Confessions of a Silver-Tongued Devil

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It’s a little sad, but I’ve had to learn to selectively muffle my enthusiasm with family and friends when it comes to music and movies that move me. Sometimes I fear I’m pushing too hard. Sometimes I wonder, am I sharing from a pure heart or from some latent competitive intention bubbling beneath the surface like a volcano ready to erupt?

Sometimes I expect my audience to get it–see what I see–without prompting. More than once, I’ve felt quietly and maybe self-righteously indignant when they don’t. Sometimes I fear I push the art with what might seem like a salesman offering faux Rolexes from the lining of his coat. The harder he pushes, the more human nature wonders, “What’s wrong with him?,” or “What’s wrong with his message?”

I have a friend that reacted a little too casually to the music of Andrew Peterson when I first introduced it to him. So I none-too-subtly sent him each new Andrew Peterson CD after Carried Along as it was released. Fast forward to years later as I played Love and Thunder on our drive from Chicago to Milwaukee last summer: I silently celebrated as he sang–word for word–every song on the CD. I won! Indeed, it felt like victory, yet there was this annoying little itch that I sensed the urge to scratch, that felt something like–conviction.

As I reach to insert my latest and greatest CD purchase into the slot, how many times have my wife or son said, “How bout’ let’s talk? Do you mind leaving the music off for awhile?”

The movie Saved features a scene in which Hilary Faye throws a Bible at Mary, saying, “I am FILLED with Christ’s love! You’re just jealous of my success in the Lord!” Mary, picking up and holding the Bible, replies, “This is not a weapon! You idiot.”

As I proofread music or movie reviews I’ve written, I sometimes sense an insistent tone, as if the reader must capitulate to my wonderful words. “If you don’t love this CD, you must be an idiot,” or so I might as well say.

Eric Peters has a revealing slice of wisdom in a line from the song “Bus 152”: But demands don’t bring penance like I thought they would.  Of course, I’m too smooth to make any of this overt, to say it out loud, but I am not the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will move in His time, not at the beck and call of this silver tongued devil. If somebody needs to be convicted of a thing, or follow a particular path, it’s not my place to find just the right track that will put them in their place, the right movie that will bring them to their knees, a song that will make them cry tears of contrition.

The above thoughts occurred to me (once again) after reading wise words from Ron Block and Andrew Peterson in the thread, “A Stream Across the Path.”

AP wrote:

The relationship that you have with Jesus, the intimate nature of your connection with him, is not exactly the same as mine. You have things to teach me about the mind of Christ, insights into his Word that I cannot see on my own. There are things about him that may be very clear to you that have never crossed my mind. His Spirit lives in you, and it lives in me, and we are not the same.

Ron Block wrote:

If I could change one thing about my past it would be that I would much earlier have realized that I can learn something from nearly everybody if I have the right mindset – a humble one.

Pride is the most insidious of sins. It stealthily wraps itself up in the midst of good intentions and honorable work. The same God who inspires us to share beauty and truth with another soul is the same God that stands waiting to temper our words and intentions with love–and extinguish any residue of selfish gain.

In The Big Kahuna, Danny DeVito’s character Phil Cooper says, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down.’ That doesn’t make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are – just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.”


13 Comments

  1. Nathan Bubna

    (Beware of tangents below, as this got me thinking and reminiscing on my past related issues…)

    I used to be pretty concerned about the fact that it was hard to believe any of us humans (myself especially, since i have more insight there) ever do anything altruistically. Really, i went through a long spiritual low in college, not questioning God like many friends i had, but really questioning myself: “Do i really love anyone or anything, much less God, if i’m always in it for me in one way or another? And i sin all the time, pretty bad sometimes, what does that say about my faith?”

    I can’t say i’m totally over all that, because those questions still haunt me from time to time. But i’ve largely let it go on two points. The first is if we’re supposed to love our neighbor like ourself (and that’s like loving God, ’cause He loves them), then it’s ok to love ourselves. I think that’s probably even part of loving God. Which makes me wonder if truly pure altruism is closer to idolatry than love but does let me ease up on myself about my motives. The second is that it’s ever a good idea to shoot the messenger because of the message, nor the message because of the messenger. Thankfully, God can and does use even pride-motivated sales pitches. Paul says as much pretty clearly. So, even if i’m wrong about the first point and we should ideally love and serve in total selflessness (which is actually far more extreme than sacrificially–other before self), then at least i can take comfort in the fact that God can still use my faulty, selfish motives for good.

    So, yeah, i’m part salesman sometimes, and i’m always in it for myself at least a little bit. But as long as i care for them, as long as it’s not all about me, i am still human. And even if i were enough of a jerk to be only concerned about the sale, God’s in the equation too, and He’s got the love and skill to speak through, under and over my stupid pride to get to that person’s heart. Granted, He’ll still judge me for that pride one day, justice will be done. But that’s not all that He can do in that situation.

  2. t clair

    The last paragraph in this post (referencing that sage of our times, Danny Devito) got me thinking about the way Jesus approached people. Did he approach people without intentionally steering conversations? Before you exclaim, “No!” and laud our Lord’s willingness to meet people where they are, think about the woman at the well. There’s no question that he steered that conversation. But how did he do it? He used what was around him. Water. He used a common element to connect to the uncommon; he used the natural to segue to the supernatural. And why did he ask about her husband? He proved that he knew all about her sexual escapades. Was he being manipulative? Perhaps “wise as a serpent, but gentle as a dove” is more appropriate.

    I’m not challenging the premise of this conversation. I couldn’t agree more. Our motivations in speaking with our friends and family on any subject we care deeply about (especially the gospel) should be questioned. But what were Jesus’ motivations? I think it’s apparent that he steered the conversation, but why? If you compare his interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4 to his with Nicodemus in the previous chapter, you will see that he treated them differently. Nicodemus received a blow to his pride (“Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things?”) because that is what he needed. Jesus understood where he was and delivered a message that would meet him where he was. Have no doubt, he steered the conversation, but the motivation was love. And the woman at the well? Compassion is all over that story. She was a half-jew woman getting water at the well in the middle of the day because no one wanted to be around the town whore (or so goes my interpretation). Yet Jesus stopped to talk to her. And he used what was around her to reach her. He met her where she was. (After all, remember how it says he *had* to pass through Samaria?).

    To bring it full circle, I am struck by Curt’s not so subtle message he sent to his friend by sending him AP’s albums. The motivation was love both for AP’s music and for his friend. And what music lover doesn’t love a free album? I think you met your friend where he was, Curt. Like Jesus. Cool. Seems to me that we can steer things and love people at the same time.

  3. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I loved the quote in the last paragraph; it’s important to listen, really listen to the perspective of other people, where they’re at, what they love, not in order to change their perspective but simply to understand it.

    Regarding steering conversations: There is a difference between a real passion for something and mere salesmanship. Real passion looks for opportunities to share itself, passion that bubbles up out of us like an overflowing spring. And then there’s agenda. People can sense the difference. The one listens, yes, but also looks for opportunities in conversation to share something good, something real. The other, agenda, is a control issue – steering. I know, because I’ve done both. One is manipulative; the other is organic, feels more natural.

    That’s one of the infinite reasons a close walk of intimacy with Christ is crucial; if we have that ginosko, that knowing of him, and know that He knows us, we will bubble over with passion. This is the passion of Jesus for His Father; that’s the source of His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well and others. Most people can easily tell passion from sales – except for the chronically self-righteous. That’s why sinners were attracted to Jesus, while the self-righteous constantly mistook passion for sales – because sales is all they know. “He casts out devils by the prince of devils!” “Who can forgive sins but God alone!” “We know this Man is a sinner!”

    So – a sensitive spirit is necessary to discern who we’re talking to (one on one), what they’re able to handle – and whether we should be just listening a lot more than we’re talking. Lewis wrote, “Do not imagine if you meet a truly humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is a nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a great deal of interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

    “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”

  4. Matt Conner

    From my own perspective, I have learned that last paragraph to be huge in a ministry context. I’ve learned a LOT from John Perkins. I’m the pastor of a largely 20-something, white, creative group of people who meet in an abandoned elementary school in a black/hispanic part of town. 96% of the kids in our neighborhood are on free lunch and living conditions for many are deplorable.

    It’s easy for us as those who have to assume that we know what the have-nots need. And that’s not the case at all.

    The great model of Jesus is that, as you all have already said, he listened. Perkins writes in “Beyond Charity” that relocation is essential to solving poverty and moving beyond charity (hence the book title). Coming in with answers to question people aren’t asking is a dangerous place of pride. So instead, he proposes living alongside people in need, relocating to the urban centers and then learning the answers for yourself.

    For example, maybe they don’t need groceries. But when you realize that the kids are playing on sidewalks that are all broken and dangerous and uneven because your same kids must play on them, then you realize what needs done. But you can’t know those issues until you live there yourself.

    I think that’s a large part of effective ministry – not thinking you know the answers because you drive a nicer car than those you’re headed toward, but instead finding humility to know them first and learn what they need rather than assuming.

    Perkins also notes that it’s important to move from “those people” to “us” in our mentality. And until that transition is done, then ministry can be more destructive than effective.

  5. Chris Slaten

    Hey Curt, hope this isn’t cheating. I wrote the below comments on one of Andy’s threads, while i was thinking of the discussion you posted here and thought I would just let it roll over:

    In some ways it seems that the sense of urgency I have in trying to communicate and share the things that inspire me the most is driven by the desire to be known. While the most personally meaningful experiences can be isolating when we try to relate them to our neighbors and spiritual kin when they don’t “get it”, these experiences can also be seen as our most intimate “brushes” with God. That’s enough for me to know to be able to lay off the pressure a little bit when I am trying to convince someone else that something is beautiful. It’s also a reassuring thought for songwriters like myself and probably a lot of other writers in this room who sometimes have an obscure, offbeat, not always easily accessible sound.

    Though, I often forget all of that in the blink of an eye.

  6. t clair

    Just to clarify, I agree with what everyone is saying. I think I was attempting to demonstrate how by meeting people where they are we can share with them the love of Christ. The example of living with those to whom we are ministering is a great example. Just in case anyone thought I was challenging anything said.

  7. Nate

    In response to Nathan Bubna, I think its OK that we seek our own happiness. I’m reminded of a quote by CS Lewis (that I wont try to restate here, just paraphrase) that everyone who ever lived did everything they ever did because they thought the result would make them happier. Some people may do the complete opposite thing in the same situation for that happiness. Some may risk their life to save someone, another may choose not to put their life in danger and not save that other person, but both have essentially the same motivation – to expand their own happiness – maybe short-term, maybe long-term. There are many variations. I may get married because I think that will make me happier. My brother may choose to remain single, but he does it for the same reason.

    I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 13 – the great Love chapter. Paul says in the first 3 verses that if he does [insert amazing thing here] without love, he will be 1) a resounding gong, 2) a clanging cymbal, 3) nothing, 4) gaining nothing. He is not making the point that he wants to gain nothing. He is saying that gaining nothing is bad. We want to gain something. The motivation is: try not to gain nothing – try to gain something.

    And Jesus said that whoever comes after him has to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow. Why? For whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ will find life. If you want to find life, then follow Christ. Finding life and following Christ are gain. Utmost gain.

    Now there is obviously a right way to seek your own gain/happiness and a wrong way. But simply wanting to be happy is not a bad thing. In fact, I agree with CS Lewis that everyone does everything they do for that reason.

    I think we can even apply that concept to Christ who would be happier glorifying his Father in heaven by taking on the cross than to flee the cross and say that his Father in heaven was not supremely valuable. This is a little John Piper Theology as I will call it here. And I agree with him on it 100 percent.

  8. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    The real truth is that in and of our human selves we can only be self-loving – desiring our own happiness. That is how we are made – a negative, a want, a lack, a need. And God intends to fulfill that lack or need He created in us by giving us Himself. Me, the negative want, desire, lack, need. God the positive fulfillment, completeness, supply.

    It’s important to take note of Jesus’ words, “I can do nothing of Myself” and “the Father in Me does the works.” He didn’t live by exerting His humanity, but by reliance on the Father within Himself. In His humanity Jesus Christ was as weak as any one of us. He was tempted, tried, pulled on by the Devil, knocked around every which way, and “learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” Granted, He never sinned. But that was God the Son, not His humanity. His humanity was the lack, the need.

    If we get this straight, we understand that our humanity was created specifically as a weakness so that God could be our total Supply. That’s the real Source of the Christian life – and it flows through reliance.

  9. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    curt:
    a) i love that you quoted the movie “Saved”. as teeny-boppie as that movie may be, my wife and i are fans.

    b) humility. a friend once told me that it is a dangerous request – perhaps THE most dangerous – to ask God to humble us. because he will. and the process hurts. and he loves us. but it is good.

    thanks for your post, sir. hope to see you in Nebraska in a couple of weeks.

  10. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Josh W. – I’m glad you enjoyed the quote. As soon as I heard that passage of dialogue in that movie, I knew it was something I wouldn’t soon forget.

    Nathan Bubna – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a sales approach to presenting the gospel, or art that moves us. Vocationally, I happen to be in a field that clearly requires a sales approach and I learned many years ago that a consultive sales approach is best and far more preferable than the used car approach. Empathize, gather information, LISTEN, and if it your “product” or “service” makes sense for this person at a particular point in time, then make a recommendation.

