The other day, I read a post Mike Breen of 3DM wrote, The Obituary for the American Church. In the post, Breen postulates that the three temptations of Jesus are the very things that could be the undoing of the American Church. Mike Breen says,
For the past year I’ve been thinking how the enemy would/might be trying to take down the American church. Now what I’ve noticed is that the original temptations Jesus faced (which can best be boiled down to Appetite, Affirmation and Ambition) are somehow warped and insinuated into the culture. As each culture is distinct and different, a smart enemy would come at each culture in subtle ways, tempting them in ways they don’t see or expect, and with things that would look different from culture to culture.
In my earlier post, Circling the Drain: is your church among the walking dead, I talked about what is happening to the denominational church. Breen postulates on why this is happening. Today, I want to take a different slant. Since reading Breen’s post, I have been dwelling on these three temptations, and how they have been active in my own life. These three temptations all touch on our identity. The key question in a discipleship walk is where do I place my identity. These three temptations are challenging because they take our focus off of Jesus, and seek to rest our identity elsewhere. I explored this ground with my piece, Does Your Identity Limit Spiritual Growth?
I now want to lower the plow a bit and dig deeper. The first temptation Jesus encountered in his 40 days in the wilderness was Appetite. My mentor Robert Fritz describes three focal points of what he calls the dynamic urge, or the urge to create. Fritz explains, and I’ve found as well that there are widely varying levels of dynamic urge in people. At the close up view, we find Appetites: food, sex, belonging. When we live in the close up view, we are compelled by our Appetites. If we move to a mid-range view, our Appetites become aspiration. We can focus them beyond ourselves and on that which we aspire to create, whether it be career, church, or significant relationship. We will defer meeting our baser urges so that we may create our desired outcomes in the mid range view. This is the locus of effective visioning, either personal or organizational. Our relationship with our appetites will in many ways define our character. And, as the Greeks would say, “Character is fate.”
When we seek to fulfill ourselves by the pursuit of these urges for food or sex, we often find the results very unsatisfying. That’s because the core of the dynamic urge is really a higher calling towards aspiration. Often our pursuit of aspiration is derailed by our detour into fulfilling our base needs. In the long view, we move beyond aspiring to something concrete that we might actually accomplish to a vague longing for something like World Peace. Since we can never formulate steps towards such a vague longing, it remains a dream. So, two of the three avenues for fulfilling our appetites will not leave us satisfied.
Moving on to Affirmation, the ground gets trickier still. I learned several years ago that I had a strong need for affirmation. Gary Chapman describes the need for affirmation as one of his Five Love Languages. I grew up with a perfectionist father, and an older brother who graduated from Vanderbilt, and a younger sister who graduated from Duke. I left college when the draft ended and got married.
The image above is my family’s Coat of Arms. It was in the front cover of a genealogy book of our family history given to me when I was 8. Being a descendant of kings and noblemen was a lot to live up to. The message I took away from my father was that I wasn’t good enough. For most of my business career I was striving to prove that I was good enough. In so doing, I had a deep need for people to affirm me. I was suffering from the Imposter Phenomenon, sure people would realize I was incompetent for the position I held.
Oddly that feeling never went away, even with my business success. It did not go away primarily because it was a sinful strategy. I was seeking from people what only God could give. At the end of the day, through a structural consult, Rosalind Fritz helped me see that I was trying to prove myself to God, when only Jesus could do that. I painfully learned that God has no interest in helping me hold up these false ideas of identity. So, in seeking affirmation from the world, we are not acknowledging our own brokenness. This was a painful lesson that God used my father to teach me.
Lastly, let’s consider the temptation of Ambition. For me, much of my ambition came right out of my structure of Not Good Enough. It was the drive behind my ambition, my motivation for my ambition. At the end of the day, it was all about me. I wanted to prove myself, to make my mark, to find a bigger stage. I never questioned my ambition. It was underneath the hood, operating from an subconscious place. Even as I left the marketplace behind to move from success to significance, I was seeking to do a big thing. My ambition spilled over, and still flowed through my structure. That’s why I pushed so hard for transformation at my church that I blew it up. I did not recognize that people are free to say no. It became too important for me to do something for God. In reality, I was still trying to appease my voracious ego.
The result of this folly, as I attempted to bring new life and leadership to my Lutheran tribe, was to hit the wall, crash and burn, damaging my health in serious ways. I have a deep vein of perseverance, and in this case, it kept me on an unsustainable track for years too long. My ambition blinded me to the true nature of God, and kept me trying to earn grace.
Today, when I see churches building multi-million dollar sanctuaries when the streets are full of poor people barely holding on by their fingernails, I wonder what role ambition plays. It has become hard for me to see such projects without thinking that someone is kidding themselves to say, “This is about God, it’s not about me.” When new churches can be planted for $50-500K, I wonder why we want to spend millions enlarging a campus that will someday be an albatross when the facilities no longer meet the need.
I think these three temptations are widely used to derail individuals from living out the life God intends. Many a Godly purpose is thwarted by our failure to see and turn from these temptations. I pray that you might see where Appetite, Affirmation and Ambition are being used by the evil one to tempt you and bind you without your even being aware. Only the strength of the Spirit can break those bonds.