He sat in my office, pain written plainly on his face. His marriage of twenty-five years was in tatters. He’d just spoken with his three sons about why he was moving out–a conversation that cost him (and them) dearly. The tears ran down his cheeks.

It was hard to feel great sympathy for him, however, because the decision to end his marriage was his own. Too many joyless years, he said. Too many unresolved issues. Besides, he’d met someone new.

Let’s call him Ted. Ted wasn’t a casual, pew-sitting, uninvolved member of our church family. This was someone who’d been part of our church for over twenty years. He’d served in leadership roles. We’d taught classes together.

That, I guess, was what made our meeting so depressing.

Ted regretted that I could not support his decision to tear his family apart. “But I am confident in my relationship with God. I know God wants me to be happy.”

“Really, Ted? God wants you to be happy?” I wondered which book of the Bible taught that timeless truth. I thought of faith heroes–Paul, Abraham, Jesus himself–and strained to find an example of happiness trumping obedience with godly results. I tried to remember past sermons and any word I might have uttered that would suggest happiness was a higher priority than holiness.

And then I thought of the word ‘syncretism.’ Not the first word to pop into your head under ordinary circumstances, I’ll grant you. But appropriate none-the-less. Syncretism–the attempt to reconcile, mix, and assimilate different beliefs and practices … to put together familiar though dissimilar things to make something new.

Take a little of the holy. Mix in a bit of the secular. Add water. And voila! Something new appears. Something that is both faith and culture, Spirit and flesh, the ways of God and the desires of the human heart. We usually think of syncretism at the large level—combining the worship of Yahweh and Baal, for instance; or the abandon of Carnival just before Lent.

But it’s the smaller instances of syncretism that, I suspect, are most dangerous. The kinds that play out in our decision-making, that determine our priorities, that dictate our sense of morality. It’s an unconscious syncretism, an accommodation that feels right simply because it is familiar. It’s a syncretism that occurs not in our seminaries or conferences, but in the shadowy confines of our own hearts.

It’s what the Corinthians did, mixing Corinth and Christ to worship God without the messiness of cross and humility and self-giving love. (See 1 Corinthians.) It’s what the church in Laodicea did, confusing the material wealth and security of their city for the kind of gold that comes only from God. (See Revelation 3.)

Syncretism is what Ted was doing as well, though he probably wouldn’t call it that. Take a few gauzy sentiments about a loving God, mix in a hundred thousand commercials lauding personal happiness as the ultimate good, add a cup or two of Hollywood delusions regarding happily-ever-after, and sprinkle in the latest psycho-babble self-help book for good measure. And what do you get? A way to have your cake and eat it too. A chance to behave atrociously but baptize it so God seems to approve. The possibility of practicing piety in a manner that isn’t inconvenient.

Every single person who claims Jesus as Lord is influenced and shaped by a hundred different voices: family, media, culture trends, books, friends, world events, history, etc. God is but one of the voices that whispers in our ears. We can lament that fact. We can attempt to cloister ourselves away from the world so that the only voice we hear is Christ’s.

But the burden of those many voices is the price we pay for ‘remaining.’ Faithfulness is measured not by tuning out other voices or ignoring the whispers of our culture and time. Faithfulness is, rather, giving priority to the voice of God, refusing to allow His voice to fade into the babble of competing messages and morals. Faithfulness is letting God have His say and then resisting the urge to water it down, make it more palatable, assimilate and accommodate and add to the truth of God with a ‘truth’ from some other source.

That’s what Ted was doing—listening to other voices. The moment those other voices spoke with the same volume and authority as God’s, the second he lost the capacity to distinguish between God’s will and his own, Ted was lost.