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.
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.