Editor’s note: Each month, In Touch staff members respond to an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s teachings. For this round, Joseph Miller, John VandenOever, and Kayla Yiu discuss the pursuit of honor.
All-knowing, all-seeing, and sovereign, the Lord “does not see as man sees, since man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). This is why Paul reminded the Thessalonians that “we speak, not intending to please people, but to please God, who examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). It’s easy for Christians to get caught up in how they look in their faith and to attempt to measure it solely by actions and words. But this approach centers on how people perceive our performance instead of what really matters. How can we learn to seek God’s approval above anyone else’s? This month’s excerpt comes from Dr. Stanley’s sermon “A Life of Service”:
Today people are looking for honor from all kinds of situations and circumstances, and they want others to applaud them and praise them and lift them up and exalt them. Do you know what? The only thing that really matters is that you and I have the honor of our heavenly Father. God honors those who serve Him. It has nothing to do with your education. It has nothing to do with where you serve. It has to do with your spirit, your attitude—that of a servant. When you and I are willing to give ourselves to our living Lord, then our life is going to begin to be fruitful. Wherever He carries us to serve Him, He’ll be there. First, we have the promise of His presence and second, the promise that almighty God will honor us.
John: This quote resonates with me. I am a recovering Christian-performance addict.
Kayla: So, John, I'm guessing you can think of a specific time or situation when you had to remind yourself that it’s being honored by God—not other people—that matters?
John: Yes, lots of examples. First of all, the pursuit of holiness from a child's point of view often looks like perfectionism. Growing up, I was around a lot of professing Christians but not a lot of confessing Christians. So I learned to be good with answers and perform—whether it was in a Sunday school class or a small group—but I didn’t know what to do with my sin.
Today, however, I’m learning that it’s the struggle, the lowering of myself that matters. So I hope I'm less likely in small groups to give impressive answers (the ones that leave me waiting for the meaningful "mmms" after) and more likely to say where I struggle and how Christ is powerful in my weakness.
The pursuit of holiness from a child’s point of view often looks like perfectionism. Today, however, I’m learning that it’s the struggle, the lowering of myself that matters.
Kayla: Pursuing honor from God is definitely a struggle for me. The idea of legacy and impact drives a lot of my day-to-day decisions—but it's always me wondering how I'll be perceived by others, not so much by God: What impact will I have on my community or my family? What great work will I leave behind?
John: That's good. So you're thinking of legacy—What am I doing that matters?
Kayla: Yes, that's where my brain goes when I think of honor.
Joseph: I think in the context of this sermon, honor could mean approval.
John: That's how I read it. I thought of "seeking the favor of people" that Paul talks about in Galatians 1:10.
Kayla: I'm thinking about others’ approval and praise too—just when I'm dead, for some reason.
Joseph: Oh don’t worry about that, you’ll be forgotten in three generations.
John: When Dr. Stanley refers to giving ourselves to the Lord, what image does that call to mind for you?
Kayla: My first thought is wearing blinders that keep me from caring what anyone else thinks or from letting others drive my decisions.
John: I think of giving myself in ways that don't get acclaim. I've often been a teacher. But when I'm teaching young children, it feels a lot more challenging for me. There's not the "wise sage" reward. It's humbling to work hard on a lesson plan for Sunday school and pray that Christ works both in and despite me. But this week, one of the kids just ran up to me in the foyer and said, "Hi Mr. John!" It felt so nice. Like God was honoring me with that affection.
Joseph: Very sweet.
I will say, it’s hard to think about God honoring us, because like so many things with Him, it comes across as intangible. Whereas, other people honoring me? That affects my daily life.
Kayla: That's interesting, Joseph, because John just illustrated how he felt honored by God through people.
Joseph: We can pretend that we all like the idea of eternal rewards, but is that going to put food on my table today?
Kayla: I hate to admit I'm not very motivated by the idea of "eternal rewards."
Joseph: No one is, I would wager.
John: Eternal rewards are hard to imagine. I've known several people that do talk about them, and they are real go-getters.
Joseph: Just as with eternal rewards, receiving honor from God is sometimes part of playing a longer game. God will honor us through people in the long run, if we do the right thing.
