When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 8: Image is Everything

I have been posting devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” Today’s post contains chapter 8, but you can read chapter 1 here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” and then catch up on the other chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on our compulsion to keep up whatever image our sub-culture most highly prizes. In so doing, we present a “false self” that inhibits our relationship with God.

Image is Everything

time out bookWhat we do for esteem depends on what subgroup or culture we belong to. This truth became clear when I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension center outside of Boston.  I was required to go to the main campus in Louisville about once a year. At the main campus I noticed many people always took up the most conservative position. They took pride in being esteemed as the most conservative. Many of my peers didn’t realize that what they were saying and doing was a knee jerk reaction to keep up their image. For a time, I looked down on my peers for seeking the esteem of men. I wasn’t so haughty when God convicted me of engaging in the same esteem seeking in a different way. Being from New England I live in a bastion of liberalism and many of my neighbors consider me a conservative. Down South, however, and especially in Seminary I took pride in being on the “cutting edge.” I thought these hicks from the Bible belt were stuck in their unbiblical traditions while I was living in a cutting edge mission area. I always spoke up for considering people who aren’t from a Christian culture and for reaching the lost. I made sure everyone knew that is what I had to do in ministry. Whether I was right or wrong was not the issue. The issue was I acted a certain way to keep up an image. I liked advertising myself as a cutting edge church planter in a mission field. This image brought me esteem from the subculture that I valued most. I realized that some of the classes I took, and the ministry tasks I chose, were based on keeping the cutting edge image that brought me the rush of esteem from my peers.

We usually end up internalizing the standards of esteem that we receive from our peers. When we perform at a high level not only do we receive the chemical rush spoken about in the last chapter, we get a shot of esteem. I hesitate to call it “self-esteem” because the values are not our own but borrowed. Our esteem isn’t derived from our relationships but from performing. If we perform a certain set of actions that would bring esteem from our peers (whether they are present or not), we feel a rush knowing we are one of the “most”: The one who reads the Bible the most. The one who tithes the most. The one who knows the most about sports, or prophecy, or evangelism. Even if we are not in a literal crowd like the hypocritical Pharisees Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6, we play to a crowd in our mind. We have a crowd of values that we collect from the people around us and we know what makes them cheer. Even if there is not a literal person to see how much we pray, the crowd in our mind lets us know that we pray more than most and we deserve acclaim. We play to this crowd in our mind in our thought life too. As Brennon Manning points out in The Ragamuffin Gospel[i], we use up our imagination on ourselves instead of God. God has given humans a great imagination to see with the mind what the eye cannot see. Instead of imagining God empowering us and making us into neon signs towards God, or God so glorifying himself in the world around us that people are bowled over – we imagine ourselves riding in to save the day and the crowd in our mind enters in to sing our praises. Instead of using our imagination to surf on the unfathomable glory of God, we use it to wallow in the sickening, sticky sweetness of self-glorification. The more our imagination plays these images, the more we internalize what we must do to make the crowd in our mind esteem us. We start valuing, desiring to do, and doing those things that give us the esteem rush. The rush may be greater when literal people are there, but we also get an internal rush from the crowd in our mind. We imagine that we are “one of the most” and now that we have done ____ (fill in the blank), the crowd (literal or in our heads) confirms that we are indeed “the most.” Whatever crowd we are performing for drowns out the voice of God. When we can’t hear God, He may pull us away to hear His voice.

Perhaps you can’t relate to trying to be esteemed as one of “the most.” Many people don’t concern themselves with being Mr./ Ms. Most because they simply want to meet expectations. Performing to expectations is still seeking performance based esteem but meeting these expectations doesn’t give an esteem rush as much as prevent an esteem withdrawal.  It’s as if the health of our self-image is on a constant intravenous drip and as long as we meet expectations our self-image remains alive. When we live this way we choose to do things to maintain the drip instead of maintaining closeness with God. As long as we meet expectations, the I.V. keeps dripping to keep our esteem up. When expectations and self-image are not of God, we start to choose what we do based on passing the expectation. Obviously, these choices mean we are not living by the voice of God and our relationship with God suffers. Instead of living by God’s voice we are living by the voice of the expectations. These expectations can come from parents, a spouse, other family members, co-workers, or friends and can stay with a person for decades. I knew a couple of young men who were going into ministry who struggled with a parent’s expectation that they “make something of themselves.” Of course, the parent and grown child both understand the unsaid implication that success entails making a lot of money and becoming independent. Many times ministry requires raising financial support and these young men were very uncomfortable with being dependant on charitable “hand-outs” because they were not measuring up to the parental expectation. I am pleased to say that these young men looked to fulfill God’s expectation of depending on God instead of their earthly parents’ expectation that they make something of themselves. When these men looked to God for their self-image and expectations they grew closer to God. Both men are now making an impact in their world as they live out the expectations and identity of beloved children of God.

Unfortunately there are countless instances when earthly expectations have caused a great many people to turn a deaf ear to God so that a delicate self-image would keep receiving its intravenous esteem drip. I know a pastor who ran himself ragged trying to meet the expectations of the church’s board of deacons. Although the pastor worked very hard, he was dismissed in a few years. My friend ended up being miserable, over-worked, and ineffective. Although he meant well, his desire to meet expectations made him stray from the source of his strength, the source of his identity as a beloved child of God.

Whether we strive for a super shot of esteem, or just strive to meet expectations, the performance based esteem breeds what Brent Curtis and John Eldridge[ii] call “false selves.” In their book, The Sacred Romance, they write, “Think about the part you find yourself playing, the self you put on like a costume. Who cast you in this role? Most of us are living out a script that someone else has written for us. We’ve not been invited to live from our heart, to be who we truly are so we put on these false selves hoping to offer something more acceptable to the world, something functional.” I think the term “false self” is very appropriate because we so internalize the value judgments of our peers. We know that performing certain tasks or maintaining a certain image will bring us the esteem we desire. So we internally change our desires, our values, to match what others think. In our head we actually start desiring to do this or that, but the desire springs up from our esteem seeking, not our relationships.

