Friday, June 24, 2016

Confessions of a Recovering People-Pleaser

...We endeavor—by His grace—to live not as "people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart." (Eph 6:6)

...We are not trying to please people, but God, who tests our hearts. (1 Thess 2:4)

I have spent a good deal of my life struggling with people-pleasing. I have wanted people to like me, to accept me, to approve of me. I have wanted the people around me to be happy. At times, I have even gone along with things that I was uncomfortable with in order to keep the peace or avoid disappointing someone. I don't like rocking the boat. I don't want to upset people. I hate discord.

Some of this may have to do with my childhood (at risk of sounding hackneyed). Like many of us, I was teased, and sometimes even bullied, as a child. I had an idiosyncratic, quirky personality. I was a perpetual dreamer. I was painfully shy. These things combined to make me an easy target. And as things generally go with school children, a number of kids took aim. Because my daydreaming caused me to be scatterbrained and accident prone, when anything went wrong in the classroom—like a poster falling off the wall or something—all 26 kids would chant my name in unison, joking that everything was always my fault. To them it was funny, to me it was collective shaming.

For years, I felt like a misfit and a mistake. These experiences likely contributed to my childhood eagerness to please others and to fit in. And during my teens this desire gave rise to a whole series of sin issues as you can imagine.

Now in my 40s, I am less insecure than in my teens and 20s. By God's grace my confidence, being rooted in Christ, has grown. By God's grace, I am happily married with three kids. By God's grace, I've distanced myself from negative, judgmental, over-critical people and have been blessed with edifying relationships—with friends and family who encourage me and build me up in Christ while allowing me to do the same for them. This doesn't mean everything is perfect (far from it!), but it does make for a healthier spiritual environment. And for this answer to prayer, I am very, very thankful.

But every now and then, the fear of condemnation and disapproval still sneaks in. I still struggle with the people-pleasing urge from time-to-time. And I've noticed that it's when I start making things more about me, and less about Him that the niggling temptation creeps back in.

As a recovering people-pleaser, I especially dislike posting an article that I know a number of people will be offended by, or won't agree with...but then the Holy Spirit pricks my conscience and I am still prompted to publish it. I pray over it, I post it...and then I wince.

I wince because writing on the Christian worldview, apologetics, and matters of biblical discernment will always ruffle some feathers and touch some nerves. I wince because I know it's not likely to be a popular point of view. I wince because...well...I am still in recovery, after all!

And in our anything-goes culture of relativism in which the "just do you" mantra carries way more weight than the "die to self" one, biblical discernment is not a trendy topic. It requires humility, raw honesty, and vulnerability—all things that are challenging for a recovering people-pleaser like me. And all things that are currently not en vogue in our post-modern culture (don't get duped by those humble braggers on social media!).

Suffice it to say, it's hard to go against the cultural flow when you're a recovering people-pleaser.

The thing is, the Christian worldview is offensive. This is because the Bible is offensive...and what Jesus said was offensive...and what the apostles wrote, and stood for, was offensive. For, "as it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.'" (Rom 9:33).

As the above verse illustrates, the gospel is essentially both loving and offensive at the same time. For, "this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4;10). In other words, the slaughter of God's own Son illuminates both the magnitude of His love for us as well as the seriousness of our sin—sin that can only be ransomed by Jesus' death on the Cross. The gospel, then, shows us that we’re more loved than we ever could have dreamed, yet we're more sinful than we ever imagined. And the latter can be an unpalatable, repugnant thing to the post-modern palate. Especially when the world constantly tells us otherwise...

While the world might whisper sweet nothings in our ear, however, remember that godly love—pure, divine love—is not of this world. And so the world does not recognize it. Therefore, if you are speaking the truth in love, then you may find that you are pegged as hateful or judgmental in a world that is hostile to Christ—sometimes even by other Christians.

While this is unfortunate, it should not be surprising, however. As Jesus said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34). The doubled-edged sword of God's Word will separate bone and marrow and cut to the heart. And so, God's truth may hurt at times. It can be tough to hear, just as it can be tough to profess. But in the end, it's all about pleasing God, not people.

The truth is, people-pleasing is motivated by pride. It's fueled by a desire to feel needed, to be liked, to be popular, to gain worldly significance, or to advance a personal agenda. In essence, it's an insidious form of idolatry, which places the love of oneself before God.

As a recovering people-pleaser, then, I constantly need to check my motives... Am I speaking, writing, working, serving, etc., for my own self-determined ends, or for God's glory? Am I speaking, writing, working, serving, etc. with my love for God and for people as my motivation? Or is it all about me?

