“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Have you ever had a gym membership? I’m amazed at how many workout places there are just in Carleton Place! There’ are traditional gyms with weights and machines as well as places for CrossFit, Gymnastics, Martial Arts, and of course, Zumba. I have had a couple memberships but, as you can tell, I don’t anymore. When I was younger I used to work out with my dad, and then as a student I liked going to the YMCA to play racquetball, but as the studies got harder and my family got bigger I let the gym memberships slide. Now I have a home gym and lots of catching up to do.
Like today, the ancient Greeks and Romans had Gymnasiums that they would join and do very much what we do today – and more. At first it was only for wealthy aristocrats, but eventually they were open to all citizens and became an integral part of all Greek cities. They were sort of like a YMCA. They would exercise, learn skills, and develop their endurance and character. They would learn lessons in wisdom and philosophy – and then learn how to wrestle, swim, run, shoot and more – all in the nude of course. The word Gymnasium comes from the Greek word GUMNOS which means “naked” – so it wasn’t exactly like the YMCA.
Sports and physical development were as popular then as they are now, and more so, which meant the Apostle Paul could hardly help from using it as an illustration in his letters. It was something everyone would understand.
He used it when talking to his younger ministry apprentice Timothy. Listen to how he phrases this: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Ti 4:6–8).
The words Paul says in our passage today sound as much like the words of an athletic coach as they do a theologian or missionary. They are the kinds of things that coaches and spectators would shout at the runners to cheer them on during their training and competition. “Run for the prize!” “Remember your training!” “Hold yourself to a higher standard!” In fact, if you were going to be a member of these gyms or compete in the events you had to take an oath that you had done at least ten months of training, would promise follow the rules (2 Tim 2:5), live on a strict diet that had no wine or “pleasant foods”, endure the cold and heat, and submit yourself to whatever painful discipline they would prescribe.”
Sports in Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece the sports competitions were even bigger than they are today. Today we follow our favourite teams, players, runners, boxers and fighters with interest – sometimes fanatical interest (which is where the term “Sports fan” comes from) – but it had much deeper meaning back then. The training and competitions were sacred events, dedicated to whatever patron god they worshipped. The stadium was as much like a church today as a sports arena. The race or the boxing match wasn’t merely a test of strength but a trial of excellence, like the Olympics. Today, gym class is scheduled once or twice per week and the kids get short recesses to stretch a couple times a day. In ancient Greece and Rome they considered physical development as equal to scholastic education. And we don’t have a corner on worshipping athletes either. In those days the winners wouldn’t just get crowned with a wreath as a prize, but would be adulated by fans, have songs and poems composed about them, and have busts and statues carved and displayed in front of the stadium.
I’m from Edmonton so I understand exactly what was going on there. They may have had their runners and boxers, but we had Wayne Gretzky. His statue, installed 1989, stood for 27 years outside the Oiler’s arena and was then refurbished and stands outside the new one. It’s a pretty big deal where I’m from. That’s the kind of respect and celebration the winners of the games could expect – Gretzky level fame. So it’s no wonder they trained so hard.
The Christian Life
We’ve just spent the past 4 sermons talking about how to share our faith, but these are not usually the kinds of things we say when we invite our friends to church or tell then what it means to be a Christian. If your friend comes up and asks what it’s like to be a Christian you don’t usually start with, “Well, we have super high standards, are constantly training and educating ourselves, take public vows to live by a certain set of standards, purposefully practice self-denial, endure suffering, and submit ourselves to whatever painful discipline that God prescribes to us. It’s great! You should totally join us!” It would be like trying to convert people to CrossFit or P90X.
But training, discipline, sacrifice, and self-denial are a big part of the Christian life and they are spoken of all over scripture. For our remaining time here I want to take a look at what Paul is saying in these few verses and draw some application out of it, so please turn back with me to verse 24.
It says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” This is the continuation of something he’s been talking about for a while. It’s been a little while since we talked about it, but remember the context. At the beginning of chapter 8 we see that in this section Paul is talking about “food offered to idols” and the difficult situation it had created in the church. Some people thought it was ok because of their freedom in Christ while others had a really hard time with their consciences and felt it was not only wrong but a denial of their faith.
Paul addressed this problem by telling those who have no problem with it to bear with those who did and deny themselves for the sake of their brother. He says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13)
Then, in Chapter 9 Paul uses himself and the apostles as examples of self-denial that they should follow. He lists some of the things he is allowed to have, even that he has earned because of his work, but has chosen to deny himself for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of being a missionary he has chosen to go without a lot of really good things like food, a liveable wage, and a wife and family. He gave them up so he could serve God full time.
Then, in verse 19, he says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He is totally sold out for the gospel of Jesus, laser focused on living a life where preaching, teaching, and writing about Jesus is everything to him – and there’s nothing to get in the way; cutting everything out of his life that doesn’t line up with the call of Jesus on his life.
He’s like an elite athlete training for years to compete at the highest level. I’ve been long impressed with the Canadian athlete Clara Hughes. She’s an incredible athlete as well as a pretty amazing person. She’s one of only five people to have won medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, which she did in both cycling and speed skating. She’s translated her success into a lot of humanitarian organizations helping disadvantaged people and promoting mental health issues.
Now, all that being said, the one thing that impressed me most about her was her legs. Specifically, how different they look when she is competing in different sports or during her off time. If you see her today, her legs are – for lack of a better term – normal sized. When she was cycling her legs were big and strong, but when she’s was in full speed skating mode her legs were – again, for lack of a better term – gigantic. It was incredible to see the transformation and was an incredible reminder to me of what laser focused training can do.
When these athletes are in training for the Olympics everything matters. Every movement, every calorie, every minute of sleep, heartrate, body fat, type of food, amount of water, recreation, everything. Michael Phelps, said that when he was training and winning all his medals for swimming he did three things: slept, swam, and ate 12,000 calories per day. These athletes are single minded in their training and lifestyle.
