Do you ever feel like work related stress has taken control of your life? Do you routinely get home at the end of the day ready to collapse in front of the TV for a few hours of zoning out before sleeping restlessly, only to do it all over again tomorrow? Do you live for the weekends, only to find you’re too tired to do anything when they arrive?
Americans have a toxic relationship with work. Stress consumes all of our time and energy, leaving nothing behind for us to enjoy with our families. We were not meant to live this way. God designed us to enjoy our lives and our work. So why is it all so out of whack?
This Sunday we looked at the first chunk of Ecclesiastes 4. The philosophy book takes a practical look at how our lives get out of whack and how we can put things in the proper order again.
This week we looked at the various ways our work takes over our lives. Next Sundy we will dig into the solution that God offers us for getting things back into the proper order.
If you have questions or comments, leave them in the comment section and I will try to answer them during a deep dive livestream next week. You can also email your questions.
I’ll be posting follow up articles looking at different aspects of this week’s message .Please consider subscribing to my blog or asking to be added to our email list. Also, if this material helps you let us know or share it with a friend.
Have you ever felt like there should be something more? You built a life complete with the job, home, family, and car. You have everything you’re supposed to gather up in life, but there’s still something missing. I’m talking about a void that prompts you to ask “Is that it? Why do I still feel like something’s missing?”
Kierkegaard called that feeling of disconnect ‘angst’ and devoted page after page to considering what it is and how to fix it. Television commercials constantly tell you that the problem is that you need a new cell phone, or car, or some other shiny new toy to make the void feel full for a while. The problem is that the newness wears off.
Don’t worry. You aren’t alone in this struggle. The there’s-got-to-be-something-more void isn’t even a new thing. Kierkegaard wrote about it in the 1800s, but the wrestling matches in our souls go back much farther. Roman emperors wrote books about it. Socrates was put to death for challenging his fellow Athenians to face it head on. Nearly 3,000 years ago King Solomon wrote a book considering the problem.
This essay will look at what he came up with. My goal will be to examine the question: “Why do we long for something more even when we have found everything we thought we wanted?” and “What do we do about it?”
These questions are at the heart of Chapter 3 of the Bible book: Ecclesiastes. Don’t let the name intimidate you. It just means “teacher.” The goal is to teach the reader of the reality of life in our broken world. This Sunday (8/28/22) I’ll be preaching on the next chapter, which digs deeper into why the answer in chapter 3 seems hollow in our practical experience.
The two chapters were meant to be read together, so one leads to the next. My hope is to connect you with the beginning of the answer you are longing for in the quiet moments and to prepare you for this Sunday’s examination of the next chapter.
A quick note: I am not going to include the whole text. Please consider reading along in your Bible on a good Bible website like Biblegateway. I would suggest the NIV New International Version). Also, you might find the wording in the text a little intimidating and/or confusing. Part of that is because it was written 3,000ish years ago in a whole other language. It’s also written in a poetic/philosophical style. I’ll help explain it as we go.
To Everything There is a Season… Turn Turn Turn
The words in the beginning (verses 1-8) of the chapter are probably familiar. Feel free to sing the lines as you read them. The Byrds’ adaptation of this passage has branded them in our brains making this poem is most famous part of the book.
King Solomon, who at the time of writing the book is old and gray, is making the point that we are all creatures stuck in time. We live experiencing the passing of days and seasons. Until Doc Brown invents a time machine to move us about within time, we can only go forward at the pace we are going now. Within that passing of time there are seasons for everything.
The poem here is particularly appropriate for the culture of the original audience (farmers and ranchers), whose lives were heavily oriented around seasons. The point is simple: You are going to move through the seasons of your life. Some will be good, others not. They will go by as you move forward on your journey from cradle to grave.
If you’re in asking yourselves the “is-this-really-it” questions, then the poem (and melancholy hippy song) probably resonates at least a little. There’s no saving time in a bottle for later. Like sand slipping through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives… Got it? You’re not getting younger and will probably die eventually.
