Tag Archives: Humility


Failing with Family

As a phone conversation with my sister was winding down, she offered stinging final words after debriefing over some family drama: “Well, we all know you’re the spiritual one in the family.” I sighed an internal ugh, knowing that she really meant to say self-righteous one. In an attempt to defend what I thought she was implying, I launched into a stream of apologetic clarifications. In the end, it felt like an exercise in futility. I knew the reputation I had forged years earlier in much less sanctified times had never been forgotten.

stock-footage-fire-family-word-fire-textThe truth is that I had deservedly earned the title. As a young, arrogant, spiritually immature and self-assured believer, I had driven my nose up at my families’ failures and displayed enough told-you-so-disappointment that I’m surprised they didn’t excommunicate me altogether. It wasn’t until I had experienced quite a few of my own failures that God thankfully shut down my pharisaical rantings for good. Looking back on those early days, I still feel ashamed at the ways I disgraced the name of Christ and the reputation of believers.

Unfortunately, grudges are easier to hold than forgiveness is to hand out. Reputations are complex mechanisms to dismantle. Although we have limitless opportunities to show kindness to others, it takes only one poisonous slip of the tongue or outburst of anger to completely destroy our credibility and strip us of relational capital.

How We Work to Restore

So is there a place to even begin? Can there be a rebuilding process? Maybe you’re eager to repair, but you know certain family members will never let you move past your former self.

If you face decades worth of family damage, here are three steps to consider taking. Although reconciliation is never guaranteed, we are always guaranteed that God will look upon the humble and contrite.

1. Seek forgiveness: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4:10 

Want to shock a grudge-holding family member? Start by asking for forgiveness. There’s nothing that cuts quite so deep as humble repentance. If they ask why, you can share how the gospel has illumined your own sin by the light of God’s grace. You can explain how Christ’s humility on the cross convicts you of your own arrogance, and that repenting to him enables you to ask forgiveness of them.

2. Speak softly: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1

A soft answer will be curiously received by an unbelieving family member who has received the opposite from you in the past. Controlling your tongue will always speak louder than using it to cut another spiritual incision into an already tender situation. This is a general principle, so although a soft tone won’t always calm a stormy feud, I think it’s safe to say that an angry rant never will. Think about the channels of communication that might open up when a family member responds, “Your reaction really surprised me, I thought you’d be upset.”

3. Show kindness: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:12

Look for opportunities to sacrificially bless unbelieving members of your family. If you’re far away, contact them occasionally to let them know you’re praying and thinking about them. If they live close, make yourself available to them. In this way they will see a heart for Christ that also cares about them, and they won’t have any reason to speak negatively either in their hearts or with their mouths about your actions.

I don’t know my current status with my family. I probably never will. But I do know that each of us needs to come clean and repent of our own failures with our families.

Pray with me that God would give us a gospel-infused love for our families that causes us to be more critical of our own sin than theirs. Pray with me that Jesus would give us prayerful, less prideful hearts that overflow with mercy and forbearance. Pray with me that the Holy Spirit would help us forgive as we continue to be forgiven.

And by God’s grace, they may yet glorify him.


The Danger of ‘What This Really Means’

At some level we’re all Nietzcheans now. During online debate and interaction with those whom we disagree, we often default to a “hermeneutic of suspicion” associated with Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and their later disciples Foucalt and Derrida. For those happily unaware of what that phrase means, it’s essentially a way of interpreting and reading everything with a certain level of skepticism, concerned to uncover the real, hidden motives behind any argument, statement, or position. It rejects the face-value reading, because “what this really means” is probably something else, mostly an attempt maintain hidden relations of power or control.

friedrich-nietzsche-540x304For instance, claims about maintaining the order of the family made by a politician are “really” about supporting the material interests who profit from current structure of society. In the religious realm, a claim by a pastor about the nature of church government is about maintaining his own clerical position of authority.

When it comes to debating the hot-button issues of the day, it’s quite tempting to resort to “what they really mean” stories about our opponents. For instance, are they opposed to gay marriage? Then it’s not really about the Bible, but about maintaining their own righteousness by comparison. Are they in favor of it? It’s not because of a moral stance, but it’s really about their inability to stand up to the culture for Jesus.

Actually, a hermeneutic of suspicion is necessary at times. Often we see that claims to truth really are pragmatic masks worn by those looking to sell something or increase their own power. There’s a reason nobody trusts politicians. There is good reason to query claims made by “experts” in commercials trying to sell us things. One of Kevin Vanhoozer’s 10 rules of cultural interpretation is this: “Determine what ‘powers’ are served by particular texts or trends by discovering whose material interests are served (e.g.. follow the money!).” In fact, as Christians, we’re called to exercise a sort of hermeneutic of suspicion against our own self-serving hearts, the claims of the world against the truth of the gospel, and so forth.