That’s what Paul is talking about in verse 24. He sees himself as an elite spiritual athlete and sets himself up as the example. He even says in chapter 11, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. ” (1 Cor 11:1) He didn’t mean this in a prideful way, but as an apostle of Jesus, their pastor, and the one who planted their church, he was their prime example on how to live the Christian life, so he held himself to the highest of standards. He runs the race to obtain the prize, and encourages them to do the same.
Now, what this doesn’t mean is that he felt he needed to do all this in order to earn salvation. He didn’t think Jesus would turn His back on him if he stopped trying so hard. He wasn’t telling them that their place in heaven was at stake if they didn’t try harder. He didn’t say that God would love them more if they accomplished more. He wasn’t saying that their value and worth was tied to what they were able to produce. That goes against so much of what the Bible says about how God sees us. He loved us before we loved Him. He saved us before we asked for it. We were dead in our sins and He traded His Son for us. And there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more.
Now, what the Bible is saying here is that, in light of the love we have received from God in Jesus Christ and the calling that we have been given as Christians who are on a mission in this world, we should take that seriously. God’s love compels us to love others. Jesus’ sacrifice compels us to sacrifice for others. Jesus obedience compels us to be obedient too. Because we know we are saved by grace, not by works, given something we could never earn, simply because we are loved, we are compelled, driven, to show love to Jesus by serving Him and others. Because of the new nature we have been given, where once we were dead in sin and only thinking of how to gratify ourselves, now we have been given new natures that want to honour and serve the One who saved us – the one we call Lord and Saviour.
Christians take this relationship very seriously, but we never think we need to do these things to impress, bribe, or appease God.
Think of it in human terms. As a dad, we work hard our jobs outside and inside the home. We work for 5 days and then take our kids camping or spend the weekend driving them around for their clubs and events, and then turn around and go right back to work. Then when someone asks, “Why do you work so hard? Why put in all the hours? Why do you spend all that time working and then come home and do more?” The answer isn’t simply because we have to… it’s because we love our families.
Grandma invites the whole family over and spends hours and hours shopping, preparing, and serving Christmas dinner. It takes an incredible amount of money, work, time, effort, and then every pot, pan and dish in the house needs to be washed. Why did she do it? Because she’s obligated? No, because it is a joy to serve the ones she loves.
A child spends 2 hours drawing, colouring, gluing, and folding a card for someone. It’s not their birthday or anything, they just wanted to make a card for them. Why? Why make all that mess and take all that time just to give their mom or friend a card? Because of love.
That’s the motivator to run the Christian race with seriousness and dedication: our love for Jesus. But loving someone has consequences, doesn’t it? If I dedicate myself to my wife, it means I cannot have any other woman in that way. My love for my children means that I will have to deny myself certain things for their sake. My love for my church means that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do because of my obligations to them. My love for my friends means that when they need me I will put aside my own life and go to them. Love has consequences.
Love has Consequences
Jesus says something pretty serious two times in Matthew. Listen to these.
Matthew 10:22, “…you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Now, Matthew 24:9-13, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved…”
What did Jesus mean by “enduring to the end”? Love has consequences. Truth has consequences. Belief has consequences. Faith has consequences. Choice has consequences. Following and loving Jesus has consequences. Being a Christian has consequences and those consequences often mirror those of the athlete: high standards, loyal devotion, constant training and education, self-denial, suffering, and sometimes the painful discipline from Jesus, the “author and perfecter of our faith” . In fact, that title for Jesus is set in athletic terms too.
Let’s read that from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” , like a crowd of former Olympians watching us compete from the crowd, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Why would a runner or boxer or gymnast ever add unnecessary weight to themselves? Why compete in lead shoes? They want to be light and agile so they cut all unnecessary weight so they will have the endurance to last until the end.
And while the crowd of former spiritual Olympians look at us, who are we looking to for inspiration, guidance, training, help, strength and perserverance? It says, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
His decision to love us had consequences. He endured great suffering and died because He chose to love us. In the same way we look to Jesus, as Paul looks to Jesus, as not only the example of what it means to follow God, but the one from whom we get our strength to endure.
Self-Control in All Things
In verses 25 it gives us one of the consequences of following Jesus, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” It’s the small things that are the difference between winning and losing a race. In the 1992 Women’s 100 Meter race the difference between first place and fifth was 1/10th of a second. In 1988 1000 Meter Canoeing it came down to a photo finish where the winner was ahead by 0.005 seconds or less than a centimetre.  That’s why they obsess over the details. The exact moment to stop exercising and eat the exact right food to have exactly enough to finish the race – but no more or it might slow them down.
“Self-control in all things.” We aren’t running to win a gold medal, but we do have an incredibly high calling. You look at your life and think that you’re doing pretty good – better than most people you know – but that secret sin that you think no one knows about will be what the enemy uses to cripple your mission and deaden your soul. That part of your personality which you know is a problem, but have just decided is part of you now, will be what keeps you from effectively sharing your faith. That habit of unforgiveness, bitterness, being critical, will keep you from being a good disciple maker. That schedule that is always out of control where you have no time for worship, rest, thinking, praying, reading, friends, or Sabbath, will be what kills you.
I’m not saying, and scripture isn’t saying, that God doesn’t love you or that you won’t be saved – what it’s saying is that if you refuse to practice self-control in that area, then you won’t be nearly as spiritually healthy, or hopeful, or happy, or peaceful, or joyful, or productive for the kingdom of God. It will be the wedge that creates space between you and God, the foothold by which Satan can climb on your back.
