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I once asked someone the question: ‘If Jesus was an identical twin, would his twin brother also have been the messiah? If they were, would both of them have to die for the sins of the world?’ It had been a question that had occurred to me during a Bible college class one day and I thought it might be interesting to chat through with someone. I remember the person replied ‘He wasn’t a twin, so the question is irrelevant.’ I felt a little silly after that, like perhaps I shouldn’t be asking theological hypotheticals.
Their response was correct, Jesus wasn’t a twin. But the problem was they seemed more concerned with shutting down the discussion than exploring the question. They didn’t seem to be able to handle a supposed alternate reality to the one they knew and believed in. It was disappointing, but I ended up asking other people the question and having much more interesting discussions. Despite its absurdity, in exploring the question you have to deal with the nature of the incarnation and the mechanics of the atonement – these are not lightweight or irrelevant issues.
Some of you may know that I launched a new podcast this week called Questions You’re Not Asking. It’s a series of discussions with my friend, Chris, where we kick around a bunch of absurd questions. In future weeks, the twin Jesus question might even get a look in. This week we launched with a question about the multiverse and an evil Jesus. We’re doing this as a part of a longer term project of writing a book where we try to answer the strangest Christian questions we can come up with.
We’re doing this partly because it’s fun, but also because we’re both committed to helping young people engage deeply with their faith. We’re hoping this might help. When working with teenagers, it’s not uncommon to get asked all kinds of strange questions, and there’s a lot more to be gained from entertaining them rather than shutting them down.
Why entertain the questions
When I get asked a strange question by a teenager like ‘Do you think God is just a really powerful alien?’, ‘Is there a chance Jesus ever secretly killed someone and used his power to cover it up?’ or ‘What if we’re all living in Minecraft and God is some kid whose server we’re on?’, I’m often tempted to brush the question off to avoid being distracted from the Bible study that I have so carefully created. However, I have to remember how important it is to entertain absurd questions. First, because if I brush off the concerns of this young person my message to them is that my Bible study is more important than their questions and concerns. Many of us have had times in ministry when we’ve thrown out the plan because something much more important has come up–someone’s loved one has died, the members of the group have been fighting with each other, or you realise that some of your young people have a very basic misunderstanding of the gospel. Often these impromptu discussions become the most powerful times of your ministry. But you’ll only find them if you’re open to getting distracted by the needs of your group.
The next, and related reason not to shut down absurd questions, is that we want young people asking questions. If they feel safe to ask the absurd and slightly silly questions, hopefully they’ll feel safe to also ask the taboo questions and the questions that might hint at deep doubts or tough issues. Youth ministry has to be a place for questions no matter how strange, or how wrong they might seem. Some questions will be funny, some questions will be weird, some will be painful. All of them are important.
Finally, we need to be open to the questions, because it can be vital for evangelism. Sometimes you’ll find that a question you’ve been asked feels borderline (or right over the line) offensive. For instance, if the subject of Jesus’ conception comes up with some inquiring young people one of them will definitely ask a question that will make you bristle with its irreverence. How you respond can make a big difference to how they see Christians, and by extension, Jesus. Tell them off for their rudeness or dismiss them as immature and you’ll risk alienating them and reinforcing whatever negative impressions of Christianity they might have (deserved or not). But answer the question with graciousness and generosity and you might just go a little way towards helping them see Jesus’ graciousness and generosity towards them. You might not convert anyone with a great answer, but you can certainly turn them off with a bad answer.
Why we don’t answer
Why do we shut down these questions? Sometimes I think it really is just that we’re so task oriented that we don’t want to be pushed off course. Other times, we do it out of fear; maybe fear that we don’t know how to answer the question, or fear that by entertaining the question we’re endorsing what seems like a dangerous premise. But the Bible isn’t afraid of hard questions. You only have to spend a bit of time in Job or Ecclesiastes, or even Romans, to see that the hard questions are not taboo questions. Let the Bible be your friend, see what it has to say on whatever weird subject you’re discussing, and let it take the rap if they don’t like the answers you find. It’s okay, I promise their offence won’t be anything that hasn’t been thrown at the Bible before.