The Problem of Time Passing By
Verses 9 to 14 take the problem of the void head on, but because you are not an ancient Jewish reader (I assume) I am going to skip ahead to verses 18-21. You see, one of the great paradoxes of the ancient Hebrew worldview involves dust.
If you’re a rural Montanan like me, you know that dust is everywhere. It coats every surface of our cars. It kicks up on the farm roads and reduces visibility to nothing. A friend of mine sells premium collectible harvest dust to folks in numbered, limited edition bottles. It is everywhere and to most folks it is a nuisance. However, in the book of Genesis it is what God used to make man.
The creator of everything gathered up dust, molded it into man in his own image, and breathed into it to give it life. In fact, his name (Adam) essentially means “dirt.” The key bit in the Genesis account is that he made man in “His own image.” The phrase is loaded with tons of meaning and implications. For our purposes we will only consider two aspects:
First: In all of the ancient accounts of where man came from, Genesis is the only one where man was not an accident or an inconvenient byproduct of of something else the gods were doing. The Jews believed that man was special and even resembled God by design. When they asked “Is this all there is,” they did so with the assumption that there really ought to be more.
Second: In our basic qualities we are like God. We create stuff. We write poems and create art. We were designed to have a strong ethical sense. Also, we were meant to live forever. Death is a result of the fall and the sin that has corrupted the world and messed everything up. That is where the paradox happens.
We are dust with God’s image stamped into us, designed for eternity, and to dust we will return. Solomon basically says that just like the animals we will die, returning to the dust.
That’s the tension every Jewish reader would’ve spotted immediately. He talks about returning to the dust, conjuring the image of beings created from dust, to resemble something eternal, which will eventually return to the dust. Seasons pass and we pass away.
Lois Tverberg wrote on this topic: One eighteenth-century rabbi put it this way: “A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one it should be written ‘The world was created for my sake,’ and on the other it should say ‘I am but dust and ashes.’” On days when we feel discouraged and worthless, we should read the first one. On days when we’re consumed with pride and our own self-importance, we should read the other.
Why do I feel like something is missing?
Armed with the understanding of our precarious paradoxical situation, let’s jump back to verses 9 to 14. Solomon asks “What do we even get for the work we put in?” It’s a good question. Earlier in the book he explored the hard truth that no matter what we build, create, write, invent, or decree it is temporary.
Solomon built cities and monuments, that would one day crumble. His stuff would be passed around by family, sold off at garage sales, or donated to Salvation Army. All of his work is temporary and nothing will last long. What is the point of doing great things when those great things will fade quickly like the flash of brilliance that accompanies a lightning strike? The ancient Jewish reader would’ve known that we and all our accomplishments will return to the dust.
Then Solomon points out that God has “He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We are temporary, but at the core of our being we want to be eternal. We feel like there should be something more because we were made for something more. We long for eternity.
That longing will stay with us for as long as we live because we live in a perfect world that has been broken. We (and it) were designed to know God and be connected to him all the time. However, rebellion made Him a stranger to us. As a result we are constantly longing for something to fill the God shaped hole in ourselves.
The tragedy is that nothing in this world can fill it and the more we use the world to try to fill it, the worse the hunger becomes.
Solomon’s solution to the emptiness is to acknowledge the gift God has given us and orient life around it. That gift is today: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Verses 12-13)
Basically, we are to realize we are meant for more, then enjoy today based on that truth. Be happy with what you have. Live as God called you to live. Enjoy the fruit of your work. Enjoy your work.
This probably feels like an empty solution on the face of it. The trick is to recognize that it’s a gift from a loving Father meant for our good. It is part of knowing Him. We can pray thanks for our family. We can find the good things in our work. We can enjoy a good meal. We can find meaning in following him in our actions. If it feels like there is a piece missing here, it’s because there is. You see, Solomon wrote this in the 900s BC. He could not see where the plan was headed.
Wait, What?!? That’s it? That doesn’t help!
You may have read Solomon’s solution and thought: “Work sucks and I’m already doing the other stuff but something is still missing.” That is a fair observation. There’s three parts to what’s going on here.
First: the trick is looking at your life in a new light.
It’s a little like the “Antiques Road Show” on PBS. I always find it interesting when a guy comes in with an old iron that their great grandmother left them, which they had been using as a doorstop in the garage for years. The appraiser looks it over, then explains that it was used to press Napoleon’s uniform at the battle of Waterloo and is worth $500,000,000 at auction. Suddenly, that rusty piece of junk has new value.
Your life, family, work, meals, and everything are there for you to enjoy now. They are a precious gift from God. Don’t let the ever present longing for eternity wreck your enjoyment of now.
C.S. Lewis argued that the stuff we enjoy now is designed to awaken a hunger for eternity. They are there to remind you that there is something more.
I’d compare it to a movie theater preview of the best movie ever made. No one watched the trailer to the next summer blockbuster and complains that it isn’t enough. Trailers get you hyped up for opening weekend when you get to enjoy the whole thing.
Good meals are the aroma wafting from the kitchen as the Feast of the Lamb described in Revelation is being prepared. Your wedding day gives you a sliver of the joy that will be experienced at wedding of Christ to his bride, the church. Your friendships are a snapshot of the fellowship we’ll enjoy with God’s family in eternity. Enjoy it like you would a little sample spoon at Baskin Robins, because the full triple scoop, chocolate dipped, waffle cone is coming faster than you expect. This life is not all there is.
Second: God’s Addition to Solomon’s Solution
Enjoying today doesn’t solve the “missing part of ourselves” problem. If the things of today awaken a hunger for eternity, how do we satiate that hunger?
The trick is that the story doesn’t end with Solomon. The answer is bigger than he knew. That solution shows up when God himself shows up.
The New Testament tells us of how the infinite God became a creature of dust, just like you and me. He chose to be stuck in time with us and experience the passing of seasons. He lived perfectly and showed us perfectly who God is. Then he stepped into our spot and took punishment for our sins. When Jesus was crucified, God saw all of our sins in Him and poured his wrath out on him.
In exchange, when God looks at those who follow Jesus he sees Jesus’ perfection. Even the most awful things we have done are wiped away. This established a reconnection to him. It connects us with him in a way that fills the void.
When Solomon says in verse 14 that God and all his work are eternal, he is saying that we want that but cannot get it. We have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that we are meant for more, but that God embodies that truth.
In Jesus, we are reconnected to that and given the promise of joining into eternity. Now, our work is part of something eternal, whether we like it or not.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that everything we do in regards to those around us will push them toward an eternity in God’s presence or an eternity separated from him.
Our work will bring him glory or bring us shame. In light of the gospel, everything we do is eternal. It will all last forever. That is why Paul tells us to do everything in life like we are doing it for Jesus himself. Live your life like the results are eternal, because they are.
Third: Chapter 4 (And This Week’s Sermon)
We will address the third part of why the answer can feel little flat in this Sunday’s sermon.
You might have read Solomon’s idea that work is part of the solution and thought: “Work is awful (especially Mondays!). What kind of solution is that???”
Solomon addresses that objection in the next chapter, which is all about how work gets screwed up in our world. The problem is that our sinful world has lost perspective on what work is for and what place it should hold in our lives.
This Sunday we will look at the various ways we deal with work wrong that results in a feeling that it is “not enough.” Solomon goes through and looks at several different bits of brokenness that make our world feel empty.
In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis sums the preceding points up better than I could hope to. The reason we experience a longing for more and an unquenchable hunger for more is because:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”
Solomon acknowledges that hunger and advises us to enjoy our work, the fruit of our work, and our lives while doing good. Walk with God and enjoy the gifts he has given you.
“Woman Pastor” is a dynamite phrase. You can say it, tweet it, attach it to a post, or whatever and launch an explosive chain reaction. Boom goes the dynamite with enough concussive force that no one can hear what the other side is saying.
I usually spectate this brand of verbal blowup from a safe distance. The advantages of distance include avoiding shrapnel and taking a birds-eye-view of the fracas. This is not a change in approach. I am not offering my position in this essay. Sorry. Rather, I am sharing a moment of clarity I experienced.