Train on Purpose
Verse 26 says, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” Having powerful muscles is pointless if you never use them to lift anything other than weights. Having strong fists and being able to take a punch is pointless if you never enter a fight. Being able to run for hours is pointless unless you use the strength and endurance you are building to actually do something for someone else.
An athlete doesn’t train for the sake of training. They don’t skate in circles and shoot a ten thousand pucks into an empty net because they like skating in circles and scoring pretend goals. A boxer doesn’t shadowbox and hit a punching bag for no reason. They do it so they can live out their purpose. They skate and shoot so that when the time comes they will be able to win the game. They punch bags so they can eventually win the fight.
Firefighters don’t exercise just to stay healthy, but so they have the strength and endurance to save people when it matters. Police and military officers are required to exercise and pass physical endurance tests, not so they will look good in uniform, but so they can enforce the law and help the community.
In the same way Christians don’t merely live, but we live with a purpose. We don’t merely read the Bible, but we read with a purpose. We don’t merely pray, but we pray with a purpose. We sing, serve, correct, deny, give, share, speak, eat, and all the rest with a purpose. Some of that purpose is universal for all believers: We do what we do for the glory of God and to enjoy Him forever. We do what we do to advance the kingdom of God and spread love, justice, and mercy.
But some of that purpose is specific to you. God has given all Christians a special gift and a special purpose to their lives. As Christians we work to find out what that gift is, and then we use that gift to live out that special purpose. Christians are not aimless, but are very purposeful in what we do. And not just in work, but in rest too, right?
You likely know the old story of the young woodcutter who got a job on a logging crew by showing the boss how he could cut down 18 trees in one day. He loved the job and worked hard, but it wasn’t long until he started running into problems. On day three he cut down 15 trees, and then on day five he could only do 10, by the end of the week he was only able to do 5 trees. The foreman said that if he didn’t start cutting more he’d lose his job. He begged the for another chance saying he always comes early, leaves late, and never takes breaks! The foreman asks, “Well, when do you stop to sharpen your axe?” The young man replied, “Well sir, I just can’t do that. I’ve been working way too hard to take the time to do that.”
The point is that as a Christian, even our times of rest are purposeful.
Areas of Influence
Finally in verse 27 it says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Think of all the massive sports failures we’ve seen. Pete Rose, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong… the names are synonymous with the heights of sports and the greats of controversies and collapses.
This was probably Paul’s greatest fear – I know it’s one of mine. He wasn’t training and disciplining and denying himself to try to win God’s approval or earn salvation or impress anyone. He was doing it because he knew his mission was critically important and that it would be the small things that he neglected that would be his undoing. And then not only would he be disqualified, but a lot of people would be hurt. He was given great responsibility and a great mission, so he took it very, very seriously, because the consequences of messing up were so extreme. The words “discipline my body” are literally “I give myself a black eye”!
Now, we’re not apostles, and we don’t have dozens of churches that would be crippled if we mess up, but we all have circles of influence that are affected by our sin – which is what the last 2 chapters have been talking a lot about.
Why do you practice self-control when you drink and spend and say and watch on tv, mom and dad? So I won’t be disqualified as a parent and mess up my kids. Singles, why do you avoid certain places that everyone says are fun? So you won’t disqualify yourself and mess up your future. There are so many examples, right?
Think about the people you have influence over, whether it’s your kids, friends, siblings, coworkers, or church family. Part of the reason you train well and practice self-denial is for their sake. So that when they are hurting, they can come to you because you are trustworthy. So when they are in need you have the capacity to help. So when they are tempted, you can help them. So when you speak to them words of criticism, they will hear because you have a reputation for fairness and love. So when they need advice or a listening ear, they will call you because they know you will keep confidences and speak God’s word to them. It’s not just about you, it’s about those around you too. Let’s close there.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 279). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Kling, C. F., & Poor, D. W. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians (p. 194). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
The Right Tool
Check out some of these weird tools. Maybe they’re only weird to me. Have any of you used these? Here’s my favourite, which is awesome, and it’s the Stanley #1 Odd Jobs. I absolutely love this guy’s description.
We’ve all used the wrong tool to try to accomplish a task. We are going to hang a picture and can’t find the hammer, so we grab a screwdriver and hope we can use the handle to knock the nail in. We need to turn a ¾” bolt but the only wrench we can find is metric and it’s pretty close, so we try it. Instead of gluing something properly we throw on some tape and hope for the best. But it never quite works, right? The nail is crooked, the bolt gets stripped, the tape doesn’t hold. That’s because we are using the tool to do something it wasn’t designed for.
When God creates a human being He always gives them a purpose. Most people don’t care about God’s intended purpose for their lives but spend their time trying to figure out their own idea – which sometimes gets them part way there but they never feel like they completely fit. But, when Jesus calls someone to Himself and they become His disciple, He doesn’t just save them from their sin and send them on their merry way, but sets within them a desire to live out their God-given purpose. They go from someone who was living for themselves, trying to make themselves happy, and confused about their reason for living, to a Kingdom follower who is now trying to discover why God put them on earth, what will honour Jesus, and how they can glorify God by doing obeying His will for their life.
Sure, we mess up, sin, go the wrong way, and need a lot of grace, but God is always forgiving, rebuking, training, correcting and helping us to find and live out our purpose. The Holy Spirit within us acts like a compass, steering us towards the right and away from the wrong, even giving us spiritual gifts that we didn’t have before in order follow God’s plan for us. And when we hit that groove and finally discover what we were built to do, there’s nothing like it. No matter how hard it is, or how much we have to endure, there is a supernatural power that comes upon us, a hope beyond ourselves, a greater, eternal mission, and a reason and meaning that’s bigger than us – because we are living out our purpose.