That said, there are some problems with our stumbling rush to decode the hidden motives of our interlocutors.

Seeing Through Can Lead to Blindness

The first is one that C. S. Lewis pointed out years ago in his classic The Abolition of Man:

But you cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

When we are constantly straining to “see through” the arguments of our neighbors, we run the risk of never actually seeing them. If we’re constantly tuning our ears to the background hum of power-plays and manipulation, we’ll soon find we’re deaf to anything else. If we’re only ever listening to unmask, we’re never actually listening to understand.

How, then, can we have anything like meaningful dialogue? With a strict “what that really means” mindset, all that’s left is a flurry of counter-accusations and cloud of knowing suspicion between opponents trying to pull the wool over each other’s eyes. In this kind of atmosphere, nobody’s actually open to new information, new arguments, or any kind of intellectual rapprochement, but only victory over the enemy. In fact, this is precisely what we see all around us in the culture, with both sides confidently talking past each other, sure of their own vindication, without ever actually grappling with the other side’s arguments. 

If we only hear people by “hearing through” their words, we’re failing to treat others as we’d like to be treated. We want our speech to be taken seriously and our thoughts honored as an extension and expression of our selves. And few things can make us feel more disrespected than to be interrupted, ignored, or misinterpreted.

Hiding From Our Own Heart 

The next danger is self-deception and spiritual pride. Jonathan Edwards wrote about the blinding danger of spiritual pride in his work Some Thoughts Concerning Revival:

‘Tis by this that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he does not need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it. . . . Being proud of their light, that makes ‘em not jealous of themselves; he that thinks a clear light shines around him is not suspicious of an enemy lurking near him, unseen: and then being proud of their humility, that makes ‘em least of all jealous of themselves in that particular, viz. as being under the prevalence of pride.

When I’m playing the “what that really means” game, there’s often a hidden motive lurking within my own heart, which I am looking to avoid by projecting the malice on my opponents. Maybe I fear my own reasons aren’t all that strong, or I’m worried their points are stronger than I’d like to admit. Or maybe I simply can’t countenance the idea that I’ve been wrong this whole time, since I’ve built my identity around this ideological position. And so, instead of interrogating my own heart, my own reasons, I impute false motives to my opponents in an effort to protect my own pride.

Listen to Others, Question Self, Then Question Others

Without abandoning the call to be discerning, I want to reaffirm the need for greater humility in this conversation. Again, we learn from Edwards:

But if this disease be healed, other things are easily rectified. The humble person is like a little child; he easily receives instruction; he is jealous over himself, sensible how liable he is to go astray; and therefore if it be suggested to him that he does so, he is ready most narrowly and impartially to inquire.

Humility does the hard work of actually listening to others. What’s more, humility teaches us to question ourselves. Martin Luther wasn’t afraid of calling out the self-serving interpretations of the medieval indulgence-sellers and pretensions of papal power. Yet he wisely said, ”I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.”

We need not worry that such humility merely invites Christians to go soft on sound doctrine. Because true humility also requires us to test every argument, our own and those of our conversation partners, against the Word of God.

The Danger of Self-Awareness in Preaching

I once heard John Piper say in an interview, “Self-consciousness is the curse of the preacher.” The context of the conversation was concerning the infamous “gesturing” of Piper in the pulpit. He made clear that he does not practice, plan, or otherwise pay attention to that stuff. Furthermore, it would be deadly if he did.

crystal_spurgeon-300x221By self-awareness I mean the unhealthy fixation of the preacher upon himself. When the preacher is thinking about himself before he is preaching, when he is preaching, and after he is preaching, then he is dangerously self-aware.

And why would it be a danger for the preacher?

1. It could divert his focus.

The task of the preacher is to communicate God’s Word in such a way that his hearers will be captivated with the greatness of God. To this end the preacher must be focused on God. He must be enveloped in the majesty of God and speak as one who is personally impressed with him.

If the pastor spends his time trying hit the perfect inflection, making the right gesture, telling the right kind of story, or making the perfect face, then he is distracted. I have heard of some men who weekly watch videos of their sermons to improve. Doubtless some of this study can be helpful. But if you are breaking down your motions with the detail of an NFL commentator, then your focus may be off.

2. It may detract from God’s power.

The logic goes something like this: If we could just improve our craft a bit then perhaps they will trust and treasure Christ. But conversion and growth does not work this way. God has chosen to use the weak things—like imperfect people preaching—to show his power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31). In this weakness God shows himself powerful.

