Lay Aside the Weight of Insincerity

Lay Aside the Weight of Insincerity

Just like everyone seems to value patience, kindness, and forgiveness, so we all value sincerity in theory. No one says, “Hypocrisy is a great character quality,” or, “I aim to be as disingenuous as possible,” or, “Please, just be two-faced with me.” But like patience, kindness, and forgiveness, sincerity is far easier to affirm than to practice.

Each new day confronts us with numerous temptations to be insincere. In fact, it’s likely that we’re more insincere than we realize, since insincerity is a pervasive cultural practice. It’s woven into our rituals of social courtesy. Greeting: “Hey! How’s it going?” Expected response: “Great!” Christian subcultures also have insincere courtesies: “I’m so sorry to hear that. I’ll be praying for you.”

But it goes far deeper and serious than superficial courtesies. Society places high value on success, wealth, power, and fame (or “popularity” at lower levels). Remarkable achievement, or the appearance of it, in one or more of these value categories earns social admiration, which our sinful pride craves. This powerful craving begins to shape our thoughts and behaviors early in life, and we develop habits of insincerity that manipulate others’ perceptions of us in order to gain social admiration. These can become so ingrained that we are only dimly aware of or even blind to them.

But God is not blind to them. He knows how they obscure his glory, steal our joy, and hinder our progress in holiness. And he desires that we have lives of “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). So he wants us to lay aside the cumbersome, closely clinging sin-weight of insincerity so we can run with endurance our long-distance race of faith (Hebrews 12:1).

Without Wax

The word sincere has a helpful history:

Our English word sincere comes from two Latin words: sine (without) and cera (wax). In the ancient world, dishonest merchants would use wax to hide defects, such as cracks, in their pottery so that they could sell their merchandise at a higher price. More reputable merchants would hang a sign over their pottery — sine cera (without wax) — to inform customers that their merchandise was genuine. (Taking Hold of God, 69–70).

So “sincere” has its origin in marketing. As long as trade has existed, mendacious merchants have employed misleading marketing to make money.

And it’s easy to see how this idea transferred to “personal branding.” I myself am a clay jar (2 Corinthians 4:7). I am a clay jar that is quite flawed. And my sin nature is a mendacious marketing merchant. It does not want you or anyone else to see my defects. It wants to hide the defects behind a deceptive wax. It wants to sell you a better version of me than is real.

Multiply me by some seven billion and you get one global mess of promotion distortion. The serpent gave Eve the “wax treatment” in the garden (2 Corinthians 11:3) and we’ve been “waxing our wares” for each other ever since.

Nothing Left to Hide

But the gospel is the end of our perceived need to mislead. Jesus came to transform selfish self-sellers like us into sincere lovers of others (1 Peter 1:22). He came to cleanse us dishonorable jars and transform us into honorable jars (2 Timothy 2:20–21). On the cross, as Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), all our wax was removed, and our sin was revealed for what it really is: death and destruction. And then he took these sins away (1 John 3:5).

This means that Christians have nothing left to hide.

Perhaps your heart objects to this claim. It does not want its ugly cracks and defects exposed. It wants to be bought with the currency of others’ esteem. It does not want to be rejected. Perhaps it does not feel safe being viewed by the judgmental eyes of others.

I understand. But that is pride and fear speaking. What you need to listen to is God speaking, and here is what he says:

  • All your sins and defects are “naked and exposed” before my eyes (Hebrews 4:13), but because of Jesus, you are now “holy and blameless and above reproach” before me (Colossians 1:22).
  • Everyone who believes in me will not be put to shame (Romans 10:11); and if I am for you, who can be against you (Romans 9:31)?
  • Therefore, do not live as a people-pleaser. Do not do eye-service work, but as a servant of Christ, do the my will from a sincere heart (Ephesians 6:5–7).
  • You cannot love others and be insincere at the same time. Aim to live a life of “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
  • Only disorder and evil will result from jealousy and selfish-ambition, but peace will result from those who are “gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
  • So remove the self-promoting leaven that not only infects the bread of your life but others around you as well, and live in the unleavened holiness of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:6–8).

Put your trust in what God says, not what your pride and fear say. Pride and fear will shackle you with weights, but God’s promises, if believed, will liberate you.

Reveal Jesus’s Glory and Run Free

We have another even deeper reason to stop waxing our jars to impress others.

Our jars, however we might feel about them, however unimpressive we fear others will assess them if our defects are exposed, are not about us. We are not our own; we belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Life is Christ and about Christ (Philippians 1:21; 2:9–11).

And no one more is more impressive than Jesus. He’s the one we want everyone else to see. The glory of his grace is more clearly seen through our sins that he has paid for and forgiven, and the glory of his power is more clearly seen in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). When we wax our jars, we are doing far more than concealing our defects; we are concealing Jesus’s glory.

So let’s resolve to live and love without wax. Let us not listen to our marketing-merchant sin nature, but instead be as real and genuine as possible so that the glory of Jesus will be most clearly seen in us, others will be most loved by us, and we will run with greater freedom and endurance. It is a wonderful, triple gospel incentive to lay aside the weight of insincerity.

Never Give In, Never Make Peace

Never Give In, Never Make Peace

On October 29, 1941, Winston Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches to the boys of Harrow School, his alma mater. And the most memorable lines from this speech are these:

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. 

We must to remember the context of this speech. War had been raging for two years. France had fallen to the Nazis, along with numerous other smaller nations. Soviet Russia was reeling under a massive German invasion. The United States was trying to avoid sending its boys to death (Pearl Harbor would occur in five weeks). Britain was standing largely alone as the bulwark against the violent tidal wave of Hitler’s ambition. The days were still dark (or “stern” as Churchill preferred) and ominous. There were some rays of hope, but victory was by no means certain. Germany still had the momentum.

Never Give In, Never Make Peace f2zyxrgc

As Churchill addressed an auditorium of frightened young school boys who might soon be facing bullets as soldiers, and a frightened British public who were traumatized by the devastating bombs of the German Luftwaffe and demoralized by discouraging reports in the press, he did not speak words of consolation, but of exhortation: never give in. This was far more than a call for endurance; this was a call for relentless courage and take-it-to-the-enemy moxie.