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 7:6-40. As I said a couple weeks ago, in 1st Corinthians we see that Paul was asked some important questions about what God wants from believers in regard to human sexuality and marital relationships. There were many in the church that wanted to follow God, but were being super-distracted by all the sin around them and the desires and temptations within them. They wondered if maybe they should just make a rule that all Christians everywhere should just give up on the whole marriage idea altogether because it was so corrupted and distracting, and just simply concentrate on following Jesus. Basically, they wondered if Christians should just become monks and nuns. We covered a lot of the answer last week, but we were left with a lot of other situations that weren’t covered like: What about single people who want to get married? What about the single people that don’t? What about people married to unbelievers? What about divorced people? Can they get remarried? Let’s read the rest of the passage together and we’ll draw out some application:
“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Now concerning the betrothed [another word would be “virgin” or “unmarried”] , I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed [meaning parents of unmarried children], if his [or her] passions are strong, and it has to be, let him [or her] do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (ESV)
It is Good to Stay
Paul is here addressing a lot of situations directly, but there was an overarching theme to all of his answers. Look again. He says in verse 7, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” And then in verse 17, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” And in verse 24, “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
There’s no way that Paul could address the many variations on human relationships, or try to write a letter that told every human being what they should do with themselves for the rest of their lives. And even if God did do that, people’s circumstances change so quickly that they would need a new letter every year! So look at the overarching theme for what God says:
Verse 8 – If you are divorced or widowed Christian, it’s good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you need to get married, get married.
Verse 10 – If you are married Christian, it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if your unbelieving partner divorces you, then let it be so.
Verse 20 – If you are a bondservant or slave who is Christian, then it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you have a chance to gain your freedom, go for it.
Verse 25 – If you are unmarried, then it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you want to get married, get married.
Verse 36 – If you have a child who is unmarried, then it is good that they stay that way and follow God, but if they want to get married, let them.
Verse 39 – If you are married and your spouse dies, then it is good to stay that way, but if you want to get married, then go ahead and marry a Christian.
Did you catch the theme? What is God’s concern here? Over and over we see God saying that whatever the situation is, find God in it, work in it, be at peace with it, serve God in it – grow and bloom where you are planted as best you – but if the situation changes around you, or you sense that God wants you to change your situation so you can serve Him better, then go for it. One might call it “contentment” – be content with the situation you find yourself in. Another might call it “focus” – stay focused on where you are and what you are doing, don’t get distracted by a bunch of temptations, man-made rules and worldly options. My Bible entitles the section above verse 17, “Live As You Are Called”. Essentially, bloom where you are planted as best you can, until the Gardner moves you.
Recall that part starting in verse 32 about anxieties where the Apostle says: “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife… the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
The crux comes at the end there as this teaching is designed to benefit us and our relationship with God, not to try to restrain us or keep us from experiencing what God has for us. A lot of man-made religious rules seemed designed only to “restrain”: “don’t do this, don’t do that”, but God’s rules are designed to help us flourish – to bloom where we are planted. He wants to free us from the entanglements and anxieties of this world and help us live maturely, with “good order”, devoted to our God-give life’s purpose.
For some, God’s purpose requires you to be married, so He’ll give you desires in that direction and point you to a spouse. For others, it means bucking the trend where the whole world seems to want you to hook up with someone or get married, so you can stay single and flexible. For some, it means staying content at a job you aren’t thrilled with so it can help you do something you couldn’t do otherwise. For others it means leaving your job security so you can have the freedom to do something that God needs you for.
The idea is that we weren’t put on this planet to simply eat, sleep, work, entertain ourselves, reproduce, and die. We were created for so much more. God has given us a purpose and when we make these big and little decisions – from will I marry, what job will I get, who will my friends be, what school will I attend, what will I do in my free time, who will my business partners be, what will my hobbies be – there is a bigger picture to consider. Will they bring more anxiety and restrain me from following God’s plan for my life, or will they be beneficial, promoting good order, and securing my devotion to the Lord?
Most of us don’t think that way. We usually get as far as “Do I like it?” “Is it fun?” “Will it make me money?” “Is she pretty?” “What do others expect me to do?” “What will make me popular?” “Will it be safe?” “Will it make me uncomfortable?” God tells us to expand our thinking beyond these worldly concerns and ask bigger questions: “Will it make me a better follower of Christ?” “Will it help me serve God and others better?” “Does it fit with who God has created me to be?” “Does it help me fulfill my life’s purpose or, even if it looks good, will it distract me from it?”
What a shallow, pointless existence it would be to waste our life pursuing fun, interesting, popular things – and completely miss the entire purpose of our lives.
The Purpose Driven Life
I want now to do doing something I’ve never really done before, and that is read a large selection from a book that has meant a lot to me. This is some selections from the first few pages of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”, a book that has helped me in innumerable ways. Please listen as I read this to you – and then go buy or borrow this book and finish it. If you hear nothing else this morning – hear this first sentence:
“It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.
The search for the purpose of life has puzzled people for thousands of years. That’s because we typically begin at the wrong starting point—ourselves. We ask self-centered questions like What do I want to be? What should I do with my life? What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams for my future? But focusing on ourselves will never reveal our life’s purpose. The Bible says, ‘It is God who directs the lives of his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.’
Contrary to what many popular books, movies, and seminars tell you, you won’t discover your life’s meaning by looking within yourself. You’ve probably tried that already. You didn’t create yourself, so there is no way you can tell yourself what you were created for! If I handed you an invention you had never seen before, you wouldn’t know its purpose, and the invention itself wouldn’t be able to tell you either. Only the creator or the owner’s manual could reveal its purpose.
I once got lost in the mountains. When I stopped to ask for directions to the campsite, I was told, ‘You can’t get there from here. You must start from the other side of the mountain!’ In the same way, you cannot arrive at your life’s purpose by starting with a focus on yourself. You must begin with God, your Creator. You exist only because God wills that you exist. You were made by God and for God—and until you understand that, life will never make sense. It is only in God that we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance, and our destiny. Every other path leads to a dead end.