Strange questions are not threats. Enjoy them, have fun with them, explore them, and let the Bible speak into them. If you’re in ministry to young people, let questions be part of your practice. And if you have your own questions, don’t be afraid to ask them. Even the silliest of questions can lead to the most excellent of places.
If you want to subscribe to Questions You’re Not Asking you can do it via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast platform. If you have a question you’d love us to discuss, just chuck it in the comments below.
Often you will hear Christians say things like ‘The Bible is full of sex and violence. If you could turn it into a film, it’d be R-rated.’ When they say that, I don’t think they’re hoping someone will do it – it’d be too rude. But it turns out someone has tried it at least once. They may have heard their Sunday School teacher say that familiar line and taken them up on the challenge. So of course, I watched the movie.
I watched it because recently I read through the Bible. I did this for my daily Bible time, but while I was at it, I was keeping an eye out for every problematic passage in the Bible for a book I’m preparing to write. I’ve got plenty of material.
King Richard Gere
As I was finishing up the books of Samuel, I decided to watch the 1985 film King David starring Richard Gere as David. I didn’t even know the film existed until last year, when a fellow speaker on a camp showed me a clip of David dancing when the Ark of the Covenant entered Jerusalem. Someone had added Lady Gaga’s Just Dance as audio to the clip and it was a bit funny. Having seen that, I looked up the film and discovered there was an entire Hollywood production based on Israel’s greatest king (apart from Jesus, of course).
The film seemed like someone had taken up the challenge to show the Bible in all its gory details. King David isn’t actually rated R, but it has plenty of ‘80s violence and, like any aspiring action flick of the era, some of sex and nudity thrown in for good measure. That said, while the film told David’s story rather well, the filmmakers didn’t have the guts to show David in all his morally ambiguous detail.
In the David and Bathsheba saga, David sees his neighbour bathing on the roof, but does nothing about it. He has a peek then heads off to bed. However, later she turns up in his throne room. It’s not clear if David summoned her or she turned up by her own volition. She tells David how her husband, Uriah, refuses to sleep with her and only touches her to beat her. She then offers herself to David, asking him to give her a child, but first David must deal with Uriah. David orders that Uriah, the wife-beater, be placed in the front of a battle so he might be killed, leaving David free to marry Bathsheba.
The Worse and Better King
If you’ve read 2 Samuel 11, you’ll appreciate that’s not how things really went. David sees Bathsheba, he summons her, and sleeps with her – essentially raping her (what other choice would she have before her king?). Then, after finding out that he has impregnated her, David has her husband, Uriah, murdered. There is no sign that Uriah abused his wife. Only that he was a faithful soldier who refused to enjoy the comforts of home and sleep with his wife while his fellow soldiers were deployed. The film swapped the roles, Uriah became the abuser, David became the (somewhat) faithful one.
What interested me about the Hollywood portrayal of David was the squeamishness the filmmakers had in having such a flawed hero. These days we’re pretty used to the antihero trope, but they always have to be the right kind of antihero–still a character we can cheer on. But David, like almost all the characters we meet in the Bible, is not painted as wholly hero or wholly villain. He does impressive things and terrible things, and throughout he has a genuine faith in God.
We find it difficult to handle stories like that because we need heroes and villains. As you read the news, you’ll see the heroes and the villains, and the heroes who became villains. In the world of Christian celebrities we see the same thing.
We the Heroes and Villains
I think we imbibe this polarisation of people’s characters and start applying the same categories to ourselves. When we look at our lives we feel driven to display the life of a hero and hope that no one sees our deeds of villainy. Or we hope that one day what we think are our good deeds won’t be redefined by our society as villainy. Sometimes we think we’re winning, but then when we weigh our own life against our own standards of what is good, it is clear that we haven’t been the people we want to be.
Isn’t it then wonderful to know that God has plenty of room for nuance? He can handle you with all your complexities. Your best deeds are not weighed against your worst deeds to calculate the total value of your life. He hasn’t judged you as a hero or a villain and he doesn’t need you to be any better than you are for him to love you.
The gospel tells us that we are not who we want to be, nor are we who we were created to be. We have rebelled against the divine. The judgement of God is greater and more consequential than the wrath of any human judgment. But God’s judgement is not the entire story. Jesus’ death for our sin shows us a God who will never write us off, if we’re willing to trust in him. His mercy means we can become, bit by bit, the people we were created to be.
The power of God’s grace is that our sin may shape us, but it doesn’t define us. We can look honestly at who we are, knowing that God knows us even better than we know ourselves and has welcomed us into his family despite our sin.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be accountable for our actions. The prophet Nathan called David to account, and he paid the hefty consequences for his sin. We too will have to seek forgiveness and make restitution for our own wrong choices. Sometimes our reputations may take a hit, and they may never properly recover. But whatever labels you give yourself, or others give you, you are not the sum of our actions. You are who you are because of what Jesus has done for you and is doing in you. He is the only true biblical hero.
We might not be able to handle the complexity and nuance of our sin and our goodness, or the sin and goodness of others, but God can. You’re not a hero and you’re not a villain – you’re a loved child of God.
Did I mention I’ve got a book with a good load of Biblical sex and violence in it? Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude: The Bible Exposed is my book full of Bible stuff and dumb jokes. Get it right here, or from Amazon, Audible, iBooks, and more.
We were in the car on the way home from church Sunday a week ago. I had just preached on Matthew 6:19-34 where Jesus tells his listeners not to worry. I asked Em how church was and she told me my sermon was good but…
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I had made some alright jokes about the toilet paper crisis, so I wasn’t sure what could have been the problem with my sermon. (You can listen to the sermon here if you want.)
‘Your sermon was good but I think there’s something that everyone misses when they preach that passage. When Jesus talks about the birds and the flowers he does it in the context of death.’
This was the bit she was referring to:
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?’ – Matthew 6:25-30
She pointed out that when we teach this passage we teach it as saying ‘Look at the birds and flowers, God cares for them so don’t worry.’ But part of us thinks ‘Yeah but they die.’ Her point was that Jesus isn’t saying ‘Look at the birds and the flowers – don’t worry you’ll be fine’. Jesus ends the paragraph about the birds by saying that we can’t postpone our death by worrying. And then the part about the flowers finishes with the flowers being thrown into the fire. So what Jesus is actually saying is ‘Look at the birds and the flowers, God cares for them, and they die. You will die, and God cares for you too.’
When I talked about the passage I said that we do not need to worry because we have seen that God feeds birds, and clothes flowers, both of which are less valuable than us. If his character is to care for those things, then he will look after us.
I then pointed out that while we see his character in the small things, we see it in the big things too. He sent his son Jesus so that by his death and resurrection we find forgiveness, life and welcome into God’s family in him. God feeds us and clothes us spiritually by his Son as well as actually feeding us and clothing us with physical food and clothes. God’s care spans from our smallest to our biggest need.
This is all true, and…
In the passage, Jesus is talking about worry in the context of our death. Worry will not save us from death. Birds and flowers die, but that doesn’t remove them from the circle of God’s concern. Nor does death remove us from God’s care. We may die but death cannot separate us from the love of God. Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? You can’t. Your death is inevitable. So why worry?
No, much more important than worrying about your death – which will contribute nothing to stopping the unstoppable – is to spend your energies on something greater:
‘So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ – Matthew 6:31-34
The antidote to worry is not living a life free of danger, or hardship, or fire, or death – that is impossible. The antidote is to trust God to look after the small stuff, and commit yourself to the big stuff – seeking his kingdom. That means committing yourself to loving God and loving others. It means loving your neighbour and sharing the good news of Jesus.
You won’t prevent your death. You worrying about your death won’t stop it any more than fretting about tomorrow will stop the sun from rising. But if you commit yourself to the kingdom of God, you have a much greater, more life giving, concern to fill your days with.
So then, hypothetically, say that you were confronted by the spectre of a worldwide public health crisis. How does one seek the kingdom in a time like that? Does not worrying about what you will eat, drink, or wear mean you shouldn’t stockpile food? Does the inevitability of death mean social distancing measures are a waste of time? Should we not bother trying to prevent the disease because we’re all going to die anyway?
Here’s what I think:
1. Worry and wisdom are not the same thing
This passage, and the passage that precedes it about not storing up treasure on earth, is pretty clearly telling us that we shouldn’t be hoarding goods. We hoard out of fear, and plenty of people have been talking about how our fear hurts others who cannot get enough.
That said, wisdom does mean that we should have some supplies available if we need to isolate for a few weeks. Proverbs 30:25 calls the ant wise because it will store up food in the summer. So be wise, but don’t be greedy.
2. Generosity defeats worry
Remember how seeking God’s kingdom means loving God and loving your neighbour? A really practical way to love your neighbour is to be generous. Be generous with your supplies for those who don’t have enough, with your time for those who need extra help, generous with your kindness for those who are anxious, generous with your friendship for those who are isolated, generous with your money for those who must miss work, and generous with your grace for those who do stupid things. When we are generous, we make a practical demonstration of our trust in the providing character of God.
3. Seeking the kingdom means social distancing for your vulnerable neighbour
Some people have been saying that churches choosing not to meet together is giving in to fear. And perhaps for some it is – but I suspect that for many (and I hope for all) it is motivated by a love for our neighbour. We know that this disease will hurt the oldest and the most medically vulnerable among us. If there is anything we see in the life of Jesus it is his care for those who are weakest. So the choice to not meet in large groups is a choice to love our neighbour because we do not know what the invisible effects of our love will be. We cannot stop anyone’s death by worry, but we can speed it along by not being concerned for the needs of the most vulnerable.
Do we still need community, worship, prayer, encouragement, and teaching from God’s word? Yes! Yes! Yes! As much now as ever. But we can do it in groups of five or ten (if it’s safe). We can watch our sermons live streamed, we can meet together to pray, we can Skype other groups, we can bring our own meals and eat together. We can wash our hands, and stay apart. We can build deeper relationships and reliance on God and his people than we ever have before.
And if we’re in total lockdown? We can figure out church over Skype (actually probably Zoom because Skype is pretty unreliable) or Facebook live. We might even discover an effective way to include people who can’t make it to services in person but still want to be involved when this whole thing is over.
What if we’re overreacting? Then we have overreacted out of love for the vulnerable and we have potentially supercharged our small groups and online ministry. That can’t be too bad, can it?
4. Your faith will not save you from COVID-19, but it will save you from death
No doubt we will hear stories of Jesus healing people of COVID-19. I’m sure of it, and I’m sure that people’s faith will be strengthened by these miracles. But many others will get sick, and recover naturally with the immune system that God has provided for us. Others have died already, and many more will die before this thing is done. You might die of this, but you probably won’t. However, you will die of something. Unless Jesus comes back first, you’ll die of heart disease, cancer, a car accident, a freak head injury from a falling sparrow, or something else. The people saved by the blood of Jesus are not immune from death. Lazarus died, Peter died, Mary, Mary, and the other Mary all died, John died, Lazarus died again, Martin Luther died, John Wimber died, Mother Teresa died, John Stott died, Reinhard Bonnke died, and you and I will die. But we will not stay dead. If we trust in Jesus we will rise again, just like him, free from death and disease, ready to enjoy his new creation.
But till that day, we’ve got a job to do. It’s to seek the kingdom – loving God and loving your neighbour. That’s a calling if ever I’ve heard one. So don’t worry, you’ve got a lot more important things to do with your time.
Some final notes:
Jesus’ return: Yes. If Jesus comes back we won’t die. And that’ll be great! But current statistics are that 100% of all people who have lived but are not currently alive on the earth have died (except Enoch and Elijah, thank you Bible nerds). So based on those stats, we should be expecting to be dead at some time in the future.
