The Destructive Desire to Make Everything Better

Empathy. Compassion. Mercy. Servanthood. 

These are the sorts of traits that Jesus perfectly embodied. They’re the qualities that Scripture calls Christians to exhibit as they walk in the character of Christ and his kingdom. They’re the attributes that God promises to progressively work in his people as he cultivates their hearts by his Holy Spirit. Indeed, the church is to be the community where such impulses are normal as brothers and sisters in the Lord lay down their lives to care for each other and to love their neighbors.

It’s a cause for celebration, an evidence of God’s grace, when our heart reaction to a request for counsel, service, or help of some sort is to selflessly say, “Because of the love Christ has shown me, I am joyfully willing and ready to love this person by meeting their needs.” Whether it’s helping another person fight a particular temptation, mortify a specific sin, navigate the dynamics of a tricky relationship, apply the gospel to a dimension of life, or exercise wisdom in an approach to a problem, the opportunities for us to serve one another in the give and take of everyday life are manifold. And it’s a sweet blessing when we can gladly participate in bringing resolution and put someone else’s concerns above our own. 

But just because we embrace a readiness to serve others, that doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly free from the dangers of selfishness. Even our best desires, our best intentions, our external obedience to God’s commands, can become masks for idolatry. Even love of neighbor can become a pursuit motivated by love of self. That happens when we cross the line from saying, “I’m willing to help this person,” to saying, “I need to fix this person.” Our empathetic, compassionate, merciful servanthood morphs into a destructive desire to make everything perfect.

What does this destructive desire look like? It looks like a husband whose entire identity is wrapped up in his ability to solve his wife’s problems, a wife who can’t admit she doesn’t have all the answers to her husband’s questions or pain or conflict, a friend who feels the urge to micromanage all the details of another person’s life in an effort to eliminate all of their issues.

The effects of this destructive desire aren’t pretty. When our whole self-understanding depends on our capacity to fix people, then when our counsel doesn’t work, we’ll either get violently angry at the very people we’re trying to help and blame them for being so difficult to work with, or we’ll despair at our failure because we can’t handle the possibility that we aren’t Messiahs. We suffocate people with suggestions, manipulate them in order to see tangible results, and turn them into puppets and projects rather than recognizing their humanity, seeking change according to the gospel, and patiently bearing with them as we wait on the Lord to do his sanctifying work on the heart. We become graceless, intolerant of the fact that people are still sinners who continue to deal with all kinds of problems. We become proud, blind to our own consistent battles against sin and to our need for counsel in various circumstances. We become the kind of people that can’t be approached for help, and we may even begin to hate the whole idea of serving others because investing in people feels like a miserable bondage.

There are a whole host of idols that can drive us to help in such harmful ways. And we have to be ready to preach the truth of God to our hearts when these idols begin to emerge.

Our need to fix people can be rooted in the idol of control. Our satisfaction and security get tied to our ability to completely manage another person’s heart and situation. The only times we feel safe or productive are when we’re exercising unchallenged authority over our lives and the lives of others. But God is the sovereign king who’s in control of all things. He promises to work by his Spirit to conform his children to the image of Christ, and we know that he’ll only do what is good for his people because he gave his Son to make us his. So we can trust the Lord and give up control.

Our need to fix people can be rooted in the fear of man. It’s not so much about serving others with knowledge as it is about being recognized as knowledgable. It’s not so much about loving others for their good as it is about being seen as a loving person for our own good. We live for the approval of others, and in order to attain that approval, we’ll do whatever it takes even if that means smothering people in our efforts to develop a reputation. But the approval of God is worth far more than the approval of man, and God has graciously granted his approval to everyone who trusts the gospel of Christ. He’s declared his favor over all who are united to Jesus, so we can trust the Lord and give up the fight for the praise of people.

Our need to fix people can be rooted in self-justification. We have to make everything better because that’s how we prove to ourselves that we’re a good spouse, a capable counselor, a wise pastor, an able friend. In order to validate ourselves, in order to live up to our own expectations, we have to bring this other person to a place of complete perfection where they no longer experience the slightest symptom of their former problems. Our actions aren’t actually about helping a loved one; they’re about establishing our identity and justifying ourselves. But “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6) so that we who deserve condemnation could be justified—declared spotlessly righteous—by God himself, the only judge that matters. God is the justifier of his people, so we can trust the Lord and stop trying to prove ourselves through other people.

