A few months ago, in a sermon, I shared the following anecdote about my desperate need for recognition from others.
In my first job out of college, before I got an engineering degree, I worked in sales for AT&T and later Lucent Technologies. We sold very large telephone systems to companies. My mentor, after I was hired on, was a man named Alec, who was himself a very professional, very successful salesman. He took me under his wing.
Alec told me once that he wasn’t motivated by money—that even though he made a lot of it, that wasn’t what drove him to succeed. What drove him, he said, was recognition. He loved winning sales awards—and being recognized by the senior executives of the company. Being flown to exotic places on the company’s dime. That’s what motivated him. Not money.
And I was thinking, “Well, if you feel that way, how about giving me your commission checks because I’m motivated by money?”
My point is, I thought he was crazy at the time. Motivated by recognition! Whoever heard of such a thing?
And then, the very next year, the general manager posted a chart on the wall—which ranked all of us salespeople—there were a couple of dozen of us—in terms of the percentage of our annual sales quota that we had met year-to-date. It had bar graphs going across. And that chart became very important to me. I became obsessed with this chart. After all, anyone in this large office of employees—hundreds of people—could walk down this hall, look at this chart, and see what my ranking was; see how I measured up to others; see how valuable I was—or not valuable.
If I’m down near the bottom of the chart, I’m worthless. If I’m up near the top, I’m special and worth a lot.
It soon became clear that like my friend Alec, I, too, was motivated by recognition, by what other people thought of me. Because the next year, I blew out my quota. I did great. I was at or near the top of the chart… Or at least I would have been, except the general manager had decided to take the chart down. So no one else could see how well I was doing. No one could see how valuable I was. And I was crushed.
The truth is, in my life there has always been a chart—in my mind if not on the wall. I constantly compare myself to others. In pastoral ministry, of course, the metrics are different from sales, but not by much: How big is my church? Is it growing or declining and how fast? Where do I stand in relation to other pastors in my district, in my conference, in my age group, in my seminary class?
I worry that I don’t measure up.
To make matters worse, I’m “friends” on social media with plenty of clergy who use the platform for (what I perceive to be) “humble-bragging”: Nearly every week, if not every day, they want to tell me how great every aspect of church life and pastoral ministry is at every moment.
I’m tempted to say, “Get real!” but who am I to talk? I’m not being real, either. As someone told me once, “You’re comparing their outsides to your insides. You’ll always come up short.”
But I still do it. And it makes me miserable.
And I’m not the only one… Even John Piper, who in my eyes is as objectively “successful” as any pastor, falls victim to the spiritually deadly sin of comparing ourselves to others:
Jesus’ blunt words—“None of your business, follow me”—are sweet to my ears. They are liberating from the depressing bondage of fatal comparing. Sometimes when I scan the ads in Christianity Today (all ten thousand of them), I get discouraged. Not as much as I used to twenty-five years ago. But still I find this avalanche of ministry suggestions oppressing.
Book after book, conference after conference, DVD after DVD—telling me how to succeed in ministry. And all of them quietly delivering the message that I am not making it. Worship could be better. Preaching could be better. Evangelism could be better. Pastoral care could be better. Youth ministry could be better. Missions could be better. And here is what works. Buy this. Go here. Go there. Do it this way. And adding to the burden—some of these books and conferences are mine!
With that in mind, I need to hear the good news of John 21:20-23. Jesus has just told Peter that one day—he doesn’t say when—Peter is going to die a martyr’s death. Peter then turns to John, who was following close behind, and asks, “Lord, what about this man?” And Jesus says, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
In other words, Jesus tells Peter, “Don’t worry about him. My plans for him are not your concern. You only need to be concerned about my plans for you. Keep your eyes on me, and don’t look over your shoulder at someone else. Just follow me!”
John, as we know, lived a long life. He died of old age on the isle of Patmos. One way that he glorified God was through the written witness of the gospel that bears his name.
Did Peter think it was unfair for his life to be cut short in a painful way while John’s life ended very differently? Who knows? (I know which kind of death I would prefer!)
What we do know is that Christ called each of these disciples to glorify God in his own way, each according to a plan that was not his own. Neither way was “better” than the other. The only thing that mattered was their faithfulness to Christ.
And so it is with me: Lord Jesus, make me faithful in following your plan for my life.
I’ll leave you with a 1949 song by Hank Williams, which, in addition to tying in with today’s theme, demonstrates the important influence of “hillbilly” music on the development of rock and roll: