In this final part of our series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World, we talk about the one thing that has the greatest power to throw us off the path to life. Having this thing in our lives is like having mold in our houses. It can grow in ways we don’t notice or see until we’re sick from it. What is it and how do we deal with it? Keep reading to find out.
We had a rainy November,didn’t we? As the rain was falling a couple of weeks ago, I looked out at our swamp and we had more water standing in our yard than we did during Hurricane Florence. And, given that we had almost as much rain over those few days as we did in the bigger storm, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It still wasn’t the catastrophic rain they had not all that far east of here. The real problem from that amount of flooding isn’t just the floodwaters themselves. It’s what comes next. The North Carolina Baptists have and will continue to have disaster relief crews busily at work for the next 2-3 years to get life restored to where it was before Florence rolled through. It’ll take that long because the clean-up is hard work. You’ve got to go into these homes and demo and replace everything from the ground up to above wherever the final water line was. And you have to do all of that because of the threat of mold.
Mold is nasty stuff. Individual mold spores are smaller than the naked eye can see, but they can take hold of an area of your house and grow and spread until they are collectively a big problem. Mold doesn’t just come from storms,though. Sometimes folks have a water leak somewhere they don’t know about for a while, get that cleaned up, but don’t realize the full extent of where the water spread its moisture. Mold can take hold in those times and grow in secret for months or even years. It remains a secret until you start noticing that your health just isn’t as good as it used to be. There’s nothing specific that serves as a tip off, just a trend. But the trend continues and worsens until you start looking for causes beyond the normal range of what could be wrong. That’s when you finally find the mold. And cleaning up mold like that is hard work. It takes intentionality and dedication over along period of time. It usually winds up being destructive to other parts of the house as well as you work to make sure it is completely eliminated. In short,it’s nasty stuff. It can hamper our journeys through life the same way some different things can hamper our journeys after Jesus.
This morning finds us in the final part of our series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World. The big idea for this journey has been that if you’re someone who would say, “Yes, I’m a follower of Jesus,”things are a little tougher for you than they used to be. The culture is changing around us, some days faster than we can keep up. Furthermore,it’s changing in ways that aren’t in our favor. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we live in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian. Depending on where you go that description is more accurate than in others, but the culture as a whole is heading in that direction. And while many folks just don’t care about the Christian faith any longer, if we make much noise, we can be assured we’re not going to receive the warm and gracious welcome we might have once received.
In light of this, the whole point of this series of conversations has been to answer the question: So what do we do now? How do we keep chasing God in a world that doesn’t give Him any meaningful place at the table? Accompanying us along the way has been King Asa of Judah, David’s great-great grandson, and the first king who got the nation back on the right spiritual track after Solomon led them away from it.
The first thing we have to do is make sure we are in fact heading in the right direction. If we’re going to be chasing God, we’re going to have to be sure we look like Him both inside and out; that we’re pursuing the spiritual disciplines and putting in place the spiritual guardrails we need to stay on track. Pursuing godliness happens both inside and out. It also takes being prepared to wave the white flag of help when the situation gets beyond our ability to handle it. The fact is, that happens more often than we’d care to admit. When life gets overwhelming, we call on God.
But, we don’t just call on Him and sit back on our heels. When He clears our path and shows us the way forward, we have to actually take it. This takes a willingness to do the right thing even when it’s hard, that is, courage. Chasing God demands courage. We have to remember, though, that sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is to simply pause and take in who God is before we go on. This will leave us refreshed from the stress of the journey. Rest comes when we stop fighting and start following.
As you can perhaps see, there are a lot of things to do if we are going to successfully pursue God as a goal. But of all the things we must do, there are a few things we must not do as well. In fact, there are two of them in particular that are worth our time to unpack. One of these I set before you last week. We can’t forget God’s faithfulness. If we don’t remember that God has been faithful in the past, we’ll move forward into our future as if He hasn’t been and making it through whatever we’re facing is up to us. This morning, we’re going to talk about the other thing. This one can actually cause us to forget God’s faithfulness. It is even more fundamental an error to avoid than what we talked about last week. It’s something that each of us faces in ways specifically tuned to the path our journey through life has taken. It grabbed hold of Asa in someways that were really sad given what the rest of his story looked like. What is this thing? Rather than just telling you, let me show you.
