When My Ego Shows Up in Church
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. James 3:14-16
Last night, I had the opportunity to speak at a fundraising gala for a Christian transitional housing program for those struggling with addiction*. It’s a fantastic ministry that does amazing things for those coming out of treatment, jail, or prison and it was a privilege to be there. I’ve spoken at enough events though, to know what comes after. As those in the crowd tell me how much they appreciated my words, my ego begins to swell. I approach the event with the best of intentions. My only purpose is to tell others that Christ offers us a new life. I can and should feel good about spreading the gospel. Afterwards though, the joy of being obedient to God can, if I’m not careful, subtly be replaced by feeling good about my performance. Pride insidiously creeps in as others tell me how much they appreciated my message. I did do a good job. I am a good speaker. I’m quite a big deal. They’re lucky to have me.
If I’m not careful in managing my ego, the opposite could easily be true as well. If, when I finished, everyone just got up, walked out, and didn’t say anything to me, I’d be crushed. They didn’t like me. I did terrible. I’m a failure. In this performance mindset, my happiness is attached to the audience’s response. My ego craves affirmation. If it receives it, it grows. If it doesn’t, it’s devastated. Like I said, I’ve done this enough to know this is coming, yet the temptation is there every time. Each time I speak, I must remind myself that my participation is only about my obedience to share God’s message. The results are up to him, and I must find my joy only in doing his will.
James spoke to this problem in today’s passage. In it, he said that the wise humbly serve others. The foolish on the other hand, do good things out of selfish ambition. This is a constant temptation for those who do anything for God. Because we’re so self-centered, even the joy of serving others can subtly be replaced by the pleasure of being recognized for our good works. Our self-esteem becomes attached, not to obedience to God, but to results and recognition.
This, James said, is earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic, resulting in chaos and wickedness. This sounds like James might be overreacting. Many of us have seen though, what happens when a spiritual leader uses his platform to promote himself over the message of Christ. When this happens, churches are torn apart, and lives are destroyed.**
As Christians, we’re created to do good, simply being obedient to God’s will. In doing so, we find joy. We must resist however, the temptation to attach our self-esteem to the results. We obey just because God asked us to do the right thing. Then, we leave the results up to him. In that, we can and should find profound joy, purpose, and meaning.
*Redemption Road in Fargo, ND is run by David and Noelle Vernoy. It’s a Christian transitional housing program for those coming out of treatment or the criminal justice system. It’s a fantastic real-world example of the transformational power of the gospel of Christ.
**My wife and I have recently listened to Christianity Today’s podcast entitled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It’s a story of a pastor who set out to do good but was consumed by selfish ambition. It’s a fantastic listen for anyone interested in evangelicalism, the megachurch, and the dangers of narcissistic leadership.