While observing a recent exchange on the topic, I heard a Godly man, who I have a high opinion of, arguing against women pastors. His words stood out to me, though they are ones that I have heard before.
“Many people point to Deborah as an argument in favor of women in leadership, but they miss that the point in that situation was that men had failed to step up to their responsibility to lead. God appointed Deborah as an in insult to his people. They needed a woman to fight their battles.”
He is correct in his exegesis of the appointment of Deborah. The narrative of the book of Judges is about the progressive moral decline of God’s people. Deborah was able and faithful in a time and place where men were not. I’m the ancient world the events were pretty humiliating to the Israelites. It’s not a new read on the text.
However, as right as the exegesis is, the statement is potentially wrong.
I don’t say that lightly. God appointed Deborah to accomplish his will and to make a point. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to the controversy today. In fact, we often get so wrapped up in arguing the the theological minutia of this point that we miss what’s happening in Deborah’s story: Men were abdicating their responsibility… so God appointed a woman.
Now, consider the church.
Are men teaching children the scriptures in Sunday school and VBS or is that something women do? Are there more men than women in Bible studies? What about in discipleship relationships? Are there more men than women in worship on Sunday mornings or do moms and grandmothers bring the kids to church while dad does something else? The hard truth is that we aren’t present. In fact, we are conspicuously absent. We insist that women fill all sorts of spiritual roles that are “beneath us” or that we don’t feel like doing.
Perhaps women are taking to the pulpits because we are sleeping in on Sunday mornings and refusing to teach. Maybe they are leading because we aren’t.
When Jesus entered the east gate of the temple and the crowds praised him, the pharisees grumbled at the praise. Jesus replied that “If they remain silent, the stones themselves will cry out.” We are living in a time when men are growing increasingly silent. The truth is that men are disappearing from churches. We’re abandoning spiritual leadership and have been doing so since Adam watched Eve enduring temptation and said nothing. (Read it! He was right there. He did nothing.) When confronted by God he blamed Eve and the Almighty.
Now, I know folks will point to the various texts where Paul forbids women in different roles. I am not having that conversation. Though, I will say that we must ask us if silence in the pulpit is a greater or lesser matter of the law than women leading.
If the stones will cry out in worship if the people remained silent rather than praising, perhaps it’s reasonable that women might preach the gospel when the hearts of men become cold stones. Ultimately, is it worse for women to preach or for no-one to preach at all? Which is the greater and lesser matter of the law?
I am not claiming that every female standing up front is Deborah. What I am claiming is that in many places, if it wasn’t for women preaching the gospel, the pulpit would be silent. If not for moms and grandmas teaching kids to pray and about Jesus, they wouldn’t learn it at all. We aren’t leading. Or worse, we try to “lead” in selfish, unbiblical, and unchristian ways.
Men, we own this if we are not stepping up ourselves. If we condemn women who step in the gap without urging our brothers to step up to fill empty pulpits, Sunday school classrooms, and spiritual leadership in our own homes we strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. We need to check our hearts. What if this is happening to shame us for our inaction?
Please note: I’m not saying it’s right or wrong for women to pastor. I’m saying we’ve missed the point of Deborah’s story and the gospel must be preached.
While studying this morning, I watched my wife’s puppy diligently working to get dog food out of the older dog’s crate. The two dogs eat different foods and she always wants to eat what he is eating… Over the course of an hour she worked her way around the cage and did her best to grab what she can. In fact, she managed to get a few pieces of food in the process and eventually pulled the other dog’s bowl to the edge of the crate so she could steal directly from it.
