Integrity in our Words
Written by
Katherine Harms
October 2010
Written by
Katherine Harms
October 2010

I am not a big fan of Halloween. It appears to me that this day gives people a chance to display ugliness that most of us would rather not look at. I have never liked anything that smacked of “horror,” and I don’t find horror amusing. I made peace long ago with the “trick or treat” concept, because I enjoy the little ones in costume. Playing dressup is fine. Being as ugly and revolting as possible is not on my bucket list anywhere.

However, as I was thinking about a personal challenge lately, comments about the upcoming Halloween events caused me to reflect on the way writers can be haunted by what they have written. When readers discover error or worse, deliberate fraud, in a writer’s words, terrible consequences ensue. As I considered these concerns, I concluded that I was not afraid that a reader might discover a factual error in my work, because even though I make a diligent effort to get my facts straight, I will never tell anyone that I never make a mistake. I can take my lumps if somebody discovers a factual error and tells me about it.

Deliberate fraud, however, is quite a different matter. Some people perpetrate deliberate fraud with regard to the facts, and in that regard I stand on my previous commitment to get the facts straight and take my lumps if someone does discover errors. However, the sort of fraud that makes most of us angry occurs when a writer pretends to be something she is not. It is the same issue that arises when a famous Christian preacher is discovered to have a habit of cruising for prostitutes when he travels, or when the public learns that a candidate for public office has fathered a child with one of his campaign staffers. This sort of fraud is about integrity. Readers expect writers to live up to whatever principles are documented in their work. Writers who cannot stand behind their words quickly lose credibility.

As a writer on the subject of living the life of faith in relationship with Christ, I expect to be scrutinized closely. I expect my readers to want to know that I live by the principles I write about. If I say that prayer is essential to the life of faith, people have a right to expect that I actually spend time in prayer. If I say that people of faith must act and speak the truth, then my readers ought to be able to see that principle at work in my own life.

One of the problems of being a writer in this realm is that I have not experienced everything I can learn about through Bible study. The truth is that even though I have read and studied about the way Christians experience and endure persecution, I have never been persecuted myself. I can write about what I learn from research, but I cannot speak from experience. It makes me hesitate to write on that subject, because I truly do not know how I would react if I were actually in danger of being arrested or tortured for my faith.

It is easy to be lured into writing about things I think I understand, however. Yet recently I learned that it is one thing to understand teachings in the Bible and quite another to come to the edge of the abyss and step out in faith that those teachings are actually true. I had written and taught principles I found in the Bible for dealing with life in chaotic times, and I actually thought I knew what that meant. However, before I knew it, I was thrown into a crucible that refined my perceptions and enhanced my understanding. My perceptions were examined and my integrity was tested.

Last winter, I read Thomas Mann’s fabulous novel Joseph and His Brothers. I had the good fortune to acquire a copy of the latest translation, and that meant that the translation I read avoided the earlier tendency to couch the dialogue in forms reminiscent of the King James Bible. This translation used contemporary language and idioms. It was completely engaging, and I gorged myself on it like a starving man just rescued from a desert island. Thomas Mann did not simply retell and enhance the story; he built his work on a foundation of intense research that fleshed out the setting and culture masterfully. Further, the book was as much a statement of faith as it was a novel, and I was as completely captivated by his testimony as by his storytelling. This novel is 1492 pages long, but it is worth the effort. In fact, I didn’t perceive it as effort to read this book; I could hardly put it down.

I did put it down regularly, however, in order to go to the Bible and read the biblical text for myself. I did not want to confuse Mann’s storytelling with the revealed text. I didn’t want to mistake Mann’s testimony for revealed truth. I did not want the fact that I was completely engaged by this book to interfere with my own responsibility to read and understand the biblical revelation for myself.

The outcome of this reading was what seemed like a huge discovery. It appeared to me that among the many values of the Joseph story was a persistent theme of victories that looked like defeat in the life of Joseph. His life story included several apparent defeats that were turned on their heads and became victories by the grace of God because of Joseph’s faith. I found in this story a model for us all to use when facing the challenges in our lives. The story of Joseph clearly demonstrated some principles for facing events in our own lives that might initially look like defeats or failures.

In the Joseph story I uncovered four foundation principles, and as I began to write about them, I realized that this looked like material for a book. I gave it the working title Don’t Panic: How the life of Joseph teaches us to thrive when the world turns upside down. (This book was the subject of my Passion Project submission.) In August, I had an opportunity to teach at church, and I used that opportunity to teach the four principles in four sessions as a workshop with the same title as my book manuscript. The four principles are these:
• Trust always in God, not in people
• Know that God is sovereign always, even when it looks as if his perfect plan is being defeated
• Build relationships in keeping with the teaching to love our neighbors, and these relationships will strengthen your commitment to God and his sovereignty
• Do not become a victim of either people or circumstances

The experience of teaching the workshop enhanced my understanding of the material. I flung myself into further research, and I was deep in the work of crafting my manuscript when disaster struck. I became sick, seriously sick. After being sick a week at home, I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for ten days. I had surgery and was sent home for recovery expected to take no less than 4 weeks and perhaps as much as 8. Talk about the world turning upside down!

For many days, the doctors scratched their heads trying to understand what was wrong with me. My husband and I felt real fear as it seemed that nothing they tried was making any progress against my illness. Eventually they proposed surgery; even though they could not pinpoint the cause of the problem, their experience led them to conclude that the surgery would cure it. After the surgery, I felt much better, so it was clearly the right treatment. However, the surgery was so drastic that recovery from the treatment as destined to be slow and painful.

During these days, I often thought about the workshop I had taught. I thought about the principles that had seemed to manifest themselves in the face of the disasters that fell one after another into Joseph’s life. Here I was in the midst of a disaster that made me ask, can I actually live by these principles in this very real challenge in my own life? The words I had written and taught rose up to haunt me. I asked myself if I had taught truth, if my writing had real value for everyone, including me, or was it all a big sham? I had plenty of time in my hospital bed to contemplate these questions.

I asked myself if I really trusted God – the first principle. I was in a huge teaching hospital where the finest minds were being applied to my case. Yet it was clear that these minds were being seriously challenged by the realities of my illness. I could not trust that these minds by themselves would find a successful treatment for me. I put my trust in God and prayed that he would guide those brilliant minds to find the right solution. I saw with great clarity that my fate was beyond the capacity of mere mortals to handle. I had to put my hope in God. There was nothing and nobody else to hope in. It was scary, and I found myself reciting the Psalmist’s prayer, “When I feel afraid, I will trust in You.”

I asked myself, too, how this state of affairs could possibly fit into God’s perfect plan for me. In his perfect sovereignty, why would God want me to be so sick? Why would he want me to lose all this time from productive work that was necessary for my husband and me to accomplish the things we thought God had called us to do? This experience looked like a terrible backset to everything I thought I was supposed to achieve in life. Then I began to realize that I was looking at the whole situation from the standpoint of my understanding in the reality bounded by time and space. In God’s reality, in the infinite and eternal realm where God reigns on his throne forever, things looked different. I had to trust him that this experience that looked like defeat to me was no defeat for him. I had to believe that God was still in charge of my fate. I had to accept the idea that it was safe to tr

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