We Are at War

We are at war. When Jesus called us as disciples, he not only delivered us from the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13), he drafted us into his war against the darkness (Ephesians 6:11–12; 2 Timothy 2:3). War is not a metaphor for the spiritual reality we experience; it’s what it is. If anything, the earthly war is metaphor for the spiritual reality, though more accurately, earthly war is one horrible way the spiritual war manifests in the physical realm.

If we don’t believe we are in a war, we will be ill-prepared for what’s coming or disillusioned about what has happened. In war, conflict, hardship, risk, and suffering are the norm. The Bible tells all faithful followers of Jesus to expect them (John 16:33; 2 Timothy 3:12), because we live like sheep in the midst of wolves (Matthew 10:16); we live in enemy territory (1 John 5:19). If we don’t believe we are in a war, we will keep trying to make peace with the devil, thinking we’re doing the right thing.

Despite Churchill’s continual warnings of the growing German threat throughout the 1930’s, most of Britain’s leaders lived in denial and excoriated Churchill’s “warmongering.” As a result, they led the British public to believe in a false security. In 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed an agreement with Hitler and came home proclaiming “peace for our time.” Less than a year later, woefully unprepared, Britain was forced to declare war on Germany.

We are at war, not peace. We must recognize the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3). We must watch with biblical discernment the movements of the enemy and not be ignorant of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11). I of course am not speaking of people, but principalities and powers, “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This is not a time to secure peace. This is a time to engage in war.

Expect to Fight

Those of us who live in affluent regions of the world will need to fight just to view life as war. Affluence conditions us for comfort. It conditions us to expect abundance and convenience and leisure and entertainment. It encourages us to aim for material security.

But a soldier doesn’t live a balanced or secure life. A soldier lives a focused life of strategic sacrifice. A soldier lives for one overriding aim: victory for the Cause.

In peacetime, we expect to live in peace. An enemy attack is an unexpected shock to those who expect peace. In wartime, soldiers expect to fight. An enemy might spring a surprise attack, but soldiers are not shocked that an enemy attacks. Such is the nature of war: enemies attack; soldiers fight. Fighting is the vocation of a soldier, wherever he’s deployed, whatever his individual assignment.

In peacetime, we give ourselves to civilian pursuits, whatever most advances our individual or family interests and prosperity. In wartime, we must not entangle ourselves in civilian pursuits because we are devoted to one overriding aim: victory (2 Timothy 2:4).

Jesus came to make peace possible between a holy God and sinful man, and between redeemed people of every ethnicity and background (Ephesians 2:14–16). But he did not come to bring earthly peace to the devil or those given over to him, but rather a sword (Matthew 10:34).

And those of us who follow Jesus must not only pick up our crosses (Luke 9:23), but also our swords (of the Spirit) and armor (Ephesians 6:10–17). Because we will fight.

What Encouragement Sounds Like

A year before his speech at Harrow, in even darker (sterner) days, immediately following the heroic deliverance of 335,000 British and French troops from German capture in the Battle of Dunkirk, Churchill encouraged the British Parliament and people, as well as the world, with these words of resolve:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

This is what encouragement sounds like. Encouragement is not just tender consolation for the suffering, it is strong exhortation to the fainthearted. This is how we should speak to each other in wartime, especially when the shadow of evil is cast over us. This is not a time to give in to fear. It is not a time for despair. This is a time for resolve. It is a time, not for posturing and swagger, but for a humble, Jesus-trusting, Word-grounded, Spirit-filled determination. It is a time for holy Christian moxie.

Man Your Post

For we are at war. War with the forces and effects of the powers of hell is hellish. It’s ugly, cruel, disorienting, and violent on numerous levels. This present darkness is out to destroy us, those we love, and as many people around the world as possible, body and soul.

But we have far more reason for hope than Britain ever had in the early 1940’s. Victory is certain. The enemy is attacking on many fronts, yes, but he is also in retreat. The kingdom of Heaven has been advancing for two millennia, and will relentlessly continue until the full number of saints have been rescued from satanic capture (1 Timothy 2:4; Romans 11:25; Revelation 6:11).

And you have a post to man, assigned by our Lord. It does not matter how prominent your post is. It does not matter how difficult your post is, how intense the fighting at your place in the line. It does not matter if you survive the battle, for you will ultimately survive (Luke 21:18). What matters is the Cause. That’s what our lives now are about.

So man your post with all your might, whatever it is. Stay alert, and do not neglect your responsibilities. Do not defame the Commander, hinder his Cause, or harm your comrades by devoting yourself to civilian or sinful pursuits (2 Timothy 2:4).

Stay at your post till you receive orders for redeployment. When that happens, serve your replacement as best you can, then pick up your weapons and move to the next deployment, regardless of how obscure the post. Or patiently and prayerfully wait for your orders, regardless of how long. Remain in active service until you receive your divine discharge (2 Timothy 4:6–8).

And fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12). Fight! As far as it depends on us, let us be at peace with all men (Romans 12:18), but fight the spiritual forces of wickedness to the death — for we will never die (John 11:26). If the enemy takes the beach, let us fight him in the fields. If he takes the field, let us fight him in the streets, refusing to surrender.

And let us trust our Supreme Allied Commander with overall strategy and force deployment. He knows what he’s doing and will bring the enemy down. For our parts, let us be faithful at our posts and resolve to never, never, never give in.

Embrace the Race God Gives You

Embrace the Race God Gives You

You have a race to run. It’s a race you’ve been given, not one you’ve chosen.

It’s possible you wouldn’t have chosen your race at all, had the choice been yours. Or perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen this particular route. Or perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen your pace. Or perhaps you would have chosen different racing environments, teammates, or coaches. Or perhaps you would have chosen different capacities, strengths, and resources, ones you believe would help you run more effectively. Or perhaps you would have chosen a different distance.

But here you are: in this race, on this route, at this pace, on this terrain, in this climate, with these people, and your strengths, and your limitations, for this distance. Like it or not, this is your race.

And the question is this: Will you embrace your race or keep trying to escape it? What mindset will you choose? For though you may not have chosen your race, you do get to choose how you run it.

You Can’t Escape

Of course, escape is not a real option. However, fantasy provides a seductively compelling illusion of escape. And the world offers you an overwhelming number of fantastic virtual experiences to “relieve” you from the rigorous realities of your race.