So by all means, try to remove needless distractions. However, do not seek to make the message more powerful by putting some air in the gospel sails. You can’t do it. It will inevitably deviate from God’s plan and detract from his power.

3. It may lead to pragmatism and manipulation. 

I have often wondered how some preachers started doing certain things while preaching. Some guys wear outlandish clothing, say shocking things, and even deploy props on stage during their sermons. How does this happen? Nobody just wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “I think I’ll ride my motorcycle to the pulpit today.” People don’t jump to pragmatism overnight.

I believe they really want to be effective. You can see how this type of thing could dangerously progress. The preacher’s unhealthy fixation upon himself can lead him down unexpected roads.

We know that manipulation has always been a pulpit felony. If the preacher is manufacturing emotion in himself or his hearers only to get a response (however “good” his end-goal) he must repent. Preachers, of all people, must not manipulate people. We proclaim truth!

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2 )

4. It may be quenching the Holy Spirit.

Another way preachers could be too self-aware is to try to defuse emotion in the pulpit. Some guys are greatly moved with emotion, even to tears, while preaching. There’s nothing wrong with this response. However, in his unhealthy fixation upon himself the preacher may try to resist this emotion. But if he is genuinely moved by God the Holy Spirit, how can he suppress being moved? Isn’t this hypocritical?

Think about it: we preach and pray for “God to work in people’s lives” only to resist him in our own? What an insult to the Trinity for me to mitigate the divine passion for his glory and honor by trying to preserve and promote my own! Being too aware of self could lead to a lack of awareness of the Holy Spirit.

Bottom Line

When a preacher fixates on himself, his preaching becomes a personal performance rather than proclamation of God’s Word. And the preacher can never let himself become the spectacle. He cannot be the show. He gets out of the way by being wrapped up in and carried away in the God he proclaims. I think this is what God the Holy Spirit is doing when he uses the preacher’s personality and expressiveness to serve the Word of God. As Piper teaches:

You want the significance of what you are saying to be seen and felt, and I suppose it is largely a personality thing as to how much expressiveness you give with your voice and how much expressiveness you give with you body. But for me, it is just who I am and what I do and it is part, it is just part of a language.

Be yourself and don’t be too conscious of yourself. Just preach the Word of God.

Sneering Calvinists

I’m fairly new to the Reformed tradition and still piecing it all together, especially when it comes to the thorny issues of election and sovereignty. In a sense, I’m a reluctant Calvinist; I still prefer words like “Reformedish” to describe myself, yes, because of my identification with the broader tradition, but also because of how slowly I’ve been drawn in. That being the case, I still remember what it’s like to find Calvinism and Calvinists thoroughly off-putting.

There were different reasons for this wariness.

The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly

First, there were foolish reasons like personal pride and ignorance. Sad to say, when it came to Calvinism, I thought I knew exactly what I was talking about and rejecting, without actually being familiar with the tradition. There was a time when I was the knee-jerk anti-Calvinist who sneered any time the Genevan Reformer was even mentioned, all without ever having cracked open a page of the Institutes. Oh, the irony.

Then there were what I’d call the good reasons: good-faith objections resting on legitimate questions of philosophy, the doctrine of God, and sound biblical exegesis. These are reasons I still wrestle with, reasons I pray about, reasons I think might always be at the back of my mind. What do you do with all the biblical language implying a legitimate choice? What does “love” mean if it’s a foregone conclusion? Or how can God be truly omnibenevolent if his saving love is exclusive to the “elect”? And how is it fair that someone born in sin, with no hope of turning to God themselves, is then damned for a choice he was never actually given? Is the God who “ordains all things,” then, the author of evil?

Of course, I know there are objections to framing these questions this way (objections I now share). But these are still prima facie good questions that other Bible-reading, Jesus-loving, sin-hating Christians can and do wrestle with—and often answer differently for sane, godly, and intelligent reasons. The plain fact of the matter is that much of Reformed theology is counterintuitive and difficult to embrace at first, especially for those of us raised in the modern West.

Some of you might be wondering, “Why go into all of this? This is obvious. Who would question that?” Let’s be honest and say a lot of Calvinists won’t admit this difficulty, and it comes out in the condescending, aggressive, abrasive, and unhelpful way they approach theological engagement with people who disagree. You know the kind. You can find them in Bible studies, blog comment sections, insular Reformed churches that nobody visits; the archetypical newbie who presents masterfully botched iterations of Reformed doctrines, as if they were the most obvious truths of God that only a perversely obstinate fool could miss; the crusty expert who adds in just enough condescension and sneering to belie all his talk of grace. (“Just watch this sermon on Romans 9 and you’ll thank me for showing you how dumb you are.”)

This was my final reason for being put off from Calvinism: really arrogant, thickheaded, (often young) know-it-all, sneering Calvinists. Who wants to be planted in soil that yields such fruit? In the long run that isn’t the best reason to reject a doctrine, as it’s just another version of the common atheist objection: “But if Christianity were true, then Christians should be great, but all the Christians I know are jerks so it must be false” (see C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity). Still, there’s something to it given Christ’s own declaration that people are known by their fruits.

Plea for Helpful Humility

I’m issuing a plea of sorts to my Reformed brothers and sisters for patience with, or a “helpful humility” toward, those who don’t embrace the distinctives of Reformed theology, Calvinism, and those of us to those who hold it.

As I said, I’ve only slowly come around to the Reformed tradition. It’s taken years of reading different texts, working through heavy issues in metaphysics, thinking deeply through implications of the Creator/creature distinction, and coming to appreciate the Reformed tradition beyond its soteriology. I was brought into its richer tradition of spirituality through an appreciation of its emphasis on a constellation of biblical doctrines like revelation, union with Christ, providence, the atonement, and the Lord’s Supper, which form the proper background for its teaching on election.

That process didn’t happen in a vacuum, though. A couple patient buddies embodied helpful humility toward me as I worked through the issues. They were quick to celebrate the truths we shared together. They argued graciously with me at the right times but never questioned my faith or intelligence. They pointed me to good resources and were willing to read some of the ones to which I pointed them. Essentially they took the time to hear and understand my problems as we discussed. More than that, they honestly tried to extend the free grace that they believed they’d received from God through no merit of their own.

Please don’t hear this article as a call to abandon theological engagement or clear preaching of the truth—even of the distinctives—or some kind of squishy, lowest-common denominator Christianity. It’s simply a reminder that, yes, a lot of this stuff is weird and counterintuitive at first, so we should be understanding, especially if we want to be heard.

Let me put it this way: if you’re really a Calvinist and believe you’ve received knowledge of the truth by the sheer grace of God, which is what a Reformed view of knowledge teaches, then be patient with those who don’t see it. God has been (and is currently being) patient with you in some area as well. So stop sneering and ask God to humble you enough to be helpful to those offended at or wrestling with those doctrines you now hold dear.

Confessions of a Reluctant Servant

“We don’t have anyone to teach Sunday school today. I need you to do it.”

“But I don’t teach . . . ” I started to say. Yet the look in my husband’s eyes stopped me. I sighed and nodded my head. We were short on volunteers, and someone had to fill in. I guess I was better than no one at all.

jesus_washResolved to my fate, I stepped into the classroom. Trepidation and uncertainty filled my heart. I didn’t know what I was doing. What if I made a mess of things? What if I couldn’t manage the class? What if . . . ?

That was about four years ago, and I have been teaching that same class ever since. Around that time we had a church crisis of sorts. Without a pastor and down a number of families, we were in a situation where either everyone chipped in to do their part, or we would have to shut our doors.

Servanthood Puts Aside Personal Needs

Our church crisis served as a catalyst to push me beyond my own comforts and into exploring the true depths of what servanthood really means. Servanthood is uncomfortable. It requires putting your own needs aside for someone else. It’s humbling, thankless, and hard. Not only is it hard, but the act of serving can also inconvenience and interrupt our own purposes and plans.

On the same night he was to sacrifice his life for the sins of his people, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Messiah, bent down and washed the filth and muck off of the same feet of those who would soon run away in fear when the authorities came to arrest him. He then instructed them to follow his example: “You also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13: 14-15). He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men . . . he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:5-8).

Service makes us uncomfortable and empties us of pride and self-exaltation.

For this reluctant servant, I had to face the truth that when my heart refuses to serve the body, I am in some way mocking the service of Christ himself. When I say a task isn’t appropriate for me to do, I am saying that I am better than my master. And when I limit my service for the sake of the kingdom to only what makes me comfortable, I am saying that Christ and his body just isn’t worth the effort.

He Makes Us Capable

Whatever the reason for your reluctance—be it lack of time, skill, or sleep—God does not expect you to serve out of your own inherent abilities. As this reluctant servant has learned, God does not call the capable, he makes capable the called. He doesn’t give us a task and then expect us to figure out how to do it on our own. Rather, he provides everything we need to serve him through his Spirit.

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). God gives us spiritual gifts to serve the body. Through the power of the Spirit at work in us we serve in ways that we are not naturally capable of doing. This is why Peter, who frequently spoke out of turn and without thinking, could then by the Spirit at work in him preach the sermon found in Acts 2. God works through and in spite of our weaknesses to fulfill his calling on our lives.