    T. Clair – Your point is well taken. Iron sharpens iron, so I’m happy to have your perspective. I appreciate the nuance you provided. One of the themes of what I wrote is that when pride is involved, because it is so indidious, it’s sometimes hard to discern our own motives, at least it is for me. There’s always been a friendly/sometimes not so friendly competition between the friend in my story and another brother of ours (we’ve known each other since we were kids), so I may have mischaracterized my story if it came across like I was the knight in shining armor. As noted in my initial article, pride often wraps itself in even good intentions. Maybe I was acting honorably, maybe not, but in wrestling introspectively with issues like these, hopefully I become more sensitive to the color of my heart.

    Ron Block – As always, I appreciate your perspective. I suppose when one becomes too introspective the spotlight by necessity points inward, quite the opposite of where it should be. Still, I sometimes have more difficulty discerning my own intensions as I also believe others might. The reason is that unholy intensions are often hidden in the shadows, below the surface of obvious perception. It’s not quite as easily discernable as one might expect.

    Your reference to a sensitive spirit is right on. Empathy. Listening. Caring. It’s hard to use that approach in a self-promoting, mercenary way. You have referred to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; habit five is “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” I am a Covey fan because though the book is a “self-help” book, it’s largely based on spiritual principles. Thanks also for the quote from Mere Christianity. That quote always hits me like a ton of bricks, because of my struggle with pride.

    Matt
    – You have painted a picture of “consultive selling” and empathy at it’s best. Jesus’ example was perfect. He lives among us as a man, a working man nonetheless, quite blue collar. Money, status, education–none of that provides us with all of the answers. And those things most definitely don’t teach us empathy as does “knowing them first,” as you perceptively noted. I always look forward to your comments.

    Chris – It was response posts like yours, Chris as well as the initial posts from Andrew that prompted me to start thinking about this issue. The truth is that I started writing the article as a post response, but soon realized it was too long for that, so it became an article. I nearly deleted it, wondering if others may have had similar thoughts. It seems I’m not alone in attempting to navigate these white water rapids.

    Nate – Thanks for the slice of John Piper. I’m a fan, though his style is more like slogging through mud than flying like the wind for me.

    Eric – Having learned by experience that God answers prayer in ways in which I would not have expected, I’ve learned to pray more carefully. How many times have I stopped an aspect of prayer dead in its tracks, because I was fearful of the outcome God may design? I don’t think that’s the way we were meant to pray. I’m looking forward to your Nebraska visit, my friend.

    Ephesians 4 is an excellent chapter to dig into relative to this discussion. It’s a chapter that explores the unity of the Church and Christian living.

    4:1-3 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

    4:14-15 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.

    4:29-32 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

  11. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Curt,

    “Still, I sometimes have more difficulty discerning my own intensions as I also believe others might. The reason is that unholy intensions are often hidden in the shadows, below the surface of obvious perception. It’s not quite as easily discernable as one might expect.”

    I assume, because of a reliance on the new creation identity, that my deep down intentions, like those of other Christ-indwelt people, are right and good. They may be colored or distorted by soulish stuff – pockets of unbelief, self-coping mechanisms, and manipulative techniques we’ve learned early on – but I believe in the essential, deep down goodness of a regenerated human being.

    An illustration – I think I’ve mentioned this before in an article, and I’ll try to make this short.

    I struggled for years with losing my temper when my kids became defiant, or didn’t accept responsibility for their actions. It was a flash-bang response – I rarely had time to think. But I prayed for light on the matter, and God gave it. He showed me that deep down I had love for my kids – total, committed, other-centered love in my Center, in my spirit (where Christ’s Spirit lives). And in my soul, I had Fear. Fear that came from growing up with relatives who were felons, and now their sons are felons. So – that Spirit-love would rise up, hit that pocket of Fear, and would be distorted into Anger. The deep down motive was right; once God cleared the lens from Fear and put faith there (“all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children…”), my flash-bang response has disappeared. I get irritated, I get firm – but I don’t blow my top anymore. The Love comes up, comes through the lens of faith, and in that moment I clearly see the path I must follow to get my kids back on track.

    Good motive, good intention – bad execution due to unbelief.

    That’s always the case with a believer. Deep down intentions are Christ’s intentions. That is the inner Perfection with which He has made us perfect forever. And now we undergo and cooperate with the process of working that inner Salvation out into our lives as we are ‘being made holy’ in our actions and not just our deepest intentions.

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