Starving to death: Do these verses promise that God will stop people from starving to death? I don’t think so. I think they promise that God knows what we need and all that is provided for us comes from him. My guess is there are faithful Christians who have died of starvation. But I’m sure there are also plenty of faithful Christians who can share miraculous stories of God’s provision when they were sure they would die of starvation. Either way we are going to die, but death does not remove us from God’s care.
If you are anticipating a lot of downtime in the near future can I recommend a book for you to read or listen to? Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude: The Bible Exposed is my book full of Bible stuff and dumb jokes. Get it right here, or from Amazon, Audible, iBooks, and more.
One of the biggest turning points in my Christian life happened when I learned how to read the Bible. I was about 15 or 16. Up until that point, my devotional life had consisted of opening up my Bible to a random page and reading until I felt like I’d been inspired or learnt something. Or if I needed some particular issue sorted I’d open up my Gideons Bible to the bit at the back with the verses for specific situations. I always loved reading those ‘greatest hits’ verses of the Bible. It was like getting a muffin and just picking all the chocolate chips and eating them. Who needs the muffin when you can just enjoy the chocolate?
But then I read a book on prayer and the author was describing what his morning devotional time was like. The author said that he would read through one book of the Bible at a time. Each day he would read a small amount, reflect on it, and then spend some time in prayer. The next day he’d read a little more, reflect on it, then spend time in prayer. He would do this every day until he had finished that book of the Bible, then he’d move onto the next book. MIND BLOWN! It had never occurred to me to treat the Bible like a collection of books, rather than just a collection of wise sayings and random stories. I started following the author’s example and suddenly the Bible came alive! Books made sense from beginning to end. Over the next few years, I read the whole Bible and was excited to discover that the Bible itself had one big story that it was telling from beginning to end. Instead of just eating the chocolate chips, it was like the time when I discovered you could microwave a chocolate chip muffin and those hot, melted pockets of chocolate worked in perfect harmony with the muffin. They were better together!
I’m saying all this because in youth ministry I have found that helping young people get excited about the Bible is one of the hardest but most important jobs to help establish young people in lifelong, growing, robust faith. Anything that can help them discover what I discovered about the Bible when I was a teenager is pure gold – which is why I’m so excited about my mate Chris Morphew’s new book Best News Ever.
Best News Ever is a book of 100 daily reflections working through the book of Mark from beginning to end. It’s designed to help late primary and early high schoolers read and understand the book of Mark. Unlike the normal devotionals that we often give young people that have a bunch of inspiring prooftexts or an author’s selection of Bible passages to give encouragement in whatever theme the devotion is covering, Best News Ever divides Mark’s gospel into 100 easily manageable chunks and offers a short reflection on each passage. Each reflection helps the reader grasp the teaching of the passage and places it in the context of the story of Mark and the big picture of the Bible. Each day also gives the reader a question or two to consider and apply, followed by a short prayer. This is a book that treats its readers like capable young theologians, able to understand difficult concepts and big themes and then apply them to their lives. Even after having spent years studying the book of Mark, I found myself getting surprised and excited as Chris shows how Mark has brilliantly put the story of Jesus together.
Chris sent me the first forty days of the book to read last year. I loved it and couldn’t wait to get the final sixty days, even though I was pretty sure I knew what happened at the end. I got the full book when it came out last month, and read them over the last few weeks – I wasn’t disappointed. This book is great! And I’m not just saying that – I’ve ordered a bunch to give to the younger kids in my youth group when we get back in the new year.
Best News Ever won’t just teach young readers what’s in Mark, it’ll teach them how to read Mark and the Bible in general. This could be the book to set them up as lifelong readers of the Bible, which is exactly what we want for them. To use my mediocre metaphor one last time: it’ll show them they can enjoy the whole muffin, not just the chocolate chips.
Best News Ever can be bought from all the good booksellers. For a sample and lots of store links head to: http://chrismorphew.com/best-news-ever
Have you ever looked at my stuff online and thought ‘That guy loves himself. He’s always trying to promote himself. What a tool.’? If you haven’t, I certainly have. I really don’t like self-promotion. I do self-promotion, but it always leaves me feeling a little bit dirty.
