A Subtle Danger in Christian Ministry: How Some Lose God While Serving God

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“There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” Whenever I teach my course on C.S. Lewis at Bethlehem College & Seminary, I always include his book The Great Divorce. I love the book because of the way it clarifies the nature of the Choice that confronts each of us every day.

In the book, the narrator rides a bus from a dreary, hellish town into heaven, where angels and saints converse with the condemned spirits, imploring them to turn from their sin and enter in. The damned ghosts are essentially exaggerated caricatures of us, designed to show us the temptations and snares that we face in this life. The ghosts are damned because “there is always something they prefer to joy — that is, to reality” (71). Lewis insists that there are innumerable forms of the Choice, some obvious, some not so much. But one of the most frightening — Lewis calls it “the subtlest of all snares” — is the temptation to mistake a means for the end.

Anyone who speaks or writes about God for a living is likely to feel this temptation keenly. Lewis himself faced it regularly in his ministry as an apologist. But before we explore how this temptation takes shape for preachers, teachers, and other communicators of God’s word, consider how Lewis illustrates it in The Great Divorce.

A preacher black and white silhouette
A preacher black and white silhouette

Two Famous Artists

Lewis introduces this temptation through his guide in The Great Divorce, George MacDonald. As MacDonald tells the narrator, there is an apologetics form — people who are “so interested in proving the existence of God that they come to care nothing for God Himself” (73). There is an evangelistic form — people who are “so occupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought for Christ.” There is a philanthropic form — people who organize charities and yet have lost all love for the poor. In each case, we mistake the means (apologetics, evangelism, generosity) for the end (desiring God, treasuring Christ, loving our neighbor).

But the book’s extended reflection on the danger of mistaking the means for the end comes through an interaction between two famous artists, one of them a ghost and one of them a heavenly spirit. Their conversation reveals characteristics of the “real artist” (who mistakes the means for the end) and of the “true artist” (who, by the grace of God, does not).

REAL ARTIST

The “real” artist (in the worldly sense) sees the beautiful landscape and immediately wants to paint it. Once he’s had his (brief) look, he’s ready to get to the important work of demonstrating his talent. He’s reluctant to take the time to simply soak in the surroundings. When the Solid Spirit says, “At present your business is to see. Come and see. He is endless. Come and feed,” (84), the ghostly artist acquiesces with a dull voice. He thinks only about how quickly he’ll be allowed to take up his brush and paint.

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“The true artist fundamentally loves the Thing that he tells.”TweetShare on Facebook

What’s more, as a “real” artist, he’s interested in the country only for the sake of painting it (that is, he has mistaken the means for the end). He’s grown out of his initial love for his subject, the naive delight he took in what he painted when he first began. Now he’s interested in “paint for paint’s sake.” He has curved in on himself, descending from love of the Thing he tells, to love of his own telling, to love of himself as the teller. That is, he’s become interested primarily in his own personality and reputation.

He desires to meet and dwell among the distinguished people, the great and famous artists like Cézanne and Monet (85). In the end, he refuses to go to the Mountains out of concern for his reputation on earth.

TRUE ARTIST

The true artist, on the other hand, fundamentally loves the Thing that he tells. He loves to see and feast on the endless good that is in God. Light is the thing, his first love, and he loves painting only as a means of telling about light (84). And he never outgrows the simplicity of this first love. He gladly looks forward to drinking from the fountain of humility that makes him forget all proprietorship in his own works (85).

He is able to enjoy his own painting without pride or false modesty, because he has been truly humbled, and is therefore able to delight in the Glory that flows into everyone, and back from everyone. He cares little for his prominence and his reputation among posterity. He knows that he truly paints only for an audience of One, and his deepest delight is in the fact that he is “known, remembered, and recognized by the only Mind that can give a perfect judgment” (86).

Lessons for Teachers

Abstract truth tends to remain on the surface. Real transformation comes when we get concrete and personal. And I’m no artist, real or otherwise. But I am a teacher and a preacher. And I love to teach and preach. And reading Lewis on the danger of mistaking the means for the end challenges me precisely at this point. I know how easy it is for serving God to replace knowing God. And so here are four ways that I try to fight for joy and reality and God’s centrality in the face of my own love for teaching.