Why am I sharing this? First, it is cute and funny. Second, as I am sitting up (early in the morning) to study and reflect before the day starts and the kids get up, I kinda think I am a bit like the dog (though maybe not enough like her). I am up looking, scratching around,and digging for a bit of wisdom, understanding, or spiritual maturity. The thing is, it is often just out of reach. BUT, if I dig persistently enough I end up with a morsel or two in the process. I rarely figure out how to get the whole bowl all at once, but I grow in bits and pieces. It just takes work. Maybe the kernels of truth taste better if I have to work for it… I guess my point is that spiritual maturity, depth, and wisdom is not an instant venture. We sorta need to be single minded in our pursuit of it in order to acquire what we are chasing…
There is another side to this coin. I don’t give her the other dog’s food because it isn’t good for her. She is still growing, and the wrong kind of food can mess her up in the long run. In that respect, the dog is a lot like me when my sinful heart gets set on something that God has purposefully locked out of my reach. I will continue to work at it, in my fallenness, trying to get what I can because I think that what is new and exciting and different and forbidden will make me happy. In the end, the things I am trying to get aren’t going to do anything but mess me up. The puppy cannot seem to stop and think: Maybe this cage is here for a reason… maybe I should eat what is given to me and ignore what isn’t for me. Of course, dogs don’t think that way… and neither do I when sin has grabbed the wheel and is steering me where I shouldn’t go.
That was my weird reflection for the morning while drinking coffee and trying to study 2 Timothy. Hope y’all’s day is good… chase wisdom with an abiding hunger… Avoid the things the Lord has set apart from you for your own good.
Reprinted with the permission of the Big Sandy Mountaineer.
In 165 AD, an epidemic swept through the Roman Empire, ravaging the western world for 15 years. The disease may have been smallpox, though it’s difficult to say with any certainty. Regardless of the nature of the illness, the result was devastating. Around a third of the population of Rome died. The population was justifiably terrified of the horrible illness. The wealthier amongst the Roman citizenry simply sequestered themselves in their country homes for years, while the poorer members of the population fled cities or did their best to ride out the illness. One of the worst practices of the time was for families to push members out into the streets when the first of the symptoms arose, figuring it was better for them to die in the streets than to infect the entire household. Ancient witnesses describe streets piled high with the dying as a result of this brutal practice. During this time, the early church responded in a completely different manner. Followers of Jesus believed in an afterlife in heaven and in their responsibility to care for the poor. This was a stark contrast to the belief of their pagan neighbors. Christians simply weren’t afraid of the disease because they believed that to die was to be with Christ, all the better if you died serving Him. The work of early believers to provide basic care to the sick resulted in the saving of countless lives. Medical historians have estimated that the basic care provided was enough to save two thirds of the recipients, most of whom became too weak to do even basic self care. The actions of the early church in caring for the sick and dying was a major contributor to the explosion of growth of Christianity in the 2nd century. I would argue that there is an important set of lessons to be learned from their example. The early church didn’t live in fear of the plague. Certainly, many were afraid, but they did not allow their fear to control them. They saw their obligation to serve Jesus as the first and foremost of their responsibilities. I believe this is our calling for the time we are living in. Mind you, I am not advocating being stupid and acting as though we are completely safe from getting sick. This isn’t wise or Biblical. We need to take precautions because we don’t want to give anything to our family or neighbors. In addition, our actions reflect on the God we serve. That having been said, we shouldn’t be afraid to serve our neighbors either. This life is not all there is for us, and we have instructions as to how we are to live. I read recently that food banks in bigger cities are struggling to meet their obligations because they simply don’t have enough people who are willing to help serve the constantly growing lines of people who need food. Many of us have neighbors who are alone and isolated because they lack family to reach out or care for them in this time. Our calling as followers of Jesus is to help where we can. John Wesley once said that we are to: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” This might mean giving up some of our stockpile of toilet paper or sharing of our finances with a neighbor who can’t work and isn’t sure how they’re going to make rent. It may mean calling a shut in, dropping off food on a doorstep if only to brighten a neighbors day, or all manner of other things. Perhaps it means giving your hand sanitizer to someone who has to go to work every day. Find ways to serve. I’m so blessed when I see folks making masks for their neighbors and then giving them away. Perhaps this involves not calling each other names on Facebook because our neighbors doesn’t hold the same belief regarding the right way for the country to go forward. No matter what is involved in serving Jesus in the pandemic, this is a time when we shouldn’t allow fear to control our actions. We shouldn’t be foolish and act as though we cannot get sick. We shouldn’t use our freedom for selfish ends. We should take the instructions of our governing authorities seriously, which is addressed thoroughly in the New Testament. We should love and care for our neighbors. Be the face, voice, and hands of Jesus for our neighbors in this time of trial.