When you’re an author there is a pressure to promote yourself, to build a platform, to create content, to have a presence on social media. You keep hearing that publishers will be more interested in you if you have a platform. Being self-published, I need to promote myself, or at least my books, or no-one will know they exist. If no one knows about them, what’s the point of having them at all?
Why did I choose to self-publish? While the answer to that is a longer blog post for another week, the short answer, in terms of self-promotion, is that I was going to have to do self-promotion either way, so why not just do it myself? Still, I hate having to sell myself to the world.
When I was a young preacher, I knew I really wanted to get opportunities to preach. Especially to preach in places with big stages and big crowds. I knew that, while part of me was interested in people hearing about Jesus, a lot of me was interested in people hearing about Jesus from me. So I determined not to offer to preach anywhere, only to accept invitations to preach. The only time I broke this rule was when I moved to a new church and let them know I was available if they wanted me.
If you’ve seen my social media you might have noticed that I don’t stick to that rule anymore. If I’m travelling to Sydney, I’ll often let people know that I’m available to preach in case they want me. A few years ago I decided that if I have been gifted by God to communicate his word in a way that encourages others in their faith or helps people commit themselves to Jesus, then I should make myself available for people to make use of my gifts.
Still, I get uncomfortable doing this. It still feels a bit self-promotional. I’d rather things just happened organically. And I often wonder if I should just leave things be – if people want me for something they’ll contact me.
What is at the core of my discomfort? I would like to say that it’s my abundance of humility, but I suspect that actually, it’s pride. When I see people doing really overt self-promotion, especially Christians, I cringe. I think ‘Pull your head in, mate. You’re not Kanye, and not even Kanye is Kanye these days’. I don’t want people to look at me, and think ‘That’s the guy who is always just tooting his own horn and pushing his own barrow.’ I want people to look at me and say ‘Wow! What a funny, but self-effacing guy. He’s not like those other try-hards who promote themselves all over social media.’
So when I hold back from promoting myself, it’s pride. And when I promote myself, it’s pride.
I’m pretty sure there are plenty of us dealing with this. Social media has turned us all into self-promoters. What are we meant to do?
For me, I don’t think the solution, currently, is to just get off social media altogether, but perhaps it will be in the future. Nor is it to just let other people promote me and my stuff because I’m too ‘humble’ to do it myself, though perhaps I shouldn’t write that off either (without the false humility bit).
While I haven’t found the solution there are some things that I have found helpful:
Cheer everyone on
When I see people doing things that I want to be doing, I have to remind myself that what matters is not that I get to do it but that it gets done. If I want people to hear about Jesus then it doesn’t matter who they hear about him from. So when I encounter the twang of jealousy, I try to encourage the person if I know them or speak positively about them if I don’t. Sometimes, when I think of it, I pray for them and their ministry too. I’ve found it helps me get excited about the work of the kingdom above my work for the kingdom.
I also remind myself that other people probably look at me and the things I get to do and get jealous. So however mediocre, inadequate, unsuccessful and sinful I feel, I suspect the people I envy feel similarly.
Remind myself that Elijah had a ministry to ravens
In 1 Kings 17, before Elijah has become the great prophet, God calls him to hang out in a valley with some ravens before hanging out with a widow and her son. None of this is glamourous ministry, but it’s what God had for Elijah to do at that time, and so that was enough. By God’s grace, I have a ministry to more than ravens, but if I have peaked in terms of worldly ministry success, then that’s ok. If from now on only birds read my books (which would be weird because birds can’t read) I’ll need to be ok with that.
Don’t bury my treasure
In the parable of the bags of gold the ‘wicked servant’, unlike his good investing counterparts, takes the resources he’s been given by the master and buries them in the ground out of fear of the master. When the master gets back and discovers his servant has done nothing with what he’s been given the master isn’t impressed. We don’t have to be afraid of God, like the servant was, because God isn’t like the hard master. So shouldn’t that make us all the more eager to use what we have been given for the sake of God’s kingdom while we wait for Jesus’ return?
