There’s a biblical prophecy I’ve freshly discovered. I eagerly await its fulfillment and am doing whatever I can, whatever I must, to hasten it. The prophecy is in Zechariah 8. It begins with a vision of what a community looks like when God reigns within it. But here’s how the chapter ends; here is the vision’s crescendo: “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: In those days ten men from different nations and languages of the world will clutch at the sleeve of one Jew. And they will say, ‘Please let us walk with you, for we have heard that God is with you’”(8:23).
That’s evangelism. Good news is embodied. It is a way of life, a thing plain for all to see. The evangelized, not the envangelists, do all the talking: let us go with you! The lost take the initiative. And the lost come from every tribe and tongue and nation.
This is the dream of every church – for God’s life among us to be so obvious, so fragrant, so magnetic, so contagious, that all peoples clamor for the privilege of joining. Rather than us grabbing hold of people, people grab hold of us. Rather than us telling anyone, “God is with us,” they tell one another that.
All these things happen “in those days,” which refers to a promise God makes at the beginning of Zechariah 8: “I a returning to Mount Zion, and I will live in Jerusalem” (8:3). The vision is a description of what happens in, to, and through God’s people when God dwells in their midst.
Several things happen in this vision but let me draw out one: there is a breaking of ethnic, cultural, and political divides through an in-breaking of the gospel. “People from nations and cities around the world will travel to Jerusalem…[saying], ‘Come with us to Jerusalem to ask the Lord to bless us. Let’s worship the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. I’m determined to go.’ Many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord” (8:20-22).
Good News, the gospel is for all nations. It embraces and welcomes all languages – Urdu speakers and Inuit and Norwegians and remote tribes tucked in the folds of Burmese mountain jungles. It’s for the homeless under the bridges of Los Angeles, the untouchables in the streets of Calcutta, the drug addicted in sweaty apartments not far from where you live. It’s for rich people who live atop hills and poor people who live in ditches. It’s for the old man in his lonely room, and the teenage girl struggling to find her identity, the single mom wondering where the next meal’s coming from. It’s for the discouraged dentist, the confused mill-worker, the weary postman. It’s for everyone, everywhere.
This is evangelism Bible-style. This is evangelism that is cross-cultural, transpolitical, multiethnic, intergenerational, class defying, and wildly bountiful.
And natural. No one strategizes. No one takes classes for this. It’s just that a people who live with God in their midst evoke, simply and powerfully, far and wide, curiosity about God. A community like that makes others envious in the best sense: we become attractive and compelling to the world.
God asks us to do something before he releases any of this: he asks us to do justly.
“But this is what you must do: Tell the truth to each other. Render verdicts in your courts that are just and that lead to peace. Don’t scheme against each other. Stop your love of telling lies that you swear are the truth. I hate all these things, says the Lord” (8:16-17).
A crucial shift in Zechariah 8 happens midway through. It’s announced by the phrase, “But this is what you must do.” Up until this moment, Zechariah 8 has been a litany of things God promises to do. Right after this moment, it continues with things God promises to do. But inserted in the middle of the prophecy is something God requires us to do.
God hates injustice. He hates deceit. Unless we deal fairly and honestly with one another, unless we have a bone-deep commitment to justice and truth, all the good God intends to do for us and through us gets undone by us.
We have a passion for sharing God’s truth with the lost – for helping friends, neighbors, loved ones, our communities to come to see know, and love God. But as we hold on to this hope, we must also understand that God requires us to do justly. For if we are not living out the redemptive, just, and whole Christian life, it can be hard to recommend it to other folk.
Bunk Mates in Heaven
A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”
I laughed, and then didn’t.
I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.
I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.
Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.
Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?
But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?
Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.
So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):
- Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
- Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
- Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
- Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.
There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?
When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.
How’s that going for you?
“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”
I was in a coffee shop the other day and a mom announced to her little guy – maybe 2 and a half years old – that it was time to leave. Little Guy didn’t want to leave. At first he ignored her, then he defied her, then he assailed her. To her credit, she remained calm. She spoke quietly. She stood her ground. She didn’t bargain. In the end, magnificently composed, she carried Little Guy out the door, thrashing and wailing all the way.
It got me thinking. It got me thinking about the difference between control and self-control. These two things – control and self-control – stand at opposite ends of the maturity spectrum. The toddler was a live-action reel of a fierce effort to control. And he was a spectacle of immaturity. The mom was a breathtaking portrait of impeccable self-control. And she was the epitome of maturity.
Toddlers brim with the impulse to control (even as they bungle the execution). A 3-year-old will resort to wild-eyed tantrums, incessant whining, ear-piercing screams, coy manipulation, and flat-out demand to try to get their way: to control their parent, or sibling, or playmate, or the situation at hand.