By “fantasy” I don’t mean “imagination.” The two are not synonyms. Imagination is the God-given gift to human beings that allows us to fulfill our mandate to be sub-creators and stewards of our little corner of creation (Genesis 1:28–30). Nor by “fantasy” am I referring to the literary or cinematic “fantasy” genres, which, when used rightly, are imaginative sub-creations that can help us better understand and embrace reality.

By “fantasy” I mean something we are all very familiar with: the use of our imaginations for faithless ends — to faux-create an alternative to reality as a means of trying to “escape” reality. You know what I mean: sexual fantasies, anger fantasies, power fantasies, revenge fantasies. These are sinfully preferring a race God hasn’t given us; they are pretending we are in a race of our own choosing — a race in which we get to be God in our own way.

But the problem with such fantasies is that they aren’t real. They get us nowhere. They provide a temporary illusion of happiness, but as soon as we take off the virtual-reality goggles, so to speak, we are the same person, in the same race, on the same route. Nothing has changed, except that we have lost valuable time and burdened ourselves with more discontent and more guilt. We are more unhappy runners than we were before, which often just make us want to escape again.

How to Run Free

There’s only one way to real freedom and real joy: we must renounce our fantasy races, routes, paces, terrains, climates, teammates, strengths, or distances, and embrace the race we have been given. This is how to run free and for joy:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)

This text shows us how to run our race and run it well.

1. Learn from great runners.

You are running a unique race, but not an unprecedented race. No one has experienced exactly what you have, but many have experienced the same emotions, temptations, and various other challenges common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13). That’s why the Bible includes a “great cloud” of examples of faithful race-running.

If you want to run well, study other runners. Hebrews 11 provides a helpful starter list, but it is by no means exhaustive. Study the great faith-runners. Examine all aspects of their courses. God did far more abundantly than all they asked or thought (Ephesians 3:20). He will do more for you, too, if you run faithfully.

2. Run as light as possible.

This is your race. God has given it to you. This truth is for your liberation, not your limitation. It’s meant to free you, not constrict you. It’s folly and sin to waste time wishing your race were different or resenting God’s choices. Most of those in the great cloud of witnesses had no idea all that God was doing while they were running very difficult races. Neither do you. But learn from the witnesses that God’s purposes are bigger and better than you can imagine.

Lay aside all the weights of fantasy and escape. Lay aside the weights of past sins and regrets. It makes for miserable, slow running. The cross pays for all the past, and the future joy will make all present difficulties now seem light and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17). Focus on your race, and only carry what God gives you. His burden is light (Matthew 11:30).

3. Run with endurance.

Endurance is only increased by pushing our current limits. It’s hard, yes. And you don’t know how you’ll ever be able to run like other great faith-runners. Neither did they when they began.

Begin today, and push your limits. When tomorrow comes, run and push your limits. What exhausts you today will be much easier in six months, but then you’ll be pushing different limits. Don’t look at your fantasized ideal of a great faith-runner. Let Jesus make you into whatever runner he wants. You faithfully and prayerfully aim to increase your current endurance limits.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Look to Jesus — he is your greatest example, your Savior, and your greatest intercessor (Hebrews 7:25). He is the source of your greatest joy — your one great prize for running well (Psalm 16:11; John 15:11). A race is only run for a prize. If the prize is not before your eyes, you will lose motivation. If you feel unmotivated to run your race, it may be because the prize has been obscured. First priority: eyes on the prize again, whatever it takes — whatever it takes! And then “run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24).

Embrace Your Race

This is your race. God has set it before you. There is more glory in it than you yet comprehend. How are you going to run?

You can’t change the past; stop trying. There’s much you can’t change about the present; stop trying. There are many fantasies singing like sirens to allure you into the illusion of indulgent escape; stop listening, and don’t let them eat your race time and weigh you down.

Embrace your race. Study the great faith-runners, run as light as possible, push your current endurance limits, and get your eyes on the Great Prize. Run freer, run faster, and run for joy.

Passive Christianity Is Dead Christianity

Passive Christianity Is Dead Christianity

What do you want? What do you desire? What is your ambition?

Do you really want to know? Look at your behavior. You do what you want.

This is a devastatingly simple psychology of motivation. But it’s what the Bible teaches:

James: Faith without works is dead. Don’t tell me you have faith if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (James 2:17–18)

John: Love without deeds is dead. Don’t tell me you love if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (1 John 3:17–18)

Paul: Grace without holiness is dead. Don’t tell me you revel in God’s grace if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (Romans 6:12–14)

Jesus: Discipleship without obedience is dead. Don’t tell me I’m your Lord if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (Matthew 7:21)

We may say what sounds orthodox, but we do what we really believe. We may say what sounds loving, but we do what we love. We may say what sounds like gospel, but we do what is our gospel. We may say what sounds like a disciple, but we do what our Master demands.

The same is true when it comes to our desire: we may say what we wish, but we do what we want.

Our pesky behaviors — they’re our worst betrayers. They keep leaking to the press what’s going on behind the closed doors of our hearts and undermining all the hard work our press-secretary tongues do trying to manage public perception.

Is It That Simple?

We need this biblical straight talk. We often need it without much nuance or qualification. Because we live in an age of paralyzing complexity.

Life is complex. We are complex. When the Bible often speaks in black-and-white terms, we quickly want to qualify things. We want to explain the shaping effect of our family of origin, the massive influence of our painful experiences, the added difficulty of our particular disorders, and what our Myers-Briggs personality profile reveals about our motivations. Cut us some slack! We have reasons why our walk doesn’t match our talk.

Well, James, John, and Paul would totally get it. In fact, if they could, they’d shed some light on the complexities and hardships of life and discipleship in the first century: the grinding work from early childhood, the frequent deaths they witnessed growing up, the brutality of every governing power, the arduous and dangerous travel, the difficulty of teaching illiterate people, the struggle to communicate between churches, the constant threat of death when evangelizing, the horrifying persecutions of friends, and the martyrdoms they themselves eventually experienced.

And yes, Jesus understands us, too. He created us (John 1:3). And he also became one of us (John 1:14). He is more sympathetic than we know (Hebrews 4:15). He knows how complex we are.

And he really knows how simple we are: we do what we believe, we do what we love, we do what we want (Matthew 6:21, 24).

Do You Want to Change?

So, when we look at what we do and reach the place where we don’t want to want what we want anymore, what do we do? We stop traversing the labyrinth of our mind and heart in search of the keys that will unlock the prison doors of our past, and we liberate the repressed potential of our personalities, and we go to Jesus.

