Today I was reading a book by a megachurch pastor on the subject of financial stewardship. Our church, as you probably know from recent blog posts, is currently in the midst of our annual stewardship campaign. Let me preface these words by saying that there was nothing wrong with anything this pastor said. He aimed to inspire us to be more generous.
To that end, he gave many examples from the church that he pastored. By all measures he (or his church) was incredibly successful: the size of the church’s budget, the size of his congregations spread across multiple campuses, the extent of the church’s generosity. And, yes, even his personal anecdotes about learning to trust in the Lord more and more with his money were impressive, if not intimidating.
And as I was reading his words, I wanted to throw the book across the room.
Why? Because I felt judged by it. This deeply critical inner voice within me said, “If you were more like him, you would…” And here I could finish this sentence by inserting any number of personal dreams or aspirations. If I were more like him, I wouldn’t have the problems that I have.
Aside from breaking the tenth commandment, this barely conscious thought is wrong in other ways. First, if I were more like him, I wouldn’t be me, and God, for whatever reason, wants me to be Brent White. Second, I have no idea what kinds of problems this pastor has—only I can be sure that he has them. It just so happens that this book isn’t about his problems. So I’m falling into that spiritually deadly trap of “comparing his outsides to my insides,” which I’ve preached against.
Finally, do I believe in God’s sovereignty or don’t I? I talk a lot—I blog a lot—about how God is in charge, about how God’s plans are better than my own plans, about how “everything happens for a reason,” but let’s face it: I often fail to live as if I believe it. Instead, I have a pretty definite idea of the course that my life should take, and I don’t want anyone, God included, to mess with it.
In fact, so much of my unhappiness in life is related to unmet expectations. A while back I referred in a sermon to an interview with actor Michael J. Fox, whose life and career have been dramatically altered by Parkinson’s. Fox said the following:
Yes! This is exactly right! Usually, if not always, it isn’t what happens to me that causes suffering; it’s that what happens to me isn’t what I planned, wanted, or expected.
But I’m a Christian. I follow a Savior who tells me to take up my instrument of torture and death and follow him. Jesus doesn’t seem terribly interested in my plans, my desires, or my expectations. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he does: he knows what I need better than I do!
My point is, I bring so much suffering on myself through how I respond to external events. It’s not the event itself!
By contrast, the Bible gives us the example of the apostle Paul: languishing in prison, afflicted, facing execution, ruminating on everything that—from a worldly perspective—has gone badly wrong with his life. Yet in the midst of a life that hasn’t gone according to his plans, he can say things like, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Or “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” Or “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”
O God, I want to be like that!
But I think I’m making progress: for example, I’m encouraged that I now recognize that there’s something wrong with my desire to throw the successful pastor’s book across the room!
In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff writes about the “hidden assumption” that “colors our emotional reactions”: that our life is “supposed” to go a certain way. I’ll leave you with these words. Maybe you’ll benefit from them, as well.
And even when we’re having a painful experience that is not our fault—perhaps we’ve been laid off our job because of an economic downturn, for instance—we often irrationally feel that the rest of the world is happily employed while it’s only me sitting at home watching reruns all day. Or when we become ill, it feels like sickness is an unusual, abnormal state (like the dying eight-four-year old man whose final words were “why me?”). Once we fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well, we tend to think something has gone terribly amiss when they suddenly don’t. Again, this isn’t a conscious thought process but a hidden assumption that colors our emotional reactions. If we were to take a completely logical approach to the issue, we’d consider the fact that thousands of things can go wrong in life at any one time, so it’s highly likely—in fact inevitable—that we’ll experience hardships on a regular basis. But we don’t tend to be rational about these matters. Instead, we suffer, and we feel all alone in our suffering.
1. Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 63.