Living a Type “A” Life
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.