In order to see this as clearly as we can, let’s actually back up just a bit to the beginning of Asa’s story. Do you remember what happened early on in his life and we talked about a few weeks ago? God sent the prophet Azariah to speak a word of both challenge and encouragement into his life in hopes of setting him on the right track out of the gate. Let’stake a quick look at this: “The Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded,and he went out to meet Asa and said to him, ‘Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest and without law, but when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them. In those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for great disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. They were broken in pieces. Nation was crushed by nation and city by city, for God troubled them with every sort of distress. But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.”
There’s a lot going on here. Azariah gives Asa a review of Israel’s history and how troubled and violent it was when they weren’t leaning into God for their help. When they were disconnected from truth, they lived out all kinds of different lies. But the biggest thing I want us to see this morning is right there at the beginning. Azariah says to Asa: “The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him,he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.” Now, as we’ve said a few times in this series, God was interacting with the people then on the basis of a different mode of operation than He has in place with us through Christ. We can’t lose sight of that. This if-you-do-then-I’ll-do pattern is allover the Hebrew Bible, but disappears in the New Covenant.
That being said,think about the promise that God makes to Asa here. If you stick with me, I’m going to stick with you. Think about what that kind of a promise can do to a person. It can give us a lot of courage can’t it? We’ve got God on our side! Let’s move forward with confidence! Well…that’s not quite what God said, was it? He said He was going to be found by Asa as long as Asa sought Him. That’s somewhat different. But,it’s really easy to drop that last part, isn’t it? How many times have followers of Jesus done that in the last 2,000 years? Probably way more than we’d care to count. Rather than appropriating the whole promise,we operate on the basis of the part that sounds the best to us. God is for us and so we can move forward as if God was for us no matter what. But…is He really for us no matter what? I mean,on one level, God is for us because He created us and loves us and wants the best for us. But that doesn’t give us a blanket assurance that He’s going to bless everything we want to do. Any good parent knows that. Still, the line of thought can so easily go from, “I’m good because God’s for me as long as I’m for him,” to, “I’m good because God’s for me,” to simply, “I’m good.” And when we’ve landed on “I’m good,” we don’t much like to hear that we may not be. After all, consider the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther’s observation that they may not be on the right track in the middle ages. It wasn’t pretty.
Well, over the course of his reign, while he never exactly left the path of righteousness Azariah’s prophecy here set him on, he did gradually begin to become more comfortable with the notion of God being with him. He developed the kind of confidence that led to his forgetting about God in the face of the Israelites’ aggressive activities to his north that we talked about last week. And, when Hanani offered him the divinely appointed reminder God sent him to offer, Asa wasn’t too keen on hearing it. Look at 2 Chronicles 16:10 with me:“Then Asa was angry with the seer and put him in the stocks in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this. And Asa inflicted cruelties upon some of the people at that same time.”
What a mess, right? Asa was one of the good ones. How does he go this route? Because he was infected. Somewhere along the way he got off the path of chasing God and started chasing…himself. This interaction with Hanani didn’t so much start a pattern as it exposed one that was already in place. It was a signal that some spiritual mold had grown and was starting to impact his health. But, rather than dealing with the problem, he continued in it. He didn’t just throw Hanani in prison (following a pattern followed by many a leader of the state upon receiving unwelcome news from the church), he turned on the people too. But—and this is important—he didn’t necessarily turn his back on everything he had stood for thus far in his reign. Some kings hit a snag like this and went full tilt in a direction away from God. It is somewhat to Asa’s credit that he did not. But, neither did he continue in his pattern of righteousness with the same eagerness as he had before either.
Indeed, listen to how the author narrated the end of his story. “The acts of Asa, from first to last, are written in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel. . . .And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign. They buried him in the tomb that he had cut for himself in the city of David. They laid him on a bier that had been filled with various kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer’s art, and they made a very great fire in his honor.” That all sounds pretty smooth, doesn’t it? He lived and ruled longer than all but two other kings of Judah. In spite of his aggressions toward some of the people, they still loved him enough to pay him a pretty high honor in his death. There’s no final statement about him not really following fully through or else reneging on the moral and spiritual reforms he brought to the people. Everything seems like it’s good here. But, if you’re reading along in your Bible or paying careful attention to the verse labels up here on the walls you know that there’s something we skipped. We skipped v. 12: “In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians.” Now, what is this? Why include something like this that amounts to basically an editorial note? Well, because it happened. More than that, though, it tells us something. It tells us that this other thing we must not do if we are going to successfully chase after God in a godless world had grabbed hold of Asa’s heart.
