What Would Jesus Pray? (WWJP)

Jesus Praying shutterstock_614274248

It’s all too common to approach prayer as an obligation. It’s like a duty we know we should fulfill, rather than a joyful engagement. If you’re like me, you wish there was more to our experience of prayer. How do we change prayer from being like placing just another “online order” for our list of needs?

As a new believer I learned a Scripture that said Jesus “ever liveth to make intercession” for us, quoting the King James Version of Hebrews 7:25. Sadly, I didn’t really realize the implications of this verse for many years.

There’s a powerful picture here. You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” (from Charles Sheldon’s famous book, In His Steps, published in 1896). It became popular again a number of years ago with the acronym WWJD. The verse from the Letter to the Hebrews made me think of a variation on that: “What would Jesus pray?”

Here’s a contemporary translation of that verse in context. “Because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf. (Hebrews 7:24-25 New Living Translation).

My prayer life has been energized by mediating on how Jesus is praying (interceding) for us.

As I enter into prayer, I begin by centering on this verse, picturing Jesus seated on the throne of heaven with our Heavenly Father.  It’s a holy conversation. They are lovingly discussing their family members.

I picture them discussing the person on my heart. What does our holy, loving Lord want to do in his or her life? It’s like the breath of the Holy Spirit inspires my prayers. Instead of a list of “Please, Lord…” or “Lord, I hope…” phrases, I begin to pray with confidence rooted in God’s promises of mercy and grace. I pray like this:

“Lord, thank you for interceding for my friend, and carrying their burden with them. I am so grateful they are not alone and that you are making your presence known to them…”

“Lord, thank you for hearing the heart desires of my loved one. I know you are asking us to trust your timing, your wisdom, your power…”

Jesus’ prayers in the gospel give us numerous examples of how to pray. I have found praying the Lord’s Prayer over a person opens new vistas for creative intercession. Here’s a paraphrase I use as a framework. For convenience and clarity, I’ll frame this in terms of a prayer for my wife, Sarah, and include the New Living translation of Matthew 6:9-13 as a heading for each petition.

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy (Matthew 6:9);

Our Father in heaven, thank you for adopting Sarah into your family and caring for her as your precious daughter. Come in the power of your Holy Spirit to bring honor to your name through her by the way she thinks, acts and lives.

May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10);

Our Father, I pray Sarah will experience the love and power of your sovereign rule in her life. I know you want to work through her to bring your love, your care, your power, your life into ever relationship and every responsibility.

Give us today the food we need (Matthew 6:11);

Lord, Sarah and all of us rely on you to provide for our needs: physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, financially, vocationally, in relationships and in every other way. You provided manna in the wilderness for your people during the Exodus, and provide yourself as the Bread of Life for us through your life, death and resurrection. Reassure Sarah that you are with her to provide her every need and continue to give her a spirit of confidence and gratitude, trusting you at all times.

and forgive us our sins (Matthew 6:12);

Our Heavenly Father, we are still all-too-human. Your work in us has begun, but is not yet completed. Let Sarah know the cleansing gifts of your mercy (in not giving us the judgement we all deserve) and your grace (in giving us the favor none of us deserve). Release her from regret, shame and self-condemnation. Silence the voice of the Accuser of your children, the evil one.

    …as we have forgiven those who sin against us (Matthew 6:12);

Merciful God, we are all quick to keep records of wrong done against us and to hold grudges instead of holding on to you. Heal Sarah’s wounds, her sense of being devalued, and whatever other pain has lodged in her heart. Give her both the willingness and the will to release others from the consequences their words and actions have generated. Help her surrender her right to hurt them in return.

And don’t let us yield to temptation (Matthew 6:13).

Lord, there is an enemy eager to trip us up and see us fail. And too often we all-too-willingly go along with him. Awaken your power within Sarah to resist temptation. Give her eyes to discern the evil lurking in the shadows of the world and even in her own heart. When the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, come in your power to keep her heart, mind, soul and body stayed on You.

…but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:13).

Almighty God, we are so vulnerable to the powers of darkness. Dress Sarah in your amour (Ephesians 6:10-18) so she will stand strong against the evil one. Above all, Lord, protect her by your power and might.

