Living the Type “A” Life

Living a Type “A” Life

Matthew 4:1-4

Dr. Jim Denison

I want to tell you a story I’ve shared very seldom in public, about the football which changed my life.

Of all my friends growing up, I was the youngest. This meant that I was picked last for the kickball games and baseball teams. When you’re in first or second grade, that’s a big deal. Your friends aren’t impressed with your grades, just how far you can hit a ball. And so I grew up thinking that I wasn’t a very good athlete or performer. That was OK—my family was very supportive, I had good friends, and my childhood was happy.

But everything changed one day in the seventh grade, during physical education. We were playing football. I remember the day like it was last week. It was early fall, and the weather was just turning crisp. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day.

I was put on the offensive line, because everybody thought I couldn’t catch or throw very well. Larry Montgomery faded back to pass, the ball was tipped into the air, and I caught it and ran for a touchdown. From then on I was a wide receiver, and eventually the quarterback. I discovered I did have talent, and soon, more friends as well. And I learned a lesson that day: life rewards performance. Our culture says: You are what you do.

I have often wondered how different my life would be if I’d dropped that football.

From that day on, life was about catching more footballs. My trumpet became a way to perform, and being first chair became very important to me. Making the best grades I could, leading clubs, getting school awards. The more footballs I caught, the better people liked me, and the better I liked myself. I discovered a performance-based identity.

Then, when I was fifteen, I was invited to church, where I heard the gospel and soon made Christ my Savior. But before long I discovered a performance-based spiritual life as well.

Bible studies, prayer meetings, youth group activities; bus ministry on Saturdays, knocking on doors, inviting children to ride our bus to church; witnessing at school, going on mission trips, being part of the “inside” group. Catching more footballs, this time for God. Performance-based faith.

As a high school senior, I accepted a call to ministry, to be an even better disciple and to make others into disciples. So in college I became the preacher on the ministry team, and got to lead various clubs and organizations. Then to seminary, to a pastorate, and eventually to teach on the faculty. From there back to the pastorate.

Always catching more footballs. Performance-based faith.

Jesus and performance

There are advantages to performance-based Christianity, of course.

We performers work hard at what we do. I was at bus ministry every Saturday, and my friends and I brought hundreds of children to church. I learned a great deal about the Bible and Christian doctrine. I took part in significant mission trips and ministries. Performers perform.

And performers are rewarded. I got to preach the youth sermons, and eventually became the youth minister at my church. I felt good about how people saw me. Performers get to lead the organizations, to preach the sermons, to win the awards. If our society punishes those who fail, it certainly rewards those who succeed.

But, is this performance-centered spiritual identity really what Jesus had in mind for us? Let’s see.

Jesus has spent forty days with his Father in the wilderness.

This was an area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, 35 miles by 15 miles. The Old Testament calls it “Jeshimmon,” which means “The Devastation,” and the name fits. Mark adds that Jesus was “with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13).

The area is filled with contorted strata, where ridges run in all directions as if they were warped and twisted. This is a desert, full of rocks and sand, sun-blasted, parched, cracked, dusty hills and valleys. “Death Valley” conjures the right picture.

In this place we see the enemy “approaching,” and we sense the stealth with which the attack begins. Ryan has a pet snake; when he feeds him, the snake comes up behind the food and pounces. So with the enemy here.

“If you are the Son of God”—the Greek grammar should really be translated, “Since you are the Son of God.” Prove it—”Tell these stones to become bread.”

Satan knows the power of Jesus’ word. He doesn’t tempt him to touch the stones, just to speak to them.

Stones to bread, because the stones of Jesus’ wilderness looked so much like bread. Both were small, round, whitewashed. And Jesus was very hungry, having stretched his body to the very limits of physical endurance. I miss a meal and can’t wait for the next one—Jesus missed 120 of them.

And of course, Jesus could have done this. The same power which spoke the universe into creation, which spoke demons out of demoniacs, which spoke Lazarus from the chains of death to the victory of life, could so easily speak to these stones and mold them to into bread.

And he did do this later. With his words he turned five loaves and two sardine-like fish into a banquet for 5,000 families, and still later made another banquet for 4,000 with his spoken word.

But Jesus answers, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (v. 4).

This is a temptation to use his abilities without trusting in the Father who gave them to him. To use his gifts for himself, apart from the provision or plan of God. To use his talents to serve himself, not his Father or his Father’s purpose for his life.

Jesus’ response comes directly from Deuteronomy 8, a passage describing how God provided for his people in their wilderness wanderings by feeding them manna, bread from heaven. The point is clear: God will meet our needs, if we will let him. We are to trust him for our bread, our purpose, our significance. To find our personal worth and value not in what we can do, but the fact that we are loved unconditionally by God.


On the Treadmill

On the Treadmill

Matthew 4:5-7

Dr. Jim Denison

Tiger Woods is now being called the greatest golfer in history, and with good reason. I’m not surprised—I got to watch him as he won his first major championship. It was an incredible day.

One of the great privileges of being pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta was the fact that one of the state’s former governors is a member of the church. And so I made him my friend quickly. And he let me use his Masters badges each year.

Augusta National is perhaps the most magical place I’ve ever seen. It’s like watching golf in church, or in a museum. Everyone talks in hushed tones. There is not a leaf on the ground, a weed in the grass, an azalea out of place. Janet and I watched Tiger as he destroyed the field on his way to his first major victory. What an incredible experience.

But do you know, before the day was done, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to come back the next day, and the next year, and every year. Not just as a guest, but as a member. Not just to watch, but to play. Not just to play, but to play in the tournament, and then to win the tournament. Not just to win, but to beat Tiger. Every year. Maybe that would be enough.

What is it inside us that always wants to do more and be more? Nothing ever seems good enough for very long. Cars, houses, schools, degrees, jobs, friends, status. Why is it never enough?

Last week we watched Satan tempt Jesus with performance. Today we’ll examine the issue of perfectionist popularity, because it tempts us all.

The temptation Jesus faced

Our text says, “Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple” (v. 5). From the lonely wilderness to the crowded city. And to the most crowded building in it, thousands milling about every day.

This is literally the “wing of the temple,” the highest place of the building in all the nation.

The Jewish Temple was built on the top of Mount Zion. The top of this mountain was leveled out into a plateau where the Temple complex stood. At the corner where Solomon’s Porch and the Royal Porch met there was a sheer drop of 450 feet into the Kedron valley below.

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, described that spot this way: “this cloister deserves to be mentioned better than any other under the sun; for while the valley was very deep, and its bottom could not be seen, if you looked from above into the depth, this further vastly high elevation of the cloister stood upon that height, insomuch that if any one looked down from the top of the battlements, or down both these altitudes, he would be dizzy, while his sight could not reach to such an immense depth” (Antiquities XV.xi.5).

This was the closest building to a skyscraper in ancient Israel, standing some forty-five stories high. This is nearly the height of Reunion Tower in Dallas.

It is here, as our Lord and our enemy were standing together, that Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”

He proceeds to quote from Psalm 91: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (vs. 11, 12).

This was a promise made to the Messiah which the angels did in fact keep: they protected him from Herod as a child, and would celebrate his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.

But not here. The enemy did not tempt Jesus on a wilderness mountain but on the Temple mount, where thousands would see and be impressed. In this public setting the temptation was not to depend upon the angels for help—it was to perform for the crowds. To show them Jesus’ divine abilities; to be that perfect Messiah they had been longing to see.

Show them your power, Satan says. Do what no one has ever done or would ever do again. All will see, and be impressed. Validate your ministry, your Messiahship, your personal worth. Be that amazing, perfect Messiah everyone longs for. Build your identity on perfectionist popularity.

What a temptation it was for Jesus. And for us.

The appeal of perfectionism

A few years ago, on the heels of a Dallas minister’s very public moral failure, Texas Monthly ran an article on the subject. The author concluded that clergy moral problems are only symptomatic of the larger pressures of living in north Dallas. The writer argued that there is no more stressed, pressured, high intensity culture in the world than North Dallas. Here, the more perfect we are, dress, look, and act, the more popular we are, and the more valuable we feel.

Where does such pressure to perfectionism and popularity come from?

The universe began perfectly. Our perfect God created a perfect world with perfect humans made in his perfect image. But when we sinned in the Garden of Eden, everything changed. Because of our sin, the universe fell. We are now sinful by nature. Perfection is now impossible. Paradise is lost.

Here’s where perfectionism originates.

Now I sin because that’s my nature. I am a fallen person. And soon I come to believe that I am a failure.

And so I create what psychologists call a “false self” to compensate. An idealized, perfect self, the person I want you to think I am. A perfect person to cover over my failures. A perfect mask, to cover up the imperfect person inside.

Then I try very hard to live up to this perfect self. To convince you that this is who I really am. To persuade you that I’m not really a failure, that I really am a person of worth and value. I wear the mask and try to convince you that it’s the real thing.