The first freely programmable computer was built in 1936 by a German engineer named Konrad Zuse. That computer became operational in 1941. Since then technology, as we all know, has made tremendous strides.
Now, every successive year brings new technology is that is faster, smaller and more efficient than the previous year’s tech. This movement toward greater technologies has created a great expectation that progress is linear through time, that is that things should improve and get better every year.
This expectation breaks down when it is applied to people. Since the beginning of the great recession, more work is expected out of fewer people for less money. That’s business, except people carry those same expectations outside of the workplace. We multi- task. We fill our schedules so that we’re busy all the time. People are not machines. Eventually, this kind of strain leads to breakdown. Physical breakdown. Mental breakdown. The breakdown of families. These breakdowns can lead to serious personal and social issues such as sexual dysfunction and chemical abuse.
Last week, I suggested that you submit yourself to Jesus, to let him help you form your thoughts, desires, goals and behavior. This week and over the next four sermons, I will talk about four traps, four false beliefs which bind us and prevent us from thinking and behaving as mature Christians. These traps and false beliefs are not new, the Bible has an answer for them all, however they are exacerbated by the pressures of living in a modern, increasingly secularized world.
The first trap is the performance trap. This trap is caused by the false belief that you must meet certain standards to feel good about yourself. The second trap is the approval addict. This person believes that they must be approved by others to feel good about themselves. The third trap is the blame game. Those who fall into that trap believe that those who fail are unworthy of love and deserve to be punished. The final trap is shame. Those who fall into that trap believe this about themselves, “I am what I am. I cannot change. I am hopeless” I will speak to each of these over the coming four Sundays. This week’s topic is the performance trap.
As I will discuss later in the sermon, the way out of these traps is spiritual maturity. You arrive at spiritual maturity through a very basic law, lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief.
If you pray and worship, often and correctly, your mind will be transformed. God will work in you to transform your thoughts and desires, eventually effecting your behaviors and actions;
Present your bodies a living sacrifice a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1)
In the Gospel reading for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, Jesus stays behind at the temple in Jerusalem after His parents left for home. It seems strange to an overprotective parent a parent could go for a day without knowing that their twelve year old son was missing, but realize that the men and women in the caravan were traveling separately. Jesus could’ve been with either His mother or His father. Neither parent would’ve thought it was peculiar that He wasn’t around, until they reach home. I can hear Joseph now saying something like, “Mary, I thought He was with you.” To which Mary would respond, “No, I thought that He was with you.” Finding that Jesus wasn’t among the caravan, they trace their steps backward, in an effort to figure out just where Jesus could be.
And so these earthly parents turn toward Jerusalem, seeking Jesus. And on the third day, they find Him debating religious doctors in the Temple. Mary asks Jesus, “Why did you do this to us? Can’t you see that your father and I have agonizingly been searching for you?” And Jesus responds, “Why did you need to search? Didn’t you realize that I would be here in my Father’s house?” Then they went home to Nazareth, and Jesus was obedient to His parents.
As I’m learned as a parent, children become more self-aware and willful at 12 years old. Here, Jesus is realizing His purpose on earth, just like other 12 year old children. And He is becoming self-willed, but not sinful. As it states in the next verse, Jesus was obedient to His parents, just like the 5th commandment dictates.
Jesus was growing up, transforming into an adult. Growing up is a theme familiar to St. Paul. In our Bible Study in Ephesians you may recall that Paul said, “That henceforth we be no more children…” He tells us and the Ephesians to “grow up into him in all things…” We need to be mature in our faith.
Today’s collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany itself contains a teaching on the meaning of prayer. Not every prayer is answered with a “yes” because not every prayer is according to His will. St James explains it this way, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts (James 4:3).” We should pray to determine God’s will and to learn what we “ought” to do. We should then seek God’s will to accomplish it. That is what St. Paul means in the Epistle by “presenting yourself as a living sacrifice.” He means seeking and doing God’s will. That’s what St. Paul means by renewing the mind, that is praying that we may perceive and do what things we ought to do.
Despite being baptized. Despite efforts to live and follow Jesus. Despite being washed in the Blood of the Lamb and being born again in Christ Jesus, our minds go places they ought not. Despite being restored to righteousness by Jesus, evil thoughts still flash through our brains that conspire to undo us.
In Colossians 2:8, St. Paul warns us, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Don’t be spoiled by vain deceit, he says. That sounds a lot like today’s Epistle, “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” These thoughts are constant. St Paul himself recognized them in himself when he said, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I (Romans 7:15).”
