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.
A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
And we want to be somewhere else.
I once told a friend of a recurring temptation of mine. Over the next month, he shared my secret with a dozen other friends, spicing up the tale with the fib that I had yielded to the temptation—even though I hadn’t. His betrayal shocked me. I skipped several lunch and dinner appointments, unsure who had heard and what they thought.
His disclosure also angered me. I obsessed over his treachery: How could he have divulged my secret temptation? And why worsen my shame with the sneering proclamation I had done it! I would never have betrayed a friend like that.
One day, as I fumed over his relational-adultery, I sensed God’s voice speak into my seething self-pity: Sam, why are you so angry? I thought the answer obvious: My friend had stabbed me in the back! Then I remembered a verse:
“I tell you, when one sinner repents, there is joy among the angels of God.” (Luke 15:10)
I thought, Sure, I suppose there would be joy in heaven if this jerk (I mean, friend) repented. His public confession might even bring me a bit of joy here on earth.
And I sensed God say, “I’m not talking about his sin; I’m talking about yours.”
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.
She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”
She wondered why he had rejected Christianity.
I wondered why it took him so long.