And what does Jesus tell us to do? He calls us to action, because action not only reveals desire; it reinforces desire.

First, Jesus calls us to repent (Mark 1:15). Repentance is not mere remorse. Repentance is ceasing sinful behavior, and beginning to behave in ways consistent with holy desires. John the Baptist called these the fruits of repentance (Luke 3:8). Repentance may be more than a change in behavior, but it is not less.

Second, Jesus calls us to believe (Mark 1:15; 9:23). For Jesus, believing is never mere intellectual assent to a creed. It always implies and requires action. James’s statement that faith without works is dead is backed up by the entire Bible. If you believe God, you will do what he says (Matthew 7:21; John 14:15).

Third, Jesus calls us to follow him (John 10:27). Following Jesus is a life of pursuit of Jesus. It is a call to renounce everything (Luke 14:33). Yes, everything. We keep nothing from Jesus, and what we have, we receive from him and steward for him. We are not our own; we are his (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Our lives become an active seeking of Christ’s kingdom ahead of everything else (Matthew 6:33).

Now, I know all this action talk can be misunderstood and abused, because it always has been. No, we are not saved by our behaviors, but by God’s grace through the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8).

But Jesus calls us to receive this grace by exercising faith — by making behavioral demands on us. He does this because (1) our behaviors are the external demonstrations of our true internal desires, and (2) our behaviors themselves become a means of sanctifying grace. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). Holy habits actually work to deepen our beliefs, increase our affections, and intensify our desires.

Make It Your Ambition

Christianity wages war on passivity and inaction. Our faith without action is dead. Eternal life is to be taken hold of (1 Timothy 6:19).

Christians must be graciously aggressive when it comes to the way we live. Words like striving (Hebrews 4:11), straining (Philippians 3:13), self-denial (Luke 9:23), fighting (1 Timothy 6:12), whatever it takes (Philippians 3:11), and courage (Psalm 27:14) are not for our lips only. They are words of behavioral action. And they are words of grace, not works-righteousness.

What do you want? What is your ambition? For God’s sake, be ambitious. Of course, avoid selfish ambition like hell (James 3:14–15). But like Paul, who made reaching the unreached his great ambition (Romans 15:20), make Christ’s kingdom and his holy call on you your great and holy and life-consuming ambition — the church he’s placed you in, and the people he’s called for you to love, and the work he’s given your hands to do, and the sin he’s called you to overcome, and the weaknesses he’s allowed you to struggle with, and the adversity he’s called you to strive against, and the suffering he’s called you to endure.

Do what Jesus says. Do whatever it takes to want what’s right. And then, with that new heart, do what you want.

Is Life Harder Than You Expected?

Is Life Harder Than You Expected?

Soldiers don’t learn to fight in the classroom. They learn about fighting in the classroom.

Learning about fighting is crucial to successful fighting, which is why soldiers’ training always includes class time. But learning about fighting is not the same thing as fighting. Soldiers never really learn to fight until they are forced to actually do it. And when they do, they discover the actual, concrete experience of fighting looks and feels very different than the abstract idea of fighting.

Disciples of Jesus don’t learn to walk by faith — to fight the good fight of faith — in the classroom. They learn about faith in the classroom — sermons, conferences, books, articles, videos. Learning about faith is crucial to successful walking by faith, which is why disciples’ training always includes class time. But learning about walking by faith is not the same thing as walking by faith.

Disciples never really learn to walk by faith until they are forced to actually do it. And when they do, they discover the actual, concrete experience of walking by faith looks and feels very different than the abstract idea of walking by faith.

Teach Me Your Way

When we pray with David, “teach me your way, O Lord” (Psalm 27:11), God answers. And his answers often look and feel very different from what we thought we were asking for.

He often takes us out of the classroom — where we thought we understood things — into the chaotic, disorienting, disturbing, desperate violence of the field of spiritual battle, where we encounter internal and external enemies too powerful for us. He brings us up against obstacles too big for us, problems too complex and difficult for us, and burdens so far beyond our strength that we at times despair of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).

And it is in these desperate places that we, like David, learn what walking by faith really means, where God teaches us his way.

How God Taught David

In those first heady months after Samuel anointed David the future king of Israel (see 1 Samuel 16), how do you think David imagined his future? The Bible doesn’t tell us.

But the Bible does provide us a significant record of David’s inner life throughout his life in the psalms he wrote. And it’s clear from this record that from the day Saul began hunting until well into his old age, David was a man of troubles and acquainted with desperation. Most of his psalms are desperate prayers for God’s deliverance from assassination and spiritual depression — or songs of praise after being delivered from such desperate situations.

Is this how he envisioned his life as king? Did he expect to live most of his life with a target on his back among members of his own household, treacherous countrymen, as well as surrounding hostile nations? Did he expect to plead with God so often for his very survival (Psalm 86:2)? Did he expect to feel at times forsaken by God (Psalm 22:1)? Did he expect to weep so much (Psalm 6:6–7)?

The bewilderment, fear, and sorrow David expressed in many of his psalms lead me to think that trusting God proved far harder than he expected.

Prayers of Faith for All

But it was, in fact, the crucible of these very hard situations where David learned how to really trust God, and how to really pray, and how to really worship. David prayed, “teach me your way, O Lord” (Psalm 27:11) during a desperate, dangerous moment. And that desperate, dangerous moment (along with many others) was itself a means God used to answer that prayer.

But God answered David far more abundantly than David asked and likely thought (Ephesians 3:20). God used these dark, desperate, crushing moments to make David “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1), providing songs and prayers for the life of faith to all Israel (Galatians 6:16) during its entire militant, embattled existence in this hostile, devil-governed world (1 John 5:19).

Through David’s poetic processing of his hope and joy in God in the face of overwhelming circumstances, God provided all of us more holy language and practical examples of how to encourage our faith, how to pray, and how to sing than any other single biblical author.

The Way is Hard

So, do you still want God to teach you his ways?

It’s not surprising if we respond viscerally to this whole idea, “If that’s how God answers, I think I’ll pass.” But we must not listen to that inner voice. That voice always counsels us to indulge in easy things that end up robbing us of great joy, and to avoid hard things that end up increasing our great joy. Yes, “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). But it leads to life! The easy way leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).

