My Idolatrous Heart: Approval of God or Others

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24

In this week’s journey, I want to look into one of things that many of us, or all of us, struggle with, if we are honest. I think everyone appreciates being told that they have done a good job. When I have worked hard on some project, it is gratifying to know that someone else recognizes the value of what I have done. I also appreciate knowing that my life and ministry have positively influenced someone’s life and helped them grow in their relationship with Christ.

Feedback, whether we are giving or receiving it, is an important part of our lives and growth as individuals and followers of Christ. We see numerous examples of feedback, both encouragement and criticism, in the pages of Scripture. Yet, we also see warnings against seeking the approval of others or placing too much value on what others perceive or say. How do we navigate this path without allowing what others say to us, or think about us, to become an idol in our lives? Here are some things that can help us to accomplish this.

Work for the Lord, regardless of whether our efforts are recognized by others. The passage in Colossians 3:23-24, shown above, is interesting in that the apostle Paul is addressing slaves with these verses. Slaves may rarely, if ever, have been shown any respect. They could perform their work each day with no response of gratitude or appreciation from their master. They could have been mistreated, even when doing everything they were asked to do. Yet, whether they are treated poorly or whether they are recognized for their work, Paul instructs them to work as if they are working for the Lord, not for men. As we live out our lives and conduct the work the Lord has provided for us to do, we should do our work for the Lord, not the approval of others. The Lord will reward us. And if no earthly reward or acknowledgement is ever received, we can know that God will reward us for our faithfulness and obedience.

Consider criticism, when it is received from a trustworthy and godly source. When we are involved in life and ministry, we don’t always receive the type of response that we want. We want positive feedback. When someone comes to us with some advice, exhortation, or challenge, our first response can be to be indignant or offended. However, it could very well be that God is using this person to bring some issue to our attention. Or maybe we don’t get any response, from anyone! We thought we did a good job on something, but no one seemed to notice. Do they all think I did not do well? Was my contribution not important? Again, God may be using this situation to remind us that we called to live for Him and not the approval of others. The Lord disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:3-11). When criticism or silence come our way, we should be willing to evaluate our lives and motives. Consider the source of the critique and seek the Lord for wisdom. The Lord may be trying to tell us something.

Thank God for the encouragement we receive. When someone praises something we have done, we should thank them and give acknowledgement to God for His work in our lives. We need to remember that it was not us who did this alone, but it was God working in us (Ephesians 2:8-10). Apart from Christ, we can do nothing of eternal value (John 15:1-5). It is also important to remember that God chooses the weak and foolish (all of us) to accomplish His purposes, so that no one can boast (1 Corinthians 1:23-31). Thank God that He has graciously allowed us to serve Him and to be a part of what He is doing in the world.

Do not place too much value or importance on praise we receive. Jesus did not entrust Himself to those that followed and even believed in Him for the wonders He did among them (John 2:23-25). This is because He knew the hearts of all people. We are all sinners. If we determine our value or commend ourselves because of the praise we receive, we are basing it on the opinion of those who are fallen, just like us. Yes, godly feedback and encouragement can spur us on to continue pursuing Christ. However, those who praise us today can curse us tomorrow. It happened to Jesus. It will happen to those who follow Him. In addition, when we pursue the praise of others, Jesus said that we have received all of the reward we will get. There is no eternal reward because have coveted the approval of others, rather than God (Matthew 6:1-18).

Above all, seek God’s approval, not that of others. In the end, the only One whose opinion really matters is God. Our desire should be to please Him and to pursue His desires for our lives. When we are in glory, the praise we received from others will count as absolutely nothing. While we can be thankful for the generosity and encouragement of others, our pursuit is to be for God’s approval. Ultimately, God’s approval of us comes only through being clothed in the righteousness of Christ, having received the salvation provided through His sacrificial atonement (Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Beyond that, we can find our joy and satisfaction in knowing Christ and allowing Him to work in us and through us to accomplish His purposes (Philippians 3:7-11).

Praise received from others can be a source of encouragement to us in our walk of faith and ministry. However, it can also become an idol that we crave and pursue after. It can become the driving force behind our lives, our work, and our activity within the church. When this happens, our pursuits are based on what we get out of it rather than the glory and purposes of God. In the end, we will not obtain what we really want, for the praise of others is often tainted and it is fleeting. The approval of God is eternal and brings joy and satisfaction for this life and for eternity.

Together for His glory…

My Idolatrous Heart – Pride

The topic of idolatry summons up different meanings for many of us. Many of you who read this would consider yourselves to be Christians or followers of Christ. For the Christian, the topic of idolatry often conjures up images of statues or images worshiped in other religions. We think of the many references in the Bible to the gods of the nations that God warned Israel against. There were the constant warnings from the prophets, calling the people of God to forsake the worship of gods and return to the Lord.

At the heart of idolatry, though, are not the objects being worshiped. Primarily, it is the attitude of the heart. Therefore, idolatry could involve not only objects, but people, aspirations or pursuits, possessions, or even our own convictions and belief structures, if they are not grounded in the Truth. For the unbeliever, these things keep the person from finding their ultimate joy and satisfaction in God. For the believer, though, it can have the same result. Though we have found freedom through Jesus Christ, we repeatedly return to the pursuit of the things from which we were redeemed. We seek to find joy and satisfaction from those things which will never truly satisfy.