When we begin to pray with holy imagination, inspired by God’s Spirit using God’s Word– prayer becomes an experience far beyond an online order! I invite you to make a simple sign to post in a number of places: WWJP.

It’s Who You Know

books in black wooden book shelf
(Not my bookshelf!) Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Early in my ministry I was sitting in my study one morning. I was particularly discouraged by the stacks of unread books and magazines that continued to grow as my time for reading contracted.

“Lord,” I cried out in prayer, “how can I ever know enough to serve you properly? I’ll never get caught up!”

Then a stillness came over me, and it was as if the Lord said, “Doug, look at your library.” At that time I had one bookcase with six five-foot shelves.

“Can you hold all those books?” the Lord continued. “If you stacked the books, one on top of the other, how many could you carry?“

I realized I couldn’t carry even one-third of one shelf.

“Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

Refreshment and relief swept over my spirit.

One of the joys and challenges of ministry is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in almost any and every field imaginable. Our medieval ancestors called Theology the “Queen of the Sciences” (a title sadly discarded by most today). That designation points to the fact that all knowledge finds its roots in God. We are stewards of this world in every aspect, including mining the treasures of knowledge and understanding.

So there’s hardly a subject I find irrelevant. This has led to a love for—and a significant accumulation of—books. After seminary and over 40 years in pastoral ministry, I have nearly 20 times the number of books than when the Lord first communicated, “Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

I am committed to pursuing Biblical knowledge and theological understanding. It’s part of our obedience to the greatest commandment.

“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29-30).

I believe fervently in apologetics (the logical explanation and defense of the faith—as represented by Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ). I have a satisfied mind and continue to love God with all my mind, as well as with my heart, soul and strength.

Problems arise, however, when knowledge about God replaces continuing fellowship with God.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… 8 Love never fails… where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. (1 Corinthians 13:1-10 selected verses).

If I never read another book or developed another concept, God would love me no less.

It’s not how much we know about God— it’s knowing God that matters most.

God Hates Death

picture of eiffel tower
Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.

 

Clutter and The Distraction of the Rear View Mirror

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I feel like I’m a “selective hoarder.” I don’t think you’d look at either our home or my study at church and think I’ve got way too much stuff—except for the rows and rows and rows of books and the stacks and files and stacks and files of articles from newspapers, magazine, profession journals, newsletters and my own notebooks of ideas. It’s pretty overwhelming. Because my ministry of communication relies on ideas, I have accumulated many resources I call “You-never-know-when’s:” you just never know when that book, article, note, or file will come in handy!

But I recently experienced the burden of clutter I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t see it coming.

Our church campus has recently gone through a building program. We’ve also been upgrading many buildings, including the one where my study is (I don’t call it an office). Everything had to be removed. Everything. So that started the process of evaluating what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw away.

In the process, I began going through my past “day-books.” These notebooks contain daily notes on appointments, to do lists, meeting notes, phones messages and so on.

Reading through the days’ notes from several years ago was like re-living the day in detail. While that was fascinating, it was also overwhelming. The responsibilities and burdens and feelings of each day rose up within me, as if they were happening right now.

After this experience I came across this passage in the writings of Fenelon (the French spiritual director from the court of King Louis XIV):

“The wise and diligent traveler watches his every step, and always has his eyes upon the part of the road directly in front of him. But he does not turn constantly backward to count every step, and to examine every track. He would lose time in going forward.”

It’s dangerous to drive with your focus on the rear view mirror. I now see more clearly what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34). My energy drained away as I went back over the notes in my day-books. I realized at that moment that I had to – in the words of Elsa—“Let it go!” (with apologies to Disney!).

I need all my energy for today. For right now. I made a bold (for me!) decision: I shredded all those day-books. And it feels good—mostly. (Gotta’ be honest—change is not comfortable!)

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Getting rid of yesterday’s clutter makes room for today.

Oh, I still collect stuff—and I’ll go through the-sort-and-throw-out-stuff process for years to come. But I’m more aware of the need to set a wiser standard for what I keep. Live now. Focus on what is needed now. Trust God for tomorrow’s ideas.

