This week I did something I had been putting off.
I have traveled to Liberia a few times on mission trips and have a friend in Liberia named Wilfred. We call each other once in a while. About a month ago, he called me and told me that his community had been quarantined due to the ebola virus. They were not supposed to leave the house except to get food or water.
Anyway, I felt God convict me to send him some money.
And then I thought of the things that keeping that money could bring me. It could buy me some video games. A trip to a waterpark for my family. It could be buy me some meals out to eat. It could buy me this, and it could buy me that.
Because it was all about me.
Yet God kept telling me that He wanted me to do something for Wilfred. And I delayed. And delayed. God tried to convict me about how much I spend on cat food compared to someone I consider a friend in Liberia who lives in desperate need of some money. I wasn’t buying it. I wanted to use that money on myself (or my cat).
But then I had to start writing a message for a Gods At War series at church. In that series, We talked about the god of pleasure and asked where do we go for comfort? We watched a video with the woman dealing with the god of love and asked where do we go for completion. We talked about the god of money and asked where do we go for security. The god of power and who has control of our lives. Finally, we are on the god of me. This really is the god behind all the other false gods we have talked about. The god of me. Who do we worship? Ourselves? Or God?
As I worked through these thoughts preparing for this message, I couldn’t possibly write, asking you to no longer worship yourselves, when I was wanting to disobey God and worship myself and keep the money that I felt prompted to give to my friend . So I wired my friend the money that God laid on my heart to send.
But this struggle I was going through - this struggle to worship ourselves -- is nothing new to humanity. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, had this to say.
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (ESV)That's quite a list. Paul's warning was just as relevant in his time as it is today. People will become lovers of pleasure, proud, and lovers of money. But the big, first one encapsulates them all -- they will be lovers of self.
We have this innate desire to worship something, and we all too often direct it toward ourselves.
Unfortunately, churches often conform to the pressures of society and morph the gospel into self-worship. Instead of churches being places that call us toward radical discipleship, encouraging us to consume differently, encouraging us to love the unlovable, encouraging us to strive for holiness, our churches dangerously teeter to becoming bastions of the self-help, motivational culture that America is inundated with. We go to church to feel good, rather than be encouraged to sacrifice. We like the warm fuzzies of worship rather than encountering God and being transformed during worship. And as soon as church fails to do what we want it to do, we're out. I think someone once said, "Ask not what you can do for your church, ask what your church can do for you."
It’s sad that our most popular Christian celebrity in America has transitioned from being Billy Graham, an evanglelist - someone focused on reaching the lost, to James Dobson in the 80s, a self-help psychologist, then on to Joel Osteen, a motivational guru.
I want our celebrities to be Mother Teresa, Shane Claiborne, or, even Billy Graham again. All the people that model sacrificing their own lives to living out this radical life of Jesus in our world. Maybe even better, I want our celebrities to be the unknown heroes in the local churches who are serving their church family and their communities day in and day out without any stories being written about them or any attention being given to them. These unsung yet essential heroes are made when people like you and me decide that we are going to follow Jesus rather than our own selfish desires. When we realize that following Him and being part of a church isn't about me; instead, it's about God.
The world tries to steer us back to it being about me, and it infiltrates church teaching too. We want to hear that the gospel is about us, but this is not the gospel that Jesus taught.
In the 1500s, John of the Cross wrote,
"Endeavor to be inclined always:Prior to writing this, John was working on reforming the church. Unlike the Protestant reformers, John was working on changing the church from the inside. This was known as the Counter-Reformation. Yet the reform attempts didn't always bode well for the reformers, especially for those pushing change away from institutional bureaucracy to genuine spirituality. John of the Cross spent nine months imprisoned for his reform efforts. He wasn't released though; he escaped. Yet he didn't remain silent. He went right back to attempting to implement the needed reforms. In the face of opposition and suffering, he continued pursuing Jesus and His kingdom.
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to what means rest for you, but to hard work;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious,
but to the lowest and most despised;
not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing."
—John of the Cross
Like John of the Cross, when we realize that following Jesus isn't about us and our individual happiness, we are willing to suffer for the cause of Jesus. It's the god of me versus the God who came as Jesus.
Paul touches on this in his instructions to Timothy, which we began reading earlier. Paul, while writing his second letter to Timothy, was facing dark times. He was in prison in Rome and appears to have lost hope for his earthly prospects. And, as we will read, he knows his time is short; he believes he is going to die. (And he was right. Tradition holds that he was beheaded during the reign of Nero.) But at this point he was being deserted by many of the people he converted (2 Timothy 1:15) because who wants to associate with one who the State is going to execute. At his first defense, nobody even stood by his side to support him (2 Timothy 4:16). It's from that place of loneliness, of seeing his candle burning down and being abandoned, he wrote this:
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. [new slide] But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:10-17 (ESV)Following Jesus isn’t about me. It’s not about me getting what I want. It's about giving up everything for what God wants. Jesus modeled that in giving up his life through dying on the cross. Paul modeled that through giving up his life through being a martyr. That's what we have in this passage--Paul reminded his protégé to stay strong even in the face of persecution. We have the faithful throughout history who have done likewise. Yet we somehow think that following Jesus means that everything will get better and there will be no suffering in it for us.