A true mark of maturity is when we begin to test deceitful thoughts and their resulting behaviors against the Word of God.
One of the deceptions all of us tend to believe is that success will bring us happiness. We believe that we must meet certain standards in order to feel good about ourselves. This is the same deception that the serpent used to tempt Eve. “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat (Genesis 3:4-6).” Eve fell to the deception, “If I meet this standard, then I’ll be happy.” The standard was wisdom and knowledge of good and evil, but it was a lie.
The consequences of falling for the false belief that you must meet certain standards to feel good about yourself range from fear of failure, to perfectionism, to the drive to succeed, to the manipulation of others to achieve success, to withdrawl from all healthy risks.
Eventually, our desire to succeed can lead to being driven beyond healthy limitations, leading to an inability to relax or enjoy life, let alone enjoy time with family and relationships.
Remember Mary and Martha?
Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42).”
The good part, according to Jesus, was to be present in mind and body, to sit and listen. Instead, Martha was busy, troubled and resentful, trying to live up to some expectation of what it means to be a good host.
The result of believing the deception that our self worth is based upon meeting some standard can have heavy long-term consequences. When we feel we’ve been insulted or injured by others, we feel anger. Out of pride, we believe ourselves to be diminished and so we shift that responsibility to someone else. We can become depressed as a result of anger turned inward. We develop low motivation, believing in advance that we will fail no matter what we do, and so we believe that we have no reason to exert any effort.
Satan wants to deceive us. Satan wants to destroy us. Sometimes he accomplishes that through our own thoughts.
So what do we do? If you have fallen into the trap of believing that you and others only have value when certain standards are met, how do you get out of it?
God’s answer is this, justification by faith. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… (Romans 5:1)” Justification means that not only has God forgiven you of your sins, but He has also granted you the righteousness of Christ. You are fully pleasing to the Father regardless of how you look, how smart you are, what kind of car you drive, who your parents are, or based upon anything that you’ve done in the past. None of that matters. You please the Father and have value because of what Jesus did on the cross. To overcome this trap, you must first realize that you are subcoming to the false belief. Then you must supplant that false belief with the truth, that is the truth contained in Holy Scripture. You must supplant it with prayer and worship until the truth of the Gospel is your belief. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief, or to put it another way, we believe what we pray. Then we develop a new outlook, we can start to see ourselves and others as God sees us and others.
St. Paul in the Epistle tells us not to be conformed to the world, which measures success by titles, records and dollars, but instead to renew your mind. He is telling us to have a new attitude. The new attitude comes from looking at everything in terms of God, instead of looking at everything from the self-regarding perspective which comes to us naturally.
The new attitude involves asking such questions as, “What does God want me to do here?” “What would the Christian response to this situation be?” “How can I best serve the interests of this other person?”
What St. Paul teaches about our sacrifice of ourselves is part of the celebration of Holy Communion also. In the long Prayer of Consecration on pages 80 and 81 of the Prayer Book, we begin by representing the sacrifice of Jesus under the forms of bread and wine, just as He taught us to do.
After the Word and the Spirit have made the bread and wine his Body and Blood, we join our sacrifice of ourselves to his sacrifice of himself. The dramatic climax of the prayer comes when I say, for all of us, “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.”
The point of all this should be obvious. We can never transform our minds, that is, take up the new God-regarding attitude, without help. The power we need both to want to make that sacrifice and actually to go ahead and do it comes from God.
That power flows from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and we literally eat it and drink it at the altar rail. Later on we ask God to give us the help we need “to do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” You can only do those good works after you have made your own sacrifice the transforming of your mind, the offering of your whole selves, your souls and bodies, to do what God wants you to do.
When you believe that you are completely forgiven and fully pleasing to God, you no longer have to fear failure. As time goes on, you experience freedom from fear of failure and an increased desire to do the right things, that is to serve Christ and His Kingdom. You act out of love for Christ rather than out of some contrieved standard of achievement.
Christ is worthy of our love and obedience. The more we understand His Love and majesty, the more we praise Him and honor Him at the expense of everything else that seems to press upon us.
To avoid the deceptions of the world, the flesh and the devil, develop maturity. Test your thoughts against God’s Word. Seek to do the will of God. Pray that you might know what things you ought to do and ask for the power to faithfully fulfill the same.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.