The irony is bitter: as the toddler’s attempts to control things escalate, his ability to control himself deteriorates. His need to control makes him more out-of-control. The results are not pretty.
This all looks different in adults – usually. Certainly, we’ve all met 28- or 33- or 59-year olds (sometimes in the mirror) who, in an increasingly desperate effort to control people or situations, throw tantrums, power up, make threats, emotionally blackmail, and so on.
But most of us, by age 19 or so, have an epiphany of sorts: that the louder we shout, the less others listen. That the more we manipulate, the further others back away. That the more we toss a fit, the more others look at us and think, “What a sad strange little man.”
That’s the epiphany. But what we do with it matters a great deal. It determines whether we really grow up or not. The truly wise become deeply humble. They realize that the only kind of control the Bible endorses – indeed, commands – is self-control. The New Testament has 16 separate exhortations to be self-controlled. It’s a major theme.
So the wise heed that, and work with the Holy Spirit to get a grip on themselves. They receive the comfort, the rebuke, the strength, and the instruction of God himself to discipline their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and actions. They give up trying to control others and step up being in control of themselves.
The lovely irony is that the self-controlled exert wide influence. People listen to them. Heed them. Seek them. Follow them. In other words, the self-controlled accomplish the very thing the controlling desperately want but only ever sabotage.
Fools do the opposite. A full-on fool keeps up the toddler-like behavior right into their dotage. I saw this once in an 82-year-old man. It was… pathetic. But a semi-cocked fool has the epiphany – that just becoming louder, meaner, wilder only ever backfires – and instead of changing themselves they simply change their strategy. They seek to control by subtler, more socially acceptable means: withholding affection, icy silence, veiled threat, simmering anger, nagging, and so on.
Here’s what I’ve learned: every impulse to seize control is the Holy Spirit’s invitation to practice self-control. Every nerve jolt to freak out, melt down, start yelling, fly into rage or panic is a divine cue to slow down, breathe deep, start praying, and lean into God. Every instinct to control something is God’s nudge to control myself.
I don’t always get it right. When I don’t, I not only lose self-control: I lose influence. I lose respect. I lose dignity.
When I do get it right, I gain all around.
Lord, help me get a grip on myself.
Questions: When have you seen this dynamic at work – the more you try to control, the more it backfires? What heart disciplines have helped you get a grip on yourself?
I decided to write one more post on handling criticism and praise. My wife noted an omission in my last two posts: any discussion on how to guard our hearts when praised or criticised. So this is that.
Both praise and criticism can damage us. Praise can swell our head, criticism poison our heart. Praise can lull us into vanity and complacency. Criticism can waylay us with resentment and defeat. I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had seasons when so many people were applauding me, I became entitled and smug. And I’ve had seasons (why do they seem so much longer?) when so many people found fault with me, I became testy and sullen.
I call it the criminal/god syndrome: one minute, people treat you as sub-human, the next they hail you as super-human, with hardly a pause in between to see that you’re only human.
The Apostle Paul’s suffered the criminal/god syndrome, and gives us a model of how to deal with it. Two stories from Acts illustrate. One is in Acts 14:8-20. Paul, with Barnabas, is in Lystra and heals a man born lame. The crowd goes wild. They hail them as gods, and try to sacrifice burnt offerings to them. They protest vigorously but barely restrain the crowd from worshipping them. But that soon changes. Some of Paul’s enemies show up and persuade the crowd that he’s really a scoundrel. Next thing, the crowd stones Paul, drags him outside the city, and leaves him for dead.
He goes from god to criminal in a breath.
The other story is in Acts 28:1-6. Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Malta. A poisonous snake slithers from the brushwood and bites him: “When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:4-6).
He goes from criminal to god in a blink.
No one is immune to this syndrome, especially leaders. The more you try to make a difference in the world, the more liable you are to be seen as one or the other, a criminal or a god: one minute a hero, the next a villain; one minute a sage, the next a fool; one minute worthy of swooning adulation, the next deserving brutal rejection.
How did Paul handle it?
Simply and profoundly, he knew his identity in Christ. He knew his role and value in the eyes of God. He took his deepest cues from his Father in heaven. Whether treated as a criminal or a god, Paul remained rooted in his true identity: a servant of the Most High God, and a servant of others.
He best sums it up in 1 Corinthians, to people who had swung from lionizing him to vilifying him. He writes to them:
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
Herein lies a whole spirituality of dealing with the criminal/god syndrome, of handling praise and criticism. Here are the key points:
- Know your identity in Christ and your call in God. Paul knows he’s a servant of Christ – his identity- and that he’s entrusted with the mysteries of God – his call. He is bound to this, not to anyone else’s expectations or demands.