Whenever these (and other) idols are dominating our hearts, we try to live as functional saviors for other people, replacing the only Savior who can truly bring change, healing, and hope. But when we’re resting in the promises of God to us and to all of his children, we can bear one another’s burdens and offer assistance with gladness while still ultimately depending on God to take care of everyone involved.

Selfish service says, “I can’t rest until I’ve solved all of your problems.” Selfless service—the kind that the gospel empowers—says, “I’ll do everything I can to help while recognizing my limitations and leaving space for the Holy Spirit to do his sovereign work.” Only when our hope for ourselves and our hope for other people are firmly grounded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus will we be free to lay down our lives in selflessness and truly walk with others down the long, taxing, and often bumpy road of sanctification.

Sermon Discussion: 1 Corinthians 12-14 - Spiritual Gifts, Continuationism, and the Gospel

When we gather together in home groups this week, these questions can help provoke thought and guide discussion about the sermon.

1) What was the main point of the sermon? How was it outlined?

2) Was there anything in particular that you found intriguing? Did you have any insights or questions as you listened to the sermon?

3) What is your initial reaction to the topic of prophecy and tongues? How have your past experiences and previous teaching shaped your perspective on these gifts?

4) How have you defined spiritual gifts? What definition of spiritual gifts was proposed in the sermon? How does the proposed understanding of gifts change the way we talk about and practice spiritual gifts?

5) Are you tempted to elevate one specific gift above all the others? Which one and why? How does Paul’s teaching challenge that response?

6) What is the purpose of spiritual gifts? How does Paul say spiritual gifts are to be used? How does the gospel empower that kind of service?

7) Did any of the objections to continuationism (biblical, theological, historical, or experiential) reflect your own concerns? What response was offered in defense of the belief that gifts like prophecy and tongues continue today? Was this response helpful?

8) How is the gift of prophecy in the local church different from the authoritative prophecy given in the Old Testament?

9) What are some of the reasons Paul encourages believers to seek the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues?

10) How can the gifts of tongues and prophecy be used in an orderly way in corporate worship? What might that look like at Trinity Church?

11) What are your reactions to the view of spiritual gifts put forth in the sermon?

The Rotating Pulpit

One of the interesting features of life in Trinity Church is that you really never know who will be preaching on a given Sunday. The responsibility of proclaiming the word of God to the people of God is shared among the elders, so the pastors of Trinity Church take turns preaching the Scriptures. Most of the time, one pastor will preach for three or four weeks at a time, and then another pastor will take over for a season. This may make answering the question, “Who’s the preacher?” a bit more difficult when members are asked by those curious about the church, but the elders have deliberately adopted this practice for a variety of reasons as we seek to shepherd the flock faithfully.

1. We share preaching responsibilities to avoid inadvertently creating a culture of celebrity.

In everyday life, celebrity is everywhere. The general strategy at work in the world to gather a following is to platform charismatic, attractive, dynamic, relational spokespeople who are able to attract the masses with their unique skills for communication and leadership. But the church is a counter-cultural community created by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The mission of the church is not to form a cult of personality around any individual but to gather repentant sinners in worship of the Lord Jesus. This means that the word of the gospel, and not any specific leader, is to be central in the witness and ministry of the church.

Many churches agree with this assessment and adopt a plurality of elders (leadership by multiple pastors) to guard against the dangerous dynamics of power, pride, and pastor-worship that can develop when one person stands above all the others. Yet, even where a plurality of elders exists, if there is a singular public figure who delivers the word every week, a culture of celebrity can slip in the back door. One pastor becomes the face of the church, the voice of the congregation, the minister. The temptation for members is to associate the ministry of the word with this individual’s ministry of the word and to identify following Christ with following this shepherd as he preaches Christ. If that particular person were to leave or die or disqualify himself from ministry, the church would lose the figure around whom they’ve organized the life of their community.