It started with a Sunday school class that then moved into teaching a ladies Bible study. My lessons in servanthood also led me to hosting small groups in my home and then in serving on our pastoral search committee. Through it all, God made me capable to his calling for me. I’ve learned that while servanthood is hard and often uncomfortable, there is nothing to fear in serving Christ and his body, for he always provides the tools necessary to complete the task. When it comes to servanthood, we make the sweetest music together when everyone performs their part to bring praise and glory to the One who came and first served us.

You Can Lead with Influence

Leaders with influence stand out. When a teacher has influence, students seek a relationship outside of class and ask advice on topics outside of the curriculum. When a manager has influence, employees pitch in on projects without being asked. When a pastor has influence, Christians find any excuse to join his Sunday morning coffee hour conversations. When an older sibling has influence, the closeness lasts well into adulthood. In each case, we follow influential leaders, not because we have to, but because we want to.

An aspiring leader might start off with this vision for influence, but over time the rookie’s eagerness can fade into a fog of authority and experience. Experience assures the leader that entrenched behaviors can’t be broken, touchy people need more leeway, and elder meetings must be boring. Thus, forfeiting influence, the former idealist starts to rely on his own authority to get results.

Consider the difference between authority and influence in this simple illustration. An authoritative parent might compel his teenager to keep her curfew. But only an influential parent can trust his daughter won’t sneak out when he’s asleep.


Deeper Influence

Because of God’s grace, influence lies within reach. Look at the fruit of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica:

You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess 1:6-10)

Paul’s message was the same as ours: Turn from idols to serve God, and trust in his resurrected and ascended Son for deliverance.

But Paul’s influence was extraordinary. The Thessalonians saw the Lord in Paul (and Silvanus and Timothy) and longed to imitate him (1 Thess 1:6). Like him, they persevered through affliction and became examples to others (1 Thess 1:6-7). They promoted Paul’s message in their neighborhoods, and reports of their vibrant belief spread faster than election results (1 Thess 1:8). They didn’t have to claim Paul as their hero; the fact was obvious to anyone who knew them (1 Thess 1:9).

This is deep impact. How did he do it?

How to Lead with Influence

Paul’s recipe was simple. It had two primary ingredients: hope and humility.

Paul divulges these not-so-secret keys to influential ministry in chapters 2 and 3 of his letter.

Humility means caring more about others than about yourself. It means being honest about your need for grace. It means refusing to trample others on the way to your own success or personal fulfillment. Here is Paul’s humility on display:

  • “Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thess 2:3).
  • “We never came with words of flattery . . . nor with a pretext for greed” (1 Thess 2:5).
  • “Nor did we seek glory from people . . . though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ” (1 Thess 2:6).
  • “We were gentle among you” (1 Thess 2:7).
  • “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves” (1 Thess 2:8).
  • “We worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thess 2:9).

Hope means believing God is at work through Christ, so anything can change for the better. It means approaching others’ sin with patience rather than anger and refusing to complain about everything that’s wrong with the world, instead thanking God for what’s still right. It means being honest about difficult things while remaining confident God will use them for good. Paul’s hope resounds:

  • “We also thank God constantly for this . . . you received the word of God . . . you accepted it” (1 Thess 2:13).
  • “The word of God is at work in you” (1 Thess 2:13).
  • “With great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess 2:17).
  • “You are our glory and joy” (1 Thess 2:20).
  • “We have been comforted about you through your faith” (1 Thess 3:7).
  • “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thess 3:8).
  • “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness” (1 Thess 3:12-13).

Folding humility and hope into the recipe of leadership doesn’t require extraordinary intelligence. The trick, however, is to seek both character traits at the same time. Leaders who dole out both ingredients in liberal portions find their influence sweetening relationships wherever they go.

But remember that Paul is not the master chef. He merely guzzled grace from the fountain of life. The Lord’s life-giving wisdom gushed from him like ambrosia from Olympus, and desperate, mortal sinners kept coming back for more.

Paul spoke of Jesus, who embodied humility when he, who was God, brought himself low for our sake. And Jesus epitomized hope when he trusted his Father’s plan to make sinners righteous through death and resurrection. In the gospel, we see one who has all authority in heaven and on earth, but who uses it to serve others and so change the world.

C. S. Lewis on Selfishness vs. Self-Interest

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, says business is under attack today. Speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last month, he said, “Humanity has been lifted up by business and yet it has been completely hijacked by its enemies who create a narrative that business is selfish, and greedy, and exploitative.”

