“For everyone who has been born of God has overcome the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
—1 John 5:4 ESV
I watch more than my fair share of TV shows focused on competition. One of my favorites is the zany Chopped, where four professional chefs are given a basket of bizarre ingredients like kumquats, oysters, gummy bears, and blackstrap molasses and are tasked with turning them into an edible, beautiful food in a ridiculously short amount of time. For each round—appetizer, main course, and dessert—a panel of judges eliminates one contestant with the words “You’ve been chopped!” The last chef standing wins a cash prize and bragging rights.
Whether it is the physical prowess elevated in sporting events, a killer singing voice celebrated on talent shows, or the resourcefulness rewarded on a cooking show, those of us watching at home are the real judges. From the comfort of our couches, we assess the performances of the competitors and the decisions of the judges (though we are spared having to taste-test oyster tacos topped with gummy bear salsa). We love spotting and celebrating winners.
We love winners in the church, too. When a celebrity—a “winner” in our culture—professes faith in Jesus, we are often quick to push him or her into the Christian spotlight. Every time this happens, I think of Bob Dylan, who recorded an explicitly evangelistic album and began preaching the resurrected Messiah during his concerts for a couple of years. He then very publicly retreated from both his new faith and the church. The glare of the spotlight is a very inhospitable place for faith to grow and mature. Sadly, from the moment of his conversion, those around him had treated him as a trophy instead of nurturing his faith. He was a big win for Team Christian … until he wasn’t.
The desire to win runs deep in us. It plays out in the church in various ways, as I once learned while working as a support staffer for a regional church networking ministry. I appreciated the collegial support and friendship that many leaders extended to one another in meetings, but I also detected an undercurrent of “sibling rivalry” among some in attendance. It came in the form of questions, like How big is your church? How often are your sermons downloaded? and How many have you baptized in the last year? Few liked admitting their congregation was struggling or shrinking, so they tended to frame their answers in terms of future triumph: We’re rebuilding, or We’re just about to begin a new outreach to the community.
It isn’t just leaders who use a power-and-popularity yardstick to measure spiritual success. Most of us carry the idea that someone with a well-known writing, speaking, or preaching ministry has been gifted by God in especially powerful ways. We ascribe virtue to their popularity, using the metrics of “biggest means best.” Even if we remind ourselves that God’s economy is not like ours (Matt. 17:20; 1 Corinthians 1:27) and following Jesus often looks more like losing than victory (Matt. 16:24-25), our love of winners can turn the volume down on those truths.
The glare of the spotlight is a very inhospitable place for faith to grow and mature.
In recent years, we’ve witnessed the moral failures of a few prominent Christian leaders, as well as some lesser-publicized but still painful falls of leaders in smaller churches and ministries. In the wake of these reports, the rest of us find ourselves struggling to reconcile how a gifted leader can inspire and influence so many while nurturing secret sin in his or her life. Why would God allow these compromised leaders to have the privilege of a platform for as long as they do?
There are no easy answers to this question. In some cases, the force of a leader’s dynamic personality compels others to overlook warning signs such as excess spending, anger, secretive behavior, or blame-shifting. In other cases, these leaders do in the flesh what they once upon a time relied on God to do through them. And in every case, God gives His gifts to sinners like you and me.
The Holy Spirit endows believers with gifts that allow us to minister to others in the body of Christ in ways that are not possible by our own human effort or natural talents. However, in some sad cases, fallen human beings rely on their own efforts to accomplish God’s work, and in others, they simply choose to pretend God is doing “something big” through them in order to boost their own popularity.
We must remember again and again that supernatural gifts do not automatically confer good character and spiritual maturity on the recipient. Exhibit A: the church in Corinth. The church was marked by people who, as they worshipped together, were actively sharing the gifts God gave them. When I read 1 Corinthians, I imagine a congregation marked by vibrant, passionate worship. God was really moving in this church!
The rest of us find ourselves struggling to reconcile how a gifted leader can inspire and influence so many while nurturing secret sin in his or her life.
But this “winning” community’s gifts were being eclipsed by their sin. First Corinthians includes stern, loving chastisement from the apostle Paul about a smorgasbord of issues including, among other things, often chaotic corporate worship (1 Corinthians 14:1-40), factions (1 Corinthians 1:10-12), turning a blind eye to sexual sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), and feuding members taking one another to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). Every time I wonder why God would give His good gifts to people who behave badly, I remember that I am one of those people. We all are.
Noting, “You may not be comforted in hearing this,” pastor and commentator Bob Deffinbaugh writes, “The man who has the gift of pastor-teacher may be far less spiritual than the one who has the gift of helps. The one with the gift of giving may be far more spiritual than the evangelist who is winning thousands to Christ. We need only recall the Old Testament figure Samson to be reminded that while he was performing great feats of strength, he was living a life devoted to the flesh.”
Even if we remind ourselves that following Jesus often looks more like losing than victory, our love of winners can turn the volume down on those truths.
At the heart of the letter to his friends in Corinth, Paul’s famous words about love are meant to uncouple us from our own flesh-bound ideas regarding what spiritual success looks like: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
We see the effect of Paul’s correction of the Corinthian church when he writes them after some time has passed, and they’ve acted on his words. Paul doesn’t even mention their dynamic church services or superstar leaders. In 2 Corinthians, he blesses their character, their faithfulness, and their obedience to do the work to correct their errors, which he recognizes as a true and lasting expression of their love for God and one another.
I am a writer and recognize the temptation I face in navigating the Christian publishing world. It is a temptation that whispers to me, saying I can rely on my own skill set and experience to do the task before me, while simultaneously draining God’s love from my efforts. It is the same temptation each one of us faces whenever we seek to “win,” even spiritually. As we recognize and rebut this temptation in the name of Jesus, God will help us discern the difference between those who are seeking to “win” at Christianity and those who are seeking to lose their life in order to love as Jesus does.
God applies the same measure to a best-selling Christian author, a superstar pastor, and a shy nursery volunteer, and it is nothing like the way in which we measure success. Our achievements and trophies—even those that seem merited—are not the way God measures our efforts. Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 13:8 to remind us that the gifts God gives to us will pass away. Those gifts serve an essential role here and now as we minister to one another in His name, but they are not the eternal goal. Love is.
Illustration by MUTI