God has given me the gifts he has, he’s given me the platforms I have, he’s given me the time I live in, he’s given me the education I have, and the personality I possess. All these things are given to me to use for him. He hasn’t given them to me so I can bury them out of some false humility and fear of man. No, he expects me, with his help, and the help of others, to navigate the challenges of this era of ministry that I’m in – where you can have a ministry to people all over the world without leaving your house and you can say whatever you want to a potentially giant group of people without the traditional gatekeepers making sure what you’re saying is faithful and helpful. So when I share a book I’ve written, a video I’ve made, or I make myself available to preach, when it’s done for the sake of the kingdom and not my own fame, I’m sharing the treasure that God has given me for the multiplication of his kingdom.
Remind myself that I probably don’t want what I wish for
I regularly daydream about what would happen if I sold a million copies of my book. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. In my daydreams, my life stays pretty much the same, but I have a lot more money and people regularly invite me overseas to preach so I also have Gold or Platinum status on Qantas. But when I actually think about what it would be like if I did reach that level of success, I’d have pressure from people wanting more from me than I could give. I’d have thousands of people critiquing me and my theology. I’d have people judging me without knowing me. I’d be feeling the pressure to write the next bestseller or to always have something profound to say. And I’m sure we’ve all noticed what seems like a higher than normal level of moral failure of prominent people in ministry. I don’t need that kind of temptation in life. If I really mean it when I ask God to ‘save us from the time of trial’, success could be one of the things I’m asking him to save me from.
If I’ve had any mantra over the past few years it’s been ‘God calls us to faithfulness, not to success’. So what does faithfulness look like? As a non-exhaustive list, it’s to seek first the kingdom, love my wife, love my neighbour, be diligent in my work, hold fast to the gospel, and leave this world better than I found it. I can have exactly the right, most balanced, and humble promotional strategy but if I don’t have love it’ll just be a clanging gong or a banging cymbal. I could delete Facebook and Instagram and never get on stage and still be the most prideful, self-promoting fool around. Faithfulness asks different questions, not ‘What is the right way to do self-promotion?’ but ’What is the way of love for God and love for others?’ and ‘What builds God’s kingdom over my own?’ If I can keep answering those questions, and keep listening to others as they help me answer them, I should be on an okay path.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t figured out all this self-promotional stuff. I’m sure I’ll be struggling with pride and vanity till the day I die. On the other hand, I do also know that deeper than my desire to glorify myself is my desire to glorify God and grow his kingdom. I have to trust God that he is at work in me, fixing my heart in all the ways I cannot. God has been working with prideful disciples since he invented humans, I’m sure he can work with me, and in me, too.
And now for the self-promotion. The audiobook for Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude: The Bible Exposed has just come out. If you want that, or any other version of my books, you should definitely get on it.
As you might know, I recently released my second book Talks That Don’t Suck. When we decided on the name for the book, I thought it was great! It’s fun, catchy, and doesn’t promise too much. I’m not going to promise to teach you how to do the greatest talks, I’m just going to teach you how to do talks that don’t suck. That seems achievable.
However, since releasing the book I have felt a lot more ambivalent about the title. I’ve set myself up as the guy who does talks that don’t suck. This is a problem because sometimes my talks aren’t great, and now I’m pretending to be some kind of expert.
A few weeks ago at youth group I did a new talk and it wasn’t that good. On reflection, it was probably a good first draft. If I were to do it again, I reckon I could do a pretty good job, but I shouldn’t really be giving talks that are first drafts. Emily heard it and she said ‘It wasn’t your best’, which my mum helpfully translated for me: ‘That means your talk sucked.’ *
My general experience of ministry is that most of the time you feel like you’ve done a mediocre job (which is hard to judge objectively). Some of the time you objectively know you’ve done a mediocre job. And every now and then you can walk away from whatever event you just ran, talk you gave, or conversation you had, and quietly say to yourself ‘I think I did alright’.