Because people naturally want a charismatic leader to claim as the leader of their movement, and because pastors naturally desire to be that man, we elected to guard against that temptation by alternating which shepherd is before the congregation giving the word. There is only one man whose ministry is essential to the life of the church, the true Shepherd of the sheep, the risen Christ.

2. We share preaching responsibilities to give the church a variety of voices and perspectives.

Every Christian has certain parts of Scripture that are especially meaningful, certain emphases that they constantly return to for comfort, joy, and motivation. And in much the same way every pastor has characteristic ways of exploring, framing, explaining, illustrating, and applying the Scriptures and the Christian life. Even though each pastor is seeking to hear and receive the whole counsel of God and grow in the ways we understand the word and minister in balanced and well-rounded ways, we inevitably have weak points and blind spots. If any one of us were to exclusively preach each week, the congregation would likely grow to share in our emphases and our blindnesses.

One of the advantages of having multiple preachers is that the church has a chorus of voices and perspectives to teach the word and speak to the heart. Two pastors may preach very similar truths from very similar texts and yet express the doctrines, commands, and prayers of Scripture in remarkably different ways. Each shepherd has different life experiences he is bringing to the table, different manners of speaking and methods of communicating, and different ways of illustrating the text and processing God’s word in his own heart. When diversity in preaching helps the church develop a fuller understanding of God’s Law and gospel, then this diversity can be a blessing that equips Christ’s bride for greater faithfulness.

3. We share preaching responsibilities to allow shepherds to be fed in corporate worship.

Many pastors find that publicly proclaiming the glories of God in the gospel to his people is one of the great joys they experience. But these same pastors need to receive the word as well. When there is only one designated preacher, everyone in the church may be nourished by the word, challenged in their assumptions, called to repentance in unexpected ways, comforted in their affliction, and exhorted to new forms of Christ-exalting faithfulness—everyone, that is, except him. Of course, part of developing a sermon is taking the time to sit in God’s word and let the Spirit expose sin and minister the gospel to us, but there is a distinct benefit to being among God’s people and receiving the preached word from someone else who has soaked in Scripture and is ministering it to the church.

By sharing in the task of preaching, the elders have the opportunity to be a blessing to one another and to receive blessing from another. Each of us has seasons when we can hear the preached word in a way that grants insight, offers new perspectives, lays bare sins of which we weren’t aware, and offers comfort in the cross and motivation for holiness and witness in our own lives.

4. We share preaching responsibilities to avoid the typical forms of exhaustion that plague pastoral ministry.

“Burnout” is a buzzword in pastoral and leadership circles. The term refers to the exhaustion and frustration that result when a pastor works and ministers with no relief or rest. It’s easy to see how this could be a real danger for those who are alone in preaching on a weekly basis. Sermon preparation by itself can take twenty hours or more of study, prayer, and writing. Combine that with administration concerns, home groups, pastoral care, hospitality, meeting with members, and the everyday obligations of life in a family and community and you’ve got a full schedule indeed. It’s hard to see how one person could navigate all of these responsibilities on an ongoing basis without permitting one dimension to suffer or be neglected altogether.

Because we alternate preaching, no single pastor finds himself solely responsible for everything. When one preaches, another often takes the lead in other shepherding roles to free him up for study and preparation, and when one isn’t preaching, he can afford to earnestly give himself to all the duties besides sermon writing that are essential to shepherding the flock. The twenty hours that would have been devoted to preparing to preach can be devoted to sharing life with believers, focusing on the home group, being available for members, coordinating various aspects of church life, and ministering in other faithful ways. A shepherd must be more than a preacher, and sharing preaching responsibilities ensures that each pastor is able to fulfill the role of shepherd without consistently neglecting other aspects of the role. And the breaks from preaching provide times for reinvigoration so that when the time comes to publicly proclaim the word again, there is a renewed excitement and energy for the task.

These are but four of the reasons we have adopted a “rotating pulpit” at Trinity Church. Our prayer is that God would guard his people from temptation and equip them for ministry and faithfulness as different pastors feed the sheep with the word of Christ.