When Brother Ken first mentioned speaking at this retreat, nothing came to my mind. Then I discovered that due to obligations at work, I wouldn't be able to come anyway. However, when Ken suggested that, even if I could not come, I might write something that he could read to you, this topic immediately began to take shape, and I was able to produce an outline with very little effort. This is the gist of the topic:
Don't take yourselves too seriously
Take Christ very seriously.
Experience with teenagers.
My son and only child, Stephen, died after only two months into his thirteenth year, so that is all the experience that I have as a father of teenagers. However, in seeking to write for a group of young men, surely I can draw from memories of my own teenage years. In fact, the issues addressed here are things that teenagers and young men have dealt with across many centuries and cultures. They have all faced this problem, and adults face it too, that we take ourselves much too seriously, while we aren't nearly serious enough about Christ. Rather than being focussed on what the Westminster Shorter Catechism calls our chief end, "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," we become focussed on finding enjoyment through glorifying ourselves. This was poignantly illustrated during my final Monday with Stephen.
Steve and I had just had a very friendly and pleasant discussion in our living room. At the end he said, "This was great, Dad; I really enjoyed talking to you. I just wish we could talk like this when we ride in the car. But it seems that in the car, all you ever want to talk about is theology."
Steve was referring primarily to those hour-long drives to Mount Juliet, where he played hockey. I responded with a couple of questions.
"Steve, what is theology?"
He answered correctly, "The study of God."
I pushed deeper. "Steve, what is the most important thing in your life?"
He knew I had him, and with a very quiet voice he responded, "God."
Then, with my eyes firmly fixed on his, I said, "Steve, God is not the most important part of your life. Right now your fun and your hobbies are more important to you than anything else, and you need to seriously consider what I just told you."
This was not the first time his mother and I had raised this concern -- the idolatry behind his excessive pursuit of fun and pleasure -- but in the past it had never seemed to make sense to him.
This time seemed to be different. He didn't say anything more, but he spoke with his eyes. That is one thing that I especially miss about Steve, those eyes. When I would drive into the garage after a day at work, there was that special way that he would look up at me, and those eyes would say, "I love you Dad, and I know that you love me too": Shalom expressed through his eyes. While Steve was never very skillful in writing, his eyes could speak volumes. And as I looked into his eyes, this time, there no longer seemed to be any resistance. He finally seemed to understand that perhaps he was taking his pleasure too seriously.
However, wanting him to have time to think this over, I didn't press the issue. I reasoned that surely there was time for him to think about this, time to seek just the right moment for getting right with God, leisure for Steve to wait for just the right spiritual frame to seek God's face. Time had always been a reliable friend before.
The crash. How could we know that just three days later God would take him home: Steve, who was rarely ever sick, Steve, who seemed to be invincible to any kind of serious injury, gone, dead, buried, his body housed in an oak box, his soul safe with God.
After Steve crashed at Hartsville Park, as I waited for the ambulance to arrive, those five minutes which seemed like five hours, my mind was drawn to those arms and legs that now lay completely still: strong legs that had so often propelled his bicycle to great heights, strong arms that had so recently challenged my own. For I had always encouraged Stephen to be as strong as he could, and even though I could no longer pin him when we wrestled, I delighted in his strength. There, as I looked at those arms and legs, stilled by the hand of Providence, I knew that I would never look at human strength in the same way again. Never again would it impress me in the same manner. Death does that: it clarifies things; it puts things into their right perspective.
The night of his death, as I walked about the hospital at Vanderbilt, this last conversation with Stephen was very much on my mind. Had Stephen let his personal pleasure become an idol? Did Stephen really understand what I had tried to tell him, and more important than that, did he ever really repent?
Thinking of something from several years earlier that Stephen had said, I am convinced that he knew about this kind of idolatry. For I remember when we first got Internet service in Tallahassee. I was so excited that I probably gave it too much of my time at first, and noticing this, Steve, only eight or nine years old, said this to me: "Dad, I think this Internet thing is an idol."
I'm sure that I tried to convince him that it was not an idol. Did I succeed? Was I too good at convincing him, so that when he was faced with his own compulsion for pleasure, my advice seemed like a contradiction? Was the impact of my counsel diluted and watered down by my own inconsistent life, or as Steve would say, "all talk but no action?"
Indeed, it would only be after Steve died that I would realize, in my own life, how willing I was to seek other things in place of God, how easily I gave other things devotion that I owed to God alone.
