Living a Life of Authenticity
About the Guest
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James MerrittJames Merritt (PhD) is a pastor, author, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and host of the Touching Lives television program, seen nationwide and in 122 countries. As a national voice on faith and leadership, Merritt has been interviewed by Time, Fox News, MSNBC, and 60 Minutes. He resides with his family outside Atlanta, Georgia.
It’s much easier to be concerned with what’s outward than what’s inside of us. Bestselling author James Merritt examines how to live a life of authenticity.
Living a Life of Authenticity
Ann: So we’ve been married 41 years, and you want to know what my favorite thing is about you? What do you think I’m going to say?
Dave: Uh, my body? [Laughter] You didn’t think I’d say that? Well, I’ll just say it used to be my body; I don’t think it’s quite anymore.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
My favorite thing about you, and has been for 41 years—I get teary even just saying this—is your words match your life. Like what you say, what you preach, what you talk about—I live with you, and I see your life—I see how you’re living out your faith and what you talk about matches your life. That is my favorite thing. I get so teary about it, because I know that our sons would say the same thing: “That you have always lived what you’ve preached,”—not perfectly, by any means; none of us have perfectly—but it matches, and there’s something really powerful and magnetic about that.
Dave: Well, we can go home now. [Laughter] That’s the greatest gift you could give me. I think I could say the same thing about you, no question.
And it’s an important topic that we’re going to talk about today: character/integrity really, really matters. We’ve got a man in the studio that I know is a man of character and integrity as well. James Merritt is with us. Welcome to FamilyLife Today.
James: Good to be with you guys. Thank you so much.
Dave: We’ve never met. I mean, I’ve heard so much about you in so many different areas: pastor, author, president of Southern Baptist’s Convention; how many years ago?
James: Oh, that was like 2000 to 2002. It was back when 911 hit; it was right in that period of time.
Dave: Yes; obviously, written many, many books. How many?
James: Oh, I don’t know—ten or twelve—I don’t keep up with that.
Dave: But this latest one about character—Character Still Counts—is, obviously, something that’s passionate in your life. I mean, it’s what Ann was just talking about: it is what defines a man, defines a woman, defines a person. So talk to us about: “Why did you decide to write about character?”
James: Well, as I began—first of all, I’ve never had the privilege of meeting either one of you—and this is not flattery. My mentor was Adrian Rogers. Dr. Rogers—I spent a day with him, back when I was a young pastor—and learned more/I tell people I learned more about how to pastor and preach in a day than I did in seven years of seminary.
Dr. Rogers used to say: “Flattery is what you will say to a man’s face, but you won’t say behind his back. Praise is what you’ll say to a man’s face, whether you say it behind his back or not.”
So this is not flattery at all—but I don’t believe a wife could say anything greater about her husband than what you just said about your husband—or vice versa. I’ll just have to tell your audience: we’ve never met, but you size up—when you’ve been around the block like I have—and from the very time we just sat down and talked, I just, in my heart I said, “These two people love the Lord; they’re real”; so I’m honored to be on your program.
All of that said, this book that I wrote—Character Still Counts—is really fascinating to me for this reason: I’ve been partnering with Harvest House Publishers for a long time. I had submitted a couple of projects, and they didn’t like either one of them. They came back to me—this was before the election—they came back to me and they said, “We want to propose you do a book on character.” Well, to be honest, I didn’t want to do the book. This is why—this is a little preacher inside secret; you’re a pastor [Dave], so you know this—most preacher’s books are sermons. They do the sermon, and somebody takes the sermons and make it into a book.
James: Well, I had never preached on any of this. So really, I was starting from scratch/literally, starting from scratch. I tell people, except for my dissertation when I did my PhD at Southern Seminary, I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder on anything in my life than I did this book—because I literally was starting from scratch—I mean, even building the outline of the book and everything. What I did this time is flip the script, where I did my research and then made sermons out of it; so it was kind of the other way around. But it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
I was speaking to a large church/mega church staff yesterday—they’re having a retreat in Atlanta—and I decided to do one of my character traits, which is faithfulness; that’s what I was talking about. I said—the pastor’s one of my best buddies, who is a great guy; he kind of said, “James, preach/talk about whatever you want to talk about, but you might want to talk about leadership or something like that,”—I just didn’t feel led to do that; because I told the staff yesterday that there’s all kinds of leadership material out there today, and you’ve got John Maxwell’s corner of the market and other people like that.
