Whatever You Do, Don’t Lie to Yourself
SEPTEMBER 7, 2022
It’s July, and I’m presently working on seminar material for September at The Cove.
That place in the North Carolina mountains is so beautiful that, even if my teaching leaves something to be desired, it isn’t a great loss. When I write these letters, it’s usually about something on my mind, and that seminar is what’s occupying my attention today.
The seminar title is “The Blessing and Curse of Guilt, Shame, and Fear.” I’m now up to the second of four sessions on the danger of denial. You have to, as it were, “kiss the demons” in your life, or they will grow into monsters. And when you “kiss those demons,” they begin to lose their power. That’s another version of our being “only as sick as our secrets.”
I learned this morning that the Christian faith isn’t so much what we do as it is how we see. Jesus promised that his disciples would “know the truth,” and it would set us free (John 8:32). In Matthew 13:11, Jesus said to his disciples that they had been given the gift of knowing the secrets of the kingdom. In the face of all the lies, prevarications, and nonsense, believers have been given a gift. It’s the perception of what is true and what isn’t.
My late friend and mentor, Fred Smith, was once asked by a dying friend to be a part of his “Death Board.” He asked one friend to be over finances, another over legal matters, another over spiritual things, etc. When Fred asked what his position would be, his dying friend said, “I’m appointing you as my BS filter.” While that’s a crass way to put it, we, as believers, have been given that ability. That filter includes Scripture, the Holy Spirit’s teaching and conviction of truth, and our interaction with other believers. It’s a kind of “knowing” that just is, and when we ignore that knowing, we do so at our peril. And that peril is even greater when we ignore knowing the truth about ourselves—the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly, and the just and unjust.
I’ve often said (and I get criticized when I do) that if believers are going to lie, they should lie to unbelievers, not to other believers . . . and they should never lie to themselves. But we do, don’t we? The church is often the least honest place in our culture. It doesn’t feel safe, so we pretend. At least I do. Sometimes it’s hard to be honest when one’s job depends on what people think about you . . . and mine does. And then, if we pretend enough, we start believing the lies. Some of those lies (denial) are about places of shame. We say, “I deserve nothing . . . because I am worth nothing.” Other times the lies are about how wonderful we are. Mohammad Ali demonstrated that when a flight attendant told him to put his seatbelt on. He said, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” (Her response was classic, “Superman don’t need no plane.”)
Because I’m fairly open about being a sinner, I’m often complimented for being “authentic.” I’m not that authentic; I’m just scared. George, Key Life’s president, just came into my office. When I told him what I was writing, George pointed out that that’s what defense attorneys do. If there’s something bad, they get it in front of the jury before the prosecution tells them. That’s me. I want to tell you the truth and spin it before you discover it for yourself or somebody else tells you.
While I may not be authentic, I am hardly ever (maybe never) inauthentic with myself. I honestly don’t kid myself about hardly anything. And the Christian faith makes that relatively easy. After you’ve walked with Jesus for a while, self-righteousness is far more difficult than self-awareness.
We must first discover who we are. Jesus and the Holy Spirit lovingly partner in that effort. It takes some time to listen, analyze, and contemplate, but the rest is easy once that work is done. One time a young man walked up to me after I had preached and said, “You are prideful and arrogant.” I surprised myself by saying, “Bingo! And I’m a lot worse than you think I am.” That was so freeing I almost spoke in tongues and danced. The truth is that I almost did both just to irritate him. But Presbyterians don’t do that sort of thing.
Psalm 51 is David’s confession. It’s so honest and in-your-face that we wince reading it, especially if we know David’s sin. This wasn’t a confession for stealing a quarter from his mother’s purse when he was a boy or failing to floss that morning. David was an adulterer, murderer, and liar, and his shame and guilt (and, I might add, his fear) are out there for everyone to see.
But believe it or not, with all of his sin, God called David “a man after God’s own heart.” In other words, David allowed God—knowing his sovereignty, justice, truth, and mercy—to define who he was. That was a gift. And it was a part of the process of self-awareness.
David’s guilt was measured by the Scripture he knew. God has not been reticent about letting us know what is right and wrong, what is good and evil, and what is safe and dangerous. One time my friend, Randy Pope, announced that I would preach in his church on the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” “I love Steve,” Randy said to his congregation, “but no matter what he tells you, stealing is wrong.” Of course, stealing is wrong, and so is murder, adultery, and lying. David knew that, and his confession clearly shows that he knew it. Our prayer ought to be the same one David prayed in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me . . .” God always answers that prayer, or at least as much as we can stand (God “knows our frame” and how much to reveal at any given time).
And then there is shame. Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is what we do, and shame is what we think. Guilt is related to God’s clear and revealed standard, while shame is usually related to someone else’s standard. That standard may have been set by demanding parents or authority figures (and even sexual and physical abuse). A teacher may have told you that you were dumb. Another girl or boy may have told you that you were ugly. That standard may have come from our culture’s measurement of what is acceptable and praised, and what is derided. On the other hand, that standard may have come from doting parents who said you were always wonderful, beautiful, and smart. But wherever we acquire it, it is Satan’s handmaid and destroys love, freedom, and life.
There are, of course, some things I’m ashamed about and should be. Others have been forced on me by well-meaning people. (I’m being generous with “well-meaning.”) “How could you?” they say, “You ought to be ashamed.” And frankly, a lot of the time, that was where I lived until I was ready to look my “demons” of guilt and shame in the face and, as it were, make an obscene gesture. It was there that I also began to deal with my fear. But then, that’s another subject. The point here is Jesus’s gift of self-awareness to his people.
It’s the gift of truth about the world and all that is in it . . . and for my own sake and yours, it is the truth about you and me. That’s more precious than gold and silver. In fact (to mix metaphors), it’s the “pearl of great price” Jesus compared to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13.
That’s not very comforting. I may stop praying altogether.
Oh, no. Just the opposite. It’s the most comforting thing in the world to know who you are and that you’re still loved, accepted, and valued. And it makes learning about ourselves an exciting opportunity and quite freeing. If you aren’t careful, it will make you sound arrogant and insufferable. To know the truth about one’s self—both the good and the bad—is better than drugs. (No, I don’t do drugs, okay?) My voice, for instance, is better than yours, and I probably know more about theology than you do; on the other hand, I know how often I’m proud of my voice and how arrogant I can be because of my knowledge. I’m quite delighted that I’m still walking with Jesus after all these years; on the other hand, I’m also aware of how many times I’ve thought about running. I’ve written a lot of books and preached a lot of sermons; on the other hand, I just told you that I’ve written a lot of books and preached a lot of sermons. I’m like the man whose club gave him the “Most Humble” medal. They took it away when he wore it.
You, too! Your list may differ from mine, but it’s the same thing. And just so you know, I’ve only mentioned “safe” things here. Neither of us will share the other stuff until we know each other better . . . and then maybe never.
But with God, it’s different, and that’s the point. There is nothing God will show you that surprises him, and he will never say, “I’ve had it with you.” You and I have nothing to lose, nothing to protect, nothing to defend, and nothing that we aren’t willing to face. Not only that, Jesus made it easy to do. Love does that, you know? That’s why self-righteousness requires a lot of work, and, properly understood, self-awareness is easy.
One other thing before I’m finished All of this has incredible implications for how we live. Self-awareness is how I became a spiritual giant. Well, not that, but I am better . . . because I’m worse . . . because I know it . . . and because I’m loved.
He asked me to remind you.