So what should we do? Should we just come up with some kind of standard, operational definition for idols? Should we develop some kind of warning system, so that we can isolate each of the little idols in our lives and steer clear of them?
There is some value in defining idolatry. Certainly we should all realize that anything that has more of our heart than God is an idol, and knowing this can help us to identify the idols in our lives. Yet, in applying this definition, we are likely to be too forgiving of ourselves, for we are all great attorneys when it comes to defending our own actions.
We also tend to gravitate towards legalistic thresholds. For example, we might ask, "How far can I go before this becomes an idol?" or "What is the maximum devotion that I can give to this pleasure before it becomes idolatry?"
In the end it becomes a self-centered focus: how much do I have to deprive myself in order to avoid idolatry.
The real idol.
Therefore, I do not think that defining idolatry and isolating little idols provides the complete answer. Rather, I would contend that if we go no further than defining idolatry and identifying idols, we are likely to miss the broader point. For these little idols are just a smokescreen, hiding the real problem. The greater problem, the broader and more encompassing problem is this: the real idol is us; we are much more focussed on ourselves than we are on God, and because of this, we take ourselves entirely too seriously.
We see the real idol every time we look in the mirror, whereas all these little idols exist simply to serve me, us, the image in the mirror.
Things we take too seriously.
The evidence that we take ourselves too seriously is revealed by the kinds of things that absorb most of our attention. For example, we are very serious about fun and pleasure. Never have the opportunities and technologies for having fun been so numerous, so sophisticated, so entertaining, and so expensive. And while these things are not inherently bad, we easily become convinced that if we are not having fun, life is not good. We become obsessed with entertaining and amusing ourselves.
We are serious about clothing. I still remember when Steve was in a pre-kindergarten program where one of the kids told him that his shirt looked stupid. He was so devastated that from then on, Stephen maintained a careful eye for what was stylish, and by the way, he never wore that shirt again. Similarly, we become obsessed with clothing our bodies in ways that our friends and peers will approve.
We are serious about popularity. People become mirrors through which we see and value ourselves, and great effort is made to earn the approval of others, while God's approval gets only secondary consideration.
We are serious about our skills and abilities. Work is chosen according to how it will be seen, displayed, and appreciated. We long for and enjoy the praise of men, while God's approval is neither considered nor valued.
These are just a few things, but enough to illustrate that in the midst of our highly focussed pursuit of ourselves, we neglect God.
Taking Christ Seriously.
Jesus would rescue us from this self-focussed life and cause us to delight in Him. There is much about Christ to delight us. However, this delighting in Christ is not something that is easily and immediately understood, even by believers. We must make it the focus of study, prayer, and meditation.
The beauty of Christ can be clarified by comparing it to temporal pleasures. For while the pursuit of temporal pleasures will appease our appetites, for a season, they will not appease our souls. How many an athlete has given his full devotion to the achievement of some great physical feat, succeeding, only to be depressed and unsatisfied when it was all over and done. Like Alexander of old, he weeps because there are no more armies to conquer.
Compare such a one to Paul who was able to say, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (Philippians 1:21) And as he reached the end of his life, though beaten, bruised, humiliated, and imprisoned, he was able to say with Godly satisfaction, "I have a fought a good fight; I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." (II Timothy 4:7)
In 1982 I went to work for a highly respected and prestigious employee benefits consulting firm. There I set my sights on a corporate title, Assistant Vice President. For seven years I ate and drank the achievement of this title, meanwhile using a heavy hand, where necessary, to brush aside those who got in my way. Two weeks after I got the title I was amazed at how meaningless it had become. Although I was a Christian, there was another Christian there who, although he had no corporate title, he had a solid reputation as a Godly man. As I observed his small cubicle from my nice, new office, I realized that I would eagerly give up all I had worked so hard to attain just to have that man's Christian reputation.
However, it is easy to take our selves too seriously, even in the course of doing things for the Lord. For example, my main avenue of ministry right now is writing. I write articles and put them out on the web. Yet, how often have I agonized over hit-counters and e-mail, longing for some verification that someone out in cyberspace liked what I wrote?
It took a while for me to realize that it is not about me -- it is about Christ. And Christ has promised that if He is lifted up, He will draw all men to Himself.
That must be the focus: not my faith but His faithfulness; not my hope and confidence but the One in whom our hope and confidence is firmly grounded; not my writing, lifting itself up through clever prose, but writing that finds its beauty in making the beauty, comfort, peace, and glory of Christ more easily understood.
And as we learn to glory in Christ, rather than ourselves, much that would tempt us and lead us astray in this life is avoided.