Many people try to use God for their own self-actualization, but that is a reversal of nature and is doomed to failure. You were made for God, not vice versa, and life is about letting God use you for his purposes, not your using him for your own purpose.…
How, then, do you discover the purpose you were created for? You have only two options. Your first option is speculation. This is what most people choose. They conjecture, they guess, they theorize. When people say, ‘I’ve always thought life is . . . ,’ they mean, ‘This is the best guess I can come up with.’
For thousands of years, brilliant philosophers have discussed and speculated about the meaning of life. Philosophy is an important subject and has its uses, but when it comes to determining the purpose of life, even the wisest philosophers are just guessing.…
Fortunately, there is an alternative to speculation about the meaning and purpose of life. It’s revelation. We can turn to what God has revealed about life in his Word. The easiest way to discover the purpose of an invention is to ask the creator of it. The same is true for discovering your life’s purpose: Ask God….
God is not just the starting point of your life; he is the source of it. To discover the purpose in life you must turn to god’s word, not the world’s wisdom. You must build your life on eternal truths, not pop psychology, success-motivation, or inspirational stories.
The Bible says, ‘It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.’ This verse gives us three insights into your purpose.
- You discover your identity and purpose through a relationship with Jesus Christ…..
- God was thinking of you long before you ever thought about Him. His purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed, without your input. You may choose your career, your spouse, your hobbies, and many other parts of your life, but you don’t get to choose your purpose.
- The purpose of your life fits into a much larger, cosmic purpose that God has designed for eternity….”
Let me close with the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:24-33 where He speaks about anxiety, worry, and focusing on the wrong things – especially focusing on a life worried about money and stuff – but as we saw in 1 Corinthians we can get just as muddled with worries about relationships and other things. Jesus says,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
This is one of the hardest things about faith to teach and to practice. The point here is that God knows what you need and what you desire. If you think you need money, your heart is in the wrong place. God knows what you need. The question is, will you seek God’s kingdom and a righteous life first, and trust that God will give you what you need to accomplish it? Or will you leave your faith to the side and pursue the money instead.
If you think you need a girlfriend or boyfriend, or husband or wife, or a better husband or wife, then your heart is in the wrong place. Do you not believe that God knows what you need? If so, then will you seek to live out God’s purpose for you, content where you are, blooming where you are planted, trusting God will give you what you need to accomplish what He has asked you to do? Or will you cast your faith in God aside and pursue a relationship God never intended you to have? Which will bring you greater good and God more glory?
If you think you need a better job, then your heart is in the wrong place. Do you not believe that God knows what you need and desire? If so, then will you make the decision to bloom where you are planted, do the good you are called to do, be the employee God wants you to be, and allow God to decide where to put you? Or will you stay anxious, upset, resentful, and bitter that you aren’t getting your due – cutting corners and complaining, or jumping from place to place – trying to get something God hasn’t given you, that won’t lead to your flourishing? Which will bring God more glory and you more good? (James
God says in James 1:1-3,
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Jesus says, “…[Unbelievers] seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)
The Apostles are a very misunderstood group of people these days. The word itself simply means “one who is sent”, so technically anyone who is sent by the Lord to do anything – whether it’s pray for a sick person, deliver a casserole, or give a gift card to Freshco –are technically apostles.
But when people talk about apostles today, they are usually referring to the 12 apostles, chosen by Jesus Christ to be the ones who would continue his ministry and even write more scripture to include in the Bible. Do those kids of apostles still exist today? I would say categorically no. But believe it or not, there are people today who claim to be new apostles, drawing followers by their claims to be messengers from God, with the same authority as the ones in the Bible.
This was happening in the ancient world too as teachers claimed to have the same power and authority as the apostles of Jesus. So the question is, how do we know the real ones from the fakes? So using our scripture today, let’s look at what an apostle is and what they do.
Verse 1 contains two important phrases that will be unpacked in the rest of the chapter. It says, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” So let’s concentrate on those two descriptors: An apostle of Christ is a “servant of Christ” and a “steward of the mysteries of God.”
Servants of Christ
The first section of verses, from 2-5, explain what a “servant… and steward of Christ” is supposed to be, and the first descriptive word that is used is “faithful”. A real apostle – and perhaps for application we can extend this as far as to saying a real believer in Jesus – is faithful. Faithful to who? Their master, Jesus Christ. That’s how they see themselves. Not elevated above others, but brought into submission to Jesus. They only go where they’ve been told to go, say what they’ve been told to say, and do what they’ve been told to do.
They know, as Paul says in verse 4, that it is to Jesus that they must ultimately give account, not any human being. Part of the back-story here is that not only were some people pretending to be apostles, but there were some people in the churches that preferred the pretenders to the real thing! They even went so far as to criticize the real apostles because they liked what the new guys were saying better.
But a real apostle doesn’t have their own “take” on Jesus and never updates the story. They don’t make the news, the just report it. They don’t write the letters, they just deliver them. All true apostles are in agreement and the story is always kept straight. Anyone who says different is a false apostle.
That’s one of the most amazing things about scripture. It is a series of books written over 1500 years by 40 different authors from vastly different cultures and backgrounds, but it all holds together. Why? Because God is the author of scripture, not man. The real apostles stayed totally dependent on Jesus for all that they were to do and say. Why? Because it was to Jesus they would have to finally give account, not their churches or anyone else.
This is an important application for us too. We may not be apostles, but it remains true that what we think of ourselves (our self-esteem or self-image) and what others think of us (our reputation or popularity) isn’t nearly as important as what God thinks of us.
This is a big struggle for a lot of people. Most people liked to be liked, and they spend a lot of time trying to change themselves, their opinions, their clothes, their jobs, their image, and everything else, so they can be either liked or respected. They will change almost anything so people will say they are attractive, intelligent, powerful, cool, interesting, or whatever.