Business provides good context for thinking biblically about selfishness, self-interest, and greed. Are all business people selfish? Certainly not. But we are all capable of being selfish. There are selfish teachers, physicians, pastors, and firefighters. Selfishness is an equal opportunity employer. The more pressing question concerns self-interest. Is self-interest necessarily selfish?

C. S. Lewis wrote much about the tension between self-interest and selfishness. To Lewis, there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness, and there is a proper place for self-interest. When Lewis first came to faith, he did not think about eternal life, but focused on enjoying God in this life. Lewis later said that the years he spent without focusing on heavenly rewards “always seem to me to have been of great value,” because they taught delight in God above any prospect or reward. It would be wrong to desire from God solely what he could give you, without delighting in God himself.

Proper Place for Self-Interest

Lewis never disparaged the place of heavenly rewards, but he saw that the paradox of reward might be a stumbling block for some. On the one hand, the purest faith in God believes in him for “nothing” and is not primarily interested in any benefits to follow. On the other hand, the Bibles teaches us that we are rewarded for what we do. Presumably, this reward should motivate us to do good.

Certainly, a sole focus on rewards might pander to selfishness. Lewis discusses this paradox in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century:

Tyndale, as regards the natural condition of humanity, holds that by nature we can do no good works without respect of some profit either in this world or in the world to come. . . . That the profit should be located in another world means, as Tyndale clearly sees, no difference. Theological hedonism is still hedonism. Whether the man is seeking heaven or a hundred pounds, he can still but seek himself, of freedom in the true sense—of spontaneity or disinterestedness—nature knows nothing. And yet by a terrible paradox, such disinterestedness is precisely what the moral law demands.

We can resolve this tension between believing for nothing and believing for reward by realizing self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. Some maintain that Mark 8:35-36 is Lewis’s most frequently quoted passage of Scripture. Jesus appeals to self-interest as a motive for self-denial, saying, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Jesus encourages us to truly “save” our lives and not “lose” our lives or “forfeit” our soul. He appeals to our self-interest.

The Self-Interest of Self-Denial

Unless we have a sufficient reason to sacrifice something we love, the cost will always be too great. Lewis expresses this dilemma in the last paragraph of Mere Christianity:

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.

It is not in our self-interest to be selfish. Rather, self-denial is in our self-interest.

Lewis argues elsewhere that self-interest does not necessarily make our motives impure. He says in The Problem of Pain:

We are afraid that heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by its very nature, seeks to enjoy its object.

When we lose ourselves in wonder, awe, and praise of God, the more joyful we can become, but also the less self-conscious. When we are focused on God, we are not focused on self. Lewis summarizes this un-self-conscious experience: “The happiest moments are when we forget our precious selves . . . but have everything else (God, our fellow humans, the animals, the garden and the sky) instead.” In this experience, we are pursuing our joy, but not selfishly.

Our Self-interest Is Too Weak

In Lewis’s classic sermon The Weight of Glory, he poses this same dilemma between selfishness and self-interest (“disinterestedness”). In that context, he gives what has become my favorite Lewis quote:

Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We might not pursue our own self-interest strongly enough. We often settle for selfish desire and deprive ourselves of “infinite joy.” We are all too pleased with the meager pleasures we get and say “NO” to greater, higher, infinite pleasure. The more we pursue our true self-interest, the more we will glorify God. It is in our self-interest to give up lesser pleasures that may satisfy for a while but sooner or later lead to “hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay.”

The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in current public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But Lewis clearly believes that self-interest is not necessarily selfish, and that selfishness is not in our self-interest. Lewis may argue that the actions of the godly businessman and the missionary are both of self-interest. Vocational motivation, even when profit is involved, stems from our God-given talents to serve others, not necessarily for selfish reasons.

It’s important to remember that God’s interest is in our self-interest. It’s in our self-interest to deny ourselves. Selfishness is choosing our own lives, but if we pursue our self-interest we choose true life in Christ.

Don’t Drink the Dirty Water

We both drank from the same glass, our mouths leaving marks on opposite sides, a tall drink of water for the parched soul. This is what it is to come to the only Water that will quench our thirst: a shared glass, shared germs, shared experience, but only one Way, one Truth, one Life. Drinking from the same glass.

I tell a friend this morning that I feel straddled between two camps, and I don’t know how long I can sustain this position. I fear being viewed as tepid water. John writes of lukewarm water being spewed from the mouth of God (Rev. 3:16), but sometimes we think we’re God, spitting out those who don’t agree, can’t agree, or just cannot see.

We’ll show them. 

And what?

What are we showing them?

