Christianity: The Personal Pattern
A Sense of Control
Often we find ourselves unhappy with the quality of our life because we have lost control of it. There are many ways we can lose control. One of the most common is when we let people or things direct our living. In the Mutt and Jeff cartoon series, Mutt awake one morning with a hangdog expression, and sadly told his wife, "Why get up? I am so depressed. Nothing is right in my life, and I am so unhappy. I have nothing to live for."
"Nothing to live for!" exclaimed his wife. "Why, you have the T.V., the stereo, the car, the boat, and the house. They aren't paid for yet!"
The last panel showed Mutt standing in line to catch his bus for work. The cynical humor of the strip aptly illustrates the fact of life for too many people, that their direction in life is determined by things and not by the people themselves.
When we lose control of our lives and instead are controlled by things, inevitably pain follows. Control of our life does not mean control of other people, events, or things. These we cannot control. For instance, Jesus prayed in the garden for control of the events in his future, "Father, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done O Lord." God did not give Jesus that kind of control. He still went to the cross in great shame. But God did give Him the peace and strength to endure. In the following hours, we find that it is Jesus before the mob, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod, and upon the cross who controlled the situation. Because Jesus possessed His soul in peace, secure in His relationship with God, He did not fear whatever men did to Him. One has only to observe the mob falling back before Jesus' words "I am He;" His putting Pilate to shame; His self-possession before the Sanhedrin, a calm center of peace amongst the contradictions, shouting, and rending clothes; the conversion of the centurion; to indeed see a man who controlled the event by His own self-possession.
Paul prayed to God three times that his "thorn in the flesh" might leave him. God's answer was "My grace is sufficient unto thee." Paul's change in attitude following God's response gave him the power and control he needed in his life to meet and change the effect of the pain to good (2 Cor. 12:9, 19).
But, when we lose control of ourselves, our relationships, and in turn are used by others we lose the abundant life. When we permit others to control us, we often are manipulated, and not to our good.
Paul told the Corinthian brethren, "We dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: But they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise" (2 Cor. 10:12).
When we compare ourselves, we run the risk of making the comparison to some mythical "average man" or consensus. We compare ourselves to "them." The "them" could be most anything, but in the church the comparison is usually to what we perceive as "success." (As an aside, it is interesting to note that most writing done today, as well as whatever preaching I hear, warns brethren against the evils of comparison to the world. The vast majority of the brethren do not care for the praises or approval of the world. But, they covet the approval of those within the church. Peer approval, or the popularity we have among those we consider worthy "amongst us" is far more an insidious danger to the abundant life than seeking approval elsewhere. It is cloaked in a mantle of respectability, and as such is of greater danger to the unwary Christian, "Whose praise is not of men, but of God" - Rom. 2:29).
For example, the "standard" of a successful preacher as openly described by many and reflected in the deeds of some might be portrayed like this: A man of youthful appearance, and stylish dress, who holds a graduate degree in some area of history or religion. This "successful" preacher must be eloquent and polished in his delivery, with a large store of humorous illustrations and anecdotes. He must have held several debates, write for a subscription journal, or failing that write for a local church bulletin that has national circulation. His preaching experience must be with the larger, financially abundant churches in areas where the church is strong in number. He must publish some kind of scholarly book, be an expert in some area of the gospel, hold several meetings a year, be on a first name basis with all the journal editors and college administration (having spoken at least once on the annual lectureship). It does not hurt if he also has wealthy friends and family, a good looking wife, and a large library.
Now, none of these things are evil, or even particularly to be avoided. They are merely incidental to Christianity and really have nothing to do with being a good preacher at all. A man could have all the things described here and still go to hell, never having amounted to anything as a man of God. The danger lies in the preacher or other brother who looks at this "myth of success"-and actively seeks to add each bead to his bower, that he might be a "success" as a preacher. Not only are they unrelated to the abundant life, but in many cases are actually harmful.
When we try to compare ourselves to such an image we are then controlled by externals which we can in no way regulate. It robs the Christian of peace and self-confidence because we are always afraid of what others think of us.
Conformity brings a degree of external lack of conflict, because we adapt ourselves to whomever we are around. But the cost to ourselves is enormous. We lose ourselves, and become helpless when we use other's good will and approval as a standard in running our life. We lose a large portion of our life and experience trying to do and be what others want. This pressure to conform can be very seductive. It eliminates the risks of standing alone. We can be very persuasive in convincing ourselves that this "lining up" is just the thing we want. The inevitable result is always that we lose ourselves in the process.