Teenagers face this perhaps more than anybody, but the temptation doesn’t disappear when you’re older. As a child grows up and starts to realize that they are an individual – that they like certain things and dislike others, and have different skills, abilities, and problems than others – they are sort of forced to figure out who they are. As their minds, bodies, and emotions, change, they are in a constant state of flux, rarely being able to settle on a single identity.
Last year’s favourite outfit, the one that everyone said looked so nice, no longer fits and now you have to find another. Last year’s toys are no longer interesting. Everything is in flux. And on the journey to discover who they are, other people’s opinions weigh pretty heavily.
But this doesn’t go away. It’s intense when you are a teenager trying to figure out everything from how you want to look to what you want to be when you grow up, but when you get older it doesn’t go away. People’s opinions still seem to matter a lot. Does my boss like me? What do my friends think of me? How do people see me? I know plenty of older adults who spend a lot of time wondering if people think they are attractive, intelligent, powerful, cool, or interesting. That’s what drives the advertising industry! We wouldn’t want new clothes, phones, cars, homes, and vacations if we weren’t constantly comparing ourselves to others!
A few years ago country artist Blake Shelton wrote a song called “Who are You When I’m Not Looking” which sounds like the inner dialogue of a man on a first or second date. The first verse says, “My oh my, you’re so good-looking… but, who are you when I’m not looking?” The rest of the song is a series of questions which amount to things like “Do you drink? Are you silly? How do you handle anger? Do you have bad habits? How do you relate to your family?”. He’s essentially saying, “You’re beautiful on the outside, but before we go any further, are you just as beautiful on the inside?” Pretty good questions, actually.
The message here is that the only opinion that really matters is God’s. What does He think of us, our actions, our motives, our words, our clothes, our friends and our opinions?
I said last week that the true test of a person’s character is who they are when no one is looking. The message this week is that regardless of what you present to the world, God knows who you really are.
David and Saul
That’s the story of King Saul and King David. When Israel turned their back on God as their King and asked for a human King, God gave them exactly what they wanted. Saul was the tallest, most handsome, most regal looking man in the kingdom. He really looked the part, but had some deep character flaws.
David, on the other hand was the youngest son of a small-town shepherd. When God sent the Prophet Samuel to appoint the new king after Saul had thoroughly disqualified himself, Samuel didn’t know who he was going to get. The first son who came out of Jesse’s house was Eliab, the oldest boy. 1 Samuel 16:6-7 says this,
“When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’”
That truth is echoed all throughout scripture! David says to his own son, Solomon,
“And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought.” (1 Chron 29:9)
He was saying, “Son, no matter what you do, no matter how great you become, no matter what anyone says about you, know this: God knows who you really are, and that’s what really matters.”
The God Who Knows
God is called the One who “tests minds and hearts” (Psalm 7:9; Jer 17:10; Acts 1:24) because He knows what’s going on inside us. We can fool everyone else – sometimes even ourselves – but we can’t fool God. He knows what we really mean when we pray for selfish things. He knows our thought life and watches where our eyes go behind our sunglasses. He knows our browser history even when we use incognito mode. He knows what you really meant when you said what you said. He knows when we come to the Bible to learn or when we just want to be proven right. He knows the difference between acts of love and the desire to look good. There is absolutely no reason to try to fool Him, and He’s ultimately the only opinion that matters, so why bother trying to fool anyone else?
The Bible talks a lot about pleasing God and pleasing people. In the Bible, fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge, but fear of man foolish and sinful (Prov 29:25). We are warned to take more account of what God says about us – and can do to us – than anyone else!
When it comes to worrying about what powerful men might do to us, Jesus said in no uncertain terms, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
And so, Paul says in vs 3 that in comparison to what God could do to him, the accusations of the Corinthians pale in comparison. So he says, “I’ve already examined myself and don’t see anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean much since my judgment of myself and your judgment of me mean very little in the end. All that matters is what the Lord thinks of me! He can see the deepest parts of me and everyone else, and in the end, he will either condemn me or commend me.”
The same message comes to us today, and it’s our concluding question today. Who are you? Who are you when no one is looking?
We’ll look at the second part of what it means to be an apostle next week: that they are “stewards of the mysteries of God”, but let’s leave it there for now. A true apostle of God lives for God and knows it is the Lord who will judge them. So they don’t bend the gospel for the sake of others.
So, if the apostles are following Jesus and demonstrating to us how we ought to live our life –Paul says in verse 16 that we are to imitate the apostles – then we must ask ourselves in what ways are we compromising our beliefs and our obedience to God because we are afraid of what people might think of us? In what ways are we hypocrites who say we believe one thing, but then do another when no one is around?
Jesus has saved us and He is our Lord. Who do you fear more, love more, respect more, want to impress or desire to please more than Him? That’s your true Lord. That’s your real god.
I invite you to ask yourself who you really are and why you do what you do.
“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23)
We’ve talked about a lot of contrasts over the past weeks as we’ve been covering the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: flesh and spirit, foolishness and wisdom, maturity and immaturity. These contrasts, which are found all over scripture, help us process our life today so that we can be more clear about our life today and our eternal destination.
- Romans 5 forces us to ask if we are “in Christ” or “in Adam”.
- As we saw last week, 1 John forces us to ask ourselves if we are walking in the light of God’s love as it overflows from us to others, or walking in the darkness of hatred.
- Ephesians 4 asks believers to evaluate themselves by asking if they are living as the “old man” we used to be before we knew Jesus or the “new man” we are now because we have been born again in His name.