For much of my life I have operated on performance based esteem. Whatever I did, I strived to be the best. I strove to be the funniest and most debaucherous in High School. Those qualities were the most esteemed in my High School peer group, so I did funny and debaucherous things and was very popular for it. In the Army, I got the highest test scores in my specialty. In college, I got the best grades. Wherever I was, I strived to be one of the best. I would observe the situation and see what things were the most esteemed and that is what I strove for. I did whatever was required in that subculture to fulfill the image of being one of the “most” or best. When I became a Christian, I knew in my head that what God thought of me was most important. In my gut, however, I still desired to get the performance based esteem rush from my peers. As a Christian I continued to strive towards those things that made me esteemed as the best. As I went to different churches or ministries I found that each had its own little subculture. Each group, therefore, also esteemed certain aspects of Christianity more than others. Just as in the former, pre-Christian era of my life, I found that my concept of what I was supposed to do changed with every new input. Of course, I wasn’t really aware that I lived this way. In my head, I justified my perfectionism because “Whatever you do, do as unto the Lord.” Or “Whatever you do, do in the name of Jesus.”  Wanting to do my best for God was the right way to live. If I really looked at my motivations, however, I wasn’t striving to be the best for God’s glory but my own. My desire to do these spiritual things did not arise from experiencing God. The desires came from my default tendency to try and be the best at everything so I would feel good about myself.  The problem was that every time I entered a new subculture, every time I read a book, took a seminary class, or even listened to a sermon – my concept of what I was supposed to do changed slightly. One author stressed the need to know arguments for the faith. So for a while, I brushed up on that subject, told other people about it, and tried to live it in my life.  Another author stressed the need to reach the lost. So for a while, I brushed up on that subject, told other people about it, and tried to live it in my life. This was how I lived. Because these desires weren’t necessarily an outflow of my own experience with God, they were false. The desires were a product of my knee jerk reaction to do whatever I am supposed to do. Even if no one else knew about it, I was still getting a performance based esteem rush because I knew that I was living up to the standards of my subculture.

Do you see how this performance based esteem breeds false selves? The reason for doing things was not from me, from my spirit, or from my own interaction with God. Doing things was a front, it was a pay off to keep up the image and get the esteem. The image wasn’t really me; it was as The Sacred Romance pointed out a “false self hoping to offer something more acceptable to the world, something functional.”[iii]  Engaging in certain activities was a payoff for the drug of esteem. The pragmatists may say, “What does it matter as long as you prayed more, evangelized more, etc., etc.?”  It matters a great deal. God wants our hearts and a relationship with us. Praying, evangelizing, and all the other “religious” acts are not ends in themselves. Our actions should be a result of, or a striving towards, a relationship with God. When we live for esteem it becomes more and more difficult to know what the crowd in our mind is saying versus what the heavenly Father is saying. If we are listening to the roar of the crowd we will not be able to discern the still small voice of God and all the joy, power, and fulfillment that comes from His lips. We will be doing Christian stuff, but we will be missing what God brought us into this world for.

The first time God revealed my performance based false self was towards the end of seminary. As a part of the curriculum I was to meet with a mentor who would help me reach some ministry goals. I had just read John Piper[iv] and A.W. Tozer[v] and knew in my head that I should desire to know God above all else. I remember saying to my mentor, John, how I needed to not allow ministry tasks to get in the way of seeking and knowing God. What he said (actually what God said through him) was, “Do you really feel that way, or do you just know that is how you are supposed to feel?” I began to realize that I performed, felt, and desired many things because I was supposed to. Tozer and Piper had instructed me on what I needed to be the most spiritual. Although Tozer and Piper were right, my motivations were wrong. The voice of God, through these authors, was not directing me – the desire to be the “most” was directing my actions. This revelation through my mentor began a long process of God revealing my need to be the best. I do whatever I must do for that rush of esteem. Yes, the esteem often is from within, but the esteem has its origin in what others would highly regard (the crowd in our minds). The image I tried to live out and the tasks I chose flowed from my need for an esteem fix more than from my relationship with God. I was not guided by the voice of the Father, but by the voice of the crowd in my mind reminding me what I need to do to make them cheer. The danger of being addicted to the esteem rush, or the chemical rush talked of earlier, is that the addiction muffles our ears to the voice of the Father. We are so busy performing that we ignore the voice of the Father calling us to know Him. His invitation is for us to sit on His lap so that we grow into the Christ-like children He created us to be. If we continue to reject this invitation, God in His grace, may give us a “time out.” In “time out,” with no crowd to please and all other options closed, we can put away the show and finally run into the Heavenly Father’s embrace.

Questions to Ponder

*What image are you most concerned with maintaining?

*In the different sub-cultures you live in, what tasks are esteemed the most?  What are you “supposed to’ be doing in each sub-culture? Do you find yourself acting differently in different situation in response to esteem?

*What makes the crowd in your mind cheer the most?  What makes them jeer? 

*In what ways do you present a “false self” to the world? 

*Think of a time when your actions were based on hearing God’s voice.  Compare that to a time when you chose a task based on keeping up an image.  How did the different motivations affect how you felt and how you carried out that task?  How did the different motivations affect your relationship with God and with your peers?

End Notes

[i] Brennon Manning The Ragamuffin Gospel (Crown Publishing, 2005).

[ii] Brent Curtis and John Eldridge, The Sacred Romance (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997) p.85.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] John Piper, Desiring God  (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1996).

[v] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961).

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