[ 6 minutes to read ]On being your own man Spurgeon urged his pastor’s college students to “throw away the servility of imitation and rise to the manliness of originality.”[ref]Spurgeon, Charles H.. Lectures to My Students Volume 1 (Kindle Location 2342). Kindle Edition.[/ref] He never wearied of telling them to be themselves and warned them against any imitation or pretense. Preachers should neither be copycats nor men-pleasers. Be your own man. Be an independent thinker. Be yourself. Don’t be a slave.
Was Spurgeon consistent, though? You have probably heard or read another of Spurgeon’s well-known quotes: “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted.”[ref]Quoted from Spurgeon’ sermon, “Paul—His Cloak and His Books,” from 2 Timothy 4:13, delivered on Sunday Morning, November 29, 1863.[/ref] The first quote is from a lecture to his students and the second is from a sermon he preached from his pulpit in London. In the one, he said to be original and not an imitator. In the other, he said to read and quote other men. The two statements are least in tension, if not in conflict. How do you be original and quote others? How can you be an independent thinker and read the thoughts of others?
The statements can be resolved, and resolving them answers the pertinent questions for us: How do you be yourself, an independent thinker, truly your own man? Part of the problem lies in misconceptions of what being your own man is. Misguided attempts at being one’s own man range from comical to sad. Let’s explore the wrong road for a moment.
On not being your own man
Examples of getting this wrong are crowding in my mind like shoppers at the doors at Walmart waiting for Black Friday to begin. However, I am going to restrict admittance so as to keep this manageable. One way to get this wrong is like the angsty middle school girl. She wants to be her “self” so she goes goth, dyes her hair pink, or otherwise adorns herself in outrageous fashion. She seeks society among outcasts, isolating herself and always bewailing the fact her lot in life is all because she doesn’t “fit the mold.” She never considers that her ostracism is mostly self-imposed, or due to the fact she’s not nice or not a very good friend. Maybe she never considered that her attitude stinks worse than the fourth-hand military jacket she got from Goodwill.
If we look across the landscape of American Christianity, we see that preachers trying to be themselves doesn’t look a lot different. Some wear jeans and t-shirts, have their hair a little longer, and eschew churchy talk for grittier street words. Whatever difficulty they face, they quickly blame it on other people oppressing them for being “different.” They don’t “fit the mold” either, and they repeatedly tell everyone about it. They don’t seem to consider their conflicts with people might have more to do with their own attitude and pretensions than it does other people’s backward ways. In fact, other people don’t seem to be as hung up on their clothes as such preachers are.
I could get up in the morning and put on cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, but that doesn’t make me a cowboy any more than faded jeans makes you your own man, or any more than putting a tie on a duck makes the bird a preacher. Being your own man is not that way. You cannot be an independent thinker by simply changing your shirt. It’s not about crafting an image or affecting a persona through something we can put off or on.
One other way we get sideways on being our own man is thinking we are islands, off to ourselves. We don’t read or listen to other men. I’ve heard numerous boasts to that effect through the years. As it turns out, that sort of thinking for ourselves is actually only thinking of ourselves. It’s sitting in our own personal echo chamber where we only admit those who already agree with and support us. This was certainly not Spurgeon’s ideal of originality, whether in his counsel or in his practice. He was known for reading several books a week throughout his life. He urged preachers and all Christians to be reading. You remember the earlier quote from him about reading and quoting? Directly after that statement he said, “He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.”[ref]ibid.[/ref]
Aside from that, Proverbs identifies the man as a fool who will not receive counsel and instruction from others (Proverbs 1:7; 10:8; 12:15; 15:5). Thinking that being your own man means having no regard for the thoughts of others is thinking you are the wisest person in the world. It is thinking there is no other human being that can teach you anything. To be an independent thinker, you have to first be a thinker. Spurgeon said that kind of thinking proves you have no brains of your own.
Not such a problem after all
If you think about the two different pieces of advice, the answer is there. On one hand, Spurgeon said to read others and use the thoughts of others. On the other hand, he said to be original, not a slave, and not an imitator. How do you do both of those things? You do it by reading or listening thoughtfully for understanding. Someone who reads or listens to someone and then simply reproduces them verbatim, hasn’t learned nor understood anything. Your own thoughts haven’t been sharpened or informed. You could be a lazy plagiarist or a thoughtless plagiarist, but you would still be only a plagiarist. With practice, you could recite Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean you understand it.
Reading thoughtfully for understanding means a sort of reverse engineering of what you read or hear. You must follow the argument, or the train of thought, to see how the conclusion was arrived at. If you hear a good sermon, don’t just get up and preach it. Examine it. Reverse engineer it so you understand why it was good. If a preacher makes a great argument in the pulpit or in print, work to understand why it is a good argument. If you hear an apologist give a good refutation of error, work through it to understand why it was good and why it was effective. Just because something sounded great or affected you, don’t turn around and use it on others. You have to study it. You have to make sure it is true and the logic of it sound.
This is reading or listening on another level. You are not only hearing what someone thinks; you are also understanding how they think. You will detect blindspots and prejudices. Doing so sharpens your own skills and thinking. Working at this will improve your own thinking and make you a more independent thinker. It will grow your discernment to where you’re not as easily wowed by a charismatic or persuasive speaker.
Being able to get to the bottom of things is critical for independent thinking. This post is not about properly attributing your sources. That is a good discussion but not the topic at hand. You could come across a well-put statement and recite it with proper credit, but still not understand it. What does the quote mean? Why did the author say that? How did he come to that conclusion?
Pastors must refute error (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Titus 1:11, 13). Refuting error requires having a reasonable understanding of the error. You must get to the bottom of things with error in order to understand how and why it is error, and to fully refute it. Are your people to avoid error simply because you told them so? Will you convince and instruct anyone by simply saying, “Trust me, that’s wrong.” Though some may trust you in the situation, without showing them how and why the error is wrong, you have not helped them mature. It takes more than “I say so” to keep yourself and your people from being tossed about by every wind of teaching (Ephesians 4:14). Pastors must be independent thinkers so they can model independent thought and equip their people to think independently. It’s not jeans and t-shirts that guide and guard people away from error. And, if you leave this post thinking I’m talking about what preachers wear, you haven’t got to the bottom of it.