There is nothing my dog won’t do for food. There is no command she won’t obey when we are looking, and no rule she won’t break when we are looking away, if only she can get a bit of food in her belly. I guess it is hard to fault her since, as a Lab, every gene in her body drives her to gorge herself. It’s like Paul was writing about her and her breed when he said, ” Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Food is her idol, her god, the thing that will motivate her to do anything or everything.
I am no dog, but I, too, am hard-wired for something—for validation. Just as a dog will lie down or roll over or beg or bark on command to get a sausage—doesn’t she realize how pathetic she looks?—, there is not much I won’t do to receive validation, to have others affirm my self-worth according to my criteria. I want to feel special about myself, I want to feel big and important. And when I look for what makes me feel good about myself, I inevitably find my idols. The thing that validates me is the thing I worship, the thing that momentarily takes the place of God in my life.
Lately I have been pondering and listing those things—those things that make me feel so special that I will do irrational things and make poor decisions in order to have them or achieve them. It makes for a pretty ugly and embarrassing little note. I think most of them are best kept between myself and the Lord, but I will give you a couple of examples.
Distant travel validates me. I receive invitations to do a fair number of conferences or speaking engagements over the course of a year, and I make it a point to prayerfully consider each one of them, knowing that I can accept only a few. But I have learned that the farther away the destination, the better it makes me feel about myself. I don’t even know why it works this way, but I suppose I like the idea that people far away are interested in hearing me speak. It feeds my ego. This makes me tempted to accept speaking engagements that will come at the expense of my church and family, even if I can really make no unique contribution to the event, and even if it makes very little sense for me to be involved. I am tempted to accept the event for the worst of motives: for how it makes me feel about myself.
Big audiences at big conferences validate me. I hate to own this one, but it is true: A bigger audience makes me feel more important than a smaller audience. A big audience at a big conference makes me feel awfully good about myself while a small audience at a small conference (or, even worse, a small audience at a big conference) is the kind of thing that can cast me into self-doubt or even despair. Again, there is a temptation to accept an invitation on the basis of how many people will be at the event rather than on any better or more noble criteria.
The irony in these two examples is that I am the ultimate homebody—I find it difficult to be away from home for more than very short stints—, and I am intimidated by large crowds—I find it extremely stressful to be in front of people. Somehow the things that validate me are the things I naturally run away from. I love them and hate them all at once.
I should note that neither of these things is wrong. Traveling distances to preach or to encourage others can be good and noble. Turning down a small event to speak at a large event can be good and God-honoring. But it can also be pure idolatry, a way I look for others to receive what only God is meant to give.
I need to be aware of these things—each of those ugly things on my ugly list. And most of all, I need to remember what is mostly deeply true. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have the approval of others, and especially to receive the affirmation of God. But the crucial fact is, I already have it through Christ. I am already accepted by God because of what Christ has done, and this acceptance is all I need. When I am at my best it means everything to me. But when I am at my worst, it means nothing.
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