For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!—1 Corinthians 4:9,10
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that pride is the primary human sin. Over the course of several pages, he shows that pride is at the root of all the various ways we rebel against God. We are self-centered, and we trust ourselves more than we trust God, and all of the other sins we commit stem from this fact.
Of course, you are free to disagree. Lewis’ writings are helpful, but they aren’t the Bible. They aren’t inspired or infallible. Maybe you honestly feel like pride isn’t that big of an issue for you. But I can tell you that in my case, Lewis was right on the money.
I am a very prideful person. I think about myself all the time. I’m far more aware of my own needs and wants than anyone else’s. I think I’m smarter than most people, I generally feel good about the choices I make, and I have all sorts of justifications for my failings, whereas I find the shortcomings of others inexcusable. I’m convinced I’m an above-average driver. My opinions are clearly the right ones. And I spend far too much time concerning myself with what other people think of me.
Can you relate? Hopefully not. But I’m guessing that at least some of those statements ring true for you. Lately I’ve especially been thinking about that last one. Why on earth do I care so much what people think? Why do I want to impress people with my knowledge, my accomplishments, even (this one is especially ironic) with my spiritual maturity? For some reason, one of the ways sin shows up in my heart is in this preoccupation with making sure people think I’m pretty great.
Knowing this, God decided to make me a pastor, so He could humble me. Now, you might think that being in a position like mine would only serve to feed my pride, and in some ways you’d be right. I spend a lot more time on a platform and in front of a camera than most people. I get lots and lots of praise and encouragement from God’s people, who are tremendously kind and supportive. And yes, Satan can use those things to whisper in my ear that I really am somebody special.
But there is another side of it, which is that being a pastor is often an exercise in being a fool for Christ. Take, for example, a beach wedding I once did on the Oregon Coast. All of the arrangements were made over the phone, and I neglected to ask the couple about the appropriate attire for the ceremony. I showed up in a shirt and tie, carrying a Bible. Everyone else there was barefoot in the sand, wearing Hawaiian shirts and shorts, with a drink already in hand in preparation for the reception afterwards. I felt like a Mormon missionary.
Wedding receptions are often like that. I’m the only person there who doesn’t have a close connection to anyone in the room, and I get the distinct feeling that everyone is thinking “When is the nerd with the Bible going to leave so we can get this party started?” They don’t understand that I’m like everyone else there; since grade school I have had a powerful desire to fit in and be one of the crowd. I want the cool kids to like me. But there I am with my shirt tucked in and my shiny dress shoes, thinking “God, why did you decide that in my case, serving you would mean being a freak?”
In one particular case, He actually said almost exactly that. Back before our building project at my previous church, we were running out of room and realized we needed to have three Easter services, one on Saturday night and two on Sunday morning. I had never preached three sermons on a weekend before, and of course there is a lot of pressure for the Easter sermon to be something special.
As I prepared, though, I got the distinct feeling that God didn’t want me just to preach a sermon everyone would appreciate. He wanted me to present the Gospel clearly and give non-believers an opportunity to respond. In other words, an altar call, something I have never felt like I was very good at. But I prayed and prepared, and when the big day came, I gave it everything had. I preached my guts out to that Saturday night crowd, and at the end I pleaded with people to respond, to say yes to Jesus. And no one did. Not one single person.
That night as I prayed, I wrestled with the possibility that if I laid myself bare like that again in the services the next morning, the same thing might happen, and I would just be standing up there like a fool, in front of even larger crowds, two more times. And suddenly I knew: It’s likely that’s exactly what’s going to happen, and God wants me to do it anyway. I realized what I was really concerned with was my own image, not the work God wanted to do in people’s hearts. Graciously, the Holy Spirit gave me the ability to surrender in that moment, and I prayed, “Okay, Jesus. If that’s the way you want it. I will be a fool for you.”
On Easter morning, I got up and put on a shirt and tie, and I went and stood on the platform and preached my guts out again, to a crowd of church people who already knew the story, and Christmas-and-Easter Christians who had no intention of giving Jesus any more of their hearts than they already had, and non-believers who were there out of obligation, all checking their watches and thinking about lunch. And again, I ended by inviting people to surrender to Jesus then and there, to give Him their lives so He could give them a much better one. And again, no one budged. No one came up to talk to me afterward. I snuck back to my office, had a granola bar and some water, and raised my eyes to heaven for a quick prayer: “Okay, Jesus, one more time.” Then I went and did it again. I held nothing back. I gave up on any of those people ever thinking I am the least bit cool, and I gave them Jesus as best I could. And as far as I know, no one received Him as their Savior that day.
You might think I would consider that to be a low point, ministry-wise, but I don’t. It was more of a turning point. Kind of a breakthrough, actually. Since then, I go back to that prayer on a regular basis: “Jesus, if you want me to be a fool for you, I will. You are worth it.” Most experiences aren’t as extreme as that one, but it comes up in little ways all the time. It’s pretty much a guarantee that any time I’m preaching on sex or money or anything else controversial, I will meet someone five minutes before the service starts who is a first-time visitor to our church. Ugh. Sometimes it’s someone I know from our community, who I would love to make a good impression on. Then I don’t get a chance to talk to them after the service, and I spend the rest of the afternoon obsessing over whether or not I scared them away for good. If we have a visiting missionary or someone else I want to think highly of our church, I’ve learned to expect that our attendance will be down that day and the services will feel unusually sleepy and lifeless. God seems to know when I am getting too focused on impressing others, and to find a way to bring me back to a place of humility where I realize that He’s the only one whose opinion really matters.
When our Lord was crucified for our sins, hanging naked on the cross at a busy intersection on a holiday weekend while the cool kids stood around and mocked Him, he suffered the ultimate humiliation. He became a fool for us. He took upon himself not only all our sin, but all our shame, too. And then He rose, victorious over all that stood against us. Since that day, for those who have trusted Him, a little shame is nothing to be ashamed of.
Is Jesus calling you to be a fool for Him in some way? Go ahead and do it, whatever it is. Take my word for it, it’s good for the soul. One day we will be free of this sinful flesh, and all of this ugly pride will be stripped away, and we will be able to devote ourselves to the glory of the only One who deserves to be glorified. May He begin preparing us for that moment even now.
Fear of man will prove to be a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.—Proverbs 25:29
“I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” –2 Samuel 6:22