So, as I continue to examine the impact of idolatry on our lives, I will focus on an analysis of the attitudes of the heart. One of the primary, if not the primary, indications of an idolatrous heart is pride.

2 Chronicles 26 details the reign of King Uzziah in Judah. Uzziah started off well. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chronicles 26:4). However, his life and reign did not end well. “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God…” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Uzziah set out to do something that God had forbid him to do. The priests in the temple tried to stop him and, rather than listen to their warning, he became angry with them. At that moment, God struck him with leprosy, and he remained that way until his death, living in seclusion (2 Chronicles 26:21).

Pride can be a very strong influence in our lives. We use the phrase commonly in our language. We take pride on our work. We are proud of our children or our accomplishments. There is a sense of pride in being a part of a worthwhile cause. It means that we esteem or value something as dear or important to us. I believe God calls us to excellence in our relationships and pursuits. We should value these things. However, when the value we place on these things reign higher, in our hearts and lives, than the place only God deserves, it becomes idolatry.

How do we know when this point arrives? What are the telltale signs of idolatrous pride? I have seen it in the lives of others. I have seen it in my own life, although not as often as I should. It usually takes intervention from God to humble, teach, or remind me of my proper place in things. Nevertheless, here are some ways I have seen sinful pride revealed or on display.

Taking credit for God’s work. When we begin to take too much ownership or credit for something we have done, we are taking credit for what, ultimately, God has enabled us to do. We become self-sufficient in our own abilities and wisdom. Whether it is having a successful marriage and home life, raising godly and well-balanced kids, succeeding in careers or ministry, and many other things we could list, there is always a danger of forgetting the source of our abilities and what we are able to accomplish in life (John 15:4-5; 1 Corinthians 1:25-31. We need to remember that apart from Christ, we can do nothing lasting or of eternal value. Apart from Christ, we have no hope. We should direct all praise to God, Who has graciously allowed us to participate in the work He is doing.

Craving praise from others for our value and accomplishments. When we crave or glory in the praise of others, we are valuing their recognition and approval more than God’s. Their praise of us, rather than glorifying God, becomes our pursuit and pleasure. We work or advertise our efforts, in self-promotion, so that we will be acknowledged by others. We steal the glory that God alone deserves and He has told us that He will not share His glory (Isaiah 48:11). We also receive the only reward we will get, which is the fleeting approval and praise of others (Matthew 6:1-5). Instead, we need to live and work for the glory of God, receiving from Him an eternal reward, which will never fade, and the joy and delight that come from resting in His will and provision. And we need to do this regardless of the amount of recognition that we receive from others, if any.

Arrogance and easily taking offense. This arrogance is displayed when we value our opinions and our work so highly that we boast and build up our own importance. Or, we demean or tear down the work and value of others. Whether it is related to our position, ministry activities, our interpretation of Scripture, or any number of ministry, political or social issues, this arrogance often reveals itself through the belittling of other ideas or individuals. Pride also reveals itself when we are easily offended. When we hold ourselves or opinions too highly, any critique or comment can be viewed as an attack. We take offense, rather than listen and evaluate the opinions of others. Bitterness, rage, verbal attacks, and withdrawal are common responses when we are easily offended. We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak (Proverbs 19:11; Galatians 5:22-26; James 1:19-20). Humility and longsuffering should guide our actions.

Not teachable and submissive. This is closely tied with arrogance. When we are not teachable, we value ourselves, our agenda, and our positions too highly. None of us are God. There is only One Who knows truth perfectly. This does not diminish the importance of our convictions and holding to the truth of God. However, if we are unwilling to listen to the instruction and wisdom of those who God has placed in positions of authority over us, we are guilty of the sin of pride. Ultimately, we may be in the right, but we must approach these moments with humility and openness to what God will teach us. By remaining teachable and humble, we honor those in authority and allow for a dialog to take place that can help us and others grow. Also, this heart attitude glorifies God (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

There is no way to touch on all of the aspects of how pride impacts our life. It is sometimes brazen and out in the open. Sometimes it is subtle, twisting itself around our hearts and minds, impacting our relationships with God and others. The sin of pride is basically the result of setting up an idol to ourselves. It is bowing down to our own importance and accomplishments. It is the valuing of ourselves more than God and His work in our lives.

I wish I could see how much this permeates my own life and how this impacts those I love and those I work with. I have a long way to go, but God is so gracious and patient. I pray that He will remind us all of the joy of resting in His sufficiency and salvation, forsaking our own glory and praise. The world tells us to hold on. God says let it go. We don’t need anyone’s approval but His. He is sufficient. And in His marvelous grace and power, He has equipped us to do His work, for His glory and our joy in Him.

Together for His glory…

Fooling Each Other: Authentic Worship, Part 3

Since I lead part of the worship service most weeks, someone will occasionally comment on something I say during the service or maybe on a prayer that I led during the service. During our conversation, they might comment on the difficulty they have praying or maintaining a consistent prayer life. I respond by telling them that I can relate to their situation. My prayer life is one of the most difficult aspects of my relationship with God.

