On the Treadmill
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.