Here's what I find I need to keep reminding myself: love and truth cannot be separated. God is love, just as He is truth. (1 John 4:8; John 14:6). He cannot be divided. In this vein, if I am seeking to love God and love people, I need to be truthful—I need to hold fast to God's Word.

It is selfless love, then, that urges us to speak truth—with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). For, you can't claim to love and follow Jesus, while rejecting or distorting His Word

In light of this, here are twelve suggestions for recovering people-pleasers, like me, who endeavor to speak truth in love:

1. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will pray first, and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit in discerning when we should speak and when we should remain silent. Sometimes, I have found that holding my tongue with regards to a friend's sinful pattern of behavior and praying for him has born more fruit than if I had confronted him right then and there. And we should certainly err on the side of showing grace to someone who is suffering from clinical depression or mental illness. (Prayer, support, and healing should come before truth in these cases). We will have compassion (Col 3:12), be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).

2. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be humble and patient. It's easy to tip the balance from speaking the truth in love to nagging people or chastising them. I know how it feels to be the recipient of a judgmental attack instead of gentle admonishment out of love. In my life, I have needed to be nudged in the direction of righteousness, but when this was done gently, I did not feel under attack.

3. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we should also live by example. If we are truly humble, we will have a teachable heart ourselves and allow others the same freedom to speak truth to us when needed. Speaking the truth should go both ways! We have to be willing not only to give it but to receive it as well!

4. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be sure to check our motive: is it to prove we are right about something, or to point that person, church, or ministry back to the gospel from which they've strayed? Is speaking the truth in this situation necessary to guard against false teaching? Are we holding a friend accountable, with gentleness and humility, for their own good or is it more about venting our personal grievances? If it is for their good, or the good of the Kingdom, then we must speak up. (And if there is no repentance, 1 Corinthians 5 provides a biblical model for how to confront immorality in the church).

5. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will treat the sin of unbelievers differently from the sin of Christians (1 Cor 5:12-13). Unbelievers are not held to the same standards as those who are born again, because they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have not yet been made new in Christ. We cannot hold unbelievers to biblical standards that they don't yet believe in or are not yet aware of. We should love them, pray for them, and witness to them about the hope that is in Christ—not focus on their sins before they have been given new eyes to see.

6. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will draw a distinction between sin in our culture and the sin of an individual, standing firmly (but not always loudly) against the former, and showing grace towards the latter—being unwavering in the truth always. We will handle hot-button, controversial issues like homosexuality and transgenderism with humility, dignity, and conviction. We will speak out against societal and cultural sin, defending the sanctity of marriage—but we will not lambaste the gay community by taking to the streets with signs around our necks or ranting hatefully. That is truth without love. The end goal of speaking the truth in love is not to criticize, condemn, or win an argument. It is to point others to Christ. You can't berate or picket someone into that.

7. On the flip-side, if selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will not sugar-coat God's Word, dilute it with touchy-feely emotionalism, downplay the seriousness of sin, or turn a blind eye to false teaching. These are forms of people-pleasing. Doing these things may respectively earn you popularity, garner more Facebook likes, create a comfortable atmosphere, or cobble together some semblance of unity. But what is unity without Christ at its center? What is comfort without hope? And what is popularity in a temporal world?

8. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be compelled to contend for the faith. For example, the Apostle Paul, an expert apologist, debated in the synagogues to save souls. Jude urged believers to contend tirelessly for the faith (Jude 1:3). Peter admonished us always to be ready to give an answer as to why our hope is in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). Paul exhorted us to guard our doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). Unequivocally, it is our duty to defend and uphold Biblical truth. And it is our love of God and His Word that will fuel this. John Piper puts it this way, "There are truths about God and Christ and man and the church and the world which are essential to the life of Christianity. If they are lost or distorted, the result will not be merely wrong ideas but misplaced trust. The inner life of faith is not independent from the doctrinal statement of faith. When doctrine goes bad, so do hearts. There is a body of doctrine which must be preserved."

9. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will promote unity in Christ. We will uphold biblical truth to strengthen the Church (as Ephesians 4:15-16 illustrates), even though there may be those that fall away as a result. While we will defend the doctrine of salvation, however, we will also remember that Satan wants to cause unnecessary division among believers. Some Christians get all wrapped around the axle about peripheral matters like whether or not to have a Christmas tree due to its "pagan origins" or whether or not to let our kids believe in Santa, and then lambaste other Christians who don't have the same perspective. But these minor issues distract us from what really matters. We can also be over-critical of our fellow believers, obsessing over each other's differences and flaws, which can lead to pride, hatred, and division. If we are selfless, we may not win the peripheral argument, but we will glorify God.

10. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will speak up when it comes to matters of salvation. Jesus did not beat around the bush when it came to this. He mentioned hell 23 times as is recorded in the Gospels. When Jesus went to dinner at a Pharisee's home, for example, He told the Pharisees, "Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering." (Luke 11:52). Not exactly cordial dinner conversation! Jesus was far more concerned with speaking the truth to them than sparing their feelings and sticking to safe topics of discussion. The disciples came to Jesus and told Him the Pharisees were offended by what He had been saying (Matt 15:12). But, Jesus answered that the Pharisees’ failure to see the truth right in front of them would be their downfall and He continued to uphold the truth, even when it offended people.

11. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be truthful even when interacting with the rich and powerful. When a rich young ruler ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him, asking “Good teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17), Jesus spoke forthrightly and told him to leave everything he had and follow Him. The man went away sadly because he had great wealth (Mark 10:22). But the Bible also tells us that, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” (Mark 10:21). It was because Jesus loved the man so much that He spoke the truth to him. By speaking the truth to Him, Jesus did not try to win him over right then and there. He didn't tell him what he wanted to hear in order to gain a new follower, even an influential, wealthy one. Likewise, if we really love someone selflessly, we too will be truthful with them—even if they run away because of it.

12. If selfless love is our motive for speaking truth, we will fearlessly defend the weak and the oppressed. By faith we are called to be administrators of justice (Heb 11:33) and to correct oppression (Isa 17:1). We will advocate for the widow and the fatherless. We will pray for, and raise awareness about, the persecuted Church. We will speak up on behalf of those who cannot do so for themselves—including the unborn.

...Ultimately, people-pleasing isn't loving or serving others. It's temporary convenience without conviction. It's temporary happiness without hope. It's temporary popularity without promise. It's temporary status without soul.

When Paul rebuked people-pleasing in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he was evidently aware that it perpetuates the human desire to be cozy in the world, gives rise to false teaching, enables sin, and usurps the authority of God.

As a recovering people-pleaser, (who still backslides from time-to-time), I know that writing on matters of discernment (which the Bible itself emphasizes!) will likely gain me more enemies than friends. Despite this, however, I would rather seek to please God who tests my heart, not people!  I would rather cling to Christ in a world that has rejected Him, whether it's offensive to others or not.

...even if I still wince once-in-a-while!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Spiritual Spin-Mastery: A Slippery Slope

It's common knowledge that news anchors, journalists, political pundits, and the like, often quote a person's statement in partial form, or out of context, in order to put their own spin on it. This use of spin is usually intended to create impact, to sell a story, to push an agenda, or even to slander. In other words, spin is always used with an ulterior motive.

Misrepresenting a person's statements is widely looked down on. The fact is, however, Christians can do exactly the same thing with our own handling of the truth. Just like the tabloid reporters we vilify, we can also put our own spin on God's Word—unintentionally or otherwise.

If we're really honest, we could probably all think of an occasion when we've twisted God's Word to suit ourselves. It's tempting to quote Bible verses selectively to prove a point, isn't it? It's comforting to cherry-pick tidbits of Scripture to support our presuppositions or to satisfy our emotional needs. It's convenient to filter the Word of God through the lens of our own theology or circumstances rather than letting our view of Scripture arise from an honest, humble examination of the text.

Our intentions in spinning God's Word may be well-meaning. We might want to be sensitive, relevant, or tolerant
We might want to present a more culturally acceptable, less polarizing, version of our faith to the world (lest anyone be offended) rather than speaking the truth in love (which isn't always well received)But the problem is, the more we systematically approach Scripture from our own perspective rather than from a desire to understand God's, the more we will find ourselves in it, and the less we will find Him. In other words, we can put ourselves in danger of becoming spiritual spin-masters.

In truth, we are all subjective beings, and we'll always get bits of ourselves mixed up in the text to some extent. But the less we do this, the better. When studying God's Word, reading a Christian book, or listening to a sermon, Christians need to exercise discernment, asking ourselves: whose voice am I really listening to? Am I submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as I humbly seek truth or am I tight-fistedly gripping the control? Am I being diligent in testing every teaching or am I absent-mindedly letting myself be deceived?

Spinning God's Word is dangerous. It can create an entire web of lies. Is this not how Joseph Smith was able to found what is now the fastest growing religion in America? He closely mimicked the Word of God, and put his own spin on it—even to the extent of adding to it and rewriting chunks of it! And think of the greatest spiritual spin-master of all time... Satan masterfully mixes truth with lies. He tweaks, twists, and intertwines God's truth with lies to trick us and tempt us into sin just like he did to Adam and Eve.