Benefits of taking Christ seriously.
The flesh demands respect and recognition, thus setting us up to get our feelings hurt. This happens often, even among Christians. I once attended a large meeting where I was introduced to a famous author. Not knowing his literary reputation, I asked whether he was a counselor. His body language quickly revealed that my question had been received as an insult, angering and prompting the person who introduced him to say, "I assure you, he is much more than a counselor."
Contrast this with Paul who, after listing off all his impressive accomplishments in the Jewish world, was able to count them all as dung compared to knowing Christ.
The flesh cries out for the approval of friends and peers. But a life centered on Christ gives us the strength to stand by ourselves, knowing that Jesus knew what it was like to stand alone, and knowing that He is that friend who is closer than a brother.
How many are negligent in evangelism, preferring to keep the uninterrupted approval of their friends, rather than loving them by taking action that God might use as means to save their very souls.
The flesh cries out to be heard. To be a teenager is to be misunderstood: it goes with the territory. How many a young man has agonized over being misunderstood, further aggravated by finding no one who would seriously consider his side. Yet Jesus very much understood what this was like. When he was twelve, lingering at the temple, he was right to be, as he put it, "about His Father's business." Yet, He graciously submitted to His irritated parents when they ordered, "You come with us." A confidence and trust in Jesus Christ will allow you to respond graciously to false accusations and misunderstandings. Commit your reputation and your popularity to Him.
The flesh cries out to be indulged. We see this in the unabashed gluttony at all-you-can-eat food bars. It is those first bites of food that taste the best. Then, as the body fills up, the taste buds give less satisfaction, moving the eater to consume more and more of that which satisfies less and less, until he has made himself sleepy and miserable. The metabolism of a young man often lets him get away with this kind of activity for a season. Then, almost over night, he finds himself twenty pounds overweight.
In recent days I have lost fifty pounds, and I have a little more to lose. Many would praise me for my discipline, but I know better. I am no more disciplined than anyone else. However, in the past I always used food to manage my emotions. If I was anxious and over-stressed, a well prepared cheeseburger or a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit would do wonders to calm me down. But I paid for this benefit by getting so out of shape that I could no longer run and play with my son the way I could in Tallahassee, when I was much slimmer. And I had tried to lose weight ever since we moved to Tennessee. It was Christ that made the difference. The trauma of losing Steve forced me to seek Christ in ways that I never had before. It taught me to find my comfort in Him. So now, when I am sad, when I am stressed, when I am anxious, I don't run to the refrigerator: I run to Christ.
What will it take?
As I close, I leave you with these questions. I am a little uncomfortable with the questions, for they are very pointed and direct, and because of this, they might seem disrespectful. Please be assured that there is no group of young men that I respect more than the group gathered here. Steve loved you guys, and that love was contagious: I caught it.
So it is with the love of a bereaved father that I ask you search your own hearts, openly before God, while you consider these questions:
- What will it take to draw you away from a self-focussed life to a life where Christ is everything?
- Is Christ to be slighted as long as Providence smiles over your days?
- What will it take to move you to seek real joy, real peace, real happiness, real hope, real treasure, and real satisfaction -- things that are found only in Christ?
- Will it take something as traumatic as loosing your only child? Will it take a serious injury? Will it take the prolonged illness and death of someone you love?
Seek God now, while He is able to deal with you gently, though the rougher, sterner hand of God is, yet, a loving hand.
And what should you expect if you do this, if you seek to find your fulfillment in Christ? You should expect to hit obstructions. There is nothing more unnatural in this world than delighting in Jesus Christ. But the very same Jesus who calls us to Himself is a patient teacher, and if you persevere, if you cry out to him, if you demand to be satisfied with nothing less than Jesus Christ Himself, in the fullness of time He will answer.
Yours must be a life of daily repenting, daily confession of sin, and daily humbling of your self before God. Daily, you must surrender your will and ambitions to His will. Daily, you must cry out for His aid, read His word, meditate upon it, and cling to Him as your only strength for living a Godly life.
As you learn to seek Him often, as you learn to talk to Jesus about everything, you shall find Him to be a gentle leader and a faithful friend.
Do not rest until you know what it means to rest in Him. Seek Him with all diligence until you fully understand what it means to say, "For me to live is Christ."
Lord, I leave these comments in the keeping of Stephen's friends and companions, not as if I were worthy to make them, yet grateful to have the opportunity to verbally express the passions that have been burning in my soul ever since Stephen died. May you be pleased to use them for your honor and glory. Amen.
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