Ambitions silently attach themselves to disciples who work for the Kingdom of God. The desire to be known. To be recognized. To be wanted. To be in demand. To make a name for yourself. To have a calendar full of important speaking engagements. We each indulge our favorite flavor. And often we think we’re helping Jesus out when we do it.
With the same effect of a succulent burger ad, we salivate. Then we order “it.” We order to get what we saw the happy, successful Kingdom-workers enjoying. Then we pay for it. We justify a real sacrifice to get what others have and we want. Then we open the box. We encounter a disparity between the mess we’ve ordered and are experiencing and what was seductively held up to us through someone else’s life.
Two years ago, in the middle of my self-created busyness and self-supposed importance, I realized how desperately I was straining to be known. I was confronted with the reality that all of the “kingdom” work I was doing was really a convenient front for another empire I was building. My own.
In his book, Sensing Jesus, Zach Eswine recounts a jolt he received from a mentor (p. 243):
Bob looked at me.
“Zachary,” he said, “You are already discovered.”
“What?” I asked.
“I want you to know that you are already discovered. Jesus already knows you. You are already loved, already gifted, already known.”
Is that enough for us? To be known by Jesus? If you and I are never “discovered,” will our hearts survive?
Although this temptation is greatly pronounced in our modern evangelical celebrity culture, it is not a new problem. The Apostle Paul observed the same sin in the church while he sat in a Philippian jail. “Some preach Jesus out of rivalry and envy” (Phil 1:15). Paul was aware that many used the Kingdom of God as a platform to serve a more personal agenda—the kingdom of self.
I confess the sickness of my own heart and am disgusted by the surfacing of these motives in it. I’ve begun to wonder, “How can I destroy my kingdom? What measures must I take to keep my intentions and affections in check?”
Well, here are three habits I’ve begun to cultivate in response to this tension. In many ways these practices have the power to help us “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”
1. Cultivate a Skepticism Towards Your Use of Social Media and Entertainment
I was about to drop the name of an impressive leader with whom I’d met to another impressive individual with whom I was tweeting. It was relevant to our conversation on international church planting trends. Though just before firing off the message, I realized the pride that was embedded in it. I didn’t send the message.
I’m fascinated by how social media affects our daily lives. People now sleep with their smart phones. I would never do that! I just kept it on my nightstand for a while, and during that time the first thing I would do in the morning is check my Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. You might feel that’s bad. Or you might feel it’s acceptable. I’m not interested in the verdict. I’m primarily intrigued by what my behavior tells me about my heart. What is it that drives the average American to check their smart phone 150 times a day?
In a real sense, we are tempted by a desire for omnipresence. Social media propagates the idea that we can be in more than one place at the same time. The idea that I can maintain the awareness of what 900 “friends” are up to indulges the illusion of real engagement with their lives. I can like a status. Or try to post a status or picture that will compel others to engage with me through clicking “like.” Resultantly, many sociologists have observed that social media leads to more interactions – but not more meaningful interactions.
My love for TV furthers my desire for omniscience. When my son crashes around 9 p.m. or so, my wife and I use all the energy left in our bodies to drag ourselves onto the couch. We then transport ourselves to the wilderness of Alaska. Or into a crowd watching America’s favorite dancers. We become part of an exciting auction. For a moment, we aren’t full-time working, toddler-worn parents. We are in a different place and part of a different story.
I’m not condemning social media or TV, but I do want to cultivate a healthy skepticism for my use of both. What does the frequency of your social media usage say about your heart? What does your compulsive need to rest via TV say about your soul?
2. Combat Boredom by Embracing the Ordinary and Mundane
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton has said that we must learn to “exult in monotony.” Why? If the ordinary moments of life are not deserving of celebration, then life itself is not worthy of being lived. The essence of boredom is discontentment with “what is” and a desire to be somewhere else, doing something else. This state of being indicates that we do not yet possess gratitude for our lives. We haven’t yet absorbed the simple weight of what it means to be able to change diapers, pay taxes, and put in contact lenses.
“For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony” says Chesterton. “But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike, it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them.”
What would it mean to oppose your boredom for the sin that hides beneath it? How might you and I come to celebrate those moments that leave us wishing we were present in another place and time? Perhaps, we were made to live like Jesus in life’s most simple moments. The Son of Man built stuff with wood in Nazareth for two decades. Perhaps, this is the kind of life Paul had in view when he said that we should seek to lead, “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tm 2:2). If something in your soul recoils at this prospect, what is that part of you?
German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, observed, “The knowledge of the cross brings a conflict of interest between God who has become man and man who wishes to become God.” The incarnation speaks to the astonishing reality that God was willing to become “one of us.” Furthermore, the Son became the very best “one of us” who ever lived. The Son was the most fully human human being who has ever been. He relinquished the benefits of his membership in the Trinity so that he could live life as you and I.
But the ironic tension Moltmann noted is that although God descended to be with us, our universal desire is to ascend to the place of God. In many ways, I deny the limits of my humanity and posture myself as divine.
If the most human human being experienced life the way it was intended to be by occupying one place (an obscure and impoverished town) and simply “being there,” what can that teach us about embracing the glamour-less moments and places we tend to despise in our lives?
3. Remain Aware of What Your Worship is Doing
My sin causes me to love the wrong things. I am a “desiring being.” I have cravings that actually shape my entire person. These “wants” form me, rippling out from the core of my being and driving my thoughts, will, emotions, and behavior. This is what it means to be a worshiper. I am always worshiping and must remain conscious of what my heart is treasuring.
I must constantly ask myself, “What am I looking for right now? What is it that I most deeply want?” Sometimes it may be important to even ask a layer beneath that, “I crave acknowledgement. Why do I want that acknowledgement? What am I hoping it will do for me?”
Conversing with the Father after viewing both him and ourselves in the mirror of Scripture leads us to pray, “Your Kingdom come.” And when we pray with this heart, we are killing our own kingdoms.
There are moments I sit quietly with the Father, unable to offer my Creator any kind of adoration. I remain silent, wondering why I can’t piece together some string of affection that would communicate a perception of his worth. And then I realize why I can’t. I can’t worship God because I am simultaneously pouring out my heart to something else. There’s something that I want more than him. There is some good “second thing” that I have enthroned as my ultimate thing.
And then I have to do something even more pathetic. I must ask God to change what I want. The convenience of more superficial sanctification is that I can change myself. I can modify my behavior. I can filter my thoughts and words. But I am powerless to change what my heart wants. Only God can do that for me.
* * * *
If your inner traitor is as sneaky as mine, then it’s almost certain there is a way in which you’ve been secretly siphoning off glory intended for God and stockpiling it for yourself.
There’s an impending rationale for why each of us must halt construction of our personal kingdoms immediately. One day, Jesus will take possession of the kingdoms of this world. He will set up his rule on Earth, and it will never end. You and I will sit under his rule as willing captives to his unmatchable radiance.
Then for many of us, the tears of regret will come. On that day, we will wish we could relive each hour we spent preoccupied with building our own kingdoms. Jesus will then wipe away tears of regret.
With the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven in mind, let’s skip back a few scenes. Skip back to right now. Invite God to help you sabotage your kingdom so that you can begin to truly live in his. It’s not a kingdom where you rule. It’s a better and enduring empire.
Sean (@Sean_Post) lives in Maple Valley, WA with his wife and two sons and leads a one-year discipleship experience for young adults called “Adelphia”. He is completing his doctorate in Missional Leadership.