Your Cross to Bear?

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Definitions matter, especially in theology and spiritual formation.

A common example of an incorrect definition and misuse of a term is in the phrase, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” When most people speak of “a cross to bear,” they are referring to suffering or a trial they have to endure: like an illness, or caring for a difficult relative, or putting up with a challenging supervisor at work.

This phrase is based on Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23, “Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”

A thoughtful examination of this passage reveals that the cross is not merely an affliction to be tolerated or endured. The cross is Jesus’ place of mission, the place of his ultimate purpose, the place of judgement and redemptive sacrifice. Read the passage again, this time with verse 24 “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.’”

The cross is about losing your life– to save it. As Jesus’ followers, the cross is our place of mission where we open wide our arms as part of Jesus’ life-spending, life-giving mission in this world. The focus of the cross is always on others.

So what about suffering? What about that particular problem that nags you, wears on you and challenges your “cope”? The biblical image that best fits that situation is the “thorn.”

Paul spoke of his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. After experiencing a vision of the third heaven and paradise, Paul wrote, “…. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Paul never specifically defined his thorn. Some scholars think it was a significant eye problem (based on Galatians 4:13-16), but the most important lesson is God’s message to Paul about the thorn.

But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Spiritually speaking, a thorn is an affliction, weakness, struggle that drives us to depend on the Lord. (Don’t focus on the ‘messenger from Satan’ right now! That’s material for another time.) Paul spoke of the thorn in the context of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and other difficulties. A thorn humbles us, in the best sense of the word. It exposes our humanity so that our need for God becomes clearly inescapable and undeniable. We come to the end of our resources and make a new beginning with God’s strength.

Both the cross and the thorn express important, valid, yet different dimension of our calling in Christ.

Bear your cross as part of Jesus’ continuing mission in this world.

Take your thorn to the Lord and discover his strength in your weakness.

And remember, Jesus both bore the cross and endured the (crown of) thorns.

It’s All So Fragile

2018_07 HWY 101 FIRE
Fire on CA HWY 101 from “big rig” truck accident

California’s population in 2017 was over 39 million—and I think they were all on the road last week! But this time it was more than the quantity of vehicles. It was a tragedy that, literally, stopped us all in our tracks.

We often take for granted how “powerful” we are as we cruise down any of life’s highways. But one mishap—small or great—reveals how powerless we really are. That’s what happened when we were driving to Northern California last week. We were just north of San Juan Bautista on CA HWY 101 when we saw smoke. We noticed no traffic heading south and knew there was trouble. Our progress slowed and then came to a complete stop. We watched helicopters dump water on the fire about a mile ahead. The smoke turned from black to white—like it was surrendering—then disappeared. But we were still stopped 20, then 30, then 45 minutes. All engines were turned off, and we sat in place. Many of us got out of our cars and were talking about the last time we were stuck like this. (It was our first time). Eventually we learned a “big rig” truck had crashed and caught fire. We were concerned for the truck driver, but never heard any news there. Finally, after two hours, we began to move.

Times like this remind me life is fragile. Traveling by any means is a delicate matter, easily disrupted by weather, mechanical problems, accidents and congestion. The networks of life are also fragile. Life’s support systems are fragile.

Traveling on mission trips has made me appreciate a hot shower, water available at the turn of a faucet, the ease of purchasing food and other “necessities,” and the relative safety and security of our country. But then I realize we’re truly vulnerable, wherever we are.

While we don’t want to be crippled by anxiety over everything that can go wrong, I find it helpful to cultivate three spiritual attitudes.

Awareness. Presumption numbs the soul. Awareness reminds us we are dependent on the Lord. James’ sobering exhortation makes the point: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-15 NIV). (I have these verses at the top of all my financial planning!)

Gratitude. I am aware life is fragile so I receive every moment with gratitude. I am thankful for the many blessings I do enjoy, even the midst of disruption, inconvenience and loss. I never tire of being reminded of Paul’s commands: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV).

Humility. Pride rises from the illusion of power and control. While God has given us much freedom and abilities to do many things when and where we want, ultimately, we depend on God’s grace and mercy.  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 NIV).

