Third in series: Live yourself into new ways of thinking
If you have been with us a BLV for a while you may have heard me talk about the year in-between High-School and college that I spend doing an internship at in Australia. I have often reflected on that year as one of the most challenging, but also stretching and growth filled years of my life. Which is probably the reason that it seems to find its way in so many of my sermons.
Well, one of the reasons that year was so challenging was that in my role as intern there wasn’t any one person that was responsible for me, no one person I was reporting to, and so as a result it was pretty much fair game for any of the 5 people on staff to give me tasks to do, but with very little coaching or investment, let alone any level of recognition or validation. It was kind of like everyone thought I was someone else's problem to worry about, which meant no one really seemed to be worrying about me.
This was really tough for me, I felt super lonely, I questioned my ability, my worthiness.
There was one specific time that just sticks in my mind
This internship was at a church
So, when one pastor asked me to prepare a reflection, a kind of mini sermon, I assumed that I was going to deliver as a part of the Sunday service.
And so I spent all week preparing and working on it, and on Friday I came into the church office and asked when in the service I should be ready to speak.
And they told me that I wasn’t actually going to be delivering this reflection on Sunday, in fact I wouldn’t be delivering it anywhere.
I don’t know if they intentionally had me prepare it even though it wouldn’t see the light of day, or whether it was another time I feel through the cracks.
Regardless, I felt super angry. It felt like a picture of my entire experience there. Me doing work, putting effort, hoping for some kind of payoff, hoping for some kind of recognition and validation, but left feeling alone and discouraged.
But, here is the thing about that experience, here is the thing about that year for me, I found myself to have some of the most intimate and caring moments of connection with God that I have had in my life.
I remember going on a walk that day and kind of chatting with God in my mind, saying “This bull, why am I even here? What is the point of all this. I put so much work in and for what? This sucks. What am even I doing with my life?”
The actual conversation in my head may have had slightly colorful language to it.
And as I was walking and talking, maybe more like yelling at God, I got this somewhat unexplainable feeling of deep affirmation, which I attributed to God, a deep sense that I had done good work in preparing that reflection, that my effort mattered, that it mattered to God.
I can remember maybe a half dozen times that year, where I was left wanting when I looked for affirmation or recognition from one of my superiors there, but instead found some experience of deep internal affirmation from God.
Like, God was untangling my sense of worthiness and acceptance from the very unreliable recognition of other people.
As I said, that was a really hard year for me, but is often the case in hard times, it was also one of the biggest seasons of growth for me.
Going into that year, my sense of okayness, the belief that I mattered seemed to be almost completely tied to the external recognition of others,
The validation that I received from my parents, friends, teachers, superiors, my football teammates. etc
But, after that year, maybe by some secret and amazing character developing plan put together by the pastors there, or maybe by God’s grace in a tough situation
I found myself able feel ok, feel like I matter, even when I don’t get the recognition from other people.
Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with wanting validation from others, I still want to be seen in a good light, but those things do hold less power over me than the did before.
I wonder if you resonate with this at all?
Because it seems to me like we all crave recognition, validation, acceptance.
It’s one of those rare things that doesn’t seem to be dependent on your personality type, your culture, your upbringing.
Seems like this desire to be seen and recognized is in us all.
Yes, we can go about it in different ways,
Maybe it’s the need to be recognized as successful
Maybe we need to be seen as beautiful
Maybe we need to be recognized as special
Or any of the countless ways that we crave to be validated
It just seems to be a human condition.
But, I have found my efforts to be recognized by others to be an incredibly unreliable and unforgiving thing to hitch my wagon to.
It has felt almost toxic to me.
Like it’s this thing I have kept going back to, something that I keep trying that only leaves me in a worse place.
Maybe you resonate with that.
Maybe you too have a some toxic belief that you keep defaulting back to,
a belief that feels almost poisons to you.
Something that seems to drive an unhealthy behavior, or to repeat destructive patterns.
Maybe it’s the belief that
I need to find my validation from other people or
I have to provide for myself because no one else will
Life doesn’t work for me like it does for other people.