So…what is this other thing? It’s pride. Pride had grabbed hold of Asa’s heart. Now, you’ve heard about pride. You know the dangers of pride. Pride cometh before the fall as the King James puts it. We know pride isn’t good. At least, we know that in our heads. The reality, though, is that few cultures—including ours—have ever really operated as if that were true. Pride lies at the heart of what we value and more so all the time. Think about it. Some of our biggest celebrities today reach such status by making videos of themselves and uploading them to YouTube. That’s not a mark of humility. The media tends to give the most attention to the people who promote themselves the loudest. Like them or hate them, the current and former occupants of the White House are both well known for their personal arrogance. Everything we do is geared toward celebrating and rewarding pride as a culture.
And yet…pride is dangerous stuff. It’s like that mold we talked about. Think about it. When does mold get started? When there’s a lot of water and warmth. Well, when we go through times of refreshment and plenty in our lives, we start to think, “I’ve got this,” even when those times come by the clear action of God in our lives. And the thing about mold is that it can grow in places where you don’t notice it. So does pride. It takes root in places we often overlook—the day-to-day issues that we frankly don’t rely on God much for because we feel confident to handle them. But, if we don’t deal with it, mold will grow and spread. And the other thing about mold is that we generally start noticing the effect it has on our health before we actually identify where it is. It is this very impact that alerts us to its presence. Well, pride isn’t often obvious at first. But, once it has taken hold in our lives we start to notice signs that something’s amiss. We respond to a person who tries to serve us in some way with arrogance and ingratitude that seems to come suddenly and from out of nowhere. Later, when we reflect on the interaction, we can’t figure out why we responded the way we did. We decide to really watch our behavior and our responses to the people around us more closely. Things stay quiet for a while, but then the ugliness comes out again and catches us off guard. Then it happens again. And again. And we finally realize we’ve got a problem: Pride is poisoning our hearts just like mold poisons our bodies.
You can’t ignore mold in your house. As soon as it comes in, problems are going to begin. In the same way, you can’t ignore pride in your heart. As soon as it comes in, problems are going to begin. When pride comes in, the trouble begins.
Now, if we’re going to talk about tackling pride, we could approach the issue from a number of different directions. Many of these are pretty common. And most of those aren’t really helpful. The fact is, for most of the folks in this room right now, the odds are that you won’t blow up your life because of some pride issue anytime soon. Most of you probably won’t ever do that. Sure, some of you probably will, but if you’re already nearing that point, what I say here this morning isn’t likely to do much to help. Your pride has already done significant damage and fixing the problems is going to take some major renovation work where you open yourself up to the Holy Spirit, let Him show you all the places that are broken, and then go with Him step by step through the process of fixing them. That won’t be easy or painless.
But, let’s just address the reality for most of us for a minute: Most of you are church folks who have been church folks for a long time. And, you’ve mostly been living a church person lifestyle for most of that. You’ve lived a faithful life just like Asa did. If Satan can get one of us to blow up that’s great as far as he’s concerned, but what’s just as good if he can’t have our souls is to get us on a track to kingdom irrelevance that runs just parallel to kingdom relevance and usefulness. And one of the best tracks to that end is pride. Not the big, flashy pride we often call to mind when we think about pride (indeed, whenever we think very hard about some issue of sin, we quickly picture the most extreme version to make our own dabblings with it seem not quite so bad), but a quiet pride that can take over our hearts without us noticing anything wrong until it’s almost too late to do anything about it. With this quiet pride we don’t necessarily stop doing any of the things ostensibly for God that we were before, but we slowly begin to trust more and more in ourselves than Him for our day-to-day issues. Then this shift of trust gradually takes over the big things as well. Folks who reach this place in life may still go to church and serve in some capacity. That’s the real danger here: There are no obvious red flags for anyone to notice, including ourselves. But, while we keep doing many of the same things we used to do, our heart is less and less in them. Other than the few church activities we do, we function like atheists in the rest of our lives. That’s no path to life. It’s a path to…nothing; nothing but trouble. When pride comes in, the trouble begins.
