Our word is our witness

Have you ever loaned money to someone and thought to yourself, that’s the last I’ll ever see of that? Most of us have experienced that, but banks and other businesses can’t afford it. Fortunately, a new study offers a bit of help for them and for us (though whether we take that help or continue giving out gifts in the guise of loans is a different matter). The results are not, however, necessarily good news for us as Christians.

Economists Oded Netzer, Alain Lemaire, and Michal Herzenstein took a look at the language used on lending sites like Prosper to see if they could pick up on any clues as to whether or not a person would repay the loan for which they asked. Unfortunately, they found that mentioning God, promise, will pay, thank you, and hospital were among the clearest signs that the person receiving the loan would not repay it.

Some of those keywords are understandable—people with hospital bills to pay or loved ones in need of assistance are, perhaps, more likely to be desperate enough to lie or borrow amounts beyond what they can afford than others. Still, what does it say that people who invoked the name of God in their initial request were 2.2 times less likely to repay it? As New York Magazine‘s Seth Stephens-Davidowitz notes, “You might think—or at least hope—that a polite, openly religious person who gives his word would be among the most likely to pay back a loan.”

Unfortunately, part of the explanation is likely that many Christians are equally prone to default on a loan as non-believers. Jesus was clear that keeping our word is a crucial part of our witness to the lost around us (Matthew 5:37). While extenuating circumstances do occur on occasion, there were apparently enough people speaking about God in their loan applications who failed to follow Christ’s command to make the name of God one of the phrases most associated with default.

That said, it also seems likely that another key part of the issue is that the culture, even the lost, understand that believers should be among those most likely to keep their word. There’s no way to know if those who invoked God’s name in their applications are truly his disciples or if they simply did so because they thought it would help their cause. It’s good news, from a certain perspective, that people still think highly enough of us to believe that pretending to follow God will make them appear more trustworthy. That reality makes it all the more important, however, that we meet those expectations in our interactions with others.

As Christians, our witness is becoming increasingly fragile. It used to be that people would see believers who consistently acted in ways that ran counter to God’s will as the outliers. Today, the reverse is often true. While many people may truly believe that acting religious will make them appear more trustworthy, and it will to some, the reality is that more people each day simply expect us to be, at best, the same as everyone else when it comes to our morality and dependability.

It wasn’t that way during the time of Christ. The early church was so thoroughly influenced by the Holy Sprit’s daily presence in their lives that people recognized their faith simply by being around them. That’s why the religious leaders understood that Peter and John had been with Jesus after seeing their courage and listening to them speak (Acts 4:13). It’s why the believers at Antioch were the first to be called Christians by the pagan world around them because of the way they lived according to Christ’s example (Acts 11:26). And it’s why the faith grew as the masses witnessed the depth of the early believers’ commitment to Lord in the face of persecution across the first three centuries of its existence.

We are called to live in such a way that our relationship with Christ will so thoroughly define our lives that the lost around us cannot help but take notice. But while there is grace for the inevitable times that we will fail, we should never underestimate the power of unrepentant lapses to undermine all that the Lord wants to build through us. We live in a world that expects us to fall short of Christ’s example, and our history has often given them every right to do so. Yet that also means that every time we do live as the Lord commands, which includes being men and women of our word, it will stand out all that much more.

In a sense, it’s easier to be a culture-changing Christian when even the smallest acts of devotion to the Lord’s example make us stand apart from the expectations of the culture around us. That’s a blessing, but far too few of us see it that way and live accordingly. Will you?