The final session of the Gods at War series by Kyle Idleman presented the claim that all of the other idols covered in the series came down to one root idol: ourselves. That, fundamentally, we must choose between serving, trusting, and giving glory to God or to ourselves. That no matter what form the worship of self takes, it is ultimately about a rejection of the one true God and an elevation of self as the ultimate end of all we do. There was a lot wrapped up in this, but one question stood out specifically to me: have you ever chose not to pursue something because you felt it would lead you further from God? For the first time in this series, rather than God using my past errors to show me what this means, He reminded me of how great it is to serve Him rather than me. But I did not learn that lesson quickly.
I don't know if you know this about me, but nearly every federal election cycle hosts a temptation for me. Now, this is partly a religious thing, a desire to see someone in office who stands for the values I stand for without adding in a bunch of stuff I really cannot abide. But when I'm being honest, that isn't my primary motivation. Mostly it's that I have anarchist tendencies (when I'm being more generous and less angry they can be disguised well as libertarian leanings) and a pride issue and this makes me want to get into the government and start tearing things down and rebuilding it in a way that would actually work. Because, obviously, I'm so great and clever that I could do that better than any of the jokers we keep electing. I now know, on a practical level, that this is nonsense and the process would hurt a lot of people, but no one ever said our temptations had to be good or sensible things.
Understand, it isn't that running for office is a bad thing, it's that my heart wants it for bad reasons. If I go into politics, I can let myself believe that I'm saving the world and doing it my way. But ministry, which I have been called to, doesn't allow that. Ministry has a knack for reminding people that we are just servants participating in God's work, and his plans are far better than ours. When I am fighting off the temptation to turn astray from my calling to pursue public office, I am fighting off a very direct idol of self and trying to reject following and trusting God. This will look different for all of us, but we must not give in to whatever it is that pulls our affection away.
By the time I moved from Norwood to Amherst in 2009, I knew that my future involved church planting. I didn't know what that would look like, I didn't know where it would happen, I didn't even know how to start exploring that fact. But it was a fact, I knew that somewhere deep in my soul. God's process of working on me had kept coming back around to this, it was constantly on my mind, and even though our brief and poorly-handled church planting attempt in Norwood went belly up within a few months, the act of being there for it just burned a desire and joy into me that has never really left. And as I spent time looking at what would be required of me to run for office, campaigning around an area that at the time occupied nearly half of Massachusetts and doing interviews and filling out paperwork and raising money, I was forced to realize that I didn't have time to both run a successful campaign and invest in my church in the way I needed to. I had to choose.
I never turned the paperwork in.
In 2017, I was invited to preach at my friend's church in Vermont while he was out of town. He gave me a passage to preach that would lead into a series he would be starting the following week. The actual message I preached was about taking seriously the fact that we, as Christians, are representatives of Christ and the things we obsess over tell the secular world what God obsesses over. The things we oppose tell the world what God opposes. Do we represent Him well? Do we showcase in all that we do that our trust is in Him and His grace, rather than governments or armies or even our own works? When we advertise what it means to be a Christian, are we making more noise about God's love and grace or His judgment and law? In the service they had done a congregational reading of the ten commandments and so I asked, how quick are we to beg with tears that monuments of the ten commandments stay posted in our town squares as a sign of our faith, and how does that compare to how quickly we preach the gospel to the homeless who sleep under those monuments? Are we as serious about the things Jesus described about what a Christian life looks like as we are about the rules? What do you think the world believes about the gospel when all they hear is rules?
Now my friend and I have joked about the fact that, afterward, there were emails about that sermon. I got emails about that sermon. He got emails about that sermon. These were not terribly encouraging emails. I haven't been back to his church. The real reason is that my family moved two hours away and I got pretty busy with another church so the opportunity just hasn't been there as much, but when we ran into each other at the Small Town Summit I joked that it was because of the emails we got from that sermon. My pastor sat in on the sermon and when he heard about the emails he told my friend that he wasn't really surprised. It truly is an act of grace that my pastor let me preach at our church after that.
But in one of those emails, a member of his church asked me what he seemed to think would be a gotcha question. "If you knew that being elected would ensure that you could stop abortion right now," he asked, "and save the lives of so many precious little ones, would you do it?" He was trying to get me to confess to a certain reliance on political power that I had condemned in the sermon, and oh, how tempting that question was. Not only because I am pro-life, but ever since the 2016 election I had been struggling even more with the temptation to get elected and burn the whole system down from inside. This guy was pushing exactly the right button, and I realized it wasn't an accident. So I prayed before I replied.
"I would not run," I answered. "Not because I do not value that cause, because I do value it; but because God has called me to a different path and I would rather turn down a great work than refuse that which God has commanded." I hit send and never heard from that guy again. And that moment has given me great comfort ever since.
I tell you all that so I can tell you this: nothing in my life has brought more joy, peace, and growth than following the road God has chosen for me. Whenever I have sought after my own will, He has reminded me of His call and forced me to make a choice. Idleman noted that God consistently does this throughout scripture and in our own lives. He will not share us with any other lovers, and whatever we choose apart from Him, he will ensure that we must make a choice at some point. He did it in my life when I was seeking political power. He did it in my life when I wanted to give up on Boston and go back to PA but knew that doing so would ensure I fell right back into the same vices and idols I'd been chasing after before He started His intensive work in my life. He did it when I was pursuing a degree in Astrophysics and realized the only school I could reasonably apply to would be a two-hour drive one way and my wife and I came to the conclusion that if I was going to sacrifice my entire day between classes and commuting I better be certain that it is to pursue what God has for me. I do, as it turns out, drive two hours one way to school now during semesters when I'm enrolled in classes; but the degree I'm working toward is pastoral ministry with a minor in church planting.
When people ask me why I feel called to serve in full-time ministry I usually tell them that God has told us as much, and has confirmed that calling multiple times. What I don't mention as often is that He has also made it very clear that I don't belong anywhere else. Any time I go off and start trying to make my own plans and serve my own interest about things that I think will make me feel important and powerful and successful at forging my own path and saving the world because obviously I'm really equipped to be the savior of the world, He makes me choose. And each time, I have to stop and look at the door I'm trying to force open and be reminded of the one He's put my name on, and I have to let go.
And it gets easier. There are things I still struggle with and I'm sure there always will be, but they're diminishing and changing. As I have matured and grounded my joy on Christ more, I have found myself pushing off in my own direction less often. Because in the end, none of my attempts to make my life work by my rules ever brought me lasting joy or peace. Just look at the rest of the posts in this series and see a sampling of the pain I've endured and inflicted on others through my quest for self-fulfillment. When I serve me first, I can drift off into becoming a true monster, and it isn't worth it. Are you any different, really? Does your idolatry of self improve your life and soul and mind any more than mine has?
The Leader's Guide had us close the final session with Psalm 16, and while the whole psalm is worth consideration, I want to highlight two verses as I end my thoughts on this series.
I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation