Living for an Audience of One

Have you ever heard of the idea of “living for an audience of one?” I have. In fact, I helped lead a college group by that name (“A One” for short) from 2001-2008. We were there before Big Daddy Weave wrote the song. Booya!

Recently I’ve heard the phrase more than usual, so I thought it might be a good time to share some development in my thoughts on the matter. You see, usually when people use this phrase it’s to signify that we live to please God alone and not people. The Bible verse we chose for our group was Galatians 1:10:

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Far be it from me to pick a fight with Paul. I think this is perfectly true and appropriate for us today. We do not live to please people as though we should change who we are or what we believe to fit the tastes of our peers. We stand on character, acting with integrity according to our purpose.

However (and surly you knew there was a “however” coming) there’s an extreme that needs to be guarded against: thinking that people don’t matter. Of course we as Christians should not forsake our commitment to Christ in order to make people happy, but is this the same as living for an audience of one?

The Bible is also clear that our love testifies to the world that we belong to God, that our good deeds ought to cause people to praise God—that everything we do is lived on a stage before not just one person but the whole world. The 2nd century Christian apologists provided rational arguments for the faith but counted the greatest evidence as the lives Christians live. They invited non-believers to look at them, to examine their lives, and to see that it had to have its source in God.

What we’ve done is confused the audience with the director. We live for an audience of one only to the extent that we act at the command of a single mastermind. But this doesn’t mean we ignore the greater audience, hide from them, or take no pleasure from their reactions. It simply means that there is one person whose approval matters more than all the rest combined. They may not fully appreciate a given line or gesture, but they don’t have to “get” everything; what matters is that its intended purpose is realized.

Not only is the audience more than God alone, but of the people who could potentially get a glimpse of our lives, there are both Christians and non-Christians. We sometimes use this phrase “living for an audience of one” to mean that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks except God, but that’s bogus. It matters that we have a good testimony before non-believers AND it matters that we listen to fellow Christians. If you’re doing something and the whole Christian community is against you, you need to take a long, hard look at what you’re doing. Or forget the whole community, if you’re doing something the most godly people in your life disapprove of, it’s time to take stock. (Or has the Holy Spirit made clear to you something He has hidden from everyone else?) We need to be held accountable, to be humble in our walk, and this means paying close—if discerning—attention to what other people think.

I think we might need to do away with the phrase “living for an audience of one.” It’s a nice idea, but I’m afraid it’s too easy to misinterpret. We live first and foremost for God, no question, but we need to make crystal clear that doing so means living for an audience of billions.

Let Us Run

What does it mean to become sanctified? How do we become more like Christ? How do we live out the faith that has graciously been given to us? These questions have plagued me for years. There are times when I have given up trying to become a better person, waiting for God to miraculously step in and change me. Just as Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear that I am not saved by works, Galatians 3:2-3 is clear that I am not sanctified by works. So why am I still such a wretch?

In Hebrews 12:1, the author gives us two clear commands: throw off everything that hinders and run the race marked out for you. These are things that I have to do—so how does this fit? If I’m not sanctified by works, why do I have to work to be sanctified?

I don’t doubt that this life is like a race. And I can tell you from experience that if I’m running a race my biggest enemy is myself. I have zero stamina. After just a couple of minutes I’m in horrible shape, and I can barely put one foot in front of the other. If I can’t keep it together enough to run 1 or 2 miles, how can I possibly manage a marathon?

Now if God is responsible for my making it to the finish line, do I just stand around and wait for fierce wind to start pushing me, for my legs to miraculously propel me without my control? Of course not! God could do that, of course, but that’s the rare exception. He doesn’t call me to stand around and wait for a miracle, He calls me to go.

So I do what the author of Hebrews says: I throw off everything that hinders and run the race marked out for me. (And thank God it’s marked out! Left to my own devices I would take a wrong turn and end up hopelessly lost.) I run. And I run. And sooner than I’d like to admit, I get tired. But I keep pushing. And it’s at that moment that the miracle happens; if I can power through every obstacle, overcome any pain, beat my body into submission—that’s when I’ll know that God is with me. That’s when sanctification happens.

I know beyond a shadow of doubt that left to my own devices I could never make the finish line. It is physically impossible. But the God who has called me to run the race will be faithful to show up when I need Him most, when all my own efforts fail me. And it’s the very act of successfully pushing through that proves to me God is at work. And when I cross that impossible finish line, I’ll look back and know it was not by my effort but a gracious gift from God.

That’s my theory of sanctification.

The terrain on our races may be different, and you may be facing obstacles that seem impossible. Maybe you even feel like you’ve stalled out and have already failed the race. Don’t give up! As long as you’re alive you can keep running. Each of us runs with a limp—you’re not alone. But the same grace that will carry me past my own reserves will do the same for you. I don’t know any more about what’s around the next bend than you do, but I know that nothing is too difficult for God.

Not so sure? Study the people in Hebrews 11 and tell me: did they cross the finish line on their own? These people prove to us that we can finish well—and that faith in God makes all the difference.

