Dying to Self in 10,000 (or so) easy steps

As I closed things down at my old blog and started up here I mentioned that, over my years of blogging I developed a sense that I was engaging in much self-promotion.  As I suspected, many of you, the readers offered some kind words of encouragement in that regard, assuring me that my blogging had not come off that way.  I am, as always, grateful to you for that encouragement, but I had hinted back then that I may esplainify myself a bit more in this regard.

This nagging feeling that I was engaged in self-promotion is part of a larger aspect of my psyche that I have wrestled with for many years, many of those years being before the blogging days.  I will spare you a detailed journey into my psyche, except to sketch out a few patterns of thought and longing that became troubling to me in recent days.

At the outset I want to assure you that I recognize these issues as my issues alone, so this is not a commentary on anyone but me.

I became a Christian at the age of 16 through the direct witness of my best friend, our football coach, and indirectly through the work of the Fellowship of Christian athletes. My conversion was genuine, many questions were answered, assurances of eternal felicity offered and embraced and a new life was begun. My life changed dramatically in many ways – most of all in that Christ began to dominate my life.  I wanted to live and give my all to Him, to know Him and make Him known.  Pretty soon I became known as a “good Christian,” due to a genuine passion to know Him and through the faithful discipling ministrations of my coach – Jim Scroggins, youth minister – Bob Tebow (yep, that Bob Tebow – father of Tim Tebow) and FCA area director – Rick Duncan.  This was fostered by the loving ministry of the people at Southside Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL, pastored by Cornelius Davis.

Throughout my life I was always sidekick, never superhero.  I made the team, but rode the bench.  I got C+’s and “B’s” in school.  I was average in every way.  But in Christianity I excelled.  I excelled to the point that I was elected president of our schools FCA, and was recognized as our school’s “Christian Athlete of the Year,” at one point.  Christianity quickly became the thing I could excel in and over a short period of time I began to sense a call to the ministry.

Now, due to my own reflections I am going to look back on some of this and see my own idolatries popping up even then.  But I also want to make clear that I believe that God has mercy on sinners, and that at no time in my journey was I forsaken by God and I want to make it clear that I believe He has used even my sins to praise Him.

But with a call to the ministry, it became obvious and reasonable that I would look for role models to emulate.  This happens in any field.  Athletes idolize professionals in their chosen sport and dream of the day they can make it that far in the game.  Artists, businessmen and women do all of this.

For me, as one with a sense of call to the ministry I looked to the “successful” ministers to pattern my life after.  This was in the late 80’s and 90’s and I was in a Southern Baptist context, so the people I looked up to were movers and shakers in the SBC like Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Charles Stanley, Bailey Smith, Jay Strack and others.  At various times I was a member of churches pastored by Jerry Vines and Jim Henry.  I also listened on the radio and got tapes of people like John MacArthur and Chuck Swindoll.

From where I sat it looked like the great pastors were the ones who were the best preachers.  And, after all, I benefited greatly from their messages.  From where I sat it looked like the key to successful ministry was to be a great pastor, and conversely it appeared to me that anyone who would become a great preacher could have crowds flock to him.

Now, I am obviously shortening things up a great deal here – there were many influences and experiences, and in truth, my own ambition was not the whole story here.  God did man great things in my life through those years.

But as I pursued ministry and moved into the pastorate, though my view of the pastorate broadened and deepened through the years, I put the greatest emphasis on preaching, believing that was where the most value came in ministry, and frankly I never really learned to love people.  I had a great deal of selfish ambition driving all that I did.  I thought it was my destiny to build a great church and because of this I never became the kind of loving, passionate and compassionate shepherd the church needs.

When blogging hit the scene a few years ago it became a means for me to expand my influence.  Due to the kindness of many bloggers with a larger audience, particularly Adrian Warnock, I was able to rise quickly to become a fairly prominent blogger, at least in the small circle of the Christian blogosphere.  I had more people reading my posts in a day than heard my sermons in a month.  I began to dream of writing books and things like that.

As late as 4 years or so ago I stil had a vague masterplan for where I wanted to go in ministry.  I wanted to stay with my current church.  Even though it had not grown to become the large church I had hoped, I still had hopes it was.  Plus, the people here are terrific. While I do believe I have faithfully given them the Word, I did not give them a shepherd’s love.  And while we still had a fair amount of conflict I knew I had received many kindnesses from them.  The sheep always took great care of the shepherd, looking back I am sorry that they had to, but am glad they did.  So I had hopes I could repay them their kindnesses, plus we were beginning to experience some demographic changes in the area that I believed might stil lead us to become that large church I wanted to pastor.

My personal ambitions were to continue to lead this flock, to see it grow, to keep blogging and to begin seeking out book contracts in the near future.  I had a few ideas in my head of things I believed I could pull together and submit to a publisher.

So all of that was running through my head in 2007-2008.  Those were particularly tough years at the church.  We decided to sell a building and seek new property for financial reasons.  Any pastor who has gone through that, or something similar like a building program can tell you it is a trying experience.  Such was the case with us.  Much dissension crept up, but at the same time, many pulled through and saw us through those difficult days.

Our leadership team went through an extended 8 month process of refashioning our vision and mission plan and it was a good plan.  In the past I had done “vision retreats” with our officers and other things and the upshot was usually a bit of changed wording here on “vision” or “mission” statements and a few programs that no one really knew how we were going to get done.  In this case though, the 8 month process was thorough – we had an executive coach lead us through the process and by the time were were done we not only had some nice looking pieces of paper to hand to people, but we had people in place to perform specific tasks and leadership roles.  We were optimistic.

We picked the first three weeks of December 2008 to roll out our new vision to the congregation, we would have our last service in our old building the last week of December and would move forward into 2009 ready to roll in our new place.

I had not felt well on several occasions during the fall of 2008.  I assumed it was the stress of the move, I wasn’t sleeping well, etc. etc..  Still, I missed most of Thanksgiving day in bed with extreme fatigue and we knew something was up.  So I made a doctor appt. the first week of December.

The first week of December went well – we rolled out the first part and it went well.  Laster that week the doctor called and said that my blood test showed I was anemic.  She wanted me to get a colonoscopy to rule out colon cancer.  That deeply scared me but I figured this is the kind of thing that happens to other people, and at worst I’d have an early stage which would be treated easily.

The second week roll out of vision went well. Friday of that week I had my colonoscopy.  The doctor came out and said “there’s no good way to say this, you have a large tumor on your colon and I need to refer you to a surgeon was to  immediately.”

That Sunday was to be the third and final part of the rollout – the big one where we would get the full plan and march on to glory.  I preached that morning, and shared the prepared vision speech.  Then at the end told our congregation that I had colon cancer and that apparently it wasn’t going to be very easy to work this vision.

Many were encouraging – they told me all kinds of stories of relatives and friends they had known who had caught it early and were living happy and healthy lives.  I’m still young I figured, I’m sure we’ve caught it early.

We went to see the surgeon the following Monday and basically found out we hadn’t caught it early.  It was already stage four – with metastases to the liver (two large tumors in the liver) and lungs.

All my ambitions crashed that day.

Over the next several months I processed what happened to me, a process I am still engaged in.  One thing became painfully clear – that is that I have a painfully short life expectancy.  I am hoping and praying I still have several years, I am hoping and praying I will be the miracle.  At the same time, I just passed over the mean survival rate so I know what the medical community thinks about my life expectancy.

Facing death does at least one thing that is marvelous – it frees you to be honest with yourself and with God.  I don’t have to pretend I was only sold out to Jesus through the years.  He knew I wasn’t, and since I may see Him soon, I have less reason to keep up the charade.  The truth is that I had many personal ambitions which I looked to stamp with His name on them.  These ambitions included a certain level of achievement within the church, recognition of gifts and ever expanding influence.  So in truth, my preaching and blogging served those ends to quite a degree.

As to what this means to anyone but me, I hope not much.  This is my story of my struggles with my personal issues.  I offer it to explain why I probably needed to get away from blogging for a bit.  Even a cancer story can raise one’s celebrity profile in some ways and I want to get that out of my system.

My only concern in sharing this story is that we Christians have our own “Christian industrial complex” that we can find ourselves playing to without realizing it.  We have a clear celebrity system which becomes very tempting to try to break into.

Those are temptations we need not fall into, but they are there nonetheless there.  When we seek to break into them, the seeds of self-promotion are always present.  And I hope I can warn any of you who may be susceptible, away from that.

The advent of blogging truly gave a platform for many people we may never heard of to share things worth reading.  For all of this internal wrestling and wrangling I have with my own motives I know beyond doubt that I benefited immensely from participating in the blogging world for several years.  The discipline of writing helped me find clarity in many ways, the back and forth communications through comments and other things sharpened my understanding of many things.  And I dare say that I even wrote some things which were helpful to people at times.

But, the white devil has never been far, encouraging me to self-promote for the glory of God.  If there is one thing I have learned through this battle with cancer it is that some of the very basic bottom line matters of Christianity are true.  Chief among them is that our call to follow Christ is a call to come and die. That call is not only metaphorical.  It it is a call to really come and die with Him.  Along the way to our final physical death, He has ordained that we endure many other deaths.  I figure that I have now been a Christian for 10,000 days or so, so I’ve had at least 10,000 or more lessons in dying to self.  Most of them I didn’t pay attention to.  Now I do pay attention to those things.

