The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness

[Click here for an audio version of this post: The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness.]

Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). I think it was prophetic.

sveit0499s

Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.

Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.

On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.

My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!

The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.

Our first two days in Rome were hell.       

The Inner Captivity of We Who Are Free

. . . and what we can do about it

We’ve been remade through a re-birth; we’ve become new creations and given new hearts; and the walls that imprisoned us have been bulldozed. And yet . . . we still fear our bosses, speak harshly to friends, dwell on anxious thoughts, and obsess about ourselves. Why is that?

Years ago I read an article written by a counselor who worked with concentration camp victims shortly after World War II. The sheer breadth of the war’s destruction restricted the Allies’ ability to help feed and shelter people, so refugee camps were built for the victims.

The counselor noted that many of the victims in the refugee camps acted as though they were still in prison. While they had been freed from the camps, they asked permission for the smallest liberties, such as a nighttime stroll outside their dormitories. The therapist made this observation:

We took the victims out of the camps in an instant,
but it may take decades before the camps are taken out of the victims.

Their story is our story. God has opened the prison doors on the outside, but we still need him to free us from the prisons walls within.

Hearing God’s Guidance for Our Lives

Let’s admit the plain  fact that most of us want to hear God’s voice for one simple reason: Guidance. We’re looking for an answer or some formula that will provide us with a clear choice between competing options.

fork_in_the_road

But God rarely limits his guiding voice to a formula. Rather, like a master painter, he uses an artful mix of brushstrokes and palette, sometimes speaking, other times orchestrating, oftentimes through counsel, and frequently even in his silence.

God’s primary purpose is to deepen his relationship with us. He doesn’t give us a paint-by-number scheme for guidance. Each of our lives is his masterpiece, and each masterpiece is painted with different colors and varying brushstrokes. Let’s not limit God’s guidance to dime-store paint kits.

Let me walk you through a bit of God’s guidance in my journey. As you see God’s painting of my life, I hope you will recognize his brushstrokes in yours as well.

The Stench of Human Sweat

Last week I experienced a tempest in a teapot, and I failed to weather the storm with grace. On Monday afternoon, I discovered that my blog’s subscription sign-up form was broken. It accepted the entry of an email address; everything looked fine. Except it didn’t actually update the subscription files. So I began a sweaty scramble to fix it.

Sweat

I worked from 3:30 Monday afternoon until about 9:30 that evening. At that point, the tiny-tempest sank my site: everything stopped working. I went to bed. I woke early Tuesday morning, coordinated communication between four different help centers, got the site running, temporarily jury-rigged an email signup form, and published last week’s article.

Phew! It took me nine hours, but I got it done. Afterward I took a prayer time, beginning with My Utmost for His Highest. The devotional ended with:

Is there someplace where you are not at home with God? Then allow God to work through that particular circumstance until you increase in Him, adding His qualities.

I immediately felt convicted (in a good way). I hadn’t really repaired my website “in God.” Sure, I had asked God for help, but I had been “at home” in my skills rather than in God.

My work had the stench of human sweat rather than the fragrance of the Father.*

Hearing God in the Multiplicity of His Methods and Moments

Most believers I know long for—and long desperately for—God’s voice, but we don’t hear his voice because we are unaware of the lavishness of his methods and moments.

Scripture says, “God speaks in many and diverse ways, but nobody notices (Job 33:14). We miss his voice because he’s not a paint-by-number God. He speaks in ways we can’t imagine.

rainbow

Far too often well-meaning people describe conversations with God with unhelpful, misleading examples. Their exchanges with God sound like dialogues written by master playwrights:

I asked God: What should I do with my life?
God answered: Are you willing to take a risk?
I replied: Yes, but I don’t know what to do.
God said: Move to Timbuktu.

When people tell these stories, we think, I never hear God so clearly. Let me tell you a secret: neither do they. At least not most of the time. Those stories are usually shorthand summaries of hours spent reading Scripture, reflecting on his words, praying, getting Godly nudges, and recognizing God’s voice in circumstances and through friends.

Because God speaks through his infinitely imaginative, artistic mix of methods and moments.

Hearing God in Reflection

Many years ago, I lived in London with a bunch of friends, working in campus ministry. One of my friends spent a couple hours with Dr. John Stott, an internationally-known pastor with a church that also ministered to university students.

Rodin-The Thinker

Dr. Stott and my friend discussed prayer. Dr. Stott confessed that his best prayer time is spent in thinking with God, reflecting on scripture passages, and meditating on eternal truths.

My friend argued that the best prayer is found in corporate worship, enthusiastic singing, exalting in the presence of God, shouting his praises, singing, dancing, kneeling, and bowing before the throne of God. We considered Stott’s “prayer” of reflection too intellectual, too shallow, too unenlightened, and perhaps unspiritual. We chuckled.

In fact, I’d say we snickered.

By the end of his life, Time Magazine identified Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world; he had written over 50 books; and he had helped hundreds of thousands of people —probably millions. And we twenty-something neophytes snickered at his shallowness.

Thirty-five years later, I’m rethinking spiritual reflection—actually practicing it—and it is rich beyond belief. Stott was oh-so-very right, and I was oh-so-very wrong. Spiritual reflection is one of the deepest ways to connect with God that I’ve ever experienced.

I love to brainstorm, whiteboard, and creatively go after innovative ideas. I love doing this with friends when considering anything, so I am trying it with God. And I love it.

Spiritual reflection is connecting me to God, and I’m hearing his voice.

Hearing God in our Inner-Being

Why did Jesus come to earth when he did? Why not immediately after Adam and Eve sinned? Wouldn’t that have saved the world from centuries of pain? Or, why didn’t he come to the slaves in Egypt instead of sending Moses? Or, why not now? Why didn’t God choose to appear on earth to our confused, depressed, decadent Western World? Why then and why not now?

hearing

Scripture says, “When the right time came, God sent his Son” (Gal.4:4); elsewhere it reads, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). The Bible says God figured out that the perfect time—the exact right time in all of history for all of humanity— to appear on earth. And it was two thousand years ago. Why then?

I can imagine a few better times. How about when “each man did what was right in his own eyes;” or the centuries of worshiping idols in the “high places;” or during those same times when the wealthy oppressed the poor, widows, and orphans? Why not then?

Or what about when brutal Assyria and Babylon cold-bloodedly conquered, pillaged, and raped God’s chosen people, when enemies dashed their little ones against stones? Why not then?

Instead Jesus came when God’s people were the most righteous they’d ever been in their two thousand year history: there was no hint of any idolatry, the Scriptures were taught in every synagogue, and temple worship was practiced exactly as taught by the Bible.

Of all the evil and needy times in the history of God’s people, why was that the right time?