This morning, in an effort to recognize the first week of November, I played Christmas music loudly on the stereo in our living room. My wife was driven nuts by it and repeatedly admonished me about the inappropriateness of starting Christmas 2 months early. I didn’t point out that I was playing Christmas music a couple weeks after stores started selling Christmas junk, but I digress. I will confess that I am not a rabidly cheerful Christmas guy, but I love driving my wife nuts. Also, it clicked in my head that there’s a cool parallel to what I am preaching on this morning. You see, my sermon prep and work life have been very difficult and emotional this week. I did afuneral for a friendyesterday and am preaching on 2 Peter 3:8-14 this morning. My friend was a believer and throughout his long illness, spoke of the day he would standing in the presence of Jesus. He knew that eternity was coming and waited through pain and sickness, patient but eager to arrive in eternity. The repeated statements from my brother in the Lord have echoed in my head all week as I prepared to officiate his funeral. At the same time, I studied 2 Peter, which speaks of the Lord’s second coming and the renewal of all things. I couldn’t have picked a better text to preach following the funeral of a believer. Peter speaks about the necessity to wait on the Lord’s timing for his return and the necessity of preparing by serving and living holy. Peter wanted believers to celebrate and rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord would return, but also he wanted them to work and prepare for the day of His coming. We as believers are supposed to be a little like the folks who start listening to Christmas music on November 1st. No, we aren’t supposed to drive our neighbors and family members insane. Rather, we are supposed to have an eye on the day that is coming, when Jesus will return. That constant awareness of His return is to be joyful and it is to be a reminder. We must remember that the big day is coming, and we have important work to get done before it arrives. There are gifts to buy, invitations to send out, decorations to put up, lights to light, meals to plan, and a million other things to do before Christmas gets here, and we celebrate the coming of the Lord. In relation to the second coming, we don’t know the day or the hour and no one will know, but that doesn’t mean we don’t send invitations to our neighbors to prepare for the greatest celebration in the history of creation, when the Lord sets the world right. We have to light our lamps in the darkness and adorn the church with beautiful good works. We must do our best to clean up our world by bringing the Lord’s kingdom and encouraging His justice. In Peter’s letter, he says that in anticipation of the Lord’s return, we are to live holy lives. Simply put, we must be different. We must grow to be like Christ. We must keep an eye on the Lord’s return. This doesn’t mean that we obsess over comparing the words of Revelations with the evening news. We shouldn’t abandon our responsibilities as believers in the name of fixating on end times prophecy. Absolutely not. When Christ spoke of His return, He would compare it to workers in a household or vineyard who are given responsibilities while the master is away. When the master returned, they were rewarded or punished. We are to work diligently while we still can. The Lord is returning. Christmas is coming. Get ready. Invite your neighbors to the party. Sing praises of a God who will make the world right again. Be patient, but busy.