- God asks us if we are acting as children of God (John 1:12) or
- children of the devil (Matthew 13:38, Eph 5:6),
- friends of the world or friends of God (James 4:4),
- as people who know they have a great inheritance waiting for them or as those who won’t inherit anything (1 Cor 6:9, Rom 8:17).
- We see the contrast between sinner and saint,
- righteous and unrighteous,
- lost and found,
- godly and ungodly,
- alienated and reconciled,
- cast out and chosen,
- cursed and accepted,
- guilty and forgiven,
- defiled and cleansed – and the list goes on. (Source: http://www.christinyou.net/pages/scrptcont.html)
I believe God gives us these contrasts for a purpose – to remind us that in the end there really will be a final, stark, uncompromising division of humanity. There will be the saved and the unsaved, the wheat and the chaff, the sheep and the goats, those who live in eternal life and those who live in eternal death, those who experience everlasting paradise and those who experience everlasting hell.
There won’t be a mushy-middle when it comes to eternity, and so, I believe God gives us these contrasts so that we can evaluate ourselves in light of them. Is my life characterized by wisdom of folly? Is this decision driven by my fleshly temptations or my spiritual maturity? Am I acting like an immature child right now or as a mature adult? Who do I see myself as? Where is my identity? What has God said about me? Where am I going?
These questions call us to introspection, which is exactly what I believe Paul is calling the Corinthians – and by extension us – to in our passage today.
My Dual Personalities
I was forced to do a little introspection over the past couple weeks. A little while ago someone told me that they were having a conversation about me and the person said something interesting. They said that they like me when I’m at their house or outside the church, but that I become a different person when I’m preaching. They like normal Al, but they don’t like preacher Al.
And it caused me pause for the last little while. I don’t ever want to be a hypocrite – saying one thing and doing another. Nor do I want to be some double-minded, dual-personality pretender who is a totally different person depending on where He is. If the true test of a man’s character is what they do when no one is watching, then surely there must be something to trying to be different people depending on where I am and who is around, right?
So, I’ve been chewing on that for a little while and have come up with my own little conclusion about why it might seem like I have dual personalities. I think it’s because I’ve made a commitment to myself to take serious things serious and not-serious things not-serious. My sense of humour is pretty situational and kind of goofy – sort of an acquired taste, if you will – and it’s gotten me in trouble a few times. Plus, I struggle with pride. So, since I’m trying to honour God and not draw attention to myself but Him, I tend to leave my personal side-comments out of my sermons. It’s not that they’re not rolling around up in my grey matter, it’s that I don’t let them out very often.
Is that being hypocritical or two-faced? I don’t think so, and I hope not. I’m just the kind of guy that will, in the same night, read a biography of a 16th century preacher, and then lie in bed watching the newest episodes of My Little Pony. I’m all of that, all at once, so I don’t think I’m a hypocrite when I choose to emphasize one or the other – but here’s the problem. I can’t be sure. That person may be more right than I want them to be. Why? Because no one can fool me like I can.
The first thing that God says through Paul here, as he closes this section of the letter to move on to the next is this: “Let no one deceive himself.” Another translation says, “Don’t fool yourselves”. There’s no deceit like self-deceit is there? I can do all the introspection I want, but if it is not informed by an outside eye like my wife, my kids, a Christian friend, or God’s Word and God’s Spirit, then I could easily be fooling myself.
So what was happening that caused God to tell Paul to write that? What were they deceiving themselves about? You likely already know by now if you’ve been following along. They thought they were wise, but they were actually fools. They had given up Godly wisdom for worldly wisdom and believed themselves to be something they weren’t.
Here’s what was happening: There was a man named Apollos who was a popular preacher who toured around the great cities of the ancient world. Before he met Jesus he was already an eloquent and powerful speaker who was greatly learned in the Jewish scriptures. He had heard about Jesus being the messiah and, even though he had never met Jesus personally, had been teaching that to people – but he had some holes in his knowledge. In his travels he met a couple named Priscilla and Aquila who were attending Pauls’ church in Corinth. They worked to fill in what Apollos didn’t know and Apollos rose quickly to becoming an even more powerful and popular teacher in the area.
He was the Charles Spurgeon, John Piper, John MacArthur, or Rick Warren of his day. Huge crowds followed him and that meant that there were a lot of people who were envious of him. They wanted what he had. They saw men like Paul and Apollos and wanted to copy them so they could have their influence. So they would attend all their talks, learned what they learned, even mimicked their way of speaking in hopes of gaining a following like theirs.
But what they didn’t copy was their godliness, humility, love and prayerfulness. They saw what they were on stage and copied that, but didn’t see all the blood, sweat, tears, study, pacing, and prayers that went into each sermon. They wanted their abilities and audiences. They wanted to be seen as wise, smart, clever, popular, and fashionable, but they didn’t want to do the time in their prayer closets. They wanted the fruit of godliness without suffering, the influence without the dependence on God, the benefits of discipleship without actually following Jesus.
Doing the Work
One time someone came over to my and saw my devotional bible – which is almost destroyed, has no cover, is covered in tape, stains, highlights and pencil marks – and asked me how they can get one that looks just like it. My answer was, “Go buy a new one and read it for 20 years.” He wanted the look of a person who had studied his bible for years and years, without actually having to read it.
We have a lot of things like that around us. You can go to the store right now and buy pre-worn, pre-wrecked, clothes. New, vintage clothes. They’re brand-new, but the t-shirt logo is mostly gone, the sweater has holes, and the jeans look like they’ve been through a warzone. Now, I grew up in the 90’s when grunge was just coming around, so I have a soft spot for that style, but back then we had to borrow our dad’s old, messed up work clothes and concert t-shirts to get that kind of look. Now, you can by vintage things brand new.
You can go to antique stores and buy new antiques too. People make perfectly good boxes, dressers, shelves, and floors, and then beat the heck out of them with chains. They call it “destressing” or “antiquing”. The look of an expensive, old, full of character, piece of furniture, without having to wait 100 years to get it.
