God in the Mirror
Dr. Jim Denison
Our church is finishing our annual staff evaluations. In that light, a friend recently sent me some actual quotes taken from Federal Government employee performance evaluations. These should make us all feel better:
•Since my last report, this employee has reached rock-bottom and has started to dig.
•I would not allow this employee to breed.
•Gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming.
•He’s got two brain cells–one is lost and the other is out looking for it.
•If you see two people talking and one looks bored, he’s the other one.
•This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.
Evaluations are stressors for us all, because there is something innate to the human condition which wants to succeed, to advance, to be promoted and praised. But this all-too-human desire can have its down sides.
Perhaps you saw the recent Time cover story on ambition. The article surveys high school students more pressured to succeed than ever before, and the rising levels of stress and physical symptoms which result.
Heart attacks, ulcers, and depression are at epidemic levels in our country. Yet we praise ambition and self-driven motivation as the keys to success. Does God?
Be humble as Joseph
Remember the dream which started Joseph’s story: “We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it” (Genesis 37:7). If that wasn’t enough, “Listen, I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (v. 9).
I’m not sure why he even needed to share them with his family. And their jealous response doesn’t offer much evidence for humility on his part. Is it possible that he had to go to the pit and the prison before God could trust him in the palace?
Fortunately, the story of Joseph’s character development doesn’t end here. Being thrown in a cistern by your brothers and then sold to a wandering band of Ishmaelites and then to Pharaoh’s chief executioner can do much to promote humility.
So it is that he refused Potiphar’s wife with the statement, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9).
When Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker became Joseph’s fellow prisoners and he learned they had dreams they could not interpret. He knew something about dreams and their meaning. But rather than brag on his abilities, he responded, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams” (Genesis 40:8). And they did, and he interpreted them correctly with God’s help.
Then Pharaoh had dreams he could not interpret, and Joseph was summoned to his palace. Now is his opportunity to show Pharaoh what he can do, fulfilling his personal dreams of honor and authority. Imagine that you’re a writer given a chance opportunity to pitch your best book idea to the chief editor of the largest publishing firm in the world.
Or you’re a singer with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win American Idol, today. Or you’re a software engineer who finds herself sitting at a dinner next to Bill Gates, or a law school graduate introduced to Chief Justice Roberts. What do you do?
Pharaoh says to Joseph, “I had a dream and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it” (Genesis. 41:15). Quiet on the set; a drum rolls in the background; the action stops. Then Joseph replies, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” (v. 16). And he did.
Later Joseph revealed himself to his terrified brothers and said, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt” (Genesis 45:7-8).
Finally Jacob died, and now the brothers are afraid for their lives again. Perhaps Joseph has been kind to them for his father’s sake, but now nothing stands in the way of his vengeance.
Once again they fulfill his dream: “We are your slaves” (Genesis 50:18). Who is your worst enemy, or fiercest competitor, or strongest antagonist? Imagine that person falling before you with the same admission. How do you respond?
Listen to Joseph: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (vs. 19-20). And so he did.
Seek God’s glory
Do you detect a pattern? Joseph gives God the glory for his ability to interpret dreams, and for the circumstances which have fulfilled his own. And God uses him far beyond anything Joseph or his brothers could have imagined 20 years earlier. Joseph will live for God’s glory, and God will use and bless Joseph. Here’s the sermon in a sentence: God uses most fully those who give the glory to him. Joseph is Exhibit A.
Here’s Exhibit B. Moses led God’s people out of Pharaoh’s Egypt and to the edge of the Promised Land. But not into it.
When the people who had passed through the Red Sea later complained that they needed water, God instructed Moses to speak to the rock so that water would come forth for the nation. But Moses said to the gathered nation, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then he “raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank” (Numbers 20:10-11).
With this result: “the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them'” (v. 12). His desire to get the glory for himself kept him from the glorious Promised Land of God.
Could it be that ambition and ego are keeping some of us from the Promised Land of God’s dream for our lives?
Consider a command especially appropriate to the weekend after Thanksgiving: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10).
“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength” (1 Chronicles 16:28). When? At church in worship? On the sanctified ground of 3939 Northwest Parkway?
“Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Hebrews 13:15).
God says that we are “the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise” (Israel 43:21).
Paul reminds us, “You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). God uses most fully those who give the glory to him.
Why seek God’s glory?
Now, does this strike you as divine egotism?