So, if we really want to follow Jesus, if we really want to learn his ways (Psalm 27:11), if we really want “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10), which is to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), how should we expect him to teach us?

We should expect him to force us out of the classroom and on to the real field of spiritual battle where the conflict is much more chaotic, disturbing, disorienting, frightening, depressing, and sorrowful than we ever expected. And we should expect experiences that make the psalms living and active songs for our desperate souls.

It is in these experiences where — like good soldiers, like true disciples — we learn how to really fight and how to really trust. It is there, like David, where we learn God’s way and “take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19) and taste that which is truly joy.

Do Not Be Surprised

A war is not won in the tranquil, tidy classroom, but on the desperate battlefield, where soldiers must give their all. Christ’s gospel mission will not be fulfilled in the tranquil, tidy classroom, but on the desperate field of spiritual battle, where disciples must give their all.

So, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus is teaching you how to walk by faith by graciously forcing you to do it. And this hard way leads to life, life more abundant than we have yet imagined.

Survival of the Fondest: Love Defies Darwin and Defeats the Devil

Survival of the Fondest

Which is the real delusion — love or selfishness?

This isn’t just a rhetorical question. It’s a question that gets at the heart of Western civilization’s moral and existential confusion. Are you most in sync with reality when you seek your self-interest first or when you “count others more significant than yourself” (Philippians 2:3)? Is love, and its resulting virtues, truly the highest moral good for humans, or is it really a grand illusion created by our genes to get us to behave in ways most likely to result in our genetic survival?

In other words, does love really exist?

I don’t mean mere social or sexual or familial expressions of “enlightened self-interest.” I mean real, self-sacrificial love, the kind of love that truly seeks others’ good to the detriment of the self, the kind of love humans everywhere and always have found morally beautiful and admirable. Does this love exist?

This is the question I pose to atheists. Because if such love really exists, it is a powerful and unnerving indicator of a profound reality beyond the bounds of what we call the material universe. But if this love doesn’t exist, reality is a nightmarish photonegative of what everyone really believes deep down, and in which no one really wants to live.

More Than Selfish

Darwinian theorists tell us that our obsessive selfishness is programmed into our genes. Taken at face value, Christians would not disagree. The Bible describes the effects of humanity’s fall as pervasive, including our genes.

But Christians believe this selfishness is pathological, a disease infecting us for which we need a spiritual cure. Darwinists, on the other hand, hypothesize that this selfishness is primal; the fundamental survival and procreative impulse that has been present since the emergence of our first cellular ancestor and became hardwired into our genes as we evolved into the almost unimaginably complex human organisms. In the beginning was selfishness. Our selfishness is simply our genes seeking to save themselves.

This Darwinian explanation makes sense within its framework. But it hardly begins to explain the true nature of human selfishness. You know what I mean: those dark impulses, emotions, and thoughts that we all feel and think, which we fight our entire lives to suppress, many of which we never articulate out loud, and which we have no adequate term for other than evil.

And history, as well as today’s news, is replete with instances of gratuitous, selfish human cruelty on levels that defy explanation — and even prompt Darwinists to label “evil.” In other words, our selfishness is far more depraved than the “red in tooth and claw” fight to survive. Humans don’t merely seek to survive and procreate. We subjugate, dominate, torture, kill, steal, and destroy in ways that are simply horrifying.

Loveless Nightmare

But another dimension to all of this makes a “selfish gene” theory an even worse horror. If Darwinian theorists are right, then all forms of love and virtue are essentially genetic illusions. They don’t exist outside the human psyche. Which means they don’t really exist. Love is fundamentally a utilitarian mirage created by our genes that natural selection determined as among the most effective means to ensure of our genetic survival.

But here is a terrible problem: when love becomes no more than an illusion, life becomes a nightmare once we realize it’s an illusion. For when people understand love as an illusion, they begin to see love as the photonegative of 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is selfish. Love is kind when it’s useful and cruel when it’s useful. Love uses envy as a motivator and flattery as a lubricator; it uses humility as a manipulator, and arrogance as a dominator. Love resents obstacles to self-advancement and rejoices with self-exaltation. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things that advance the self for the sake of genetic survival. For ultimately we love ourselves, and self-love never ends.

This is the stark, horrible reality if biblical love does not exist. Not only is the Bible not true, but virtually all of history’s greatest, most beloved stories, legends, songs, and poems are nothing but fantasies. Essentially, all the things that make life most worth living are delusions.

When people, regardless of their religious convictions, really think through the implications of such a worldview — when it moves from abstract theory to experiential reality — something deep inside almost everyone screams, “No!”

Why is that? That is the crucial question. Do we scream “No!” because our genes are such convincing illusionists? No. We find a loveless world revolting because we know it is not real. We may not be able to prove love’s existence in the laboratory sense, but we all know intuitively that it really exists. We know that selfish “love” is the love of hell; it is a domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13). Even in our selfish depravity, humans know this is horribly and morally wrong.

Wake Them Up with Love

Now, I’m going to take a logical leap forward and just say it: love exists because God exists, and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). We know this, even if we suppress this truth (Romans 1:18). Selfishness as fundamental reality and love as a survival illusion are satanic nightmares out of which Jesus came to wake the world.

This is why Jesus emphasized love above everything else. He came to demonstrate God’s reality, not through scientific proofs, but through unsurpassed love. And Jesus means for Christians, his church, his kingdom of love on earth, to say to the life of lovelessness, by our very existence in the world, “Not true!” “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16), and “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When love like this is demonstrated, God’s existence is demonstrated.

This is why no matter what we do today, our highest call, our most important work, is to love. This comes from Jesus himself: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

I thank God for good apologists. They do important kingdom work. But the most compelling work Christians will ever do is not going toe-to-toe with Darwinian theorists over scientific evidence for God’s existence or with materialist philosophers over sophisticated arguments. Love is the most compelling apologetic for God’s existence and Christ’s sacrifice on earth: for “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

So, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). Let us “love one another with brotherly affection [and] outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

And “may the Lord make [us] increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thessalonians 3:12), because God will use this to wake millions caught in the devil’s loveless nightmare of godlessness to the overwhelmingly joyful reality of the God of love. Through us, God will wage a worldwide culture war of godly love.

What If You Had One Week to Live?

What If You Had One Week to Live?

If I could save time in a bottle,
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away,
Just to spend them with you.