For those who take and adopt the phrase “gospel-centered,” do we show those who don’t hold to our same brand of theology that they are lukewarm? And for those who take and own the phrase “story-teller,” do we spew out those whose stories may look different than ours, take longer than ours, or shorter?

Water sputtering everywhere and not a drop to drink.

We’re drinking from a mirage if we only quench our thirst on what we hope to see and not what is real and lasting and may not be seen for a long, long, long time. We’re drinking from a stagnant pond if we keep returning to the same story over and over and over again hoping to find resolution (Prov. 26:11). We’re drinking from a rusty tap if we don’t purify our words with fire (James 4:8), season them with salt (Col. 4:6), and sweeten them with honey (Ps. 119:103). We’re drinking from contaminated water if we believe that we’re the water others long for.

We’re drinking from water that will never satisfy if we’re not drinking from the Living Water (John 4:7-30).

Some of us come to the well at high noon, fearful to gather our drink where others in our camp might see us. Some of us come in the morning, with the masses, because to stand apart, to stand alone is too much for our approval starved hearts.

But Jesus? Jesus takes our chin in his hand, lifts up our eyes to where our help can only come, and shows us a better way, a more beautiful way. He calls our sin what it is so there is no opportunity to remain lukewarm or ignorant, but he also says the watering hole in which we find ourselves is no thirst-quencher at all.

He is Water and we drink from his glass alone.

The Beauty in the Busy

The thought often greets me, that this is how I get to spend my life. This is how I get to earn a living and support my family. This is how I get to use my mental and communicative gifts. This is what I get to research, memorize, and know. This is what I get to teach others. This is what I get to mentor others to teach to others. This is who I am. This is what I do. I am a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no higher honor and, other than my own salvation, no joy can compete.

I live every day with a deep sense of privilege. I carry a realization of the granduer of the task, that I’ve been chosen to be a lifelong ambassador of the King of kings. I’ve been called to tell his story, the greatest story ever told. And I don’t just get to tell it once; I get to tell it again and again. In fact, I’m called to never stop telling it and to never stop training others to tell it. I’ll never have a personal audience with the President or be welcomed into the court of a king. I’ll never be rich or internationally famous. But I am a spokesman for the King of kings and get to dispense his riches to the poor every day.

It’s the joyous mystery of my life that this is what I’ve been chosen and gifted to do, and I regularly pray the ardor of ministry will not cause me to lose that joy. Does joy color your ministry? Does it quiet complaint and defend you against weariness or bitterness? Has the beauty of what you’ve been called to do been lost in the busyness of schedule and the repetiveness of the task? Does your heart celebrate even when the days are long?

Humility and Joy Meet

But there’s another theme of heart that must live next to and interact with ministry joy. It’s ministry humility. My celebration must not cause me to forget my need. If I pay attention, ministry will quickly reveal that what I’m called to give to others I also need. As I’m telling the old, old story to others, I must tell it over and over to myself. As I’m studying the ways of grace, I must apply the truths of grace to myself. As I’m preparing to preach grace to others I must pause and worship, recognizing that such grace includes me. As I welcome others to run with confession and repentance to the Savior of grace, I must do the same again and again.

My sense of privilege for what I’ve been called to do must never degrade into the pride of thinking that I’m special or different. I need the rescue I hold out to others. This means I’ve been chosen to tell God’s story and to represent his grace not because I’m worthy or up to the task, but because he is. He is able to take people in need of rescue and employ them as useful tools of his rescue. He is that great, and his grace is that powerful.

So as you start another year of ministry, guard your joy. Don’t let anything quiet your celebration of what you’ve been called to do. And as you’re celebrating, remember you’re not just preaching to the needy; you are needy. And remember both you and your people have been drawn into personal communion with the One who is up to the task.

5 More Signs You Glorify Self

Last week we looked at five ways the pursuit of self-glory shapes your ministry. Here are five more warning signs for you to consider in an effort to pursue wisdom and holiness. May God use these additional signs to expose your heart and to redirect your ministry.

Self-glory will also cause you to:

6. Care too little about what people think about you. 

If you think you’ve arrived, you are so self-assured that you simply don’t think others should evaluate your thoughts, ideas, actions, words, plans, goals, attitudes, or initiatives. You really don’t think you need help. You do alone what should be done in a group. And if you work with a group, you will tend to surround yourself with people who are all too impressed with you, all too excited to be included by you, and who will find it hard to say anything but “yes” to you. You have forgotten who you are and what your Savior says you daily need. You live in a place of both personal and also ministry danger.

