When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.
Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.
Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)
Reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than his mother’s urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.
[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]
Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.
Sometime God speaks through a careful choreography of life events: conversations, readings, observations, and even the occasional media clip. Suddenly, all the pieces snap together, and we sigh (internally so no one hears us), “Aha!”
This morning, I had one of those moments of clarity. Over the past couple weeks:
I pondered with friends why some people and ministries are wildly successful while other people and ministries—equally gifted—struggle for survival;
I heard a quote by Oswald Chambers: “Is He going to help Himself to your life, or are you taken up with your own conception of what you are doing?”
I read a passage using the Scripture Meditation Plan: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)
These three events were preceded by a video I watched that smelled … funny. And the odor lingered. The creator of the video is a famous Christian writer who has morphed his verbal skills into marketing skills, and he wanted to help churches sell themselves.
In his video, a pastor shared the key to his own wildly successful church. I forget the exact words but he essentially said:
“I realized that too many churches make the pastor the hero. I decided to make the congregation the hero, and my church’s attendance exploded.” (Name withheld)
It reminded me of a conversation early in The Lost World movie. Repentant Jurassic Park creator John Hammond cries: “Don’t worry. I’m not making the same mistakes again.”
To which Ian Malcom retorts: “No, you’re making all new ones.”
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,
The angriest emails I’ve ever received were responses to my articles about self-love and self-esteem. And yet . . . yet I remain convinced that the greatest obstacle to hearing God lies in precisely our self-love and self-esteem.
Most of us unconsciously believe that God speaks only to those who are mature and pure.
To cover our inadequacies, we jury-rig our hearts with positive self-talk like, “I’m a good chap” and “I really feel bad about what I did.” Or else we excuse our failures with, “I was deeply wounded as a child” and “If you had a spouse like mine, you’d understand.”
We disguise our shortcomings because our thinking is distorted: we believe God is attracted to the spiritually successful. So we scurry for good feelings about ourselves and we explain away our faults.
The trouble is, positive self-talk forms barriers to hearing God: he loves the broken-hearted.
Last spring I attended a wedding and heard an impressive pastor preach a stirring sermon on a powerful passage called The Kenosis (or The Emptying).
It’s my favorite passage on humility:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)
The pastor urged the couple to be humble, to think first of the other person, and to give the remote to their spouse. He said humility is one virtue all religions agree on:
Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues,” and the Quran says, “The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility.”
He claimed to offer the key to marital bliss found in the gospels. He said the entirety of the good news can be summed up on one simple sentence: Be ye humble as Jesus was humble.
But equating the gospel with our humility is confusing cause and effect. The fruit of the gospel is humility, but chasing humility to find the gospel is squeezing bad news from the good news. We’re trying to get wine from a rock.