While it’s easy to focus on how much goes wrong, it’s amazing to me that so much go right! God’s common grace and mercy keep us in more ways than we can ever imagine.

Live in the awareness that this fragile life, like an egg, is held in God’s sovereign, loving hands.

 

Trembling at The Door

park historical castle fountain
Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

One of the common stereotypes of preaching is that a sermon must have “Three points, a poem and a prayer.” Another is that a sermon should always begin with a joke—I guess that is to disarm people and make them think the dreaded message may not be so bad after all.

My sermons rarely include jokes or poems. Once in a while, however, there’s a poem that is, itself, a sermon. George Herbert’s poem, Love (III), is such a poem. When I heard it presented as an anthem by our wonderful choir recently, I felt compelled to spend time reflecting on it.

Herbert (1593-1633) served as a tutor at Cambridge University and as a parish minister in the Church of England at Bremerton St. Andrew, near Salisbury. He died from tuberculosis at age 39. The poem Love (III) is part of his anthology The Temple. While I’d love to share more about this fascinating pastor-poet and his superb compilation of devotional poetry (highly acclaimed by the likes of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden), let’s move right into this poem.

Just a few preparatory comments, then I’ll let the poem speak for itself. It helps me to picture the human narrator (listen also for the Lord speaking) as one overwhelmed by unworthiness. The unworthiness of having failed in faith and faithfulness. Shame in simply being all-too-human is mixed with regret and fear and the (un)belief that the Lord could or would never really want anything to do with her or him.

Love (III)
By George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

It’s sound corny, but there is a sweetness here, a gracious kindness, that melts all resistance. This is a portrait of love expressed not because of the worthiness of the person, but because of the greatness of the Lover.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32 NIV).

Read this poem a few times.  Soak in it. Marinate. See it “play out” at the front door of a glorious mansion: You’ve just walked a very long, stately, tree-shaded driveway through magnificent grounds. The drive ends with a mansion that cannot be seen in its entirety without turning your head from side to side (Louis XIV’s Versailles palace comes to mind). With great hesitation you approach the door—and it opens while you are still debating whether or not to knock. It’s the Owner of the mansion (not the butler) who greets you. You stare in awe and then look down on your filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Every fiber of your being wants to run back down the long driveway…

Then the Owner grips you with a word. Welcome. As you are. Welcome. For Love’s greatest joy is showing love.

Drink Before You’re Thirsty

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Sarah and I were on a dinner cruise, having a wonderful meal at sunset. Suddenly, I was looking up at the sky, and Sarah was calling my name quite loudly. Why?? What was going on?? A crowd surrounded me, peering down on me. Then I realized I was flat on back, and my chest and head hurt. I’ll never forget the fear and concern in Sarah’s eyes. After an ambulance ride and checking into the emergency room, they ruled out what we feared (heart attack) and confirmed what we suspected: I was dehydrated.

It was all quite embarrassing and humbling. But the physician’s advice was (almost!) worth the whole experience. “Always drink before you are thirsty.” I see a message in those words.

In addition to being sound medical advice, there’s a powerful spiritual principle here. How often have we found ourselves flat on our backs spiritually, failing to recognize soul dehydration until it’s too late?

We live in an arid culture that sucks the spiritual moisture from our lives. When we neglect our regular times of reading scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship, our spiritual reservoirs drain. We lose spiritual focus, waver in unbelief, doubt God’s love and care, and are smothered by spiritual lethargy. The key is to recognize our thirst.

Psalm 42 (NIV)
1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

Thirst is a consistent biblical metaphor for longing, for desire, for yearning for God. It’s a highly experiential word, especially in the arid and semi-arid climate of Israel. And God promises to quench that thirst.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NIV).

Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan women whom he met at the well is the most encouraging of all.

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”… 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water [from the natural well] will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10-14 NIV).

Staying spiritually hydrated means abiding in Christ moment by moment, being filled with the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-40). What does that look like? For me, a primary practice is continual conversation with the Lord, punctuated often with phrases like, “I need you for this, Lord.” “Help.” “Thanks.” “You’ve got this, Lord, right?!” “Give me what you want me to give this person or these people.”

