English poet William Cowper wrote, " “O, popular applause! what heart of man is proof against thy sweet, seducing charms?” It's another subtlety, the threads of approval addiction woven into the fabric of so many humans. And, the temptation is so vivid and real to those of us called to serve him. Every line of our confession aims us at the finish line when he will say to us, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Luke 19:17). Until then, though, we must wrestle the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. And, I love the applause of men.
It's a long line, the spiritual leaders who've played to the approval of men. Abram lied to the Egyptians about the true identity of his wife Sarah. Moses almost worked himself into an early grave when he tried to be the only justice of the peace for the nation of Israel. Work through the Judges and Kings of Israel to see how they adjusted God's commands to the whims of their nations. Close your eyes and imagine God's frustration with prophets sent to announce judgment but who preferred acceptance of their people even more. It's not to rationalize our craving for approval and acceptance of others by detailing the long list of great leaders who've gotten in this line before us. No, it is to reckon the sinful nature of mankind in all of redemptive history and that we are no better on this side of the empty tomb except as a continued act of his grace. It's join the club time, the realization that even in all of our sophisticated education and pop culture style, we're just sinners who love center stage.
It's a dynamic tension in the spiritual leaders life, this handling of self. The extremes in this tug-of-war are often severe, the egotist doing battle with the worthless, dark-hearted sinner. Somewhere in between is the sinner saved by grace, the individual called and set apart by God, the learner mastering the disciplines of Lord Jesus, the person who has left everything to follow him, the ambassador who with confidence declares the word of the Lord, the human who is nothing without him. It's a real live person who struggles through the seasons of life and ministry constantly seeking to comprehend the mysteries of personhood. What in the chambers of this dark heart could ever make me prefer the praise of men rather than the approval of God?
Every human discipline has attempted to explain why so many of us are wired with a need for human approval. These questions notch up when spiritual leaders ask them. Yes, basking in applause is the natural habitat of unbelievers, even those without large egos or super-charged psyche. New believers who are learning the heart and actions of Christ will slip back into the default setting on occasion as well. But, when God called and gifted individuals, those entrusted with the awesome calling of spiritual leadership shine a little too brightly in the lights of the stage, something is out of place. It's especially true today when mega-, super- pastors are beamed around the world or streamed live to millions of eager groupies ready and willing to elevate them to stardom. That's one of subtleties, too. The bright lights and red-carpet can happen in small churches just as quickly.
What's the deal with the ovation temptation that marginalizes many pastors and spiritual leaders?
(1) The Ovation Zone happens because so many of the brethren are selective in their own personal discipleship. While we're imitating the character of Christ, his humility is often set aside. It's trendy today to admire and desire his strength, endurance, authority, vision, focus, devotion, prayer life, and clarity. But, there was also the kenosis, the emptying of self that marked his surrender to God's will. Without humility, the ovation is enticing and seductive. As the Apostle Paul affirmed to the Philippians, our attitude should be the same as Christ's, with the discipline of humility being factored into it constantly.
(2) When we're in the Ovation Zone, we are more prone to compromise preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God. Paul asked, "For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Galatians 1:10). He was exploring the anticipated short-cuts that typically follow a change of venue. Pleasing men is always short of pleasing God.
(3) When we're playing to the applause of men, we're apt to minister in our own strength and resources rather than the supernatural provision of God. The Ovation Zone is basically self-absorbed and can happen within the boundaries of human ability. We can point to him, reference him, cover him with our most eloquent words, but still bring the lights on us with some flash and sizzle staging. A truly humble heart never gets in the way of what he is doing, and that is always Christo-centric.
(4) The Ovation Zone doesn't happen in a self-enclosed vacuum. Other people are caught up in the shadows of the show and are spiritually dysfunctional as a result. The bright lights or noise of the applause may obscure the fallout that touches the people who make it happen for the leader. Under the spell of the Ovation Zone, the leader may not only be blind to what is happening to others, but may even choose to ignore it. This is spiritual arrogance of another kind.
(5) Human needs are secondary when the spiritual leader is in the Ovation Zone. As previously mentioned, truth becomes peripheral when performance is magnified by the spot-lights and the pastor is responding to the applause. As a result, the real life problems that moved people to church in the first place go lacking. You see, fun and games make us feel good, even better. But, only the eternal truth of God's Word declared confidently can provide spiritual direction for life.
Once again, humility is the path beyond the Ovation Zone. Spiritual leaders are going to be in front of people often, providing biblical direction for great human needs, giving mission and ministry direction for churches and organizations within them. The occasion for hearing and desiring the applause of men will be present in just about every aspect of spiritual leadership. The heart of the leader will then be the defining trait of every interaction.
Nearly four years ago our son Brian Eliot Holmes was murdered in downtown Charleston. It was the most grueling time of our forty two years. The grieving time since has been extreme as well. Early in the process God gave us a Bible promise. Peter wrote, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time" (1 Peter 5:6, NIV). The most prominent outcome of this pain has been his lessons in humility. He showed us arrogance and pride that we'd never acknowledged or even noticed. In the process, he took me off my high horse and let us magnify God and re-focus our lives on him. This humility helped me see the Ovation Zone that had so tempted me.
In retirement now, we're still waiting on the promise that he will lift us in due time. But, he showed us the power of his work in us when we decided to live outside the Ovation Zone, in the adoration zone that honors him.