I was thinking about this yesterday—it’s very interesting—Jesus was I think, by all accounts, the greatest leader who ever lived,—
Dave: Oh, yes.
James: —obviously; okay?—the greatest everything that ever lived—but when you read the Gospels, Ann, He never said a word about leadership—He modeled it—what He always talked about was character.
I just think that we’re living in a day and age when more and more people think that character counts less and less; I think it’s wrong. I think the number-one thing we ought to look for in—not just a pastor; but a president, or a governor, or the CEO of a company or anywhere—I think the most important thing we should look at is character.
Ann: How would you define character? What do you mean by that?
James: Good question. Of course, I have a Christian worldview; okay? To me, the ultimate character from a human being is when you’re modeling the life of Christ in every aspect. As a matter of fact, I will go ahead and jump to the conclusion. My favorite chapter in the book is the last chapter; because what I do is point out how all these character traits Jesus displayed in His ministry—every single one—He batted 1,000.
Dave: Yes; I mean, you list 12 different character traits in that last chapter—by the way, your shortest chapter—but so enlightening to say: “Everything we just read about”—the 12 different character traits—“all of them are in Jesus.”
James: Yes; exactly. You can define character in all kinds of ways; but again, being a Christian, I think it’s really modeling the life of Christ. I think it really is living out the Spirit of God’s righteousness in you; I think that is character.
A person can have good character and not know the Lord; you can be a good person. But I think to have the kind of character that God wants every one of us to have, He has to produce that character in us and through us. That’s why I just believe you’ll always fall short of what you could have been and should have been—as a man, a woman, as a father, as a husband, whatever—you’ll always fall short if you don’t have that personal relationship with Christ.
Ann: And what’s your story? James, tell us: “Were you always a man of character? Has that always been something that’s important to you?”
James: Well, I was raised right—my mom and dad—I grew up in a Christian home. My dad’s an interesting character. For your listeners that may remember All in the Family, I call my dad: “He was a saved Archie Bunker”; that was my dad. [Laughter] He did love the Lord; but he was just very opinionated, and very blunt, and that kind of thing and all. My dad started drinking when he was about 13. He drank—almost became an alcoholic—until he was 28; and then somebody shared the gospel with my dad. It was before I was born. My dad became a believer. When my dad became a believer—for 55 years—I mean, he literally gave up alcohol the day he gave his life to Christ.
Dave: Did he? Wow.
James: From the day that he gave his life to Christ until he died at 83, he never touched another drop of alcohol. So the time I came along, I was raised in a home, where in fact I used to sit with my dad in church every Sunday. We went to Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night—the whole nine yards—my dad read his Bible; my mom read their Bible every day.
My dad just taught me, growing up, that there’s just certain things you do: you keep your word; you do what you say you will do; you don’t steal; you’re honest; and you treat other people right. But it wasn’t a humanistic characteristic; it was more: “This is what Christians do/this is what godly people do.”
When you say you’ve always been a person of character: I think that, from the time I was born, I began to learn character. I think, as you grow and mature in your faith, you realize how your character does need to grow; and you never do ever reach the pinnacle of perfection, obviously. When I wrote the book—and I went through and I was going back through my edits—there were certain of those character traits that, boy, I just got convicted of. I said, “I’m not there yet, Lord. That’s just not quite/I know I need to do work on that.”
The thing that troubles me, again, is that people today—it’s more about results; it’s more about image; it’s more about the little sound bite—character seems to fall by the wayside.
Dave: Talk about the difference between character and integrity. Again, maybe they’re the same thing; maybe they’re not. But when you hear the word, “character,” I often think—you tell me if I’m right or wrong; I read what you wrote; it’s very similar—but I think integrity is what you said earlier, even what Ann said, a man or a woman’s life matches their words. There’s not a—that’s integer; right?—it’s a whole number; there’s not a division there. Is that what character is?
James: Yes; I’ll put it this way. By the way, when I told them I’d write the book, I said one of the authorial things I wanted was I want the first chapter and the last chapter—I don’t care what the order of the rest of the chapters are—but I want the first chapter to be integrity; because to your point, I believe integrity is the foundation. Character begins and ends with integrity. I taught my boys, growing up—my three sons—“If you don’t have integrity, guys, you’ve got nothing.”