And I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt – self-promotion can not be accommodated in true Christianity.  In True Christianity, the self has to disappear, not be promoted.

I know one more thing beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Jesus died for people who find it hard to die for Him.  He’ll catch you when you are dying.  You don’t need that self you were trying to promote, you need His grace – to the degree you can ditch the self, to that degree you’ll get more of Him.

 

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18 Responses to Dying to Self in 10,000 (or so) easy steps

  1. Les Arthur says:

    David,
    What you are describing is so common among most people. A very few are able to identify this early in life and adjust their perspective accordingly – namely fully adopting the attitude that “it isn’t about me but only about the Lord Jesus”. It is part of the original sin that Adam and Eve bequeathed to us. That is not to use that as an excuse – it is simply that many Christians fail to fully realize that this is true for them personally. We are taught from early childhood of the importance of excelling at what we do. And, of course, the Lord exhorts us in scripture to excel at what we do as well – but for the sole purpose of glorifying him, not for our own glory. All of us struggle with how to do that. I believe pride is the single greatest sin keeping us from obeying the first commandment.

    I pray that your own testimony, presented so eloquently in this blog, will heighten others’ awareness of their own need to die to self and do all only for the glory of God.

    And, of course, we continue to pray for that miracle in your life, that your life may be extended for many years, both to preach Christ – and him crucified – as well as to truly love, as Christ loves us, everyone in your area of influence.

  2. Chris in NM says:

    This is a familar tale. Thank you for sharing it so honestly. And thank you for pointing so clearly to grace in Christ.

    Keeping you and your family in my pryers,
    Chris in NM

  3. Morgan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this so honestly. Wow, there’s a lot here I can relate to. I also became a pastor, and served in that capacity for 9 years. I got in touch with some of the things you shared, and for me that led me out of formal ministry. Not saying everyone should leave ministry when they discover their selfishness, but I realized that I went into formal ministry for many self-centered reasons, and it really wasn’t that good of a fit for me, and so I needed to lay that role aside. At any rate, though, I can relate very much to the things you said about ambition and self-promotion.

    In the years I’ve not been in position of formal leadership in the church, it’s been tempting to try to find some other way to promote myself, including blogging and producing music. Reading your post today comes at a timely moment for me, as a reminder to ask myself what I’m really up to here, what am I really trying to accomplish in my life; who am I trying to glorify.

    Thank you for being transparent so the rest of us can be warned about these things. It’s serious stuff.

  4. P K in WV says:

    David,
    Your candid comments about your faith journey touched a chord in my life as I’m sure they will in the lives of many others. Though I face a different rendition of the journey of 10,000 steps, it is a difficult journey nevertheless. But God’s grace is sufficient through all the days of our lives, from the ordinary to the extraordinary and everyone in between. I continue to pray for you and your family as our Father brings you to mind.

  5. gary morland says:

    David

    I’ve followed your blog for several years. My kids went to CIU, married CIU guys, and I was mentored by a former board chairman.

    Thank you for these words. Pride is so, so, so sneaky.

    And thank you for the words you have shared from your other-side-but-still-here perspective. I can’t have the view you have, because only you can stare at what you’re staring at, but sharing what you see helps me see more.

    I’ve prayed that God be more and more pleased with you, and you with him.

    Sincerely,
    Gary

  6. Catez says:

    David,
    I think I understand. I haven’t blogged for a year as I experienced the death of my closest friend two years ago and needed to re-evaluate. Thanks for the honesty. Your posts did a great deal for me – often times because of the charitable tone you used. I have thought of you and will keep you in my thoughts.

  7. Jack says:

    I would like to comment here regarding your post at challies about the heaven book.
    I have read it. It is good. That challies review is an opinion.
    It is an easy and short read. One interview of the pastor and his boy is at fox news. It was a very good interview. I recommend that interview just for you to see them and see if you get a good feel for the pastor. But I read the book without seeing the interview. http://video.foxnews.com/v/4600541/new-book-claims-heaven-is-for-real
    It is a good book and a good read.
    I am sorry about your cancer. It stinks. It stinks for you and for your family. People will miss you HORRIBLY. But don’t feel like reading this book will waste your time. It won’t. It will make you cry and chuckle and sigh and laugh and will also draw you still to God, not away from Him.

    Jack

    And P.S. I don’t know why people share their visions while the guy in Paul’s account never did – although he did share it with Paul since Paul knew enough about it to have some sort of detail. It’s odd that he couldn’t share his but John could write and share his and we read it in the canon every single day anytime we want to. So, who knows why God allows some and not others? I know people who have had single visions – only one in their entire lives. They end up only telling a few folks or one person and that’s it. In each instance the vision had a very specific purpose for the viewer and did what it was meant to do.

