The problem with plagiarism among Christians is that the problem is not plagiarism in itself, but the false self-aggrandizement that it reveals. It is bad enough to be proud of an ability you have, what is to be said of taking pride in an ability that you don’t even have?
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith.” [Romans 12:6]
In my previous post, I brought to our attention one example of plagiarism that is rampant among Christians (though plagiarism is not a problem unique to Christians) on social media . It is my hope that you realized my focus was not so much on the fact that people post [unoriginal] status updates and tweets without citing the original authors, but that when an opportunity to accredit those words arises, many of us would still not do it. This was my major concern. I am not suggesting that we now have to cite the author of every witty spiritual quote we post. Most of the times we honestly don’t even remember where we read or saw that quote. I am simply suggesting that we be careful not to bask in the glories that do not belong to us. This is because it is not simply a matter of obeying copyright laws and upholding ethical integrity, this habit or practice is an outward expression of a much graver underlying problem. A problem that I am hoping to clarify in this second post.
First, I have to confess of a habit that I have developed over time. I am not too sure that it is wise and I am convinced that I have a large blind-spot in this area (please pray that the Lord would open my eyes to see what I need to see). I am able to tell, more often than not, when a person posts an update whose claims they do not quite comprehend. What I mean is that I am able to see when a person has written a truth claim that they cannot sufficiently defend, or one that they do not even personally affirm in their conscience. Most often they post it because their favorite author or rapper said it. In most of such instances, I would go ahead and post searching questions about that update on the comments section. I have to confess that I often do this as a test, to confirm that the person doesn’t really even understand the implications of what they are writing about.
After a few frustrating exchanges, many would simply dismiss me as a “basher” with a critical spirit, while others would concede and admit that those words were not even theirs, and I should take up the matter with their originating author. Then they would give up the name of the person who originally wrote those words.
“Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” [Romans 14:22b]
This test always confirms that plagiarism is an issue of the heart. Even in our schools today, teachers have a harder task trying to ensure that students do not merely copy and paste information from Wikipedia and Google. This is not fundamentally because plagiarism is illegal, or that it encourages laziness, but because plagiarism impedes learning. Yes, the students will get the high scores and graduate. But their folly is bound to catch up with them when they enter the job market. That’s when their incompetence will begin to show. When the rubber meets the road, it will become evident that it is quite impossible to make practical judgements without a firm knowledge base to work with.
While this may seem like a fairly insignificant problem when speaking about school and the workplace, it is a gravely serious issue when talking about faith and spirituality. The plagiarist is passing on knowledge that he did not work to attain, knowledge that he does not possess. The plagiarist is associating this truth with himself, without actually there being an association, in the name of pleasing his audience and boosting his ego. The plagiarist is preaching Christ crucified, without possessing the crucified Christ. He is saying the truth, without savoring it. He is receiving the rewards of public acclaim and affirmation, yet he is not realizing that he faces the danger of this being the only reward he will ever get (see Matt 6:2). That the earthly applause could be all that he’ll ever get.
You see, the reason why “spiritual plagiarism” is a serious issue is the fact that it is a matter of life and death. Yes. It’s that serious. Spiritual plagiarism could mean missing out on eternal life. If we never take the time to let God’s word enrich and feed us. If we never take the time to commune with God and prayerfully seek to hear from God in our private studies, we may end up with head knowledge and yet our hearts remain unchanged. If we never bother to speak only those truths that we possess, and rightly accredit those that we don’t, we face the risk of condemning ourselves. The con of commentaries is one of the devil’s oldest tricks. If you find yourself perusing through commentaries just so that you can answer your critics instead of doing it so that you can better grasp or understand God’s Word, you may be falling for this con.
It was Tozer who rightly said that “The devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.” R. C. Sproul reiterates the same message in these words, “Satan could make an “A” in my Systematic Theology course. He knows the information and knows that the information is true.” The Bible goes ahead to bring this truth home by making it even more scary, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” [James 2:19] So, how come the devil remains unrepentant? If he knows all these things, how comes it doesn’t change him? Well, of all the many reasons that could be given for this, one reality seems to scream louder than all the rest today: the devil is a plagiarist. The truth he knows and professes won’t save him because he doesn’t possess it.
The devil continues to be a plagiarist even today. He wants to show us a form of Godliness, yet denying its power (2 Tim 3:5). And he wants us to be just like him, plagiarists. He wants us to fall for the ancient lie that Adam and Eve fell into. That we can possess the truth and the knowledge of good and evil without actually possessing Christ, or attributing it to Him. This is a lie. The devil is a liar. It is my prayer that WE can realize this, and pray and act upon our plagiarist instincts.
But if we must plagiarize, then there is one who does not mind being plagiarized. Our Lord, Jesus Christ. If you have fallen in this sin of spiritual plagiarism and false self-aggrandizement, Jesus offers forgiveness to those who will repent and seek it. Repent and seek to live out a faith that is authentic. You don’t always have to be original, but you can always be honest. God does not despise a broken and contrite heart.
If Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our Faith, then we really have no reason to hog credit for a spirituality that we do not even possess.
For the fame of God’s name,