James: So the way I would put it, Dave, is this way: “If you don’t have integrity, no matter what else you have, you don’t have real character. But character is more than just integrity.” The reason I started with that very chapter is because everything rises and falls on integrity. As a matter of fact, you’ll find it/you’ll be hard pressed to find, where if a person doesn’t have integrity, he has a lot of those other traits. Most of the time, he won’t. For example:
- If you’re not a person of integrity, you won’t be faithful.
- If you’re not a person of integrity, you won’t be honest.
- If you’re not a person of integrity, you won’t be humble; you won’t be authentic.
It really is the bedrock/it is the foundation, I think, of what character is all about.
Dave: Many of our listeners know, maybe I’ve said it a couple of times, that I was the Detroit Lions chaplain for 33 seasons—which means 1 playoff win—33 seasons, 1 playoff win. One of the first coaches I sat under was a guy named Frank Gansz, who was our special teams coach in the ‘80s.
I’ll never forget: he would stand up in front of the team many times and use his hands as an illustration. He’d take one hand and say, “What a man says”; [and with the other hand] “what a man does,”—[clap hands together] he’d put them together—like, “This is what you say; this is what you do: it’s got to match up.” He goes, “If this doesn’t match up, you can’t play for me.” In other words, in the football realm, he’s saying, “If you say you’re in Gap A, you’ve got to be in Gap A. You can’t say, ‘I’m going to be there,’ and not show up.” It would always be—I’ll never forget that visual—
Ann: You preached on that; I remember you slapping your hands together like that in a sermon.
Dave: Yes, because I can remember Frank doing it. Now, his son coaches in the league. It was like such a good visual to say: “Is what I’m saying—
Ann: —with your right hand.
Dave: —“matching up to my life?” If I say to my wife, “I’m faithful,” am I faithful in a hotel room when nobody’s looking? If I say to my church or to a buddy of mine that: “I give you my word,”—there was a day a handshake sort of felt like I could trust that shake—I feel like we live in a culture, now, it’s like: “Eh, if it’s not written down in a contract, I’m not sure.” Has integrity lost its foundation in our culture?
James: One of the things my dad taught me is an old saying: “Your word is your bond.”
James: My dad taught me that. Dad used to say “Son, a man’s handshake is better than ink on paper. If you need ink on paper to do what you say you’ll do, you’re not much of a man.” I just totally agree with you. We could get into the whole sports world again about this—there’s something about these guys—you sign a contract; you want to renegotiate with: somebody else starts getting paid more. [Team manager]: “Wait a minute; wait a minute. You agreed to play for this. You said it was a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. I kept my end of the bargain; you keep yours.” So, even in those kinds of things, we see integrity seemingly go by the wayside. We see it so much in every day life—when integrity goes down, trust in your fellow man goes down—because trust is built on integrity: doing what you say you’ll do.
One of the things you’ll appreciate, Ann, Zig Ziglar—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Zig Ziglar—
Dave: Yes; sure have.
James: —he was one of my very best friends. In fact, Zig used to call me/he called me the Bible answer man. He called me every Saturday with a Bible question. Every Saturday, he always called me about 9:00.
Dave: I mean, Zig’s this “stinking thinking guy”—right?—“ Get rid of stinking thinking.”
James: That’s him. I’ve never been around anybody I loved being around more than Zig Ziglar to this day. Zig said something that triggers something in my mind, and he put this in his book; so about 25 years ago, I started doing this: Teresa and I have been married 45 years; every night, before I go to bed, I will say to her, “I’ve always been faithful to you.” I don’t have to tell her that every day—I love telling her that every day; I want to tell her that every day—I want her to know that I’ve always been faithful to her, because it’s such a foundation.
I was telling this staff retreat yesterday about marriage; we were talking about marriage. I used to believe the most important thing that she could give you and you could give her was love: “Of course, love, obviously, is going to hold this together.”
I’ve changed my mind. I think the most important thing you must have from her—and she must have from you—is trust.
James: Because it doesn’t matter how much you love each other—if you don’t trust each other—you’re not going to have much of a marriage.
James: And you’ve got to know that he’s always faithful; he’s got to know you’re always faithful, Ann.
I started doing that, like I say, about 25 years ago. I’ve had some people make fun, and laugh, and all of that stuff; but it is a joy for me.
