Answering Life's Two Most Haunting Questions

I’m in the middle of reading Russ Ramsey’s excellent book Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as we come to Easter. It’s good, but I had a moment yesterday when I recognized myself in the book, and it wasn’t pretty.

Ramsey retells Jesus’ one of Jesus’ many confrontation with the Pharisees:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:8-11 ESV)

It’s a familiar story. Ramsey’s commentary, though, exposed a little of my own heart.

But they were not unlike the rest of the world who wanted so badly to know the answers to life’s two most haunting questions: “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” The world has historically measured such things based on possessions, reputations, influence, or family name. When power tells the story of worth, everyone postures themselves for the best possible seats at the table of life. But Jesus proposed another way. What if people didn’t find their position in this world according to how they compared to others, but rather by what God said of them? What if this were all that mattered— the Father’s affection for his children?

A lot of life and a lot of ministry is spent trying to answer the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” As a result, life and ministry can be about trying to establish our place before men, rather than joyfully accepting the lowest positions as we rest in what God has said about us.

This isn’t a new concept, but what’s new is recognizing how powerful this is in my own heart. I’ve long known the importance of living out of God’s approval rather than earning approval from others through my efforts. How quickly, though, I forget.

When it comes to the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” we no longer have to look to our reputation or ministry success. Those question have been answered. We just have to remind the Pharisee within us of that daily. The gospel frees us from having to validate our worth through our ministries.

The Anti-Grace Cycle

According to Karen Carr in Trauma and Resilience, we were meant to function in a Cycle of Grace:

Acceptance → Sustenance → Significance → Achievement

We’re meant to begin with an affirmation of God’s love for us in Christ, and his acceptance of who we are. This sustains us in our well-being and lives. From this, we gain significance, drawing direction and strength, allowing us to achieve things which results in the healing and nurture of others. Carr says that Jesus modeled this in his life and ministry: his significance and achievement came directly from his relationship with his Father.

Many of us, however, life in an Anti-Grace Cycle, or a Cycle of Frustration:

Achievement → Significance → Sustenance → Acceptance

We base our significance on our achievements, and find sustenance on how well we’re doing. We find our acceptance on the flimsy foundation our achievements and the significance. This leaves us feeling exhausted and often disappointed.

Carr gives an example of someone in ministry:

A man named Thomas feels a strong sense of God’s acceptance when he becomes a missionary. He chooses a difficult field where there are few Christians. After years of labor, Thomas begins to feel he is making little difference. He cannot see results, not a single convert! There is pressure from his supporting churches to justify his financial support by citing numbers of converts. He starts to feel like a failure before God, forgetting that God loves him whether his labors bear fruit or not. Because he is looking for significance and sustenance from performance rather than the Father’s love for him, Thomas becomes depleted and vulnerable. He resorts to late-night pornography after his wife has gone to bed. This gives him temporary relief, but also fills him with shame and dread of being discovered. Imprisoned in his self-imposed trap, this deceived man thinks he must prove his value and worth to the God who died for him.

We all have a tendency to live in the Anti-Grace Cycle. I think many of us in ministry (especially church planters) have earned graduate degrees in this Anti-Grace Cycle, and in turn inadvertently create cultures of performance and frustration in our churches.

“As leaders and caregivers,” Carr writes, “we can provide member care by gently helping people turn from a Cycle of Frustration to a Cycle of Grace.” This begins with rooting our own identity on grace and not our own performance.

I’ve lived under both cycles. There's not even a difference. Those of us who preach grace had better experience grace. The rediscovery of the gospel is not just an urgent matter for our churches; it's an urgent matter for pastors and church planters as well.

Jill Briscoe's Laugh

I was asked to give an update on our church planting efforts this past Sunday at the Greater Toronto Spiritual Life Convention, an annual multi-church event. Because of this, I had a front row seat to hear Stuart Briscoe preach. I’ve heard Briscoe preach before, and as usual he did a masterful job. But that isn’t what I’ll remember the most from that evening.

Sitting in the front row, I was one person away from Stuart’s wife Jill as he preached. As Stuart preached, Jill laughed. She laughed a lot, and genuinely. She’s probably heard all of his jokes before, but after 57 years of marriage, she was engaged in what her husband said, and able to laugh at every one of his jokes.

One of my friends was asked recently by a church search committee what a successful ministry would look like if he came to that church. They probably expected him to describe goals about the growth of the church, and the great things that would happen under his ministry. After thinking a minute, he said that he would consider his ministry there a success if his wife still loved him at the end of his tenure, and that he had some true and significant friendships with others. It’s not the usual definition of success, but it’s not a bad one either.