In 1972, Jim Croce was a young singer/songwriter just beginning to ride the wave of national stardom. He was also a young father whose heart was full of love for his one-year-old boy.

Jim’s music career demanded him being away from his son more than he was with him, which was hard. He could feel the brief, unretrievable time he had to enjoy his wonderful child whipping by. So Jim expressed his parental longing in his touching song, “Time In a Bottle.”

In the song’s chorus, he expressed an angst we all understand:

There never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them.

Jim knew he didn’t have an eternity of time with his boy. But he had less time than he knew. On September 21, 1973, Jim died in a plane crash. He was 30 years old.

Numbering Our Days

Time is short. We know that. But it’s shorter than we know. Moses said our lives are “like grass that is renewed in the morning [and] in the evening it fades and withers” (Psalm 90:5–6). Even if we reach old age,

The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10)

To give us some perspective on how brief our grass-like lives are, Moses compares our time with God’s:

For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:4)

A thousand years are like yesterday. Perhaps Peter was paraphrasing Moses when he wrote, “with the Lord . . . a thousand years [is] as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

So, let’s think about this. If we live 70 years, our days will be 25,500. Or “if by reason of strength” we live 80 years, our days will be 29,200. As I write this, I have lived just over 18,900 days. John Piper’s lived just over 25,900. Steve Jobs’ days were just under 21,000. Jim Croce’s just over 11,200.

Now, think about it like this. If 1,000 of our years are like one day to God, then a person who dies at age 80 only lives 8% of one God-day. That’s less than two hours in one twenty-four-hour day. That’s short.

But if we use Moses’s “night watch” metaphor, our comparative lives are even shorter. In Moses’s day, a watch in the night was three hours. So if 1,000 of our years are like 3 hours to God, then an 80-year life span is less than 15 minutes of one God-day. Jim Croce lived five minutes.

How many minutes do think you have? You don’t know. And no matter how many you have, they aren’t many.

God Must Teach Us

When we really begin to feel the brevity of our lives, we often lament that there never seems to be enough time do the things we want to do. We also recognize we’ve wasted precious days we’ll never get back, and this makes us want to live differently.

But waking up to the reality of mortality does not itself produce wisdom. It can, in fact, produce great foolishness, and end up wasting even more life. Fear of missing out on life is often at the root of a mid-life crisis that destroys a family. It’s often at the bottom of “bucket lists” that values ephemeral, exotic, adventurous, and exciting experiences above nurturing real love for real people.

Moses knew waking up to death’s fierce reality did not itself lead people to live wisely. That’s why he prayed,

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

Numbering our days is not enough. We need God, the author of life, to teach us what numbering our days really means. We need God to teach us what our few days are for, so we steward them well. Then we will have a heart of wisdom.

The Heart of Wisdom

What exactly is wisdom? God tells us through Job: “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28).

And what exactly is the fear of the Lord? God tells us through Solomon: “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8:13).

And what is evil? God tells us through the author of Hebrews: “an unbelieving heart” (Hebrews 3:12). At root, all moral evil is unbelief in God and any action that results from it, for “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

So then, a heart of wisdom fears the Lord to such a degree that it refuses to exchange the truth about God for a lie (Romans 1:25). A heart of wisdom trusts God’s promises and his wise governance over all of life, and does not trust its limited, fickle perceptions, nor shiny, empty worldly deceptions.

A heart of wisdom fears losing the joy-producing treasure of God himself so much, it sees unbelief as a thief who only steals, kills, and destroys life.

The Reward of Wisdom

Earthly life is short, perhaps far shorter that we expect. It’s too short to waste trying to do all the things we want to do.

We must not just number our days; we must ask God to teach us to number our days. Because if we number them on our terms, we will likely grab for life in food or clothes (Matthew 6:25), or “bucket list” experiences, or career achievements, or even loved ones, only to find in the end that life wasn’t in any of those things or people. Our numbering won’t produce a heart of wisdom.

If we want to “take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19), we must take hold of eternal life, “and this life is in [God’s] Son” (1 John 5:11). “Life is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), and “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36). Which is why the one great work God wants us to focus on is that we believe in his Son (John 6:29).

A heart of wisdom is a heart that learns that life is not how much we can earn, achieve, or experience in our few days of life on earth; life is wholeheartedly trusting the Life (John 14:6). A heart of wisdom learns that the only thing that wastes life is unbelief.

And the reward of a heart of wisdom is eternity, where there is no need to bottle time, where there will be an abundance of time to do the things we want to do, and a God-provided bucket list so long it will take an eternity to complete.

Love Suffers Long

Love Suffers Long

Ask the apostle Paul what the fruits of the Spirit are, and the first thing he says is love (Galatians 5:22). Paul would say love is the greatest of the fruit of the Spirit, just as he said love was the greatest gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Then ask Paul what love is, and what does he say first? “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Now, I don’t assume this necessarily means Paul believed patience is the greatest quality of love. But the fact that he mentions it first in this beautiful description of Christian love must give us pause.

Love Versus Endurance

What did Paul have in mind when he wrote, “Love is patient”? The answer may not be as obvious as it seems.

We use the term patience for a wide variety of things: for instance, putting up with a generally difficult person; not losing our temper in rush hour traffic; financial investing for the long term; not yelling at our child who’s throwing his umpteenth tantrum today or who’s left the milk on the counter for the umpteenth time; working steadily toward that degree; or not thinking (or uttering) a profanity when the software program stalls, requiring a hard shutdown and losing our unsaved work.

But Paul had a specific meaning in mind when he said this. The King James translation gives us a little more linguistic help: “Charity suffereth long.” Looking at the Greek word Paul chose is even more helpful, a version of the word makrothymia.

Sometimes English translators choose to translate the Greek word hypomonē as “patience” (e.g. Luke 8:15; Romans 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Revelation 2:3). But hypomonē differs from makrothymia. Hypomonē almost always refers to perseverance or endurance in the face of difficult or painful circumstances (think James 1:3). But makrothymia almost always refers to a forbearing, persevering, patient love toward a person. It is a form of self-sacrificial love we extend to someone else.

God’s Longsuffering Love

This word had powerful connotations for Paul. As a Jew, he understood makrothymia — “longsuffering love” — as one of God’s most fundamental character traits. For when God revealed his glory to Moses on the mountain, he proclaimed,

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)

This description of God is repeated over and over in the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). And in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), which Paul knew like the back of his hand, the phrase “slow to anger” is captured in one Greek word: a version of makrothymia.