  8. cavman says:

    Your internal story is not much different from many others, if they are honest with themselves.
    Our men’s group is studying humility right now. We were talking about humbling moments/circumstances. I shared how I wanted to be/thought I’d be a popular writer & preacher. My own pride had quite a few reality checks.
    So many of us have a tendency to self-promote. Isn’t that how most people get jobs? It is a profound part of our depravity. Yet, like John the Baptist said, “he must increase and I must decrease.”
    Yeah, you’re a big sinner. But He is a greater Savior. Thanks for sharing your story, again. Lots of people need to think about that.

  9. The Abstract Thinker says:

    I find it ironic that, even though I am completely aware that I am doing almost exactly what you said other people were doing–that thing which led you to basically “give up” blogging in the first place. And I don’t suppose you’ll be reading this now. But yeah, I feel like encouraging you in every sense of the word.

    I find myself mentally trying to separate myself from the “encouragers” you mentioned, as if I were special. But really, I’m probably not.

    The comments above really spell it out pretty well. Just rest assured, if you ever read this, that your legacy isn’t one of failure and self-exhortation, but of pointing to Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, with all you said and all you did. And you can’t change your legacy now. I’m reminded of Luke 12:48, which is weird, because logically, it seems a tad inappropriate here. I feel as though, intellectually and spiritually, much has been given to you, and so much has been asked. But through this blog, and through your life, it is very clear that much has been given FROM you, and I have no doubt that, when the time comes, you’ll come to hear your Lord and Savior say to you, at the end of all things, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

    However, I think Satan might’ve been lying to you about you lying to yourself, though. You were actively seeking Christ, were you not? You wouldn’t have been so conscious of the fact that you might’ve been focusing more on yourself if you hadn’t been. If you had continued blogging and such, how much more could you have glorified God through it? I may only be fifteen, but I’ve come across a fair bit of this thought process myself, and it’s very self-destructive. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that it’s better to focus on God and keep on raising Him up, regardless of how high you may raise yourself up in the process, than to stop completely. I know it’s easy to become distracted with how high you are on the pedestal, and then become consumed with lowering yourself, but why should God’s glory and your own, if only accidental in nature, be mutually exclusive? This is not to say that God’s glory and our own are equally important; by no means! But our glory should be a non-entity when it comes to the glorification of God. When we are lying on the ground, our reach to lift something else up is only so far. But if we stand, our reach to lift is so much greater. Why would we purposefully lie down if our object is to lift Him as high as we can?

    And now that I’m done with all that lofty ivory-tower thought silliness, let me simply say, like everyone else, no matter how you might refute it,

    Thank You,
    The Abstract Thinker

  10. Bonnie says:

    David,

    This is heartbreaking…in a good way, though. (Well, mostly.) I would love to see you write a book (if you could)–what you are relating *is* the Gospel.

    God bless you and your family.

  11. Rick Duncan says:

    Amazing comments. Thanks for your honesty. Maryanne and I want you to know we are praying for you. You continue to inspire and instruct.

  12. Jack says:

    Jolly – How are you doing this week?

  13. Lisa Viaros Hoffman says:

    Dear David and family, thank you SO much for the update – we pray that you gain strength more and more each day as you go through the transitional periods of this affliction.

    I am glad you are blogging here and remember there are many who love you and are pulling for you all.

    Take care, Lisa Hoffman

  14. David,
    Our friend Dan linked here today, so you’ll be getting an extra large dose of love and prayers in the next day or so. That last paragraphs says it all. God be with you and your family.

  15. Rod says:

    David: I became a lurker, visiting your site, but rarely commenting. I checked from time to time after you became very ill, half expecting to find an obit one day, so it is a joy to see your words again and thank you for sharing. When I look at the comments, I see there are a lot of us spending more time in prayer trying to sell God our agendas; still trying to leave our mark on this world instead of His. It is a part of our all-too-human nature. We are at the center, always on stage in the narratives we call our lives. It reminds me of people who believe they have lived past lives. They were always Egyptian queens or feudal nobles – never peasants.

    God bless you.

  16. Jeri says:

    David, how I appreciate the words you’ve given to this very true thing. These will go a long way. Praying for you this moment. 🙂

  17. Scott U says:

    David, We’ve know each other for a long time and you have always been seeking God. Don’t be to hard on yourself. God loves you as his child and does not expect perfection. Rest in the simple truth that we are God’s child and he loves us unconditionally. I am so proud of you and how you have sought after God since the time we were saved together in high school. Your friend, Scott U.

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