I’ve been around long enough to understand that it’s hard, and that ministry and life can take its toll on one's life and marriage. On Sunday night I saw two things I loved: a man in his eighties who continues to serve faithfully, and his wife who still continues to laugh. 

I appreciate Stuart Briscoe’s preaching, but I may have appreciated his wife’s laugh even more. If I reach my eighties and have remained faithful, and have a wife who still laughs at my jokes, I will count myself a blessed man indeed.

The Benefits of Brokenness

I have a pastor-friend who is unflappable. I think it would be impossible to tell him something that would surprise him. I know, because I’ve shared some things with him that might have raised some eyebrows. His never moved; he responded with the grace and strength that I needed at the time.

It’s hard to surprise my pastor-friend, because there isn’t much that he hasn’t experienced himself. He’s had the parenting problems. He struggled with an episode of major depression and burnout. He’s failed and succeeded in ministry. He’s stayed faithful over the long term, but he’s battered and bruised. He’s got a credibility that only comes from those who have stayed in the battle long enough to know that it’s tough.

He reminds me of another older man I met through Serge, the ministry started by Jack Miller. “There’s nothing you could tell me that would shock me,” he said. “There’s no way that you’re a worse sinner than I am.” Some could say that as a platitude; he said it as a truth. When you have been around long enough to have been humbled, and are still walking with God, you have a grace and a strength that’s hard to fake.

The older I get, the less I’m surprised by the struggles and foibles of others. I no longer have the quick answers and the simple advice. I am accumulating the wounds that I hope will one day give me the credibility that is able to stand in the middle of suffering and to say much without saying anything.

I’m no longer fighting the process of being broken. I’m learning what I couldn’t have known when I started ministry over twenty years ago: “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply” (A.W. Tozer).

Saying True Things in a True Way

I’ve noticed a trend. In many of our settings, we tend to say things that are true as far as they go, but the way we say them contradicts what’s being said.

  • We’re told that pastors shouldn’t measure themselves by the size of our churches, but we’re told this by megachurch pastors who have platforms because of the size of their church.
  • We’re told to plant small, authentic, missional, reproducing churches at a large, slick conferences in attractional churches.
  • We read books about overcoming the success syndrome in ministry written by pastors who appear to have been quite successful.
  • We read inspiring stories of pastors who suffered and discovered that Jesus is enough even when you lost it all, but they seem to be written by pastors who, in the end, didn’t lose it all.
  • We read that Jesus’ grace is enough to cover present sin, but we typically only hear how Jesus has helped someone deal with sin only in the past.

Please understand: I’m not saying that any of the above is wrong in itself. I’m glad for the megachurch pastors I’ve heard who have reminded me that our identity isn't baed on our church's size. I’m glad for many of the large church conferences I’ve attended that tell me how to plant a small church. I’m grateful for the helpful books I’ve read about not needing to be successful, even if they’re written by successful pastors. And I’m thrilled that Jesus’ grace is enough for the sins of the past.

But I wonder if we can add to the above list without subtracting from it?

  • I want to hear from the pastors who have lots to teach us, even if they don’t have a large platform or a huge follower count.
  • I want to attend a conference one day about being small, authentic, and missional at a church that is small, authentic, and missional.
  • I want to read a book about overcoming the success syndrome written by a pastor who, in the eyes of the world, looks like a failure.
  • I want to hear from the pastor whose story didn’t have a happy ending, and yet who still clings to the fact that Jesus is enough.
  • I want to hear from the struggler who is finding that Jesus is enough not just for past sin, but for present struggle.

In his book Samson and the Pirate Monks, Nate Larkin speaks of his experience attending a church where the pastor spoke of present grace for present sins:

Barely four months later I would be listening to the gospel in a church where it was safe to admit brokenness, where the pastor talked about his own sin in the present tense and celebrated the mercy of God every Sunday. Here I would hear about the covenant of grace and the steadfast love of our heavenly Father. I would be reminded week after week that I am an adopted son of God, no longer an orphan, and that my Father never disowns his own. Finally—and this was the greatest miracle—it was in this church where I would meet many of my future comrades, the men whose friendship God would use to radically rearrange my life.

It’s just one example of the five things I talked about: a pastor speaking about sin and grace in the present tense instead of the past. And it made all the difference in the world, at least in Nate Larkin’s life.

I’ve been wrestling through these issues. I somehow want to say and hear true things in a way that’s congruent with the truth, even if it means listening to people we tend to overlook, and speaking truth’s we’d rather keep to ourselves.