But spiritual spin-mastery can also appear in other less obvious places, even emerging on the mission field. In Islamic contexts, for example, a growing number of missionaries have begun to contextualize biblical truth in an effort to win more converts in what has long been a very hostile mission field. Some degree of cultural contextualization is necessary. Too much, however, is a slippery slope that quickly leads to syncretism. For example, in order to contextualize the gospel in a culturally sensitive way for the purpose of "building bridges" to Muslims, certain outspoken—but widely influential—leaders in Muslim ministry have encouraged using the Koran (as opposed to the Bible) to introduce Muslims to Jesus. Numbers-driven strategies in missiology such as the C5 (or the high-spectrum contextualization) method and the Jesus in the Qur'an trainings (CAMEL), are examples of this. In addition, Muslim idiom translations of the Bible have been promoted in these contexts, which remove un-Islamic concepts (such as God as Father) from Scripture, even though doing so is to take away from God's Word and obscure the doctrine of the TrinityAnd in an effort to make Jesus more "accessible" to Muslims by repackaging Him in a Muslim-friendly way, some C5 missionaries go so far as to effectively extract Jesus from Christianity altogether. Christian speaker and Muslim, Carl Medearis, for example, likes to state that Christianity has laid unfair claim to Jesus anyway.[1]

The problem is, however, the Jesus of Islam is an entirely different person from the biblical Jesus and when you extract Him from Christianity there's no longer clear doctrine to define in absolute terms who He is and what He has done for us on the Cross. It all becomes culturally relative. These contextualization strategies go way too far in spinning the truth. And this results in false converts.

It is important to remember that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse and spin the Word of God to make it more culturally appealing. We are to proclaim the gospel message, and let the gospel stand for itself. Or as Paul puts it: "renounce disgraceful, underhanded ways" and "refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's Word, but by the open statement of the truth...commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4:2). For seeking to ingratiate ourselves with a world that has rejected Christ is like trying to mix God's light with darkness. This dangerous form of spiritual spin will undoubtedly result in 50 shades of grey.

Spiritual spin-masters are everywhere. We need to be aware of them, and identify them, in order to guard ourselves and others. Remember: Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). He doesn't only try to destroy our faith by denying the Bible; he often quotes it out of context to lead us into disobedience—just as he attempted to do to Jesus in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). Evidently, just because someone quotes Scripture, doesn't mean they speak God's Word!

Are we just nit-picking by trying to identify the spin-masters in our midst? Why be so negative? If people get something positive out of a Christian book even if it's not in line with Scripture, why make a fuss about it? There's a short answer to this: Because Jesus did.

Jesus repeatedly warned against false teaching and urged His followers to watch out that they are not deceived, for “many will come in My name” to lead people astray. (Luke 21:8; Mark 13:6). Jesus' description of false teachers is sobering: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matt 7:15-16). The Epistles and Proverbs contain many of the same warnings. As a result, people who claim to have information from God should be tested carefully (1 John 4:1). In fact, every teaching should be tested (1 Thess 5:21).

Take for example the vastly popular "prosperity" teaching of the Word of Faith mega-pastors. While they call themselves "Christian," and have mass-appeal among many professing Christians, these preachers are in fact promoting a false gospel and a false Jesus. They preach the Convenient Christ—a lovable, Santa-esque figure who wants to make us happy and bless us abundantly. Their Jesus wants us to be comfortable in the world and for the world to comfortable with him. He always refrains from saying things that might offend people (conveniently skipping over the polarizing, convicting things that Jesus actually said). Their Jesus wants us to be successful, wealthy, and healthy above all else!

Earlier this year, Mega-Pastor Joel Osteen, for example, explained on a special Easter edition of CBS Sunday Morning, why he specifically chooses not to preach on repentance: "You know, it's not hellfire and brimstone [at Lakewood Church]. But I say most people are beaten down enough by life. They already feel guilty enough." As is often the case with prosperity preachers, calling for repentance is mistaken for guilt-tripping, and conviction of sin is muddled with beating people down. But, in actuality, preaching the gospel of Christ necessitates preaching repentance—otherwise the atoning power of the Cross is completely negated. As a result, the message Osteen preaches, bears very little resemblance to God's Word. He has put his own health-and-wealth spin on it, with a wink and smile to boot.

Beware of preachers who stick to positive, crowd-pleasing topics, dodging Bible verses that could ruffle feathers—like, for example, when Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matt 16:24-26). Or when He said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34). And what about the multiple times He talked about sin, hell, repentance, salvation, and eternity? There's certainly very little emphasis on cross-bearing or eternal salvation from within the Word of Faith camp. Instead it's all about Your Best Life Now![2]  Know your Bible.