This word is powerful because it describes God’s incredibly patient love toward sinners. God was lovingly slow to anger with the continual sin of the antediluvian peoples for many centuries. He was lovingly slow to anger with horrible and grotesque sins of the Canaanite peoples for many centuries (Genesis 15:16). He was lovingly slow to anger with the idolatrous rebellion of Israel during the period of the judges, and then during the period of the kings for many centuries. And he has been lovingly slow to anger with the wicked world for many centuries since Christ came, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

That’s why Paul used makrothymia in sentences like these:

  • Or do you presume on the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
  • What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? (Romans 9:22)

God, who is love (1 John 4:8), suffers long with sinners. And that’s why those who are born of God and know God also lovingly suffer long with sinners.

Our Longsuffering Love

And so Paul and other New Testament writers frequently use makrothymia, because:

  • We are to remember the kind of merciful, gracious, longsuffering, slow-to-anger patience God has shown to us in Christ. (1 Timothy 1:16)
  • Therefore, like God, we are to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (makrothymia), bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven [us], so [we] also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:12–13; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 4:2)
  • And when God orders our paths through pain and difficulty, we are to also extend to him longsuffering, slow-to-anger patience. This isn’t because God wrongs us in ways that require us to forgive him. Rather, we are to recall his redemptive purposes with Abraham, Job, the prophets, and others so that we, like them, will patiently wait (makrothymia) on God to obtain his promises, deliverances, and vindication. (Hebrews 6:15; James 5:10–11)

This is why the first thing Paul said about love in the great Love Chapter of the Bible is that it is patient (1 Corinthians 13:4). He’s not referring to patience with inconveniences (those perhaps fit better under the “love is not irritable” category, 1 Corinthians 13:5). He’s not even referring to longsuffering patience in the midst of affliction (Revelation 14:12). He’s referring to patience toward persons.

And this is a longsuffering patience. God is calling you and me to love the people he has placed in our lives, even though some of them have done or are doing great evil. We are to love them with makrothymia love — longsuffering love.

Makrothymia love is not permissive; it doesn’t tolerate sin, abuse, or injustice in the sense of enabling those things. We are to confront them. But we do so in the spirit of Exodus 34:6 and in the power of the Spirit of 1 Corinthians 13, remembering that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and that “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7–8).

A love that never ends is a love that suffers long.

We All Need Adversity and Affliction

We All Need Adversity and Affliction

My oldest child just celebrated his twenty-first birthday, and it has me thinking about the priceless benefits of adversity, affliction, and deep spiritual wrestling.

I’m thinking about them for two reasons. First, my most beneficial, faith-forging, character-developing, endurance-training, and joy-producing experiences have resulted from my most difficult, painful, fearful, dark, and doubt-inducing experiences. And second, my first real immersion into this reality happened when I was twenty-one.

What I learned was so important, so life shaping, that I long for my son — for all my children, for all who are young (and old) — to receive the same priceless benefits, even though they come through experiences parents often try to shield their children from. I want them to experience real, substantial, deep happiness, and not merely the thin, ephemeral pleasure-buzzes that masquerade as happiness. And like most treasures, such happiness is almost always discovered in the dark places.

Flabby Faith

I grew up in Middle America, spending most of my childhood in the 70s, and coming of age in the mid-80s. Which means my life was easy. Not that it was altogether easy. My working-class family had, like most families, plenty of spiritual, physical, and relational brokenness, sin, and pain. But I had parents who loved me, some really good friends, a solid church, and a decent, if deficient, public education. Above all that, God mercifully brought me to faith in Christ around age eleven. This provided me a spiritual and moral keel as I sailed the volatile waters of adolescence.

But I lived immersed in American affluence, which meant that even at the working-class level, I enjoyed an abundance of discretionary resources and time that had been unprecedented in human history until about a decade before my birth. I watched too much TV, ate too much food, and spent too much time and money on idle entertainment. Which meant I developed very little “grit.”

The summer I turned twenty-one, I felt unsettled. I sensed the softness and selfish orientation of my overall character, and I was troubled that my experiential knowledge of God was much shallower than my theoretical knowledge of God. My experiential understanding of Christian love and faith was much shallower than my creedal understanding of Christian love and faith.

“God, Break Me!”

So, my twenty-first birthday found me praying radical prayers. “God, break through! God, break me!” I really wanted God to transform my authentic, but largely untested, flabby faith into something fibrous, strong, and persevering. I wanted faith that resembled what I saw in the New Testament.

One night, after praying such things with a few friends, one told me that while I was praying, he discerned the Spirit indicating that God was going to answer my prayers, but not in the ways I expected.

This turned out to be very true. A month after my birthday, I was suddenly plunged into a season of trial and affliction on multiple levels — pain I had never known and could never have predicted. It was frightening, it was disorienting, it was depressing, and it was soul-shaking. It tested me on almost every level and pressed me beyond what I thought were my limits. And it was prolonged, lasting a number of years. It was the worst thing I had ever experienced up to that point.

And it was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. The work God did in me through this affliction accomplished all I had prayed for, and more than I had asked or thought. It forced theory into practice, abstract creed into concrete deed. It forced me to really live what I professed — to really believe what I truly believed.

Painful Discipline, Peaceful Fruit

In the middle of that dark time, I wanted out of it so badly. But afterwards, when I began to realize what it had produced in me, how much more real God had become, how much more I trusted the reliability of his word, how deep the roots of faith had pushed, how fibrous, thick, and strong the trunk and branches of faith had grown, and how it was starting to bear spiritual fruit in ways that benefited others, that season of affliction became precious beyond measure. Or, in better words,

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

It is no overstatement when I say that this experience of hardship, adversity, depression, affliction, and spiritual oppression, along with other, even more difficult experiences since, have shaped who I am and all I do, even to today. They affect my marriage and ministry, my parenting and pastoring. They season all my writing, teaching, and counseling.

Holy FOMO

That’s why now my counsel to young adults, including (and especially) my children, is this: ask God to discipline you. Ask him! Perhaps ask sounds too polite. Plead for it! Grab hold of God, so to speak, and say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). For your loving Father’s discipline is a blessing. It’s one of the greatest blessings you’ll receive, since God only “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).