I think what Dr. Stanley is reminding us is this: “Just worry about what God thinks in the end, okay?”
Just as with eternal rewards, receiving honor from God is sometimes part of playing a longer game. God will honor us through people in the long run, if we do the right thing.
Kayla: It's sounding more and more like the pursuit of integrity.
John: Here's something I read this morning that hit me between the eyes: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3). It immediately applies to my work—thinking I've got better ideas than the person I'm collaborating with, for example. So I started filling in that verse with the names of others.
Kayla: Names make it very tangible and real!
Joseph: That’s a good reminder of what it means not to seek honor from others before seeking honor from God.
John: And the verses that follow describe what Christ did in humility.
Kayla: Do you think “consider[ing] one another as more important” means we downplay our own ideas?
John: For starters, I think it means not having a preconception about a person. But it's the selfish ambition part too: What are my motives going into this collaboration or gathering? We also can frequently become unteachable and need to be aware of that.
Kayla: John, it sounds as if you have a system of checks and balances—that in a given situation, you ask yourself, What are my motives? Am I judging this person? Am I teachable right now? Am I listening?
John: Haha, that makes me sound very disciplined.
Joseph: I can’t speak for John, but I do think some Christians struggle with that verse and “try” to be humble in ways that frankly don’t work. Paul wrote Philippians 2:3 because it’s counter to human nature. But there’s a broader problem with this. Checking your motives is important, though it can be overthought. Just be. Seek the Lord, trust the power of the Holy Spirit working in your life, and move on.
Checking your motives is important, though it can be overthought. Just be. Seek the Lord, trust the power of the Holy Spirit working in your life, and move on.
Kayla: I hear you, Joseph. We can overthink these things and in the process drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit.
John: Look, I've spent a lot of time in the church. I'm in my 50s. My dad was a pastor. I've done some seminary. I've worked in Christian ministry for over 25 years. If anyone knows what it's like to be puffed up, it's me. I constantly have to fight against it to listen and allow God to speak. I know that I know a lot more than I practice. There are many other believers (even the very young) who can speak or demonstrate things that God wants me to learn anew—or learn for the first time. So I try to remember that.
Kayla: John, your experience reminds me how Dr. Stanley says being honored by God has nothing to do with our education or where we serve: It’s all about our spirit and attitude. How does this challenge the “look” of a Christian life?
John: I can see lately where this “look" has gotten us as a Christian culture. There has been a lot of ugliness to emerge from "right appearances" rather than a heart turned toward God. Jesus was always inverting the look—showing the disciples the poor widow who gave everything (Mark 12:41-44), describing the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs (Matt. 23:27-28), accepting expensive perfume poured out on His feet (John 12:3-8), permitting the disciples not to fast when the bridegroom was with them (Mark 2:18-20).
Joseph: It reminds me of something Dallas Willard said about the Beatitudes: “The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings … They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus.”
It’s not a list of things to try to be. It was Jesus pointing out how the upside-down kingdom works.
Kayla: There's sort of a mold believers aspire to follow—someone who does quiet time every morning, goes to church every Sunday, volunteers regularly, etc. And those things are good! But Dr. Stanley is saying it’s about our spirit and attitude above all else.
John: I think time with God is the best way to affect the spirit and attitude. But we need to step into the world from that fueled-up experience.
We can’t walk in humility unless we’re changed, and we can’t change without time in His presence.
Joseph: True, John. We can’t walk in humility unless we’re changed, and we can’t change without time in His presence.
Kayla: It makes me want to be more open with people. When people don’t "look" like Jesus followers, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and imagine that perhaps their faith doesn’t look like mine.
John: I want to be more attracted to people who quietly exhibit God's presence but aren't gushing all over themselves to prove it. I've known several meek people I wish I spent more time with, asked more questions of.
I think of this woman named Emma who cleaned our church when I was a teenager. Older, quiet, so joyful, and peace-filled. Widowed and I never saw her with any family, but she was just so incredibly generous.
Joseph: That’s a fantastic encouragement for all of us. It should be said more and passed down to younger believers: “Look for the meek and faithful, and ask them questions.”
Kayla: I think you just wrote a new proverb, haha.