I’ll tell you something about character, Dave—and you know this—this is the sad thing. People don’t realize that the joy that comes in life when you’re a person of character. You don’t have to worry about what you say if you always tell the truth. If you lie, you may have to worry because you may get caught; but if you always tell the truth, you don’t have to worry.
Every part of the character/all the character traits in that book, you could look at them and you say, “Golly, Pete, if I were to do all that, I mean, I’d be straight laced, and I can’t have fun;” it’s just the opposite.
James: The people who have true godly character have more fun than anybody on the planet, because you know you’re never going to do the wrong thing. I told my boys, growing up/I said “Boys, if you never get in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person, you can’t do the wrong thing.” When you always know you’re going to do your best to be the right person, doing the right thing in the right place, there’s a joy and a peace of conscience and a good night’s sleep that comes every night that you just can’t put money on.
Dave: Yes; and it’s interesting, as I hear you say that, I think: “To be a man or woman of character—integrity as well—you have to pre-decide. You have to make decisions before moments.” In other words, what you just said: to be in the right place with the right people, you’ve got to pre-decide before you walk out of your house, or even in your house: “I’m not going to hang out…” “I’m not going to go…—right?—it’s a pre-decision; it doesn’t happen in the moment. It’s like I decide before I leave my—like you’re going home tonight; and you’re going to say to your wife, “I’ve been faithful,”—you made a decision—
James: That’s right.
Dave: —before you even left the house today to make sure that you’re going to go home faithful; right?
James: A great example of that is—and again, something else I told my boys—“We tend to complicate the simple. Jesus simplified the complicated.” The Pharisees and the rabbis came up with 613 different commands that they drew out of the Old Testament. Jesus comes along and says, “Boys, I can get it down to two: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself,’”—is really—“If you want to boil it down to one, it’s called love”; okay? We complicate the simple; Jesus simplified the complicated.
The thing about living a godly life and being a person of character, if you will, early on, make two or three big decisions, the rest of the decisions just fall like dominoes. Too many people are making decisions too late in life; they’re making them on the fly. You can’t make great decisions on the fly; you cannot do it. There are certain decisions you’ve got to make.
For example, early on, I decided—and thank God I did—I decided to follow the Billy Graham rule: so I don’t counsel a woman alone; I don’t meet with a woman alone. I can do that because I’m a pastor. I understand—I cut slack with the business world—I’m not judging anyone out there that your job may require some of those things; but for me, I’ve just done that. Teresa knows I’m just not going to put myself in any—whether it’s accidental or whatever—I’m just not going to put myself in that situation.
That big decision has saved me so many times. For example, I’m on TV; so I get made up every Sunday morning before I go out and preach. My makeup lady knows the door is open. If I’m in that green room alone, there are people going by. But that green room alone, it’s like there’s a force field; she cannot cross that threshold into that room until my sound guy comes in, who is mike-ing me up; or my production guy; or somebody. Somebody has to be in that room with us. That’s a big decision I made, and it’s paid off forever in my ministry.
Dave: I’m guessing our listeners might remember this story, but it’s so apropos to what you’re saying is. What’s it been now?—32/33 years ago—FamilyLife called us, Ann and I, and asked us to consider being a speaker for the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways that we do. We actually went to it as an engaged couple, and this was ten years later; and now, we’ve been married ten years. They have speakers that present the Weekend to Remember. I mean, when we get the call, first of all, we’re like, “They want us to consider it? Are you kidding me? This would be a phenomenal ministry/phenomenal weekend.” We’re like, “Ah, I can’t imagine.”
So part of the interview process was fly down to the headquarters, which at that time was in Little Rock, and have a meeting with Dennis Rainey, the president and founder of FamilyLife. We’re on this plane, flying down there a few weeks later; and we are literally role playing: “What’s he going to ask?” “What’s he going to ask?” We’re like: “He might ask this, so we’ll answer this”; because we want this job so bad, it’s like we don’t want to mess up this interview. We get to the headquarters. We walk around the building; we get into Dennis’ office—never met him before—I just know who he is; he actually spoke at the marriage conference we went to ten years before.
