Thoughts on influence

If you have sisters, you’ve likely seen influence in action. I have five sisters and a mom who is like a sister to me, and I cherish each one’s advice and perspective. Last year I visited my mom and two of my sisters for the holidays, a joyful time of making lots of good food and sharing wine and too much coffee. As we were spending time together, talking and laughing, I looked down and realized — all three of them were wearing the exact same pair of shoes. How funny!

From targeted ads by Instagram influencers to the rather hilarious friend group trends, we have a culture of influence, on one level or another. It’s a natural phenomenon: we trust a friend’s opinion and their experiences become part of the fabric of our stories, too.

When I write that discipleship is about influence, it’s important I think to make a distinction about the type of influence I mean. In Christ, we aren’t selling a product or building up a following for our lifestyle brand. The beauty of the church is its diversity. The body has many members, and they are all different in gifting, appearance and lifestyle. Christ-followers are unique! It’s the beauty of the body of Christ that we can be united around the good news of hope and freedom. It’s the gospel that brings us all together into a family.

“Jesus has called you to make disciples to Himself and His kingdom, not converts to your opinions.” Frank Viola wrote on his blog Beyond Evangelical.

It saddens me when the message of freedom in Christ gets distorted or watered down by things we hold up as equally important. This can look like anything from our political views to our favorite brand of avocados. It’s tempting to make it into gospel of self: “live like Jesus, which means live like me.”

Jesus specifically addressed this prideful spirit in the religious leaders of his day. “Everything they do is to be seen by others,” he said in Matthew 23, describing how those in religious power placed heavy burdens on their followers; rules to abide by in order to achieve righteousness. I don’t have space to republish it here but I’ll link to the chapter elsewhere and I encourage you to read it in full. Jesus did not speak mildly about this problem. He must have known it would continue to be a temptation to anyone with a following of any size.

Pride keeps us from treating others with respect, because to the prideful mind, others are just the currency in the transaction of elevating our own self-image. Jesus warned not to set ourselves up as teachers or leaders, because we are all brothers in the Kingdom of God.

Those who follow Christ are called to value people, and to treat everyone with respect as a precious child of God. As I raise my own first child, someone I hope to influence and disciple, I’m learning how to treat him with respect to create an environment where trust can grow. I’ve been surprised to learn that these principles apply to all my relationships. Here are some of the principles I’ve learned:

• Respect requires communication and honesty. Pride will hide the ugly or regular parts, wishing to make itself look better than it really is.

• Don’t do for someone what they can do for themselves (unless they asked you to, and even then, it might be better to refrain). Pride sometimes takes the form of martyr-like serving, but the serving is ostentatious and won’t take no for an answer.

• Allow negative emotions but commit to your boundaries, and honor those of others. Pride keeps everyone’s emotions under a tight rein of what is “appropriate” according to its narrative. Pride gradually crosses boundaries and makes demands of others.

• Empathize and seek to understand rather than offering advice. Pride wants to be the one with the perfect solution, but can’t be bothered to see things from a different perspective.

Even though I just typed out the above list, each line still stings with conviction. I’m definitely guilty of disrespecting the people in my life, especially the ones closest to me.

The opposite of respect is contempt. It’s all too easy to let this relationship killer seep into our hearts. Contempt says, “I am better than you.” Any version of this thought is pride, and will erode the trust we have built with others and the integrity of our influence.

*Note, contempt can so easily turn into abuse. An abuser justifies his actions by feeling superior to his victim. Controlling behaviors are the dark side of influence, which is why we must be so careful not to seek to control others in any way.

In contrast, Jesus came as a servant, washing the feet of his disciples. He told them to take this as their example of leadership. Washing feet requires getting down on the ground in front of someone to take care of a dirty task. It’s humbling because it reminds us that we all get dirty feet.

May our influence be through love and humility, bringing the beautiful good news of grace and peace into all our relationships.

“Love always bears up, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.” (1 Corinthians 13:7 CJB)