way that sends out mixed signals about our character, our beliefs, our values. And when we do, it’s hard for others not to notice. That should make every Christian stop and think.

The Bible describes plenty of folks—including some very spiritually-minded ones—whose lives didn’t always match their profession. And their inconsistency had real consequences. Eli was a priest of God, but he utterly failed in his God-given duties as a father (1 Samuel 2:11-17; 3:11-13). As a result, God promised to take the high priesthood away from his family. Peter was an apostle, but on one occasion he acted hypocritically in regard to his Gentile brothers (Galatians 2:11-14). His influence was such that even Barnabas got caught up in the hypocrisy. And of course, there were the scribes and Pharisees. Though they were among the most respected of the Jews’ religious leaders, Jesus rebuked them because “they say things, and do not do them” (Matthew 23:3). He denounced their inconsistent sense of morality (verses 16-21), their obedience to the law’s details without regard for its principles (verse 23), and their condemning in others what they tolerated in themselves (verses 29f). Whether through hardness of heart or lack of diligence, Christians can fall prey to the same mistakes, to the same damaging and discouraging effect. Let’s be on guard.

Parents in particular can send mixed signals. God’s command to bring up children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) requires that we be constant and consistent. Dads and moms, do you ever find yourself teaching your kids one thing and doing another? If you tell them that worship is important, do you routinely let them miss assemblies for homework or family reunions? If you tell them that Bible study is important, do they see you go to Bible class with your lesson unprepared? If you tell them to avoid sexual immorality, do you permit (or even encourage) them to dress suggestively? If you tell them not to use filthy language, do you let them watch shows or listen to songs that are filled with it? Certainly, no parent is perfect. But if children are raised on a steady diet of mixed spiritual messages, the likely result will be confusion, apathy, and unbelief—or, just as bad, an acceptance of hypocrisy as normal. Let’s be on guard.

Even an entire church can send mixed signals. Do we preach against sin while tolerating it among our own members (see 1 Corinthians 5)? Do we preach love and unity while practicing strife and discord (1 Corinthians 6, 11)? Do we preach the church’s role in evangelism while doing precious little to proclaim the gospel outside the walls of the meeting house? Do we oppose unscriptural benevolent arrangements but fail to encourage and practice individual efforts (see Matthew 25:35-36, 42-43)? Certainly, no church is perfect. And there will always be folks who judge a congregation unfairly, no matter what. But when a church’s actions are at odds with its words, the result will be a diminished influence and a weakened membership. Let’s be on guard.

Let’s work to make sure that our teaching and practice are the same, and that both send a clear message of truth.