At this point, maybe with a confused look on their face, they tell me that I don’t seem to have any trouble praying. They are right. For some reason, by God’s grace, I am able to focus and pray during most of those times while leading. I am not pretending or trying to sound spiritual when I pray in the service. However, I tell them that it is not representative of my personal prayer life. These times are almost always a struggle to focus and stay on track. I pray for someone or something and it brings to my mind something else. Then, before I know it, my mind has jumped, in a matter of seconds, to a series of other thoughts or activities that are totally unrelated. Before I know it, prayer has stopped and my focus is somewhere else completely.

It is terrible. I am a scatterbrained person at times. I have trouble focusing. I am very easily distracted. Any sound, flicker of light, or thought can totally trip me up and my concentration is gone. Prayer is a discipline. It is something very valuable in our relationship with God. Therefore, I continue in it, and continually try to grow in this area. I have known prayer warriors in my life. I am not one of them. But I long to be and will continue to pursue prayer, in spite of fumbling through it.

So, why do I tell this to you or anyone who brings up the topic? Transparency. I don’t want them to think I am someone other than who I really am. Do I really like being known as a person who struggles with prayer? No, but this is another part of pursuing worship that is authentic. Not only do we need transparency before God, but we need transparency with each other. We need to view ourselves correctly, we need to be honest with each other, and we need to actively encourage one another. These are all a part of pursuing authentic worship.

First, we need to view ourselves correctly. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector. While the Pharisee exalts and praises himself, both to God and anyone who is listening, the tax collector pleads for mercy from God. Jesus makes it clear that the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee. Boasting in ourselves or in our righteousness never fools God (see Fooling God: Authentic Worship, Part 2). Even if it does fool others, or even ourselves, it does nothing to build up the church. In fact, it tears down the church and hinders the worship of the congregation.

We need to remember that we are sinners. Apart from the grace and mercy of our God, demonstrated by the cross of Jesus Christ, and the salvation provided through His blood, we have no hope. End of story. We can boast in the cross of Christ alone (Galatians 6:14). Our righteousness is the righteousness of Christ. Our glory is in the glory of God. We have been freed from the prison of sin, guilt, and the grave by the love of our God, through Christ alone. Proclaiming the gospel, rejoicing in the work of Christ in us, and remembering where we have come from – this is authentic worship and glorifies God.

Second, we need to be honest with each other. As the church, we are called to bear each other’s burdens and come alongside each other (Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:1-3; Philippians 2:1-11; Colossians 3:12-13). How can we share each other’s burdens if we don’t know what they are? By clamming up and keeping to ourselves, we detract from the body of Christ. We cut ourselves off from work that God wants to do in our lives. We also hinder others from using their gifts to minister to us. Also, other believers often need to know that they are not the only one who struggles with something. By sharing, we help them to find hope and draw near to God and find strength in Him. We, in turn, also find out we are not alone in our struggle.

In addition, honesty is required when we have been offended or wounded by someone in the church. If you have an unresolved issue with someone, avoiding it will not make it go away. It only allows the hurt to fester and gnaw at us. It can cause us to withdraw or leave. Worse, if we share that hurt with others, it now becomes gossip. Now, it not only tears us down, it tears down others in the church. It hinders the work of the gospel and does not glorify God. We need to be diligent to stop gossip before it even starts. Seeking to resolve these issues appropriately builds the body of Christ and encourages us to draw near to God together.

Honesty is an essential part of the pursuit of authentic worship within the church. This leads to the third point, which is actively encouraging each other within the church. We need to be diligent to continue meeting together in order to encourage each other in the faith (Hebrews 10:24-25). As we meet together, it is important to remind ourselves of the gospel and the work that has been done for us. We need to encourage each other that Christ is working in our lives to transform us to be more like Him. We need to remember the promise of His glorious return.

We can’t be in the mindset of just showing up at church and then going home. When we come together as the church, we need to come as active participants. Engaging in worship is not just me connecting with God. We are called to teach and admonish each other and to sing and address one another with songs (Colossians 3:16-17; Ephesians 5:19-21). Corporate worship is not for the sole purpose of me connecting with God. I am called to encourage those around me through singing the truth of the gospel. If I am only focused on myself, then I am neglecting an important aspect of authentic worship, which is my call to encourage others to worship God. Yes, we sing to God and worship Him alone. However, we also speak and sing to each other in order to encourage and spur one another on to pursue God.

Authentic worship is about transparency and humility. It is about viewing ourselves as we truly stand before God. It is about being open and honest with each other. And it is about encouraging each other in our pursuit of God. Authentic worship requires us to humble ourselves before God and each other. No self-promotion. No hiding and withdrawing. No attempts to fool each other. No harbored bitterness. No gossip and backbiting. It requires us to share in each other’s lives and bear one another’s burdens. It requires repentance and forgiveness and a willingness to love and serve others. If we don’t, we rob ourselves and we rob others in the church. Let us draw near to God and worship Him together.

Together for His glory…