That’s just clothes and woodwork, but people do that with their lives too. They want the look of having character, but don’t want to do the work it takes to develop it. They want the look of being wise and godly, but don’t actually want to go through repentance, mortification of sin, study, prayer, and spiritual disciplines required to actually become wise and godly.
This passage is a warning against that! Paul says, “Let no one deceive himself.” Who is he talking about? The person who thinks they possess profound insights about God and the universe, when in fact they have no relationship with Him whatsoever. The person who thinks they have the meaning of life all figured out, without factoring God into the equation. The person who lies to themselves about who they are, who God is, and why they exist.
The self-deceived ones who try to explain the deepest questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where did we come from? Where are we all going? What is most important?) by themselves, coming up with answers that make sense to them. These people may have great knowledge and abilities, but they remain ignorant of reality. They may say things that make sense to them, and are agreed upon by other big-talkers, but end up being utterly devoid of either wisdom or truth.
We are enveloped by this stuff today. It’s extremely popular, especially among the intellectual elites today, to come up with insanely bizarre explanations for the origins of the universe. They actually have meetings and conventions to talk about them.
Recently, a bunch of high-profile scientists and philosophers got together to debate whether or not the universe is actually real or if we are all living in a vast computer simulation. Popular scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, went on record saying that he puts the odds at 50-50 that we are all basically living in the Matrix; a program running on some super-being’s hard drive. And he was serious! (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-we-living-in-a-computer-simulation/)
Weirdly, while he’s fine with the idea of our reality just being a huge computer program, and promotes a Super-String theory that states that at the sub-atomic level we are able to see self-correcting computer code, he also mocks any religion who believes that there is a God who created everything and sustains it by His will. And that contradiction makes perfect sense to anyone who follows him.
These worldly wisemen look at Christian teachers who don’t have their level of speaking abilities or scholastic degrees, and think them to be fools who preach ridiculous, unscientific garbage. And then have the audacity to grab a microphone and blather on about theories about simulated universes on alien computers – which might sound like science, but is actually total mysticism! You cannot test it, study it, or prove it, but that doesn’t stop physicists from talking about it. They generate a lot of heat, a lot of words, a lot of headlines – but absolutely no light.
This is the type of people, and those who think like them, that are being addressed in this scripture. The worldly-wise who are actually fools. They mock the truth and promote utter folly. And God says here that eventually, it will catch up with them. God “catches the wise in their craftiness” and “knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile”. The “wise” here aren’t the ones living with godly wisdom, but human, worldly wisdom that will invariably be proven to be total garbage. People who believe their theories to be clever, but are ultimately devoid of meaning.
What do they gain by doing this? Why concoct the lie and work so hard to believe it? Simple: freedom from the constraints of a moral God. Everyone – everyone – needs to answer the big questions about their existence and purpose and final destination, but not everyone wants an answer that includes a moral God who requires their worship and obedience. And so they grab on to anything else that gives their universe meaning.
They are the masters of self-deception and they do all they can to suck people into the lies they tell themselves. Atheist apologist, Lawrence Krauss, who actually won the Atheist of the Year Award this year, said this:
“I can’t say for certain there is no God, but I can certainly say I wouldn’t want to live in a universe with one.” (https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/new-atheists-dont-want-to-believe/)
Another atheist, and Professor at NYU, Thomas Nagel, once famously said:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/57677.Thomas_Nagel)
What a strange and ironic mingling of self-awareness and self-deception. But God promises, here and throughout scripture, that in the end their worldly wisdom will be shown for what it is and that the futility of their thinking will be exposed.
People are Masterful Self-Deceivers
Let me close with this: God gives us some stark categories that give us some tools to help us look inside and be honest with ourselves and Him – but doing that it requires a lot of humility and effort.
Which is why people are such masterful self-deceivers. It’s easier to lie to ourselves and concoct our own reality than submit ourselves to the truth. This week, my challenge to you is to look deep within to find the places where you have accepted the world’s wisdom and exchanged God’s truth for a more pleasurable lie.
Ask yourself how you have been lying to yourself, and others, about who you really are. In what ways are you like that pre-worn shirt and ripped pants, faking your character, but not doing the work of building real character.
In prayer this week, ask God to show you your true self. What does He see? It doesn’t matter how you present yourself? All that matters is who you really are. Your reputation with the people around you isn’t as important as you think it is – what’s important is your integrity and your reputation with God.
I watched a little Francis Chan clip this week where he used a great illustration, and I’ll use this to close: Imagine if I interviewed all the people closest to you – your friends, spouse, kids, parents, coworkers – and asked them to tell me about you. What would they say? Now imagine that I could do the same thing with God. What if I could come before the throne of God and ask Him what you are like. “What’s he/she like, Lord? What are your thoughts about them, their actions, their motives, their thought life, their love for you? What’s are they really like?” What would He say?
What would the two reports look like? Would what your friends and family and coworkers say about you be much higher than what God would say? Is it possible that you’ve been far more concerned about your reputation than you are about your character?
I would add this. What if I were to sit down and ask you who you are? Tell me about yourself. Would that report look like what God sees, or are you deceiving yourself about who you really are? Have you created a crafty, futile, foolish self-identity, formed to fool even yourself about who you are? Why?
Chan closes with this: “There is such a silliness to faking it when something so big is on the line. Why would you fake it? Take it to the very end. You’ve fooled everybody!… And so you die, and you go to hell… and you think, ‘Yeah, but everyone thinks I’m in heaven!’ That’s your goal?! How long is that joy going to last? It’s time to get honest.”
It is silly to try to fool yourself and everyone else about who you really are, because God already knows and you can’t fool him. So why bother trying to fool anyone else?