- Be unswervingly faithful to that identity and call. Paul lives, neither to win man’s applause nor to avoid man’s criticism, but for one thing alone: to hear God’s “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He plays to an audience of One.
- Care very little what others think of you. Paul simply refuses to give much weight to anyone who does not acknowledge his identity and purpose in Christ. The Greek for “I care very little” carries the sense, “your opinion is the least of my concerns.” Again, I emphasize that Paul is dealing here with those trying to pressure him to compromise his God-given identity and call. He is not deaf to honest critique: he’s just deaf to useless distraction.
- Care very little what you think of you. Paul refuses even to judge himself. He knows how warped and skewed, how self-serving or self-defeating, our own self-assessments can be. So he avoids passing final verdict on himself.
- Be able to look God in the eyes. Paul says his conscience is clear. How I apply this: Can I look God in the eyes? Am I confident that I can stand before God and, without shame, tell him what I’ve done and why?
- Don’t assume you’re right. Even still, Paul does not pronounce himself innocent. It’s possible, he acknowledges, that he’s wrong. The jury’s still out, and so he denies himself any self-righteous posturing.
- Trust God to judge finally and rightly. Paul knows that God in his time will render a perfect verdict – vindication, or condemnation. At that point, no earthly court’s verdict matters a whit. No human opinion, our own or another’s, means a thing. God deals with the real stuff – the motives of our heart – and gives a true, just and final judgement. It’s the only one that matters. Wait for it.
- Live in such a way that you anticipate God’s praise. Paul anticipates that he will receive God’s praise. He lives for it. He endures brutal opposition in the hope of it. He never compromises his identity or his call, because he knows that man’s praise without God’s praise is nothing, but God’s praise, with or without man’s praise, is everything. The only prize he sets his sights on is God’s praise.
Who sees you as a criminal? A god? If that is messing with you, apply Paul’s remedy. I’d love to hear about it.
Last week, I wrote about handling criticism. I promised a second installment. Here it is.
Years ago I read a story, the source of which I’ve now forgotten, about a young acolyte who approaches an old saint and asks how he can be made perfect. The old man says, “Tomorrow, go down to the graveyard, choose any burial plot, and spend the say praising whoever lies beneath.”
So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”
“Tomorrow,” the old man says, “return to the same grave, only this time spend the day cursing whoever lies beneath.”
So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”
“The first day you stood over the grave and gushed praised, did the grave’s inhabitant respond?”
“And today, when you spewed curses over the same grave, did he respond?”
“My son, when you can do likewise with the praises and curses of man, you shall be perfect.”
I only half agree.
Frankly, I’m not dead yet, and the praises and curses of man stir in me strong emotion, and immediate reaction. I think for all of us, while breath remains in us, we will find it so. Until our dying day, our emotions, to some extent, will ride the waves of what others think of us. Maturity consists, not in being dead to others’ opinions, but in shaping our response to their praise and curses so that we gain maximum benefit from both, and do minimum damage.
But here’s what I’m tempted to do: to cancel one with the other. I tend to use praise to cancel criticism, or (especially when I’m raw and vulnerable) criticism to cancel praise. In the first scenario, I think, “All my critics are wrong, because all my fans say I’m wonderful.” Or, alternately, I think, “All my supporters are wrong, because all my critics say I’m horrible.”
Neither is true.
I have formula I use:
Discount by at least 20% the praises of a supporter, and discount by at least 80% the curses of an enemy.
Both your fans and your foes have a skewed perception of you. You supporters, by definition, over-estimate your wisdom, goodness, insight, prowess, and the like. Your enemies, by definition, underestimate these things. The top layer of a supporter’s praise is usually pure flattery. The bottom layer of an enemy’s criticism is always thick bile.
But there are two voices you should especially pay attention to:
1) A compliment from someone who routinely criticizes you
2) A criticism from someone who routinely encourages you
When a chronic critic says “Thanks” or “Well done,” I pay attention. And when a habitual exhorter says “What was that?” or “That’s not up to par,” I pay attention. I think both these voices approach something close to true reality.
Two quick stories to illustrate.
In my first church, the person who least wanted me to be their pastor – who voted against my coming, who came out guns blazing on every idea I proposed, who muttered and griped about my preaching – stood up as I announced my resignation, confessed to all that he never wanted me as his pastor, but wanted to be the first to say he wished I would stay.
That had my full attention.
On the other side, when a friend who’s always exhorted and defended me recently said he was disappointed in me, that got my full attention.
I’m not dead yet, and not yet made perfect. But between now and then, I want to get the most benefit out of both praise and criticism, and do the least damage.
How have you handled both praise and criticism? Does my formula – discount a supporter’s praise by at least 20%, and an enemy’s curses by at least 80% – sound accurate to you? What percentages would you use?