There is nothing wrong with being like other people, if what we are is good and right. It is not necessary to be a non-conformist to prove our independence. In fact, the compulsive non-conformist is also controlled by others. He observes others, and then sets out to be different and unique. He still defines himself by comparison to others. He has no real control over his life because it is a reflection of others, rather than a positive statement of value in itself. (As another aside, it is interesting that the new "liberty" journals, like Ensign Fair, et al only seem to have a self-identity in relationship to those they oppose. Read any issue of any of these papers and there is not a positive statement of practice in them. Their total view of themselves is defined by what others are - that they are not. It makes one wonder, whether there would be anything there at all, if the terrible abuses they decry so loudly were taken away.)
I recall a college professor that I had once who was quite well-off financially, sophisticated, and well aware of the world around him. Yet, his ability and means did not influence him. He lived in a modest two-bedroom house with his wife, drove an older car that he worked on himself, and he always wore clothes that had gone out of style ten years ago. Some students thought him foolish, "What, with his money why doesn't he live better?" He did not care. His clothes were not ragged, just out of style. His auto was reliable and provided good transportation, it just provided no status or prestige. His home was warm, comfortable, and gave room for all their possessions. A larger home would have been more prestigious or comfortable, but was hardly necessary. His wealth he spent on the young, and preaching, and to the work of the Lord in foreign fields, and few knew about it. Wealth, fashion, prestige, power, and men's approval had no control over his life. And he is a happy man.
What is important to us is often reflected in the way that we live. Courage in opposing what is wrong is often developed in the hearts of those who have determined not to be controlled by things. But, the man who "pulls his punch," flatters, and "has men's person in admiration because of advantage" generally are those who are unwilling to risk their prestige, power, or bread and butter by opposing those who hold the power to feed and promote them. "Ye are slaves to them whom ye serve." The philosopher Diogenes was washing lentils to make soup. He was noticed by the philosopher Aristippus, who had acquired a comfortable living by paying court to the king. Aristippus sneered, "If you would only learn to flatter the king, you would not have to learn to live on such poor food as lentils."
"If you had learned to live on such food as lentils," retorted Diogenes just as disdainfully, "You would not have to flatter the king."
"Be Ye Followers Of Me"
The first step in living the good life is to stop ourself whenever we find ourselves comparing ourselves. Consider Jesus. He did not define Himself by others. Rather He lived with a divine standard, disdaining the disdain of others who sought only their own. He did not permit His life to be controlled by others.
The scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus in Matt. 15:1-14 and said, "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" It reminds me of those who hold up the example of the prominent journal editors and college officials of the past, the "pioneer preachers" as standards for today's preacher. It seems to matter little that these men lost their families in some cases, or their health, and established precedents in their lives that set the stage for apostasy. They are still appealed to as "standards." Jesus was not intimidated by the great example of sinful men. He was not about to be controlled by others comparison of His practice to some arbitrary standard of years past. By rejecting the force of the ages many were offended and quite angry. Their response is not recorded, but it might have been, "Who does he think he is? He is but thirty years, and yet he presumes to fly in the face of the practice of the greatest scholars and pious men of the ages!" That is exactly what Jesus did, He who has become our wisdom and righteousness. His disciples came to Him and said, "knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?" Jesus' response would be considered by many political brethren of today to be intemperate and unwise. If one seeks to accomplish anything, he cannot afford to offend those of influence who might be able to help. But Jesus said plainly, "Let them alone. They be blind guides. And, if the blind shall lead the blind, they both shall fall into the ditch." In other words, ignore those men who seek to bring you into conformance with other men by such tactics. Stand by the truth, and you will never be lost. Follow those who seek to please men, and you fall into the same trap they are in. These men are totally unaware of true spiritual reality, and they lead people astray daily.
Jesus gave us further instruction in how to free ourselves from the control of others. Many cannot do anything that they do not tell. Some even feel a compulsion to declare in as many ways they can of their accomplishments. Their view of their own worth is dictated by other's approval. Therefore, all good that they do is of no value to them unless it is known by others. Jesus told us how to break ourselves of this in Matt. 6:1-7. Do your giving privately. Try to keep it a secret. Do not even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, let alone anyone else. Speak to God privately, away from all others. Do not make a show of your privacy ("I want to be alone!"). Rather, let your communication with God be between the two of you. Any sacrifice you make in service to God, do not let it show. Wash your face and put on a smile, and step before the world as though nothing has happened. Make this a practice of life. Not something we do occasionally, but all the time. "Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips" (Prov. 27:2). God rewards openly what is done in secret. Also, we are sure of our motive when we do right and tell no one. Then we know it is not for man's praise, but for God's glory. By doing our good so that no man knows it, we rid ourselves bit by bit of our dependence on the praise of men.
The brother who complains, "No one ever appreciates me. I work so hard, and never a thank you" is not living the abundant life. He has not yet learned the lesson that "it is not man's estimation which is important, but God's judgement of value." Great is the reward here and in heaven for the man who does good for the eyes of God alone. Then shall his praise be of God, and not of men.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 33, pp. 534-536