Helpful Comparisons

Via Liva Jan on Twitter

I had a seminary professor, Howard Hendricks, who warned his students against the dangers of comparison. At Dallas Theological Seminary, everyone received feedback on their work through a campus mail system. Students gathered near the campus mailboxes, pulled their papers, and the game began.

“What’d you get?”

“How’d you do?”

Hendricks said that if we did it in schoolwork, we’d do it in ministry. We would look at people who were leading churches that are growing numerically or launching new ventures or preaching to large crowds and make one of two mistakes.

If we were leading a growing ministry, we’d be susceptible to pride and self-conceit, thinking that our success could be traced to ourselves. Rather than giving God the glory, remembering the fruit we bear is a sign of God’s presence and grace or that our gifts and abilities trace themselves to God’s favor, and crediting countless co-laborers for their contributions to shared work, we act as though we are the ones who made everything go, that we did it all for God and that God and others should worship and thank us for all of the wonderful things that have taken place.

Conversely, if we work among rocky soil and see little signs of progress, labor among a sleepy congregation that is in need of renewal, or if we’re placed in a small community hidden from the attention of the world, we think we’re failing. We mistakenly believe that God has forgotten us or that the work that we are doing is insignificant in God’s sight. We compare our work to the wrong standard. We do not consider if we’re being faithful with the “talent” God has entrusted to us. Our service is not done unto the Lord. The comparison game leads us to look to others for our sense of well-being in ministry and in faith. As a result, we miss what God is doing in and through us right where we are.

I’ll confess this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. Like most everyone, I have ambitions and the desire to be successful in what I do. I’ve wanted to “do great things for God” or to be admired. Rather than thinking about my calling, my need for growth, and my next step in faith before God, I’ve compared myself to others and how they are doing rather than considering carefully how I am doing.

The Christian difference here is that I am not only measuring my growth against myself. I am measuring my growth against Christ, in whom I am called to maturity. Ephesians 4:14-16 puts it this way:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Note that Paul calls each member to grow up into Christ. But as we grow, we do so as part of the fellowship of faith. In fact, membership within the body helps us to become all we’ve been created and redeemed to be in Christ, nourished within a kingdom ecosystem that allows each to flourish and to bear fruit that has been appointed in service to the whole.

One last thought that enables us to free ourselves from comparison to others: as part of a redeemed community, we remember that all other members, like us, were sinners in need of God’s grace. Therefore, there is no superiority. But we also remember that those who are part of the Christian community have been claimed by God’s love. Jesus died to demonstrate for us the depths of the love of God for us. Therefore, there is no inferiority. Christ died once, for all.

Trust Makes it Go

Via Sketchplanations

When it comes to trust, I think people put a lot of weight on credibility and intimacy, and we certainly factor reliability over time. A credible person not only has the credentials, they display competence. A safe person keeps a proper confidence, listens well, and allows for vulnerability. And the reliable person consistently comes through on time, under budget, and with high quality.

But self-orientation is the one we keep in the background, both in how we evaluate ourselves and in how we evaluate those we work alongside. I might rephrase the description above and instead couch self-orientation in terms of shared or common interests, rather than mine or theirs.

I think human beings do make decisions and take action based on self-interest. I think growing and mature persons are aware of the ways their own self-interest is in play. I think respectable and wise leaders are understanding of the interests of others they work with and alongside, and they are cognizant of the ways personal and organizational interests align when moving toward a goal. Furthermore, they have reached a point of maturity where the interests of the other, and others, are considered more important than one’s own self-interest. They are willing and able to put self aside to serve. That’s easier said than done.

In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul writes:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Paul then goes on to cite the example of Jesus in the rest of the chapter, not only as one to follow, but as the theological justification for the dynamics that are in play in healthy Christian communities.

In Christian communities, trust is not only built through displays of credibility, reliability, and intimacy, but also by an orientation toward Christ and the kingdom of God and the seeking of God’s glory. If that’s a shared focus, good things happen, and we not only learn to trust one another, but to trust God’s leadership, guidance, and work within and among the community. As a result, we elevate the trustworthiness of people and we learn through experience the trustworthiness of God.

Institutions: Around Them, or Through Them?

Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

Looking for ways to make a difference, younger Americans therefore tend to think in terms not of channeling their ambitions through institutions but rather of going around them. Because our politics has always rewarded those who can successfully claim the mantle of the outsider–now even more than usual–the temptation to approach our institutions antagonistically, or to avoid them altogether, has grown very strong. When we look for solutions, we tend to look not to institutions but to individuals, movements, ideals, or maverick outsiders.

Maybe what we resist most is the idea that we would need to be formed by institutions at all. The liberal idea of freedom, which has often been at the core of our political imagination, is rooted in the premise that the choosing individual is the foundation of our social order. Liberating that person–whether from oppression, necessity, coercion, or constraint–has frequently been understood to be the foremost purpose of our politics. Our parties have argued about how to do it and about what kind of liberation the individual most desires or requires. But they have agreed, at least implicitly, that once properly liberated, that person could be free.

Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

I feel these tensions, having been formed within them. I value institutions. I value individualism. I’m skeptical of institutions. I’m aware of their failures. Early in my ministry I was drawn more toward movements and mavericks, those seeking to reform or to build something new.

But as the years have gone on, I’ve become more skeptical of radical individualism. It can pull us away from community, history, or tradition. I’m wary of those who build their own cult of personality.

In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin makes the case for our institutions. Levin argues that we should recommit to them, highlighting the positive ways they can be formative. He’s right. They can be. As a child of a stable family, relatively healthy churches, and a vibrant university community, I’ve seen the positive effects institutions can have.

But as an observer of unhealthy institutions, I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to reform a decaying institution from within. There are moments when it is easier, better, healthier, and more generative to leave an institution and blaze a new path, begin a new movement, or chart a new course. A new church, college, university, or other association might be just the thing to renew an existing institutional form. Older institutions see it is okay to try new things, make certain changes, or launch new initiatives. Those who go around institutions and who begin to build new organizations are like a research and development division.

These breaks can be messy. Knowledge can get lost, overshadowed, or put aside. But new expressions of existing institutions can, at times, not only serve to bring forth new life in a new place with new people, but it can inspire older institutions to break free of their ruts and enact needed reforms.

I agree with Levin. We need more people to commit to our existing institutions, to be formed by them, and to make their mark through them. But I’m not discounting the fact that some will need to go around our institutions for the good of us all. We need mavericks, too, who help us not only see how we’re getting it wrong, but where we’re getting it right.

Spurgeon on Reading, Citations, and Learning From Other Minds

Image by Nino Carè from Pixabay

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Quoted from Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C. H. Spurgeon, who cites from Christian George’s Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon [affiliate links].

Don’t get hung up on the pronouns. The wisdom here is for both men and women. While I might not recommend the Puritans, you could certainly do worse. And while light literature may have its place, we are only given so much time, and there are so many books.