Back in the 1950s, a psychologist by the name of Solomon Asch scientifically proved something that most of us already know to be a basic reality of how life works. In essence, what Asch wanted to study was the level of influence that we have on each other. To do this, he performed a simple experiment. Asch put together groups of eight male students. In each group, seven of the students were actors and one student was not.
The groups were asked simple questions about lines on a page. The seven student actors were instructed to intentionally and regularly give wrong answers to the easy questions being asked. Each time, the tests were set up so that the seven actors gave their answers first, out loud and one at a time. Likewise, the tests were also conducted so that the eighth student, the one who thought the test was real, always gave his answer last and only after hearing all of the other answers first. What Asch proved with these experiments was that even with basic questions and obvious answers, it is hard to move forward and give that answer after hearing seven others offer the opposite view. (Asch Conformity Experiment, simplypsychology.org)
We call this peer pressure. When our peers exhibit a common behavior, it is hard for us to take a different path even when we know deep down in our hearts that the behavior of the group is wrong.
Now, it is easy for us to come to the conclusion that peer pressure is something that we grow out of as we get older. Today, I am standing in the halls of Laurens Middle School as I share with you. This is a place we associate with peer pressure. We all understand that when we are thirteen or fourteen years of age and roaming the halls of Middle School, or even when we are seventeen for that matter and making our way through High School it is hard to be different. It is terribly challenging for us to resist what everyone else is either doing or refusing to do during our teen years when the approval of our friends is so important.
But, what I want to suggest to us today is that peer pressure doesn’t magically go away when we leave the hallways of Middle School or High School. Instead, I firmly believe that peer pressure remains a constant battle no matter how old we are as we wonder the hallways of life.
Let me ask a simple question. How many of us are wearing masks regularly as we have been encouraged to do during these days of Covid 19? I suspect that many of us have to admit that we aren’t wearing masks as often as we should. And, if we are honest, we would have to say that part of the reason is that most other people that we know are not wearing them either. I have a sneaky suspicion that our decision not to wear a mask is at times because we don’t want to stand out or be different. At the same time, if we suddenly found ourselves in environments where virtually everyone was wearing a mask, I suspect that reality would have influence on us too.
The early follower of Jesus at the heart of the early chapters of Acts named Stephen is a great example for us as it relates to remaining true to ourselves in the midst of peer pressure. In only a few verses, Stephen illustrates an ability to do the right thing and an ability to resist the wrong thing even while standing alone. Stephen’s courageous faith is his guide in both regards.
On the one hand, in the text, Stephen is wiling to do the right thing when very few if anyone else follows suit. I say this in regards to Stephen as a Christ follower. In the early days of the church, to be a follower of Jesus was often to live a lonely existence. To be a Christ follower was often to run the risk of standing alone in your family and in your community. Now, to be fair sometimes other family members were a believer and generally there were a few other Christ followers in a given community to join with to form an early, very simple version of a church. But, on the grand scheme of things, it was a very solitary life and one definitely had to have the courage to live faithfully as an individual. We see this in Stephen. As he witnesses and lives for Christ in our text today, he is very much alone and opposed by a group.
At the same time, Stephen is also willing to stand alone by refusing to do something even when everyone else gives in to it. At the end of his life, Stephen is stoned for his faith. This was a horrible way to die with the person often being thrown from a high place before having large rocks hurled on top of their dying body in order to finish the act of execution. In the midst of this violent, awful experience, Stephen refuses to respond to the evil he experienced with evil of his own. Yes, if you read the text carefully, Stephen is definitely straightforward and confrontational when he preaches to the Jews who oppose him. But, he is not violent or hateful. In turn, when they turn to mob violence and resort to execution, Stephen responds to their evil by praying for them and asking for God’s mercy on them. He refuses to see their behavior as an excuse for him to exhibit his own evil or hatefulness.
In these last days of his life, Stephen passes two critical tests of peer pressure. First, when very few are willing to follow Jesus, he is able to resist the temptation to turn his back as well. He follows even if it means standing alone. Second, when the mob turns violent, Stephen resists the urge to be like everyone else and to buy into the lie that if everyone is doing it, then it must be okay. Stephen lives faithfully and his faithfulness is characterized by a courageousness to do the right thing even when acting alone.
Living faithfully means living courageously for us too. Courageous faithfulness means developing the resolve at times to say yes to Jesus when everyone else says no and the courage at times to say no to wrong behavior when everyone else says yes.
In recent months, I have become intrigued by a radio program called How I Built This. Each week the show focuses on an innovative American business and the story of how that particular company was built through the eyes of its founder. So far I have enjoyed episodes about businesses such as Stripe who was one of the first to figure out online financial transactions; Otterbox which was one of the first groups to produce cases in which to protect cell phones and Ben & Jerry’s which really changed ice cream, its production and the development of unique flavors. One over arching theme of virtually every episode has been the willingness of each entrepreneur, at some point in their career, to take a risk, stand on their own and try something no one else would do because of their devotion to and belief in their product. Only in the courageous risk taking were they able to be successful.
I want to end with that reminder. Yes, the risk of standing on our own is scary. But, sometimes, it is only when we have the courage to walk our own path that we are also capable of great accomplishment. After all, in light of his courage, we still remember Stephen and his story. Further, the texts tells us that Paul, before he was a believer, witnessed Stephen’s solitary courage first hand too. Many suggest that along with the Damascus Road, seeing Stephen’s courage may have been another critical thing that led to Paul’s own ultimate belief. Where will a life of courageous faithfulness to things of God take us? Amen.