You don’t have to drink in big gulps. The continual sips add up.

But God Believes In Us

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Doubt is a part of the faith experience, including doubts about ourselves. There’s One, however, who truly believes in us.

Martha, a salty saint in our congregation, came to my study on a Monday morning following a sermon in which I had said, “The most amazing truth is not that we believe in God, but that God believes in us!”

“You really got me thinking yesterday,” Martha said, peeking in my door. I invited her to come in. “I realize my greatest doubts are not about God, but about me! I love God with all my heart–but I sure have problems with myself! I wrote this poem last night for you.  I tried to tell you what I mean.”

Then this wonderful woman, who had celebrated her eightieth birthday some time ago, gave me a poem that sets our quest in perspective.

Thomas and I

Thomas knew you well, noting small things…

    The contour of your beard, your sudden laugh,

            The gentle hands, the way your eyes caught fire

            At the desecration of a temple or a life.

            He more than most

            Echoed your fervor when he prayed, “Thy Kingdom come.”

            Yet Thomas doubted.

            Not you! It was himself he disbelieved

            And his companions, fearing their anguished need

            Induced illusions. You did not rail at him,

            But gently, with a smile exposed your wounds

            For added certainty of touch as he had asked.

            Lest I confuse my aching wants with your commands

            Show me your hands.

Martha has now seen the Lord’s hands, having gone to be with him just months after writing these wise words. I am so thankful that she shared her counsel with me. She sets us on the right track.

As we journey on the quest of faith, we are invited to lay aside doubt, including our doubt of ourselves: of our motives, of our abilities, of the distraction of past failed attempts and the anxiety of future expectations.  Just take the next step–that’s what matters now.

[NOTE: This poem by Martha Wynne is shared with the kind permission of Martha’s children Ms. Pat Wynne and Mr. Robert Wynne. Originally presented in Douglas J. Rumford, Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, pages 284, 285.]

The Dark Side of Idealism

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Commemorative Stamp in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution at Flossenbürg concentration camp

Idealism is a doubled-edged sword in life and in leadership. I’ve learned the hard way that while idealism can be a positive force in casting vision, it can also erode joy, contentment and graciousness in relationships. This insight really came home when I read this sentence from German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Bonhoeffer was one of the most fascinating pastoral leaders of the 20th century. He was a complex man. He shared profound reflections on the Christian faith seen in his books like The Cost of Discipleship where he wrote bluntly, “When Jesus calls a man (sic), he bids him come and die.” At the same time he was also involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb that nearly succeeded (This plot was the basis for Tom Cruise’s movie The Valkyrie). Because of that he was imprisoned in Flossenbürg concentration camp and executed just three days before the Allies liberated the camp. You can read more about him in Eric Metaxas’ highly- acclaimed biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

One of the fascinating aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry was his leadership of the Confessing Church seminary community at Finkenwalde (1935-37) immediately preceding WWII. Bonhoeffer was leading and teaching a group of men who were willing to defy the Nazi’s by studying to be pastors of the Confessing church. These men were idealists, committed to Christ and the church to the point of willingness to be arrested and even executed (some of them eventually were.) But, one night in 1935, early in their life together as a seminary community, Bonhoeffer asked for help in the kitchen with the dinner dishes. There were no volunteers, and Bonhoeffer washed dishes alone that night.

I think Bonhoeffer was speaking first to himself when he wrote,

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 27).

When I was first assessed for entering pastoral ministry, the pastoral counselor highlighted what I now call the “dark side of idealism.” One sentence in his report still echoes in my mind, “Doug tends to set very high standards for himself and for those around him and to experience disappointment when these standards are not met.” Over 40 years later… it’s still more true that I would like to admit.

As a person in relationships and a leader in community, I realize the ideals for “the best” can have the unintended consequences of discontent and criticism. I’m continually learning not to allow my ideals to get in the way of developing gracious, realistic fellowship. Do not give up on ideals—the hope for what God can do in Christ. But temper them always with love for who we are and patience with where we are now.

[Special thanks to the Rev. Dr. Steve Stager for his helpful research in preparing this post.]