What are you pursuing with your life? C.S. Lewis talked about a set of "Inner Rings" or societal clubs that we long to be part of or included in, but often take a high level of expertise, time, or master ability to achieve. These Inner Rings often become a set of values, goals, and ideals that we spend our life pursuing so that we end up being known as a certain kind of person. Lewis said as we pursue these Inner Rings we often transform into people we never intended to be. The reality is it isn't the Inner Ring itself that is the destructive reality for us, it's really the pursuit of them. If we are going to understand our pursuit of the Inner Ring and how those pursuits motivate and manipulate our behaviors and beliefs, we must know what we are pursuing. Without being reductionistic or missing the nuances of individual hearts, there are four principle Inner Ring pursuits each of us gravitate towards. While many of these pursuits can be fundamentally good, their gravity will cause us to acquire them in unhealthy ways. Here are the four principle Inner Rings manifested in our everyday lives.
1. The Inner Ring of Acceptance
No one wants to be excluded. In fact, living in isolation and estrangement can be hellish. We want to be loved, included, thought of, and affirmed as “the right people.” Socially we’ve engineered all sorts of structures, tribes, and means to make sure we are people who are known and accepted. Often we know where we stand with others by the invitations we do or do not receive for group conversations and activities. If we discover a particular circle of friends got together without inviting or including us a sense of jealously and dismay can overcome our hearts. We might ask, “Why weren’t we invited? Why were they included and we weren’t?” That exclusion might very well bring us to change our behavior when we are in proximity to that tribe. We can begin to think that our exclusion and the inclusion of others has us on the “outs” socially and we need to change something to get back in.
The sitcoms of our culture often identify this desire and pursuit of acceptance. Consider The Office boss Michael Scott. While possessing the authority of the office manager, Michael deeply longs to be accepted as one of the guys within Dunder Mifflin. His employees often hold him at a distance and fail to include him in their social gatherings and activities. This drives Michael into many awkward situations as he attempts, often with disastrous results, to attain the acceptance and inclusion of his employees socially. All of this plays out humorously for our enjoyment and also reminds us of “that guy” at our place of work.
The Inner Ring of Acceptance displays itself in every social environment of our lives. Where ever people gather, we want not only to be part of the club but also to be accepted. The way in which we seek to be part of an Inner Circle of Acceptance is to find that group or community that we desire to be part of and do whatever we can to be accepted. To hear the words “We like you, let’s be together” is a sure indicator of our acceptance by others. To feel the disconnect, disinterest, and avoidance of that same group ruins us many times. You can identify your Inner Ring pursuit by asking:
- Who excluding you would hurt you deeply?
- Who’s acceptance does your day hang on?
2. The Inner Ring of Authority
While many find themselves chasing acceptance from others as an ultimate pursuit, for others the pursuit comes in a different form. The great pursuit of life doesn’t come in having the affections of others. It reveals itself in the leadership over others. Not satisfied to just be part of a team, these people pursue control and power at the highest level. They feel they have the insight, capacity, drive, resources, or vision to lead people to greater and higher things. This extends far beyond a business environment and can play itself out in practically every sphere of life. God has ordered all society levels to have leaders and followers.
We need leaders. We need direction. Someone must carry the responsibility for decisions in society. The government needs leaders. Corporations without capable leadership fail. The church needs leaders to shepherd people toward maturity in Christ. A home structure without proper authority and responsibility fail to raise children who contribute to society. It is a fundamental mistake to think authority in and of itself is bad.
The pursuit of authority consumes and drives many into dangerous territory. Some climb the mountain to stand alone at the top—just to be seen as the expert, leader, guru, or boss. The Inner Ring of Authority only invites a select few, and as an exclusive club itself the attraction of being part of that select few is intoxicating to those who would have it.
Often to those pursuing the status of authority an internal voice says, “You won’t be anybody until you are _________.” That blank can be filled in with a whole host of titles. You won’t be anybody until you’re the CEO. You won’t be anybody until you’re an elder at the church. You won’t be anybody until you’re leading the MOPS group in your city. You won’t be anybody until . . . What’s yours?
The people you desire the greatest acceptance from are the same Inner Ring you pursue for acceptance. It’s a high stakes drive to the top that destroys, diminishes, and derails anyone in the way of attaining to the highest throne. In House of Cards, Francis J. Underwood pursues authority with force unmatched. This pursuit leads him to lie, murder, abuse, and manipulate anyone and everyone to achieve the Presidency. At the core, Underwood tries to sell himself that he is doing it all for good reasons. But as the saying goes, “Power corrupts, and ultimate power corrupts ultimately.” Ask these questions to identify your Inner Ring:
- If you never rose to the highest position of authority in your sphere of life would you feel your life was a failure?
- If you never had power to control and lead others as greatly as you would desire, would you feel like you missed the purpose of your life?
- What would you do to attain authority in different spheres of your life?
3. The Inner Ring of Applause
While some pursue acceptance and others authority there are some that have a uniquely different pursuit. Some people don’t care about authority or acceptance. They don’t care who they lead or even if people like them. They just want to hear applause and cheers. They love the spotlight. Often we think of these people as the artists from Nashville or the actors and actresses in Hollywood. Seeing your name in lights and having the crowd acknowledge your performance becomes a powerful drive. Yet it’s not just our stars that struggle with the Inner Ring of Applause. It’s found in stratus of life.
We want to be approved and applauded. We want our work to be noticed and recognized as exceptional. We want others to affirm we’ve done a good job in whatever we are doing. For the mother at home she wants to be recognized and applauded as having good children, a clean home, and happiness and joy to go around. The engineer seeks acknowledgement for his innovative design that advanced his company’s product above the competition. Pastors hope to hear “Great sermon!” from their congregation as they shuffle out the doors of the church building. This helps them feel like their preparation was not in vain.