Finally, races are always easier when you have people to run with. Make sure you’re not alone! We’re all running the race, but we’re running it together; don’t try to break from the crowd. We need each other—it’s one of the most important ways God sustains us on the journey.

Thanksgiving and Hope

Up until a few weeks ago, I was not excited about Thanksgiving. Truth be told, I have been cynical about holidays in general for years now, which has prompted more than one “this holiday is different” blog or Sunday School lesson in days of yore as I tried to overcome negative attitudes. Rather than follow that pattern again, I’d like to get to the point and simply offer you an expanded view of Thanksgiving, one that follows a pattern I have recently begun applying to all holidays. Maybe there will be nothing here for you except a reminder, but even in this I will be glad.

Note: I won’t mind too terribly if you associate these with the three ghosts of A Christmas Carol… just don’t let this limit your view!
 
Thanksgiving Present
This is the part of Thanksgiving we usually do really well. After all, it’s Thanksgiving as it was meant to be celebrated. We thank God (not sure who else one would thank, but that’s a topic for another day) for all that we have now, however grand or meager. America is still one of the richest nations in the world—and by now I hope we realize this is God’s grace and not our merit. Even the poorest of us have a great deal compared with the rest of the world. We are also thankful for the things money cannot buy: friends, family. I am also thankful for Jesus saving me from my sins—which seem to multiply each year. The list goes on and on, and I have noticed some of my Facebook friends publicly listing more and more things each day. I think this is great. This is the Thanksgiving of tradition, and what a wonderful tradition it is.
Thanksgiving Past
However, the main reason for any holiday is to remember. Some of us do this better than others. We look back over the years and celebrate things that should never be forgotten. What events or people can you look back on in your life with gratitude, what memories should not be forgotten? I remember a time when my family was low on money and our loved ones chipped in and helped us through that tough time, often anonymously, sometimes even miraculously. This should never be forgotten. I remember a day when some of my closest friends sat in a circle in a small hotel room in Atlanta and just encouraged me (we took turns—it wasn’t just about me!) and how much that meant, especially coming out of a dark time in my life. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Even if you feel you have nothing to be thankful for now (which I don’t buy if you can afford the online access to read this) there are definitely things worth celebrating from your past. Some of you may have to work harder than others at this, but it is worth the effort.
Thanksgiving Future
This is perhaps the most profound part of Thanksgiving. It isn’t that the other emphases are somehow lacking, but to me this is the most worth celebrating and yet I would venture to say it is by far the most neglected. I hadn’t thought about it myself until I watched the film Babette’s Feast in class this summer. Trying not to give too much away, the movie features a woman who throws a lavish feast for her aging and austere friends. It is the best meal they have ever had in their lives—they did not know food could even taste that good. The closing line of the movie—and I wish I could quote it verbatim but memory and Google fail me—is something like, “If food can taste this great here just imagine what heaven will be like!”
Any time Christians gather to feast we are looking forward with hope to a day when we will feast with Christ and the saints who have gone before. The Bible calls this the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and it celebrates the time when the Church is finally united with Christ. In some ways it is the kickoff party to eternity. Any meal with friends or family is a chance to remember what Christ did at His first coming and look forward to His second coming—like we do in communion. But Thanksgiving is an excuse to go all out, to lavish upon your guests all you have to give—not only in food, but in fellowship, to bring them to that point where they walk away saying, “Wow! And heaven will be better than even this!”
Final Thoughts
One of my historic complaints about Thanksgiving was that it had become a day of gluttony. But as I understand it there are times when God is happy to see us bursting at the seams (maybe even a little drunk?) The trick is not to do it every day, and that when you do it you do it with the right motivations. Don’t eat compulsively but enjoy every mouthful. Don’t sit down for the food only, but for the people sharing your table. And don’t dare walk away hungry when God has provided you so much. (Unless you and your guests choose to celebrate in a different way. What can you do to make yourself and others the most thankful to God today? Do that.)
I feel as though I have only scratched the surface, but in more words than I had planned. I hope today finds you thankful for what is, what was, and what glorious things are to come for those of you in Christ Jesus.
God bless, and Happy Thanksgiving!

God Can Take It

 

So I’ve been listening to the accounts of Elijah and Elisha on my ESV audiobook of the Bible, and it suddenly dawned on me that I’ve been tricked. For most of my life I believed that God was worthy of respect, the kind of respect that requires an obedient, humble heart. So far so good. But sometime in my late teens or early 20’s I was told that God doesn’t mind when we get angry with Him. He already knows what’s on your heart, and He’s big enough—He can take it. This seemed wise to me at the time, and I have incorporated this into my life since.
As I listen, I am reminded of the holiness of God. A young prophet accomplishes his mission, but has a meal when he’s not supposed to. Bam! Dead. Kids make fun of a bald prophet. FOOLS! Bam! Dead. The ethics of the Old Testament are a puzzle I would love to solve someday.
What stands out to me is the story of Elijah in the cave. He’s angry and depressed, and he tells God so. This is supposed to be an example of just the kind of behavior I’m mature enough to express. God can take it, after all. But when Elijah comes face to face with God (who was using His library voice) and repeats his message, he first covers his face. Why? BECAUSE GOD COULD TAKE HIM. And not in the kind of whirlwind he would look forward to.
Of course God can handle whatever emotions we throw at Him, but does that mean we have the right to hurl them just the same? Doesn’t this very truth prove to us that we don’t need to vomit our strongest emotions on God but be still and know that He already knows? When the King invites you to His court, it’s a big deal. When the Almighty listens, it’s the greatest of honors. Should I then make accusations? Should I rage against my Lord?
I totally believe in being honest with God… anything less is just stupid. But I don’t think this gives me the freedom to be honest in a way that dishonors Him. Not anymore. No matter how low Jesus humbled Himself, and no matter how high I am exalted as an adopted child of God, He is still the King and I am still His servant. He is there, He empathizes, He is in complete control. And these truths must guide the way I speak to him. If I’m angry, let me express my concern with hands folded not fisted. Let my face bow to the ground and not sneer at the sky.

Onward, Christian Soldier

One of my earliest memories in church is singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army” in choir on Sunday mornings. I was five years old at most and really excited about all the war imagery. While I may never fly, shoot, etc, I performed all the motions with gusto.

Once I hit third grade, my parents enrolled me in Boy’s Brigade, a children’s ministry much like AWANA in which every Wednesday I lived in a community of boys with a military motif. It makes sense; what could be more exciting than uniforms and badges and skills and gritty songs? It fits perfectly with being a guy. And everyone loves a good “sword drill,” the game where you hold your Bible/sword in the air and practice wielding it by finding passages as quickly as possible.
This theme of being a Christian soldier became deeply embedded in my identity. At summer camp I memorized the entire “Armor of God” passage and can still recite it almost word-for-word. As a teen I wanted to be a superhero for Jesus, someone who could wield miraculous faith at the enemies of God. I didn’t have any high notions of justice for the poor, just conquest. My name is Joshua, after all, still considered by many to be one of the greatest generals in history (or so I’m told). My middle name is David, the violent Israeli king who slew wild animals and giants, who cut off way more Philistine foreskins than necessary, who cut down the husband of his mistress and then raged against himself unknowingly when Nathan confronted him with a parable. He even had enemies killed after his death. God Himself said David was a man of blood. Come to think of it, many of my Biblical heroes were men of violence.
I don’t conjure these memories in order to defend pacifism or debate American military involvement abroad; those are topics for another day. What startled me this week was the realization that at some point in my life this call to war became a call to do battle with my neighbor.
As I think back, I don’t ever recall a time when someone explicitly told me that the enemy was other people. I clearly recall many times when I was specifically told that we do NOT wage war against other people. And to this point everything I was taught was true: there IS biblical imagery of war, the Bible DOES call itself a sword, and spiritual warfare is very real. God is at war (albeit a war that is already won; ask me about that if you don’t know what I mean) and so am I. So where did this idea come from that my enemies are men like me?
I believe I received this instruction implicitly from the evangelical Baptist traditions I have been raised in. Whether expressed or implied, my friends went to Christian schools because public schools were corrupted by the enemy. I myself was home schooled. Some friends were not allowed to listen to music that was not Christian or watch movies. Growing up, the liberal democrats were evil, trying to stamp out Christianity. Maybe no one said these things, but somehow, at least in my life, I came to understand that I was at war with my culture. All around me were forces seeking to corrupt and destroy. What is one supposed to do with a sword except cut down you-know-whats?
In this war I became something of an extremist. My desire was to restore America to its former Christian glory, casting aside comfort and wealth and fashion. I wanted to join the battle of ideas, to prove that the faith was true so I could “win” converts. I had the purest of motives; this is what my King wanted me to do. I poured my life into ministry and tried to convince everyone else to do the same because the only thing that mattered was being on the front lines. Today I feel as though I wasted whole years of my life.
Now don’t get me wrong; I repeat, there is a spiritual battle being waged, but it is against Satan and his demons. Yes, there are evil people out there opposing God’s will. Yes, it is important to share the good news of the Gospel of Christ with all people. What cannot stand is the idea that the Bible is a weapon against my neighbor. There is no “them” before my eyes; the forces I fight are invisible.
I don’t blame my parents or teachers at all for any of this. I love them dearly and owe them so much. I believe we all have unwittingly inherited a war that began back in the midst of our nation’s founding, when the children of the Enlightenment and the children of the Reformation began to butt heads in the New World. I was raised a fundamentalist and have only this past year begun to realize what this means.
I write today to publicly repent of being a separatist, an adversary, a radical in this way. With the best of intentions I have attacked my fellow men, and I am ashamed. I gave my neighbors a litmus test, and when anyone failed, I set myself against him. Maybe I’m overstating the case; I would like to think so. But I have come to see that I have been dramatically mistaken about my identity as a Christian and as a human being.

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