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.

At its root, this is a temptation for Jesus to perform for himself, to meet his needs apart from the word or will of God. To define himself by what he did. Type-A personalities, high performance orientations, people with a deep need to accomplish, will always be susceptible to this temptation. I know.

The peril of performance

Is this good or bad for our souls?

Here’s what Abraham Maslow, the eminent psychologist, thought about performers like me. He said unhealthy people put action before identity. In other words, they see themselves as their performance. If I have money, or look good, or my kids go the right school, or I have the right friends, I am a worthy person. If I lose money, or looks, or my kids have problems, or my friends leave me, I am an unworthy person. I am what I do.

I learned a very important fact a few years ago: I am not what I think I am; I am not what you think I am; but I am what I think that you think I am. I become what I think you expect of me.

And that’s a mistake. Why?

Performers lack peace.

We can never perform enough. There is always another football to catch, another award to win, another promotion, or client, or grade, or scholarship, or girlfriend or boyfriend. There’s always more we must do to be OK with ourselves. When you base your self-esteem on what you do, the pressure to perform is constant, and it can be intense.

We should feel great after a good performance; but, strangely, the good feelings don’t last very long. The next day brings the next performance, and we’ve got to be ready. We’re only as good as our last solo, or ball game, or board meeting, or sermon. Life offers little peace to performers. Perhaps you know how that feels.

Performers wear masks. If life is a performance, how you perform depends on the people you’re trying to impress. A football fan and an opera audience are different. I found that I had to be one kind of person in church, another at school. The rules changed from place to place, and I had to change with them.

And so I found myself creating a closet full of masks. One mask for church, another for my musician friends, another for the guys on my sports teams, another for school. I began to lose touch with who I am, in my attempts to be what you wanted me to be.

And we performers live in fear that our masks might not work. That you might find out what we’re really like, and not like us any more. So we have to wear our masks tightly, at all times. Are you wearing yours this morning?

Performers compete. In fact, for performers, all of life can be one giant competition. We can’t listen to other speakers without comparing ourselves to them. We can’t watch someone else play ball, or sing in the worship services, or teach a class, without competing with them inside.

And so performers can miss the best parts of life. So much of what makes life worth living isn’t a performance or a competition. Playing with our kids, going to ball games, hiking a mountain, relaxing with friends, loving people. But you have to watch us, or we’ll turn all of that into performance. Our kids have to be the best in the game; we can’t relax and be ourselves with our friends or even our family. We still have to impress you. We can’t drop the guard or let down the mask.

Nowhere is this more true than in our faith. Christianity becomes a set of rules and actions—things to avoid, things to do. The better we perform, the better God likes us. After all, the General always sends the Marines to do the toughest jobs, right? We’re the few and the proud, the elite. There’s not much joy in our faith, but that’s the price we pay for success.

Are there ways in which you are a performer?


So, what help is there for performers? The answer lies in doing what Jesus did: live by “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” See yourself as God’s word says that God sees you. And how does the Bible say that God sees us?

Consider the most famous verse in Scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son” (John 3:16). God loves you. As you are, where you are. With all the bad and the good, all the failures and fears and neuroses and problems you brought to church today. As you are, the way a father should love his child—unconditionally and absolutely.

You are the child of God. You are not what you do. You may need to tell yourself this twenty times before today is done—do it. You are not what you do. You are not how you look, or what other people think about you, or what you possess. You are the child of God, loved beyond words by him. God loves you, and likes you, right now.

One of the most powerful anecdotes I know concerns the man who stood at a busy street corner and asked those who came by, “Who are you?” Hundreds answered him, and every single one did so by saying what he or she did. “Who are you?” “I’m a teacher,” or a lawyer, or a homemaker, or a pastor.

The next time someone asks you who you are, say, “I am the child of God, loved by my Father in heaven.” That’s what the word of God says. And God is never wrong.

Robert McQuilkin used to be the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in South Carolina. A few years ago he retired to care for his wife, Muriel, a once-brilliant woman now lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s disease.

The amazing part of the story is what is left of Muriel. It is not her mind, for she no longer can speak in complete sentences. It is not her vanity, or her sense of social graces. The disease has stripped her like a banana, peeling away the bright coverings until only the meat of her personality remains. And what is left? Love.