...And then there's the enormously popular book (dare I even say it), Jesus Calling, in which the author, Sarah Young, writes in the inspired first-person voice of Jesus.[3] While she states up front that, unlike Scripture, her writing is not inerrant, she nevertheless presents words received directly from the "spirit of Christ." In fact, she has given interviews in which she describes the process by which she received the words, which involved sitting before a blank piece of paper with pen in hand and "listening" for guidance (perhaps due to criticism, this point has not been emphasized so much by the author of late).

This is problematic. Firstly, the method of receiving inspiration that she describes is akin to the occultic practice of "automatic writing," and has absolutely no biblical basis. Secondly, the words she received, while alluding to certain Bible verses, do not reflect the same themes of Scripture as those Jesus actually preached during His earthly ministry. Her consistent emphasis is on how much God delights in us as His children, which is certainly true, but Scripture consistently points us to Christ, and not back to ourselves like Young's book unfortunately does. In essence, her words do not echo the tenor of God's Word.

Jesus' teaching certainly didn't take the form of a crooning love song. It was a soul-piercing, hard-hitting, life-and-death message of repentance, hope, and salvation. In Jesus Calling, the author seldom speaks of sin and repentance and even less of Christ’s work on the Cross. There is almost nothing of the gospel in her book. But why would the tenor of Jesus' teaching change now in the 21st century? Remember that God never changes (Num 23:19; Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17). We can trust, therefore, that His voice is consistent and unchanging also. In truth, the author's voice in Jesus Calling sounds suspiciously more like a middle-aged woman in living in post-modern suburbia than it does the voice of the living God.

We are commanded to hold all teaching up against God's Word, like the "noble" Berean Jews were commended for doing in the Book of Acts. For we've been forewarned that "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Tim 4:3-4). It is crucial, then, that we equip ourselves with a thorough knowledge of Scripture, and biblical doctrine (such as that of the Trinity and biblical inerrancy), in order to distinguish absolute truth from lies in a relativistic culture of deception.

As James Montgomery Boice, late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, so rightly pointed out, the great issue of our day would not be the authority of the Bible, but its sufficiency. The temptation for Christians today is to turn to other revelation and experiences of God, instead of relying on Scripture. In actuality, it's a form of spiritual greed. Jesus Calling represents just that trend. As Kathy Keller puts it in her emphatic warning against the best-seller, "Young had the Bible, but found it insufficient."[3] 
Or as Young herself puts it in the introduction to her book, "I knew that God communicated with me in the Bible, but I yearned for more."[4] 

Just because a particular book, teaching, song, or other spiritual resource seems appealing, helpful, comforting, etc., that doesn't always mean it is from God. He might redeem the use of that resource in your life by His grace, but this doesn't mean He has ordained it...

Why bother with books like these that have received so much criticism from credible sources? Why tolerate preaching in our churches that doesn't point to Christ? Why bother dabbling in Eastern philosophies? Why bother taking cues from secular self-helpism or New Age spiritualism? If we take God at His Word, we will believe that His Word is sufficient (2 Tim 3:16). And God promises that the work He has begun in you, He will bring to completion (Phil 1:6). Why look elsewhere?

For the Bible tells us, “Every word of God is flawless; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar." (Prov 30:5-6). And this sobering warning is echoed at the end of the book of Revelation: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll." (Rev 22:18-19). Be on guard against extra-biblical writing that claims to contain new messages from God. Avoid books like these and stick to Scripture as the sole source of God's truth.

Don't overlook a little Scriptural twist here and a little Scriptural tweak there, because if you start inching off in the wrong direction, in time, you will find yourself way off course. If we keep spinning Scripture, in the end, we'll spin out of control. But if we know the Word of God well, we will not be led astray when Scripture is twisted or misapplied! If we abide in God's Word, we can rest assured that He will abide in us and His Word will be a lamp to our feet. (John 15:7; Psa 119:105).

[1] Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, Carl Medearis, 2011

[2] Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, Joel Osteen, 2007
[3] This is a particularly controversial topic as many mature believers enjoy her book and get a lot out of it. It is unpopular to bring up concerns over it, and doing so almost always offends people. My concern here, however, is that while the book is not heretical in itself, it is not reflective of the tenor of God's Word. On this, I cannot remain silent, despite the fact that there is always backlash.
[4] Jesus Calling by Sarah Young: A Review by Kathy Keller (wife of Pastor Tim Keller)