I am loved when I succeed, I am only as valuable as my achievements
Sometimes these are hard to identify
Because this isn’t a matter of what we CLAIM to believe
I’m talking about
The unexamined beliefs that determine the most unthinking, routine choices we make
Or the most foundational beliefs in us that determine what we do when we’re pressed and have to in a moment make a gut-instinct choice
This is what we REALLY believe…
Our default patterns and assumptions
But even if we can’t fully identify them, we can usually see the fruit of these beliefs in our lives (or bad fruit of them, as the case may be)
Because these beliefs seem to do a lot to determine our current experience
So if you have been with us over the last month you may remember that in this series we’re taking time to consider the question.
How do we change our minds when we have toxic beliefs deeply entrenched in our thinking?
Well, in part to address this question, we have considered that consistent refrain of Jesus’ message: “repent"
This is a word that calls us to a change of mind, a change of direction.
To turn away from that which doesn’t serve me, and towards that which leads to life.
It’s the move from toxic to healthy. Broken to healed.
However, I think the call to repent, unfortunately, has developed a bit of a shaming vibe to it.
Probably much to do with the Judgmentalism that has found its way into much of American Christianity.
But, I have come to understand that God’s invitation to repent is
Not shaming shaming at all, it is deeply compassionate and relational.
That he knows us, and he know the toxic understandings we have, and toxic behaviors we get stuck in. And he is inviting us, with his help, to change our minds, change our way, to lead us towards something much better.
And I think that is what happened to me over that year in Australia
I experienced a transformative time of repentance
I went from the toxic efforts of seeking recognition from others, the unsatisfying and unreliable efforts to find validation in those around me
To a far more reliable and freeing source of recognition, getting it straight from him.
And I think my experience was one that Jesus was very aware of
And it was this struggle for recognition that he had in his sights when he criticizes the pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, in the passage I want to bring us to today
If you read along, you should find this passage in your program, reading from the Gospel of Matthew, of the 4 biographies of Jesus, from Chapter 6 v 1
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him…
And then after offering the Lord’s prayer as the suggested alternative way to pray, Jesus continues to say.
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
We find Jesus here highlighting the human need for recognition, the human desire to be seen and validated.
His continued promise is: God the Father wants to reward you himself, directly…
I think of the deep, consoling, validating recognition I experienced as I learned during that internship to process in prayer with God the recognition I wasn’t getting elsewhere and hear his voice of unexpected recognition cutting through that
That’s the reward Jesus directs us toward
Because this is a part of what it means to be human.
I don’t think it is really on the table for us to just not care, or be ok with not being recognized.
This is the universal human desire that I know I certainly have, which every person I know has, the desire to be recognized, to be accepted
Jesus’ criticism in the speech we just read seems to be of people who are settling for lesser rewards
You see Jesus very carefully refers to three specific things here Almsgiving (also known as giving to the poor), prayer, and fasting,
Today we see these three things as good and worthwhile. Something maybe a respectable person would do.
But, for the original audience these words would have carried some extra weight.
In that culture these three practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting, were the three foundations of religious living
You see, the Jewish people that Jesus is talking to here were living under Roman occupation,
Their sense of identity was under threat.
And as a result of this, as often happens in places that are under foreign occupation. A subversive counter culture forms, kinda like, “we are going to deal with this threat to our identity by holding on tighter becoming more devout to who we were in the most public way possible.”
And this is who the Pharisees were, they were a group that placed their identity in their public jewishness, and would often then police others in how jewish they were being.
All of this to say
when they would have heard Jesus address these three things: almsgiving, prayer and fasting it wouldn’t just have been three random things he was taking aim at, but the highest and most respected indications of their identity.
In short, these were the things that showed them as part of the in group. The cool group.
In Jesus challenging the pharisees, he is calling them out saying:
If the only reason you are doing these things is to try to be cool and garner recognition for yourself, than I’m sorry to tell you but whatever reward you get from that is going to expire pretty quickly
Living to be recognized by others is a fickle, unreliable way to live
You see these practices are great, giving, prayer, and fasting are things that change and affect our heart, our character, they form us.