We are/I mean, we’re nervous, like literally nervous. I want to make sure I answer these questions right, so we get this job. I’ll never forget it—I mean, James, I’m looking right across the table; it was just like this—he’s at his desk; I’m sitting where you are. He looks across the table, and he goes, “I just have one question.” We look at each other like, “Just one question?” “I just have one question.” He looks straight at me—and I’m staring at you, because he would not take his eyes off my eyes—and he goes, “Are you clean?” And I knew what clean meant—sexually, pornography, integrity, financial, you name it—“Are you a man of character?” is what he was asking me. I look right back at him; and I say, “Yes.”
He goes like this—he turns and looks right at Ann—he goes, “Is he telling me the truth?” And she goes, “Yes.” He goes, “Okay, you’re good; you’re in.” We’re like—I’ll never forget—I go, “What do you mean we’re in?” He goes, “Yes, you’re on the team.”
I go, “Well, am I a good enough speaker?” Because, you know, we sent them cassette tapes; remember those?—
James: Oh, yes.
Dave: —I’m preaching, you know; he goes, “Eh, you’re okay.” He goes—and I’ll never forget; I thought it was all about ability, skill, standing on the stage and delivering the goods—he looked at me and he goes, “This is not about speaking; this is about character. I need people standing on that stage, who are living the truths we are presenting about marriage; and if you’re not clean, you can’t be in this ministry.”
I thought, “That’s what this was all about: character.” That’s what you’re just saying; it’s like: “Oh, my goodness, life is not about the outside.” I’m thinking of 1 Samuel 16: “Man looks at the external or looks at the outward appearance; God looks at the heart.” Character is about heart; right?
James: You’ll remember this: there was a tennis player named Andre Agassi.
Dave: Oh, yes.
James: Andre Agassi did a series of commercials for Kodak® or one of the camera companies. It was one of the most successful ad campaigns ever done; and the slogan is still used today: “Image is everything.”
James: That is so anti-biblical.
James: It’s so ungodly. Image is nothing in the eyes of God. God even said, “You will have no graven image before me.” Image is not everything; character is everything. It’s what is inside that counts.
But we are living in a culture—and we are living in a day and an age; you know this—every person that ever runs for President, the number-one thing they cultivate is that image. They want that perfect picture with the flag in the background; it’s all about image. There isn’t a character element that’s just indispensable to the leadership, whether it’s in the church or whether it’s/you know, whatever it is.
This is a very sensitive topic, and I’m going to be very careful how I walk around it. I’m clean, and I could look you in the eye and not blink and tell you I’m clean. But it is disheartening and discouraging, because we all get tarred with the same brush when pastors do fall—when you find out—“You mean you did this on Saturday night, and you got up and preached on Sunday morning?” I mean, how do you do that?—
James: —I couldn’t do that.
David could fall; I could fall; Dave, you could fall. King David—a man after God’s own heart—we all can fall. That’s why: “Let him who stands take heed lest he fall.” I’m not saying I’m above; that’s why I guard myself. One of the things that has hurt the church, unfortunately, is the very place and people you would look for—and just assume: “Oh, sure; they’re clean. Sure, their character, their words, and their life go together,”—don’t, and it hurts all of us.
Shelby: So many Christians, myself included, know how to give the right answers/know how to talk a big game when it comes to living the Christian life. But sometimes our actual private life—when nobody else is looking; when only God can see—doesn’t match what we talk about. That includes anybody who is a Christian, all the way up to pastors and spiritual leaders. “Man looks at the outside, but God looks at the heart”:
character is the heart; character matters.
James Merritt has written a book called Character Still Counts: It Is Time to Restore Our Lasting Values. We need to stop protecting our reputation and start building a life of character. This book that James Merritt has written is available in our FamilyLife Resource Center. If you wanted to pick up a copy, you could go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order your copy online; or you can give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Character counts, obviously, in our lives; but it also counts in the way that we pour into our children. Our guest coming up later this week is Jon Tyson. He’s written a book called The Intentional Father—a short practical book on how to help men raise their sons as men of character. This will be our gift to you if you log onto FamilyLifeToday.com and make a donation of any amount. When you do, request Jon Tyson’s, The Intentional Father; and we’ll send you that copy—again, any amount that you donate at FamilyLifeToday.com—or you could pick up the phone and give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Thanks, in advance, for your support; and we hope you enjoy the book.
Coming up, tomorrow, we’re going to hear once again from James Merritt, who’s going to talk about the value of loyalty in your marriage. It brings us a whole new level of love with our spouse. Dave and Ann Wilson will be talking with James Merritt tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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