Remember God’s presence.

First, I regularly remind myself that I am always in God’s presence. As theologian John Webster put it, “We never talk about God behind his back.” It’s striking that the ghostly artist in The Great Divorce opens the conversation by taking the Lord’s name in vain.

“God” said the Ghost, glancing round the landscape.
“God what?” asked the Spirit.
“What do you mean, ‘God what?’” asked the Ghost.
“In our grammar God is a noun.”
“Oh — I see. I only meant ‘By Gum’ or something of the sort. I meant . . . well, all this. It’s . . . it’s . . . I should like to paint this.” (82–83)

“God is not merely a thing to be thought about. He is no mere subject to be debated and discussed.”TweetShare on Facebook

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He is standing at the entrance to Deep Heaven, and God is simply an exclamation, an empty word, and not the most important Person in reality. And thus, for myself, in all of my thinking and teaching, I labor to remember that God is not merely a thing to be thought about. He is no mere subject to be debated and discussed. He is a Person, the Person, and in him I live and move and have my being. It is impossible to talk about God behind his back.

Rejoice in the tellings of others.

Second, I aim to rejoice when other people see things and say things better than me. Or when they see things that I see and say them first. When someone else has the insight, makes the connection, or expresses the truth that I love in a beautiful and compelling way, I ask myself, “Do I truly rejoice in the Truth, or do I rejoice only in the Truth through me?” In other words, I try my best, by the grace of God, to drink from the fountain of humility, and lose the wrong sense of ownership in my own works.

This doesn’t mean that I stop loving the Thing I tell, or even that I cease delighting in the fact that I have the privilege of telling it. But it does mean that I seek to rejoice in someone else telling it, as much if not more so than my own. Practically, this means that when I encounter someone who says the thing I love to say, I simply stop and pray, “Lord, may your truth run and be honored through them.”

See before you say.

Third, I labor by the grace of God to really see before I say. To stop, to meditate, to look, and to look long and hard. I labor to make my seeing into a feeding. “Come and see. He is endless. Come and feed.” My seeing must be a feeding if I am to avoid mistaking the means for the end. To see and to immediately say is like putting food in your mouth and spitting it right back out. Instead, I want to eat the truth, to digest it so that it becomes a part of me, and comes out with the richness that a deep ownership of the truth provides. I want to say with the apostle Paul, “I believed, and so I spoke” (2 Corinthians 4:13).

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But the need to see and feed before speaking creates a tension in my life. How do I know if, like the ghostly artist, I am rushing to tell what I see without truly feasting on the truth? How do I know if I am truly loving God or if I am only loving what I say about him? At the end of the day, how do I know whether I am mistaking the means for the end?

Ask, ‘Can I walk away?’

Lewis helps me to answer this question by reminding me that all means must die. “Every natural love [including the love of teaching] will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried” (105). If, as Jesus says, following him means taking up my cross daily, then it means that every day my love of thinking and teaching and preaching must die.

“Do I truly rejoice in the Truth, or do I rejoice only in the Truth through me?”TweetShare on Facebook

Such dying may take many forms. But one of the most potent for me is to simply ask myself this question: Can I walk away? If forced to choose between continuing in my vocation as a teacher at Bethlehem College & Seminary or God’s fatherly presence in my life, what would I choose? Teaching or Christ? Preaching or Christ? Can I walk away?

Now, intellectually I know this isn’t a difficult choice. God is my portion. But my prayer is that God would grant me the mercy to feel the simplicity of this choice day by day.

Aim at Heaven

The promise, of course, is that if we let the means die — and sometimes we might have to put them to death — they will be raised. The choice between the means and the end is a zero-sum choice only if we try to stop at the means. But if we press through the means to the end — if we paint for God’s sake, and defend the faith for God’s sake, and spread the gospel for God’s sake, and give to the poor for God’s sake, and teach and preach and write for God’s sake — then we find that all of these means become truly themselves. What’s more, they become truly ours. Indeed, they become more ours for being his.

Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 3:111)

Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. (Mere Christianity, 134)

Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney) is president-elect of Bethlehem College & Seminary and a teacher for desiringGod.org. He is a husband, father of three, and pastor at Cities Church. His most recent book is More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust.

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