But if they are are done in an effort to be seen by others, they are just hypocrisy
I think what Jesus reveals here is quite profound
That even the most altruistic, meaningful act, will not get us closer to the life we are looking for if it is done to gain recognition and acceptance from others.
It can feel like easy to see that we shouldn’t look to validation when it comes to ugly picture of selfish gain.
Like the CEO in everything from the clothes on his back, the car he drives, to the supermodel he marries, everything he does seems to be an attempt to promote himself, to seek recognition.
It feels easy to call that as not particularly great
But, the return can be equally unsatisfying when we are looking for validation from others even in really benevolent and altruistic places
Think of all the ways we pursue validation, don’t them seem so temporary and unreliable.
How fickle is it having to rely on the likes and retweets of strangers
Or our friends
I know how quickly the feeling of affirmation fades for me after a friends compliment
Or our Parents
Isn’t that a complicated place to find the validation we desire
Or our Superiors
Think of my opening story, how unreliable are our supervisors to offer us the recognition we want
But, What if there was a way to feel seen, to feel recognized that would really pay off. What if that is what Jesus is encouraging. Something that allows us to stop running on the treadmill that is looking for others to validate us.
And it is my experience that is exactly what Jesus is offering us. A gift, a reward of getting what I am looking for directly from him, from the source. A life where I can find a kind of recognition, validation, a kind of acceptance that is reliable, not fickel. Something that is not so dependent on circumstance, a sense of validation that’s resilient
Jesus is telling us, do these things give, pray, fast because they serve you and others, because they are worthwhile to do, but not so that you can get recognition, because even these good things are meaningless when they are a means to that end.
Rather, just come to me, put your confidence in me, for I see you, I acknowledge, recognize and validate you right here, right now. Aside from your effort.
You matter aside from earning it. Come, experience that freedom, This is the reward he is offering. Not one that is short lived, temporary, and unsatisfying. But, one that is rich, eternal, reliable.
As we have been learning during this series, to really change our beliefs from something toxic to something life-giving (like from “I’m so unrecognized! Notice me! Notice me!” to “I feel truly validated and recognized by God!”)... we can’t just decide or resolve to “think better”
We have to live ourselves into new ways of thinking
This is why Jesus doesn’t just highlight hypocrisy, he offers a better suggestion
Do these things in private
And here is where the always invitational nature of Jesus comes in, here is where Jesus’ heart to lead us into better life comes out.
Jesus tells them that these practices should be pursued in secret, in private
Because when we do them in secret, in private.
We can only look to him for recognition.
We can only find validation from God this way.
And that reward is one that is not temporary, one that is reliable, it’s a source of recognition and validation that we can rely on, that will pay off for us.
So, if you feel youself connecting with what I have said here, and you too want to rely less on the unreliable recognition of others, and instead find a resilient experience of validation directly from God.
I have a suggestion.
Start asking, demanding, recognition from God in private.
For example: do something awesome for someone but don’t tell them… only tell God, and put the pressure on him to recognize you…
And the hope is and my experience has been that this allows us to begin to get the recognition we desire directly from God, that we can find a deep and eternal source of validation. Which will free us to truly believe that we don’t need it from others people.
So today, tonight before bed, I encourage you to take notice of something that you would love to be recognized for, something you long to be validated for,
maybe as I suggested, even do something awesome today for someone else. But, don’t tell them, bring it to god tonight in private to god, and ask that he would recognize you, validate you.
Here is the thing I will tell you about this, there have been times where I was demanding validation for something specific I did. And I felt like God saw me and validated that specific thing, but I have also had times where I felt like he just validated me. Like in my opening story. I didn’t just feel like God validated my efforts, but he validated me as a person. Like, I see all the work you did, awesome, but you know what... even aside from that you matter, I love you, I think you are awesome. And at least for me it’s been those those occasions that have had the bigger impact on me.
So if you would stand with me