The one sentence she can still put together, correctly and frequently, is, “I love you.” Just before Dr. McQuilkin retired to devote his attention completely to her, she developed the habit of slipping out of the house and walking to his office—one mile away. When she was sent home, she returned, as many as ten times a day. She simply wanted to be with the one she loves.

One evening while preparing Muriel for bed, Dr. McQuilkin found her feet bloodied from the repeated journeys. The family doctor, when he heard that, choked up and could only say, “Such love.”

So it was with Jesus. When they stripped him of his clothes and his dignity, they found bloody feet and bloody hands. Such love, for you and me.

Was he right about you?

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.

We all do this to one degree or another. We play to the crowd. We are what we think they think we are. It’s basic human nature.

Perfectionism becomes a game we play, and the game affects every part of our lives.

Some of us play the game of perfectionism against other people. We must prove that we are better than others and therefore have value.

Others do it to please people. We must be accepted by everyone all the time. We have an excessive need to belong and be loved.

Still others play the game above people. We’re self-sufficient, invulnerable, aloof, not needing anyone.

And nearly all of us play the game against ourselves. We live by an unachievable standard of personal performance. The result is a constant sense of insufficiency and failure, and a daily fear that we’ll be found out—that people will see behind the mask, see us the way we really are, and know that we are failures.

Of course, perfectionism popularity is a game nobody can win. It cannot be done.

You cannot be better than everyone at everything. You cannot please everyone. You cannot live without other people. And you can never achieve perfection personally. It simply cannot be done.

But we try. And our failures drive us to try harder, to work more, to be better. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle of frustration, anger, competition, stress, and failure.

John Claypool is one of my favorite preachers and pastors. In his classic work, The Preaching Event, he makes this very honest disclosure about himself:

“At an exceedingly early age … the overwhelming drive of my life became ‘to make it,’ ‘to get ahead,’ ‘to out-achieve all others’ so as to do something about that awful emptiness I sensed at the bottom of my being. This way of living affected me at every level…. People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was shrewd enough to fashion my answer according to what I thought they wanted to hear…. However, in my own heart of hearts, I had my own private fantasy that I never dared to share with anyone. Do you know what it was? I am telling you the gospel truth: I wanted to be president of the world! I envisioned the whole human race as a giant pyramid with one place of preeminence at the top. I dreamed of climbing over everybody’s back until at last I got there. Then I knew exactly what I would do. I would look down and say, ‘Now! Now, do I amount to something? Have I at last become a somebody out of my nobodyness?'” (The Preaching Event, 63-4, emphasis his).

The solution for perfectionism

The real tragedy is that we Christians think all this perfectionism actually pleases God—that this is what he wants us to do. Jumping off temples to please the crowds and to please the Christ. It’s a temptation from the devil himself.

And the answer to it comes from the word of God.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus says, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.

In the larger context Moses is warning the people that when they come into their Promised Land, “a land with large flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (vs. 10-12).

In other words, do not base your worth and identity on what you have, how you perform, how perfect your land and lives are, how popular you are with each other—build your worth and identity on my love, my grace, my provision. Do not use God to make you perfect or popular—do not test his grace or manipulate his love.

Instead, live by the single greatest advice I’ve ever received: “Remember the source of your personal worth.” You are a person of worth because God loves you, and accepts you unconditionally and absolutely. Not because you can ever be perfect, for you cannot this side of glory. Not because you are popular with others, for the ways of God and the ways of the world are often at war.

Simply because he chose to make you, and he knows you, and he accepts and likes and loves you. Remember the source of your personal worth.


What temples are you tempted to jump off today? The result is simple and predictable: you’ll get hurt. Perfectionist popularity never lasts. And it never will.

The largest statue ever carved from a single piece of stone weighed over 1,000 tons (two million pounds). It was a statue of Ramses I, who died in 1317 B.C. Ramses decreed that his statue would forever remind the people of his greatness. When the Children of Israel left Egypt, they passed by this enormous statue to achievement, status, popularity, perfection.

Who in Egypt thought that the real power of the universe left with them? With this rag-tag bunch of slaves, following a crazy man out into the desert? They had no army, no map, no plan, no future. Or so it seemed.

Today Ramses’ statue lies broken in the sands of Egypt, the image of his perfectionist popularity reduced to rubble. But we have come today to worship one of the sons of Israel as our Lord and God.

This week you will have two motives for all you do: to jump off temples, seeking perfectionist popularity; or to jump into the grace-filled arms of your loving Father. To remember the source of your personal worth.

Choose well.