If you want to really know God, if you want to really treasure his word, if you really want fibrous faith, if you really want freedom from addiction to empty, ephemeral pleasure-buzzes, you need a holy FOMO: a fear of missing out on the deep pleasures of God that exceeds your fear of the painful discipline it may require. I’m here to tell you it is worth it. The psalmist is telling the truth:

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)

I would not exchange any of my discipline-afflictions for anything. In fact, I have made it a habit to keep asking God to discipline me. This isn’t because I love affliction, but because the hope in God I’ve tasted in the promises of God I’ve trusted in the darkest days are the sweetest things my soul has ever known.

True Greatness Is Given, Not Taken

True Greatness Is Given, Not Taken

God made you great — incredibly great, far greater than you yet comprehend. I’m not saying this to pander to your self-esteem. I’m stating a fact — a fact that you, unless you’re the rare exception, vastly underappreciate because you’re so conditioned to value the wrong kind of greatness.

The greatness we’re conditioned to value is hardly great at all. In fact, much of it is smoke and mirrors. And when there is a trace of greatness, it is pathetically small.

Jesus came to deliver us from the blinding and impoverishing power of counterfeit or tiny greatness, and to restore to us both our true God-like greatness and our expansive capacities to enjoy it with God-like, gargantuan humility.

Towering Greatness

You barely have a clue what an absolutely astounding creature you are. That thing inside your skull allowing you to read and contemplate what I’m saying is the most complex, mysterious thing in the known material universe. Your brain, as defective as it might be, is simply breathtaking — more amazing than any star or galaxy.

Your capacities to reason abstractly; solve complex problems through deduction, induction, and invention; organize disorder; plan for the future; understand verbal, written, gestured, and tactile languages; appreciate the subtleties of irony; find discontinuity humorous; and enjoy the manifold beauties of harmony and dissonance, symmetry and asymmetry, color and pattern combinations are nothing short of marvelous genius.

Your capacities for visual, auditory, olfactory, somatosensory (touch, feel, pressure, warmth), and emotional memory are so wonderful we lack adequate superlatives.

And your emotional capacities to love and hate, to worship and despise, to cherish and grieve, to create and destroy, and for joy and sorrow are so far beyond any other known material species that to say, as a human, you are in a league of your own is an astronomical understatement.

You are truly God-like. You, just as you are, possess a greatness so rare and astonishing that could you see yourself for what you really are, most of your chronic battles with inadequacy would disappear.

Tiny Greatness

And yet it’s likely this description of your greatness, of which I’ve barely scratched the surface, does not impress you much. Why? Because you and I have been deceived about what greatness is. We’ve become conditioned to admire tiny greatness.

Tiny greatness is relative greatness — greatness defined and measured by comparison with other people. It’s not enough to possess God-given greatness; we must be greater than other great people or it doesn’t really matter.

Our sin nature is pathologically selfish and replaces God with the self as the standard of greatness measure. It calculates the value of everyone and everything else in relation to the self — how we rank in comparison and how they increase or decrease our perceived relative standing.

This is tiny greatness at best, and counterfeit greatness at worst, because it despises the immense, inherent, God-given worth of people and things and instead bases its evaluation on the minuscule differential range of talent and circumstance that result in public admiration, what we call “fame.”

When we’re enthralled with tiny greatness, we value or devalue ourselves (derive our self-esteem) based on where we think we rank in our preferred or accessible social context, and value or devalue others based on how they enhance or detract from our perceived rank, our relative greatness.

The great, tragic irony of a selfish preoccupation with tiny greatness is that truly great things appear small to us, priceless things appear worthles, magnificent things appear boring, and God appears of marginal importance.

A Portrait of Tiny Greatness

The Bible gives us a portrait of the blinding and impoverishing power of tiny greatness in Acts 8.

Simon was a local celebrity in his Samaritan town. A magician of sorts, he had mesmerized the locals with his arts, and they had given him a title: The Great Power of God (Acts 8:10). Simon loved his great reputation and fed off the public’s admiration.

Then one day Philip showed up in town. He preached the gospel and the Holy Spirit came with power, granting Philip signs and wonders beyond anything Simon had performed. Large numbers of Samaritans professed faith in Christ and were baptized, including Simon.

Soon Peter and John arrived and joined in to help with this revival. Simon watched in awe as the apostles prayed and Samaritans were filled with the Holy Spirit. The crowds got bigger. Everyone was talking about the great power of God.

But they weren’t talking about Simon anymore. His star had been eclipsed. And like many who have experienced the euphoric drug of other people’s admiration, Simon wanted that rush again.

So, at a discreet moment, he offered Peter and John a small fortune if they would deal him a fix of the tiny-greatness drug of the Holy Spirit. Peter, who knew from personal experience the great danger of worshiping the idol of tiny greatness (Luke 9:46–48; 22:24–27), mercifully spared Simon no words:

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” (Acts 8:20–23)

God-Like Greatness Is a Gift

Simon is a warning to us. He saw the great power of God with his own eyes, but he didn’t see its real value. He didn’t value God, the gospel, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the apostles, and his fellow townspeople for what they really were. He shrunk them all down into mere means for the enhancement of his own personal brand. And in doing so, he reduced himself to a tiny, cheap replica of what God actually made him to be.

But hear the gospel in Peter’s words: “the gift of God” (Acts 8:20). This is what God offers us: exchanging a phantasmal, constrictive, destructive life of pursuing tiny, selfish greatness for an eternally substantive, expansive, creative life of awe, joy, love, and worship, seeing everyone and everything in all their God-bestowed glorious greatness.

It’s all grace! It always has been. Everything is a gift, from our inherent priceless worth as human beings created in God’s image to be wonderfully great, to the priceless, supremely great work of Christ that fully redeems us from the guilt of all sin, to the priceless inheritance of eternal life and all that comes with it — it is all the gift of God.

And the more we recognize everything as a gift, the freer we are to enjoy even our own greatness without the devaluating, distorting effect of sinful pride. For gifts are graces freely received, not merits earned. We are great creations because our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer is preeminently, supremely great, and because he made us like himself.

What makes you great is not your ability to supply the demand of market forces in your social economy of public admiration. In fact, the more self-consciously you strive to achieve relative greatness, the less truly great you become. Your greatness comes as a gift from God. And paradoxically, you will realize more of your true value, and the true value of everything else, when you are less preoccupied with your own value and more preoccupied with God’s.