It may be unpopular, but things may not get better. Many of you know this all too well. Someone you love dearly may have or suffered through Alzheimers. It's not going to get better on this side of the grave. Or maybe you or someone you love is suffering through a debilitating disease. It's not going to get better on this side of the grave. I don't know all of your stories, but I know that in a group like this some of you have experienced tragedy all too much. Things don't always get better. Sometimes they get worse. Tragically worse. But, it's true, it may get better, but I don't think we're implying when we say "It will get better" that we may have to die to receive the better.
Yet we want the better. And we want it now. This is the message of the god of me. This is the gospel of America. We think we deserve the better, especially if we're trying to be faithful to Jesus.
The idea that "things will always get better" just shows how inundated we are with concepts like the health and wealth false gospel in Christian circles. But the truth is that it may not get better. The situation you are currently struggling with may not get better. You may be sick, and it may lead to death. You may work hard and not prosper. But even if things don't get better, even if we don't get wealthy, we still serve a worthy King. A king who is worthy to serve whether or not things get better for us individually.
We don't worship God because of the presents; we worship Him because He is worthy. And when things are going well, we celebrate. We know things won't always be this great, but that doesn't mean we should ruin the good moments by worrying about their end. Celebrate the moment of beauty if that is what you are experiencing. Celebrate it without worrying about tomorrow.
And for those of you who aren't living in a moment of celebration, remember that He is there with you. He offers a supernatural comfort and peace where there should be no comfort and peace. He knows suffering intimately. The crazy, yet true, Christian belief is that something beautiful can come out of our suffering. Even in our darkest valley, God is still worthy of our worship.
Being a Christian and following Jesus, isn't about things getting better for us. That may happen. It often does. That seems to be the normal experience. I've seen crazy, unexplainable blessings come to people who start giving and are blessed in return. Who start serving, praying, and being part of a church family. I have never seen anyone give their life over to Jesus and not experience a sense of purpose and a better life in the here and now. God does bless radical faithfulness. But we serve a savior who was executed, along with most of the apostles who followed Him. Being a Christian is really about humbling ourselves and serving others--being Jesus' hands and feet in this world because His hands and feet were nailed to a cross for us. It's about being Jesus to everyone around us. It's about following the example that Jesus set and living that life for others. That little baby born in a manger in Bethlehem was going to face a lot of pain, discouragement, obstinate people, and death in His days here on earth. Who are we to think we deserve differently? Our suffering, when we ditch the god of self, is where we can join our Savior.
Research shows that the happiest aren’t those with most toys or those who are served. Those who are happiest are those who are willing to give up their possessions and time to take care of others. We were created to love others. (http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/02/10/happiness.possessions/index.html & http://www.dreammanifesto.com/longest-running-study-shows-helping-others-makes-us-happy.html)
And, most importantly, we have the example of Jesus. He gave up his life for us. Setting the example that the will of God often breaks into this world through suffering.
The god of me says that we shouldn't suffer. That false god is to be avoided at all cost. This false god says that when we suffer, we are out of step with the will of God. But we know that the false gods of this world do not deliver. I want to show a clip that will reiterate that point.
I can't embed this video, so go and watch this Tom Brady video at CBS News.
If the false gods of this world could deliver, Tom Brady would have the answer. Money. Fame. Pleasure. Supermodels. Victories. Being the best in the world at what he does. He has had it all in the world’s eyes.
Yet the current rings don’t satisfy. The next one will be the best. Eventually, the next one will never come. And he will still have that hole in his life that needs an answer.
I wish that all of you could totally have the pleasures that you desire. I wish that you could attain the pinnacle of everything that false gods can deliver like Tom Brady has experienced. For on that side of attaining all that the earthly pleasures you desire -- when you have all the wealth, fame, and security that the world can provide -- you would be sitting there with Tom Brady and say “I don’t have the answer.” Because those things, although good and useful in their proper place, can never satisfy.
Now, I haven’t been given the opportunity to sit down with Tom Brady and have a conversation with him about this. Maybe he will run across this. I doubt it. But if I could bend his ear, I would share with him that Jesus is the answer. It may seem overly simplistic, yet I know it's true. I know that because when I was lost and pursuing the ways of this world, my life was hollow. I was empty. But then I encountered a group of Christians who were living differently than the world around them. They weren’t living for themselves. They were living for Jesus. And through their example, I gave my life over to Jesus and became satisfied. Where I was blind, I could now see. Where I was empty, I was full. Where I was lost, I was found.
So I can't sit down with Tom Brady and tell him that Jesus is the answer, but I can share that with you because you have taken time out to read this article and get this far. Jesus is the answer. He said so Himself.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. John 14:1 (ESV)It’s decision time. All these false gods of the world are competing for your attention. Including the false god of yourself. And Jesus is here whispering amidst the chaos, “Follow me.” Not just for your benefit. Not just so you can get to heaven. But because he has a better plan for your life. You can be part of his plan for this world, of making right the wrongs, bringing hope to the hopeless, bringing justice to the suffering. You can be part of His kingdom and His family.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6 (ESV)
"And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." John 17:3 (ESV)