In recent years, I have found the habits of elite athletes and soldiers interesting. Guys who not only do physical things well, but at a level above everyone else in the world. I am not an athlete, but am starting to appreciate the habits and mindset of folks who are top-tier in their fields. One of the interesting things I have noticed about such people is that they maintain physical discipline even when they are not doing their jobs. A former Navy Seal I follow online talks about getting up early every day to train. This is a man who is no longer fighting wars on the battlefield, but sees his own training and discipline as non-negotiable. Football legend Herschel Walker continued to train hard whether he was playing ball, between seasons, or retired. Training isn’t seen as a component of his career. Rather, it is a way of life. Pushing yourself daily to exceed yesterday’s best is never questioned. These are folks who are elite athletes and warriors by nature, not just by vocation. I am never going to be an athlete or a warrior. I am a pastor. I live a different calling. I exercise hard every day because I want to be better. This new practice and reading about the habits of these men has helped me to realize something powerful. I study and meditate on scripture verses 8 to 9 hours a week so I can teach them on Sundays. I truly love this aspect of my work. However, I struggle with spending time daily reading and studying the same book for my own edification. I also struggle with the daily discipline of prayer. This morning, I realized something convicting. While the elite athletes and soldiers I’ve been reading about do their required trainings as a part of their work, they also do it as a part of their lives. These men get up, train, then go to work and train more. They do it because it is who they are, not because it is their job. I study because it is my job, but if I want to be a man of God, I must study and pray because it is in my nature to do so. I will never be at the elite level of pastorate. I don’t really know that such a thing exists and if it did, I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to refer to me as something like that. However, I love the folks under my pastoral care. I love my family. I love to teach and preach. I love the folks in my community. I love the folks who read my writings and listen to my preaching online. Most of all, I love the God I serve. If all of this is true, and not just something I say, it really ought to be in my nature to hunger for better. I should treat my spiritual state as though my personal spiritual growth will glorify God and minister to those around me. The higher the quality of my spiritual life, the better I will minister to the people I come into contact with. Prayer and personal study are not optional to a person who loves the folks they minister to. It is training. It is conditioning. It creates in us a state of readiness for the moment when we need to love someone we are angry at or forgive the sins of our neighbor. Pastors and brothers in Christ: we must train daily in study and prayer so we can be ready for the moment God calls us to serve. Prayer must be like running. We should do it so much it is natural to us to pray without ceasing. Study should be like lifting weights. It should create strength in us to handle anything we encounter. Paul put it best when he wrote to Timothy: “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.” Brothers, we must train to be better because it is in our nature.
This morning I overslept. I wasn’t late for an obligation or anything, rather I didn’t get up as early as I wanted to in order to achieve my morning goals. I went to the gym and felt tired. I don’t know whether it was because I was unmotivated, dehydrated, or something else. I finished my workout, but I didn’t go as hard as I wanted to. I got less done for work in the morning than I wanted, though I did get some things done. I just sorta fell short of my goal. While taking my son to swim lessons, I read an essay on pushing yourself to create the type of person you want to be and I felt convicted. Still, my physical state was dragging. My spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak. This often seems like the case when I set lofty goals: I eventually lack the time, energy, or will to achieve them. I am not great at being perfect.
My morning devotions dealt with Paul being the chief of sinners. It struck me that Paul worked harder than anyone else around him to achieve righteousness under his own steam. Yet he still failed. He later said that all his efforts were a pile of trash next to knowing Christ. In Romans 7 he acknowledged his daily struggles to overcome sin. Still he pushed hard and confessed that it was only Christ in him that made him good and righteous.
Now my morning focus turned to the manhood movement within evangelicalism and the larger point of my essay. Scrolling twitter, I came across a post from a pastor trying to shame guys into overcoming any softness in their lives. It was obvious he wants men to reach a lofty state of manliness that he has decided is the target of all believers. It was condescending, self-righteous, and unbiblical. He tried to coat it with a religious veneer, but it was a thin veil. He basically told men: Do not be soft, dependent on others, or effeminate in any way. To do so is to fail as a Christian man. It had the feel of a Christianized 300 speech. Part of what troubled me is that the type of manliness the pastor was describing is not unheard of in Christian circles. Lots of male focused Christian literature and influencers push this narrative that men should rule their homes with an iron fist, never feel emotions, shed weakness, and fight the world. The problem is that for anyone to try to live that way is purely playacting. There is no authenticity to it. If manliness is all about eschewing “softness” or any kind of personal weakness, it is a form of farce. It eliminates wide swaths of men from the contention of manliness and rewards virtues that don’t really make a man.King David wouldn’t even qualify, because although he was a fierce warrior he was also a poet. He danced before the Ark. He wept. He had close friends who he loved. He wore his dependance on God as a badge of honor. He was a man of steel and velvet. He was also sinful.
If my manliness is derived from my ability to get up early, bring it at the gym harder than anyone else, achieve more at work, or whatever, I will always be reaching for a ring that is unattainable. My flesh and the reality of my physical limitations are always going to get in the way. I am a cracked clay pot. I can push forever, but never be “good enough” because good enough is a shifting goal post. There’s always something more. My righteousness, toughness, and discipline will always be insufficient. Or worse, they will become a point of pride that will serve as a stumbling block to myself or those around me. Paul realized that. He worked to be like Jesus, acknowledged his struggles to hit the mark, and owned his shortfalls. I think that is what I want to be. I want to be a man, doing his best to be like Jesus. I want to love my wife like Christ loved the church. Teach my son to be like Jesus. Preach the Gospel and faithful explain the scriptures to the best of my ability. Still, I am going to be unfocused and soft sometimes. I’m going to act like a selfish child when my flesh overcomes me. If I fall short but I am a tool in the hands of my master I will consider it a win. If I’m not manly enough or disciplined enough or holy enough, then the good things I do are despite my weakness and point to the fact that Christ can still work through a broken tool. When I tried to be the best and to never deal with my weaknesses, it drove me to drink and wreck everyone around me. I will try hard and Christ will do the rest. If I am weak, he is strong. If I am boasting in anything, it won’t be my manliness or toughness or anything else. It’ll be in Christ alone.
I wrote this piece for my weekly column. It was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer in June of 2015.
One of the worst sins I’ve ever committed was actually committed over several years. During my early years working in ministry, I pretended to be perfect. When I left for work every day, I put on my “perfect Christian” mask. I hid any struggle with sin, temptation, and anger. I made excuses and ignored my own shortcomings. Eventually, I stopped talking openly with anyone about anything that might look un-Christian in my life. When I taught, the only sins I ever acknowledged were innocuous, like driving too fast, which is an imperfection of mine that’s well known to any reader of this paper’s traffic ticket listings. I believed that perfection was expected of minsters, and because I wasn’t perfect, I faked it. It may seem excessive to identify this as a terrible sin, but it is because it is a denial of the central message of Christianity: that all people sin and need forgiveness. Pretending to be perfect is self-deceiving and denies our need for God. Beyond distancing us from God, it also drives others away from Him, either because they see our hypocrisy or they see being “good enough” as unattainable.
The saddest misconception about Christianity that drives folks away from knowing God exists primarily amongst Christians: the myth of perfection. Whereas the previous columns in this series have largely addressed those who walk away from God in frustration/hurt, this week will primarily address folks in the church who believe this falsehood.
Believing we are, or ought to be, perfect is spiritual poison. When we look at the life of Jesus, there is no-one that he strikes out against more vehemently than religious folks, specifically the Pharisees, who couldn’t see or confess their own failings. Most were so convinced of their own perfection that they couldn’t ask for forgiveness because they didn’t believe they needed it. They lived for the praise of others, thrived on comparing themselves to “sinners”, and constantly bragged of their righteousness. This puffing up results in blindness to the seriousness of our own sins.
False perfection is also poisonous to relationships. Maintaining the illusion of perfection keeps us from confessing or seeking help. While living this way, I often wished I could talk about my struggles, but wouldn’t do so because I did’t want anyone to know how imperfect I am. Hiding secrets isolates us. Conversely, openness and accountability knits us together in community, because calling on each other in times of need teaches trust and interdependence.
The most profound lesson I learned from being open happened when I talked openly about struggling with sin while teaching one day. A young man approached me afterward, tearfully opening up about his own struggles. He thanked me for being honest, because he too had been hiding everything for fear of being condemned by others. Being vulnerable provides a safe environment for others to be vulnerable. The most common response I hear to openness about my own imperfection is appreciation for being real and human.
Living life- honestly acknowledging our imperfection- is risky. It’s possible that others will judge or ostracize you for being a sinner. I discussed with a friend how tempting it is to want other Christians to be human, but not too human. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to believe that God should forgive our brand of sin, but not the sin of others. This is the power of acknowledging our imperfection/dependance on God’s forgiveness. It emphasizes God’s mercy, rather than our self-righteousness. This makes judging others harder to justify. Awareness of our dependance helps us empathize with others in the same predicament.