Pride can manifest itself in other ways too that are just as sneaky. The health hits that mold can cause can show up in a number of different ways that all look like they might be caused by something other than mold such that we explore them first while the real cause continues to grow unabated. Pride can show up through a refusal to be served or acknowledge a need. The thing that’s so tricky here is a person with this manifestation of pride doesn’t look prideful at all from the outside. This person may be the one who is the most active in serving other people. He always gives and never needs. She’s unfailingly there when you need her and loves to recognize other people and never needs anything for herself for all her efforts. That’s the kind of servant’s heart all of us wish we had, isn’t it? And sometimes it really is a genuine thing. But at least as often and probably more so, it masks a deeper problem: A heart that says, “I don’t need.” The danger here is this refusal to need other people—often justified with the claim that we don’t want to be a burden to anyone else—can quickly become a refusal to need God. That’s where things run off the rails. No, that’s too strong. That’s where things ease over onto a set of tracks that are nearly perfectly parallel to God’s set. Nearly perfectly parallel may seem to run straight and true for a while, but eventually that slight variance is going to grow and become very much more pronounced. When pride comes in, the trouble begins.
Another symptom of pride hiding in plain sight is an inability to work with other people or ask for help. We might call this Lone Ranger syndrome. And as before, to most people,these are folks to whom everyone looks as examples of what we should be doing. They can take a task—any task—and run with it to a perfect, timely completion. Everyone knows that if you really want something done and done well, you let them take it. They can do anything and they never have to burden anyone else in getting it accomplished. These folks are amazing! And they’re often prideful. They often don’t want to work with other people because, honestly, they don’t think their work is good enough. They’re not willing to trust other people because they’re convinced they can only really trust themselves. And again, it’s so easy for this to hide in plain sight, but folks who are in the grip of this kind of pride either burnout quickly or else create a culture around them that doesn’t invest in other sin order to elevate their own strengths. Then, when they finally stop doing everything they were doing, they leave behind an enormous whole no one can fill and who does that serve? They may be talked about for years because of their value to the organization, but if the organization fails after they’re gone, they weren’t really all that good for it. All this trouble from a little pride. When pride comes in, the trouble begins.
There are still other ways pride can show up in our lives. Pride can manifest as vanity and arrogance. We know that. But it can also manifest as insecurity and self-doubt. These often stem from pride in that they come from a desire to hold fast to a certain image we want to portray along with a refusal to do anything that might jeopardize it. Pride is sneaky stuff. When pride comes in, the trouble begins. And there’s really no magic bullet to cure it. It takes daily attention and loving accountability from our brothers and sisters in the faith. That last part is particularly important. We can’t beat pride on our own. When we try and isolate ourselves in order to deal with the problem the way we might with a physical disease we only allow it to concentrate into something altogether monstrous. We have to be actively involved in intentional community if we want to beat back pride.
That said, there are a few things we can do. We can put ourselves before the Scriptures on a daily basis. There’s nothing like the words of God to give us the kind of pride-killing perspective we need on life and ourselves. We can learn to express needs and receive ministry. This doesn’t mean we become ministry mooches. It means we learn to lean on the others God has brought into our lives to be strong where we are weak which is exactly what the body of Christ is supposed to do for itself. Part of loving one another is that sometimes we are the “one another.” Find a group with whom you can be honest about your struggles and let them help you through those even as you return the favor. On the other hand, we can get involved in serving folks around us whose situations are worse than our own. There’s nothing like getting involved in bringing relief and hope to someone else’s broken circumstances to remind us that we’re not where they are because of anything inherent to us, but rather because of the net effect of an abundance of grace along with a few choices and chances that could easily have gone the other way. To think otherwise sets us up to find ourselves right where they are without even realizing how we got there. When pride comes in, the trouble begins.
If you are a follower of Jesus, there’s one more thing you can do. You can remember whose you are. You belong to Jesus. Why does that matter? Because He embodied pride-killing humility more thoroughly than anyone else has ever come close. Jesus, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, reigned over the world in the glory of His splendor and voluntarily stepped down from His throne in submission to the Father’s will in order to leverage all He had for our benefit—so that we might live. He rooted Himself in the words of God (which was how He overcame Satan’s temptations to self-reliance). He allowed Himself to be ministered to by those whom God the Father had equipped to such a task. He served the lowest of the low in His culture. And He ultimately gave up His own life in the most painful way imaginable, all so we might live. As He said to the disciples on the night He washed their feet—perhaps the most powerful object lesson in humility ever offered—if He, the one true God and king, could do this, there was no longer a bottom limit in terms of how far we go to serve the people around us, all as a reflection of this demonstration of humility. When pride comes in, the trouble begins, but when we unleash the humility of Christ, life is unleashed. And when life is unleashed, it matters not how far from God the world around us has run, we will be able to stay on the right path and draw others to it with us. If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus, this isn’t optional. It’s fundamental to everything we do and are. Let us be unleashed and run the race worth winning.