7. Resist facing and admitting your sins, weaknesses, and failures. 

Why do any of us get upset or tense when we are being confronted? Why do any of us activate our inner lawyer and rise to our defense? Why do any of us turn the tables and remind the other person that we are not the only sinner in the room? Why do we argue about the facts or dispute the other person’s interpretation? We do all of these things because we are convinced that we are more righteous than the other person. Proud people don’t welcome loving warning, rebuke, confrontation, criticism, or accountability. And when they fail, they are very good at erecting plausible reasons for what they said or did given the stresses of the situation or relationship.

Are you quick to admit weakness? Are you ready to own your failures before God and others? Are you ready to face your weaknesses with humility? Remember, if the eyes or ears of a ministry partner ever see or hear your sin, weakness, or failure, it is never a hassle, never a ministry interruption, and it should never be viewed as an affront. It is always grace. God loves you, he has put you in this community of faith, and he will reveal your spiritual needs to those around you so they may be his tools of conviction, rescue, and transformation.

8. Struggle with the blessings of others. 

Self-glory is always at the base of envy. You envy others’ blessings because you see them as less deserving than you. And because you see yourself as more deserving, it is hard for you not to be mad that they get what you deserve, and it is nearly impossible for you not to crave and covet what they wrongfully enjoy. In you envious self-glory, you are actually charging God with being unjust and unfair. In ways you may not be aware, you begin to be comfortable with doubting God’s wisdom, justice, and goodness. You don’t think he has been kind to you in the way you deserve. This begins to rob you of motivation to do what is right, because it doesn’t seem to make any difference. It is important to recognize that there is a short step between envy and bitterness. That’s why envious Asaph cries in Psalm 73:13, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” He’s saying, “I’ve obeyed, and this is what I get?” Then he writes, “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast before you.” What a word picture—a bitter beast!

I have met many bitter pastors; men convinced they have endured hardships they really didn’t deserve. I have met many bitter pastors, envious of others’ ministries, who have lost their motivation and joy. I have met many pastors who have come to doubt the goodness of God. And you don’t tend to run for help, in your time of need, to someone you have come to doubt.

9. Be more position oriented than submission oriented. 

Self-glory will always make you more oriented to place, power, and position than in submission to the will of the King. You see this in the lives of the disciples. Jesus hadn’t called them to himself to make their little kingdom purposes come true, but to welcome them as recipients and instruments of a better kingdom. Yet in their pride, they missed the whole point. They were all too oriented to the question of who would be greatest in the kingdom.

You can never fulfill your ambassadorial calling and want the power and position of a king. Position orientation will cause you to be political when you should be pastoral. It will cause you to require service when you should be willing to serve. It will cause you to demand of others what you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. It will cause you to ask for privilege when you should be willing to give up your rights. It will cause you to think too much about how things will affect you, rather than thinking of how things will reflect on Christ. It will cause you to want to set the agenda, rather than finding joy in submitting to the agenda of Another. Self-glory turns those who have been chosen and called to be ambassasdors into self-appointed kings.

10. Control ministry rather than delegate ministry. 

When you are full of yourself, when you are too self-assured, you will tend to think you’re the most capable person in the circle of your ministry. You will find it hard to recognize and esteem the God-given gifts of others, and because you do, you will find it hard to make ministry a community process. Thinking of yourself more highly than you ought always leads to looking down on others.

Personal humility and neediness will cause you to seek out and esteem the gifts and contributions of others. Pastors who think they have arrived tend to see delegation as a waste of time. In their hearts they think, Why should I give to another what I could do better myself? Pastoral pride will crush shared ministry and the essential ministry of the body of Christ.

Personal Grief and Remorse

It is important for me to say that I have written these cautions with personal grief and remorse. In shocking self-glory I have fallen, at some time in my ministry, into all of these traps. I have dominated when I should have listened. I have controlled what I should have given to others. I have been defensive when I desperately needed rebuke. I have resisted help when I should have been crying out for it. I have been too full of my own opinions and too dismissive of the perspective of others.

I am saddened as I reflect on my many years of ministry, but I am not depressed. Because in all my weakness, the God of amazing grace has rescued and restored me again and again. He has progressively delivered me from me (a work that is ongoing). And in being torn between the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God, he has miraculously used me in the lives of many others. In love, he has worked to dent and deface my glory so that his glory would be my delight. He has plundered my kingdom so that his kingdom would be my joy. And he has crushed my crown under his feet so that I would quest to be an ambassador and not crave to be a king.

In this violent mercy there is hope for everyone. Your Lord is not just after the success of your ministry; he is working to dethrone you as well. Only when his throne is more important than yours will you find joy in the hard and humbling task of gospel ministry. And his grace will not relent until our hearts have been fully captured by his glory. That’s good news!