[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.
A couple years ago, I witnessed a well-known, incredible worship leader. His guitar strum stirred my heart, and his baritone voice felt like honey to the soul. I was awed—and a bit envious—as I watched him experience God. I understood his fame.
I praised his skills to my friends. When I wanted to write about leadership, that time of worship came to mind. I wanted to write about that. But then I remembered my first wonderment of a worship leader, someone you’ve never heard of.
When I was about twelve, I noticed that my church was singing louder and even tapping their feet (okay, we were Presbyterians, so we just wiggled our toes). We sang with an unfamiliar, inner-confidence. We began new verses in unison instead of a raggedy, smattering of voices slowly joined by others. I asked my parents what was happening.
They said we had just hired a new organist, Donna Picken. While “only” an organist (this was before pyrotechnical guitars and lighting were allowed in churches), she helped us worship with a gusto few Presbyterians allow in themselves.
The thing was, we never noticed Donna. We just sang better. We didn’t hear fancy organ bass runs (they were probably there); we simply felt freer to sing.
Donna was a great leader because we didn’t see her; we just sensed her effect. Donna was a great worship leader because we didn’t see her, we saw through her … to God.
Why did Jesus have to rise bodily from the dead? Why not just return spiritually to the Father?
Of course the song of resurrection inspires us. It harmonizes beautifully with all our other commonplace choruses, “It’s darkest before the dawn,” “Spring follows winter,” and “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” I once even heard a preacher conclude his Easter sermon with, “So Christ rose in our hearts.” The idea of resurrection feels good.
Such choruses are simply sappy, sentimental attempts to feel good in difficulty. But Paul claimed, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus didn’t really, physically, bodily rise from the dead, our faith is just horse manure.
The resurrection is a big deal. But why? Isn’t the real gospel that he died for our sins?
When I was twelve or thirteen, I went on a church retreat in the middle of January. The temperature was below zero. With friends I crossed a low bridge that spanned a three-foot-deep stream. We wrestled a bit, and I accidentally fell off the bridge into the stream.
I was plunged into a pool of stabbing cold; I gasped in shock; the bitter chill astonished me. The icy water began to suck all heat from my body (though technically, I’m told, my tiny body tried to heat hundreds of gallons of ice cold water). We later measured the water to be just above freezing. It felt unbelievably cold. And so did I.
That is the condition of humans after sin; our life is being sucked away in an icy river of death. Sin is not just bad behavior (“I lied,” “You cheated”). Sin is the power of death that ceaselessly, relentlessly, inexorably drains every unit of warmth of every cell from every human being.
Many years ago, I worked for a struggling company. Our architecture was outdated and sales revenue plummeted. Investments in new architecture meant expenses skyrocketed. We were hemorrhaging money with no doctor in sight.
And then our president had a heart attack.
Our parent company asked me if I would consider becoming president. I was flattered by their great offer (and impressed with their great wisdom), but when I prayed I sensed God say, “No.” His word felt clear and strong, and I declined.
Instead, I suggested a new vice president that I had recently hired and who had become a friend. Our parent company agreed, and my friend became our new president.
The next day, my president-friend began to attack me. In the following weeks, he reduced my pay, took away my office, demoted me, and publicly belittled me. *
My friend’s blitzkrieg movements stunned me. I was paralyzed and bewildered. Each new day brought a new disappointment. Every way I turned saw ambush and embarrassment. All of this came from a friend I had helped promote.
And God seemed absent, at least silent. I felt abandoned by God to a betraying friend who appeared intent on my professional destruction. I had voluntarily obeyed God by declining a promotion. As a result, I was demoted, humiliated, discouraged, and scared.
What kind of God would do this to someone who tried to obey him?
Thin-skinned people irritate me. (To be fair, I bet I bug them even more.) You don’t “like” their every Facebook post, their feelings get hurt. In a casual discussion, you cautiously question an idea of theirs, and they are deeply wounded.
Sometimes I just want to say, “Forget it.” However, my sympathy grew last fall during one unpleasant week, when:
- A long-term reader criticized my article as poorly written, irrelevant, and stupid.
- A close friend blatantly refused to help when I asked for the tiniest of favors.
- I completed a two year service commitment, and no one bothered to thank me.
- And those were the high points.
I thought I had the tough skin of a rhino. Turns out I have the thin skin of a peach. And my emotional life was in the pits. (Sorry. I didn’t even try to resist.)
Do you ever feel unwanted, see your ideas rejected, or get taken for granted? It ain’t fun. During that un-fun week, I felt used, abused, and confused. My motives were questioned, my ideas rejected, and my character assassinated. At least shot at.
I thought nasty thoughts about those villains; I considered them to be insensitive dolts. I was hurt. And a tiny bit pissed. I wondered if their parents had ever been married. As I pondered their questionable lineage, it struck me,
It wasn’t my feelings that were hurt—it was my ego.