Just as acceptance and authority are not evil within themselves, neither is applause. It’s legitimate for our words to be used to encourage and affirm others. We should celebrate beauty, creativity, excellence, and truth. Being applauded for excellence mirrors the way we should glorify and exalt Christ for his excellencies. The applause, by and large, isn’t the proverbial fly in the ointment that spoils everything.
What destroys, however, is the pursuit of that applause. What will it take for you to get noticed and awarded? This pursuit can lead us to do all sorts of subtle, compromising things. Social media has become, for many, an applause factory. Someone asked me the other day why I rarely “liked” their posts of Facebook. They noticed I wasn’t noticing them. They began tagging me in their posts so I would be guaranteed not to miss the opportunity to applaud them. They were keeping a scorecard of "likes" and "shares" by their friends. They longed for the affirmation of others and were discouraged when I didn’t hang on every word they wrote, picture they posted, and story they linked. They perceived my lack of a “thumbs up” as a lack of approval for their life narrative on Facebook. Frankly, their “I have an awesome cat!” posts were a little obnoxious and tiring. Yet they desired my applause and were willing to go to extremes to get it.
Like acceptance and authority, applause is a powerful and intoxicating thing. The person who chases applause will rarely have their fill of it. To the heart unchecked, the pleasantness of the first trickle of applause will soon desire an avalanche of ovation. It won’t ever be enough. The pursuit of it becomes the goal and not the having itself.
If you are pursuing the Inner Ring of Applause, it can be identified by asking yourself:
- If no one every affirmed or approved of your hard work would you despair?
- Would depression set in on your heart if you weren’t recognized for your beauty or creativity?
- Do you do things at your work, church, home, and in your community so that others will affirm and applaud you?
- Do you compromise yourself in ways so that others will affirm you?
4. The Inner Ring of Abundance
This final Inner Ring isn’t built around people but possessions. The old saying goes, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Our culture reinforces and reiterates this position. Of course, Christians know he who dies with the most toys is still dead (Lk. 16:19-31), but that doesn’t mean we’re not impressed by those who have the resources to live up now. No one wants to live in poverty and I’m not saying we should. But the drive to acquire possessions and live in economic security and abundance crushes people those that live in our gravitational pull.
Scripture teaches us to pray for daily bread (Matt. 6:11) and offers this juxtapoistion between poverty and riches.
Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God. —Proverbs 30:8-9
Pursuing abundance in the wrong way leads to “be[ing] full and deny[ing the Lord]” (v. 9), but that doesn’t mean all acquisition of material possessions is an ungodly allowance. Having a well paying job, a nice home, a reliable vehicle, and enjoying a quality steak while on vacation are not damning vices to be rejected outright. Poverty is not necessarily a virtue—but neither is abundance.
Like acceptance, authority, and applause the trouble comes at the heart level. It’s not enough that we have nice things. It’s that those nice things eventually don’t fulfill us the way we thought they would, so we end up pursuing more. The home isn’t big enough, the car not luxury enough, the television not big enough, and the vacation not exotic enough. We begin to compare notes with our peers and friends and find what they have doesn’t match what we have so we get and get and get to “keep up with the Joneses.” As we pursue the Inner Ring of Abundance, we find that acquiring stuff allows us to enter different circles of identity and more Inner Rings.
I remember the first time I saw someone with Apple’s iPhone out in public. I was riding the ferry boat from San Francisco to Alcatraz with some friends. The owner of the magical device whipped it out to make a phone call and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The allure of that device was palpable. I could hear myself thinking, “If I had one of those I would be so cool.” The small circle of people who owned one of those devices was an attractive circle to join. The problem was the phone originally cost $599 with a two year contract. The price put it beyond the reach of so many of us. The iPhone was (and is) a status symbol and the pursuit of having it was a siren call to my heart.
Perhaps this is the trickiest pursuit to reveal and yet the most obvious at the same time.
- Could you do without something and be content? If your friend, neighbor, coworker or peer had all the things that you wanted and you did not would you be satisfied?
- Do you live beyond your means so that others will view you as affluent?
- When will enough be enough?
These are hard questions to wrestle with, but they can reveal a pursuit of abundance very clearly. The people you desire the greatest acceptance from are the same Inner Ring you pursue for acceptance.
Discerning Your Pursuits
Motives have to be questioned. Pursuits must be examined. If we will be people not driven by pursuits that will cause us to compromise and capitulate our convictions and values then we must understand where the battlefield lies. Ultimately, having acceptance, authority, applause, and affluence are not evil. We are hard-wired by God for them. Yet pursing these Inner Rings and the object of these pursuits may destroy our lives.
Ask yourself which pursuit do you most deeply identify with? Which “Inner Ring” do you deeply desire to be part of or known for? Do you want to be seen as someone with abundance and material possessions? Deep in your heart do long for people to applaud you and recognize your achievements? Are you eager to be part of a specific social group, network, or clique and have their acceptance? Are you frustrated if you aren’t the leader exercising authority and control over a group of people or organization?
Once we identify our core pursuits, we can address how to navigate those pursuits in a way that will free us from the ensnaring power of sin and death. To help us further diagnose our motivational drives and ambitions, we need to take a walk into the darkness. We need to step into our nightmares and look at our fears in the face. By moving the things that bring us the deepest fear and anxiety into the light, we can clearly see the pursuits that drive our daily lives.
Jeremy Writebol (@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over fourteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He is the pastor of Woodside Bible Church's Plymouth, MI campus.