Domitian, the Roman emperor at the time of the Revelation, required all his subjects to address him as “Lord and God.” We shudder at such pride.
When Muhammad Ali was in his prime, he boarded an airplane and sat down. The flight attendant asked him to buckle his seatbelt, to which he replied, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” The attendant smiled and said, “Superman don’t need no airplane, either.” Ali buckled his seat belt.
Why does God require that we live for his glory alone? That we seek to glorify him with all we do, every moment that we live? Why is glorifying God the one indispensable element in fulfilling his dream for our lives? Let’s do some theological thinking for a moment.
Fact #1: God is not an egotist who needs our affirmation. Most of us need encouragement to feel good about ourselves and what we do; he doesn’t. Most of us live with deep-seated feelings of inferiority which we mask by seeking power and popularity; God doesn’t.
Fact #2: God cannot glorify anyone but himself without committing idolatry. Neither can we. By definition, God is “that, than which nothing greater can be conceived” (St Anselm of Canterbury). If we glorify anyone before this God, we make that person an idol. Including ourselves. Especially ourselves.
Fact #3: such idolatry is the central disease of the human condition. Adam and Eve were tempted to “be like God,” and the human race fell into sin as a result (Genesis 3:5). Cain’s jealousy toward Abel led to the first murder. David’s prideful lust led to his adultery. Solomon’s idolatry led to his nation’s civil war. The religious authorities’ jealousy of Jesus’ popularity led to his crucifixion.
Fact #4: glorifying God is the only antidote to human idolatry. The only way I can be preserved today from self-serving pride in teaching this message is to do it for God’s glory alone. The only way you can be saved from self-serving pride in your religion today, or in your performance, popularity and possessions tomorrow, is to use them for God’s glory alone. In all you do, with every moment you live, with every breath you take, you will serve the God in heaven or the god in the mirror. One or the other, always.
You may have seen reports about the dreaded Northern Snakehead, a voracious predator dubbed the “Frankenfish.” It can breathe out of water and wiggle across land. It eats other fish, frogs, and even birds and mammals. It has now made its way into the Great Lakes, and threatens the ecosystems there.
There’s a Frankenfish living in my house, waiting to devour everything in its path. Ready to destroy all that God has made. I see him every morning in my mirror. So do you, in yours.
So, will we emulate Joseph today? Will we seek God’s glory and thus fulfill his highest dreams for our lives? Ask this simple question, all day long: how will this glorify God? This thought, word, action, decision; this television show, movie, Internet site; this message and day and ministry. J. I. Packer was right: it is impossible at one and the same time to convince you that I am a great preacher and that Jesus is a great Savior. I must choose. And so must you.
When did you last glorify God? When will you next? Could it be that the only person standing between you and God’s dream for your life, is the god in your mirror?
I agree with historians who consider Charles Spurgeon the greatest Baptist preacher and pastor in our history. He began writing a magazine at age 12, and published his first book, 295 pages in length, at the age of 15. He began his pastoral career at age 17, and soon was preaching to crowds of 10,000 (in the days before amplification).
His London church grew to be the largest Baptist congregation in the world. He began a college for preachers, an orphanage, a home for aged women, and 63 other institutions and ministries. He began 40 missions in various parts of London. He wrote a monthly magazine, a seven-volume commentary on the Psalms, and 140 other books. He wrote 500 letters a week.
His books are in such wide publication that they have made him the most published author in human history.
What is the secret to such a man as this? I am convinced it is found in this anecdote, a story I share often at ordination services. In Spurgeon’s time London’s streetlights burned gas but still had to be lit individually. It is to this practice that Spurgeon refers in the following note:
Coming one Thursday in the late autumn from an engagement beyond Dulwich, my way led up to the top of the Herne Hill ridge. I came along the level out of which rises the steep hill I had to ascend.
While I was on the lower ground, riding in a hansom cab, I saw a light before me, and when I came near the hill, I marked that light gradually go up the hill, leaving a train of stars behind it. This line of new-born stars remained in the form of one lamp, and then another and another. It reached from the foot of the hill to its summit.
I did not see the lamplighter. I do not know his name, nor his age, nor his residence; but I saw the lights which he had kindled, and these remained when he himself had gone his way.
As I rode I thought to myself, “How earnestly do I wish that my life may be spent in lighting one soul after another with the sacred flame of eternal life! I would myself be as much as possible unseen while at my work, and would vanish into eternal brilliance above when my work is done” (Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography [Carlyle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984] 162.