Updated: Jul 4, 2018
The German literary genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, once said, “Nothing is more revolting than the majority; for it consists of few vigorous predecessors, of knaves who accommodate themselves, of weak people who assimilate themselves, and the mass that toddles after them without knowing in the least what it wants.”
Hear, hear, Herr Goethe! Being a contrarian by nature, I totally concur with this observation. The Bible uses the metaphor of a flock of sheep to illustrate the waywardness of the masses: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, everyone, to his own way …” (Isa. 53:6).
The Canadian-American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, famously stated, “In economics, the majority is always wrong.” (Whilst I’m not a Keynesian, I’m not averse to quoting Galbraith when it suits me). Unfortunately, the tendency of the majority to blindly follow the leader with the best advertising campaign is not just limited to the field of economics.
Humans are communal by nature – drawing strength from numbers, deriving security from commonality. When faced with choices that require us to venture into new and uncharted territory, we instinctively look for ‘social proof’. In other words, if enough people are doing it, then it must be okay. Very few people want to be the first cab off the rank, or the first astronaut in outer space, so to speak.
This peculiarity of human psychology is exploited to the full by the advertising industry. Not only do advertisers seek to convince you, the consumer, that product XYZ is the best available, but more importantly, that everyone else but you is driving it, or wearing it, or eating it, or using it. And of course, being typically human, you don’t want to be the odd one out, do you?
And before long, and without fully realizing it, you find yourself being swept along by a tide of public opinion and behaviour patterns. You are no longer your own person; you no longer think independently; you no longer make choices based on what is right for you as an individual; you have conformed to the world around you. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the hypnosis of social conditioning’.
When everyone agrees, look out!
When asked about the sign of his return and of the end of the age, Jesus responded: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many … and many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold … if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect … Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it …” (Matt. 24:4-5,10-12,23-26).
Notice how many times Jesus uses the word ‘many’ in this brief discussion with the disciples. Jesus paints the picture of a world agreed but deceived … a majority, no doubt, but a majority that is wrong, dead wrong. A flock of sheep charging down the road, unaware that they are hurtling toward a precipice and sudden destruction!
Jesus’ advice is unequivocal: “When everyone is saying it, don’t believe it! When everyone is doing it, don’t follow suit!” If necessary, swim against the tide and save yourself from this crooked generation! (Acts 2:40).
Jesus then proceeded to use the example of Noah: “But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:37-39).
In this case, the majority were most certainly wrong! Only eight people out of a civilization of thousands survived the devastation.
In 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, Paul describes the condition of the world leading up to the return of the Lord Jesus. He warns that the day of the Lord will come “as a thief in the night” – in other words, suddenly and unexpectedly. “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety,’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labour pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thess. 5:3-4).
“When they say peace and safety,” they being the majority. As a general rule, when the majority says one thing, the opposite usually occurs.
The tyranny of the majority
King David experienced the tyranny of the majority as he fled from his son, Absalom, after he had usurped power in Jerusalem. “Lord, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, ‘There is no help for him in God.’” (Psalm 3:1-2). But refusing to accept the verdict of the majority, David cried, “But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head … I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around … Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God!”
And contrary to the expert opinion of many who had written him off, David was restored to the throne of Israel and reigned for a further nine years - which just goes to show that you shouldn’t worry when people say that you are finished, or that your opportunity has passed, or that you haven’t got what it takes to succeed! God (and you) will have the last laugh!
Paul admonished the believers in Rome, the seat of world government in the first century, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). J. B. Phillips puts it this way, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.” Believe me, there was a lot of pressure in first century Rome to conform to the cultural patterns and social standards of the Empire! More than one Christian felt Caesar’s ‘squeeze, whether in the arena, before the pagan altar, or in the market place.
Fast forward two thousand years … When a politician shamelessly declares, “We all accept the science on which climate change is based,” it is Machiavellianism at its best – dogmatically asserting something as though it is an established fact, when in actuality it is nothing more than a groundless assumption. For the record, the theory of climate change is not based on proven scientific fact, and we most certainly do not all accept it. The secret, of course, is that if you tell a lie often enough and with sufficient conviction, the majority will accept it on face value without bothering to discover the truth.
Be different … for truth’s sake
It’s not a matter of being different for different’s sake; rather, it’s a matter of being different for truth’s sake. It’s having the courage to zig when everyone else zags; the courage to stand against the tide in good conscience and solid conviction; the courage to hold on to one’s dreams and visions, to adhere to one’s values and ideals, in the face of ridicule and rejection.
It’s the three Hebrew boys, refusing to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image.
It’s Daniel, refusing to defile himself with the king’s delicacies.
It’s Moses, refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing instead to suffer affliction with the people of God.
It’s Peter and John, refusing to recant before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
It’s Martin Luther, defying the Emperor and the authority of the Pope at the Diet of Worms.
It’s William Wilberforce, campaigning against the lucrative and abominable slave trade in 18th century England.
It’s David Livingstone, seeking to alleviate the suffering of native Africans through self-development and self-determination, in the face of colonial (Rhodesian) exploitation.
It’s you in your small corner and I in mine, letting our light shine for the world to see!