While I’d love to always feel like I’m winning, it’s probably best not to always feel great. That would be a dangerous place to be. I’d have little incentive to improve. I’d probably be pretty proud of myself. I wouldn’t feel the need to pray. I’d be more likely to attribute success in ministry to my amazing skills, rather than the work of God. It doesn’t feel good to feel bad, but too much feeling good might be bad.
So what do you do when you’ve done a talk and you realise it sucked?
One: Relax and trust God
The first thing you should do is relax because, the truth is, God will achieve what he wants through his word. It has been my experience that some of the talks I’ve felt the worst about have had the most profound effects for those who heard it. Who knows, the talk you thought sucked may have been the most powerful talk you’ve ever given. But even if no one got anything out of it, most likely people will just forget everything you said, so you don’t need to stress.
Two: Do post-talk analysis
It is always good to figure out what went wrong. So, listen to the recording, read your notes and ask people for feedback. The best opportunities for growth come from when you make mistakes, so make the most of your sucky talk.
Three: Buy yourself an ice cream
Cheer up, you preached the Bible and preaching is good and important work. So, it wasn’t your best? Don’t punish yourself. Jesus won’t punish you, so why should you? Buy an ice cream, take a nap, watch some TV. Do whatever you normally do to recharge after you’ve preached. God’s kingdom won’t collapse because of you, but if you beat yourself up every time you do a sub-par job you’ll definitely be less effective for the kingdom in the long-run as you operate out of a success/failure mindset rather than one that’s fueled by grace.
Four: Do a better job next time
Finally, use the opportunity to take what you learnt from this experience so you can do a better job next time. Let your striving for improvement be an act of worship. The week after my bad talk, I had another talk to do and it was a lot better than the previous one, partly because the talk the week before wasn’t that good. I tried hard not to make the same mistakes, I wanted to do a better job with God’s word. If you let them, bad talks can beget good talks.
‘But Tom, you don’t understand. I heresy-ed! It wasn’t just a bad talk, it was actively wrong.’
Oh dear. That’s no good, but also not the end of the world. Heresy is a big problem when it’s consistently preached as truth. The people who are regularly preaching heresy generally don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong. They think their lies are truth and they refuse to submit to Scripture. But the person who says the wrong thing and corrects themselves is not really a threat. So if you realise something you said was contrary to what the Bible teaches, fix it next time you preach. You can say something like, ‘You know how last time I said “True Christians don’t suffer from allergies”? It turns out that’s not what the Bible teaches and I appreciate having my error pointed out to me. What the Bible does teach is that in the new creation we won’t suffer from allergies or sickness, but until then, while God can heal people, often we, like Timothy, will have upset stomachs (or noses, or skin, or whatever) which may or may not be improved with wine (1 Timothy 5:23).’ Ok, maybe don’t finish all your clarifications with a suggestion that people drink alcohol – especially if you’re speaking to teenagers. But if you realise you made a significant error, fix it and move on. In fact, your admission of fallibility and your willingness to correct yourself according to the Bible will encourage those listening to you to check your teaching (and others’) against the Bible. In the long run, this will make them less susceptible to false teaching.
Finally, if you realise that every talk you do is terrible (and I mean objectively bad, it’s not just your low-self-esteem talking) then feel free to stop doing talks. Not everyone has to be good at preaching. There is no dishonour in saying ‘I don’t think this is my gift’. If all your talks suck and you decide to pursue other ministry opportunities, I promise, you and everyone else will be relieved. You’ll feel the weight lift off your shoulders and you’ll go on to find a ministry that you truly do not suck at. It’ll be great!
So let your talks suck sometimes. You’ll be ok, your listeners will be ok, your talks will get better and even if they don’t, Jesus will keep loving you – I guarantee it.
* Emily would like me to make clear that she didn’t think my talk sucked. She says she’d tell me if my talk sucked.
Want to make sure your talks don’t suck? I’ll give you my book for free and you can learn all my best ideas. Get it right here: tomfrench.com.au/ttds