When I was a teenager, family and friends used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Now they just ask me when I will grow up). I always wanted to be a missionary.
Immediately after college I began mission work in Europe. But one day, during a “normal” (that is, non-exciting) prayer time, I heard God speak two words: “Not now.” I sensed him say that if I did mission work “now” I would be creating an Ishmael not an Isaac; I would be birthing mission service out of my natural flesh and not out of God’s spiritual promise.
The sense was puzzling (I was serving God in the mission, wasn’t I?), but it was also compelling; so I left the mission field and entered the business world at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I eventually became an executive and owner of a software company.
Twenty-five years later, in another non-exciting prayer time, I sensed God say, “Now is the time.” I asked friends for discernment, and together we agreed that God was calling me away from my job. But none of us knew what God was calling me to.
That was why eight years ago, January 1st, 2008, I woke up with no job, no client calls, no meetings, no paycheck, and no clue about what I should do with my life. When people asked me what I do, I always answered,
“Well I used to be a software exec….”
I missed the applause
After many clueless months passed, I read a quote by former tennis champion Chris Evert, perhaps the single greatest tennis player of all time. (She reached more Grand Slam finals than any male or female tennis player. Ever.) When she finally hung up her racquet, she said,
I had no idea of who I was or what I could be away from tennis. I was depressed and afraid because so much of my life had been defined by being a tennis champion. I was completely lost. Winning made me feel like I was somebody. It made me feel pretty.
It was like being hooked on drug. I needed the wins. I needed the applause in order to have an identity.”
I knew exactly how she felt (except for feeling pretty). I knew who I was but not who I am. I missed the applause.
The name trap
I’ve recently been reading Jeremiah, and last week I found a really odd plea:
“Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches. (Jer. 9:23)
His plea is odd because the word he uses for “boast” is “hallel” from which we get “hallelu-jah” (praise the Lord). But the prophet uses the form, “yit-hallel,” which means to praise oneself.
In other words, he pleads, “Let not the wise man applaud himself for his wisdom;” nor wise parents for their parenting; nor smart people for their brains; nor good people for their morals.
Nor a former executive for his formerness.
We live in an odd moment of Christian history. Up until the recent past, humility was valued and pride was disdained. We may have been arrogant, but we were too proud to show it.
Nowadays a self-applause disease plagues us. Look at the self-descriptions on websites, Facebook, and Twitter pages of believers who long for more followers. Self-praise (yit-hallelu’s) is an epidemic:
Bestselling author, loving husband, pastor to pastors, leader of leaders, visionary, entrepreneur, explorer, sage. And the world’s most humble blogger.
Why do we insist on self-praise? To save ourselves. We boost our self-image through our self-boasting. To find significance in life, we applaud ourselves in the hope that others will join.
We name ourselves through self-admiration. Our self-applause becomes our functional saviors.
What can we do?
Our naming is an illusion. Or delusion. My old title beat me up; it whipped me with the scourge, “Used to be.” Everything we have will soon be a used-to-be.
We need a name that will never let us down—which really means we need a different savior.
The Apostle Paul surely had the Jeremiah passage in mind when he offered a similarly odd plea: “God forbid that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).
The impact of my life would be magnified beyond measure if my single boast in the world was: “I’ve got the applause of the only person whose opinion counts—though I don’t deserve it!”
It’s finally time to execute my old title of Executive.