I’ve used the following story as an illustration before, and it still hits home with me. It’s a story that a respected Christian author and speaker, Tony Campolo tells about a man named Joe.
Joe was a drunk who was miraculously converted at a Bowery mission. Prior to his conversion, he had gained the reputation of being a dirty wino for whom there was no hope, only a miserable existence in the ghetto. But following his conversion to a new life with God, everything changed. Joe became the most caring person that anyone associated with the mission had ever known. Joe spent his days and nights hanging out at the mission, doing whatever needed to be done. There was never anything that he was asked to do that he considered beneath him. Whether it was cleaning up the vomit left by some violently sick alcoholic or scrubbing toilets after careless men had left the men’s room filthy, Joe did what was asked with a smile on his face and a seeming gratitude for the chance to help. He could be counted on to feed feeble men who wandered off the street and into the mission, and to undress and tuck into bed men who were too out of it to take care of themselves.
One evening, when the director of the mission was delivering his evening evangelistic message to the usual crowd of still and sullen men with drooped heads, there was one man who looked up, came down the aisle to the altar, and knelt to pray, crying out for God to help him change. The repentant drunk kept shouting, “Make me like Joe! Make me like Joe! Make me like Joe!”
The director of the mission leaned over and said to the man, “Son, I think it would be better if you prayed, ‘Make me like Jesus.’”
The man looked up at the director with a quizzical expression on his face and asked, “Is he like Joe?”
I believe every time I’ve told this story, I’ve held up Joe as an example of what it means to live the Christian life. I believe I have encouraged each and every one of us to “be like Joe.” I believe I have focused all my efforts in telling you how you should live your life–because if you live your life like this, then others will notice how you live and become a Christian and become a part of our church. We will grow and become important, and we will shine like a beacon of light in a dark world.
This sounds great on the surface. It really does. I mean, for fourteen years, I’ve preached it. It’s difficult to admit that I was a bit wrongheaded in how I approached such matters.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a standard of Christian living into which we are called to live. I believe that doing good things and living a life of service is a worthy task, but sometimes, our motivations get all out of whack. What do I mean by that?
Think about this question for just a moment: why do you do many of the things that you do? What drives you to act in a particular fashion? Work at a particular job? Buy a particular item? Travel to a particular destination? Why do we do the things that we do?
Usually, and I am painting with a large brush stroke, we do the things we do because of what we get in return. I volunteer at a local charity because it makes me feel good to help other people. I buy a particular car because I enjoy driving it. I work at a particular job either because I love doing it or because I get paid a lot of money and feel happy chasing down a particular social status in living. I travel to a particular destination because I feel relaxed and happy when I am there. I hang out with a group of people because I like those people, how they make me feel about myself. These are usually our motivations. Of course, that does change from time to time. I mean, there are times when we engage in activities that we don’t really like to do. There are times when we go to various functions, not because we want to be there, but because we feel a sense of obligation in being there. I may not want to make an appearance at the local fundraiser, but I know there will be a lot of important people there, and if I am not there, then I risk being seen as uncaring; unappreciative; or anti-social. That’s just one example, but there are others that could be listed which are similar. So, let’s look at this again, we do the things we do because we either get something out of it–some sort of satisfaction, or we feel obligated to do them because of some sort of external pressure. We either feel good about it or get some sort of recognition by those outside of ourselves.
You might ask, “Well, what’s the problem with such matters? Why is this such a big deal. I’m finding things that make me happy. I’m working to influence others. Is this such a bad thing?”
Well, maybe not at first. I mean, there are times when we feel greatly satisfied by such things. There are times when we are truly happy and excited. There are times when we feel appreciated and recognized. But the real question is: what happens when that happiness fades? What happens when that recognition fades or begins to be put on something or someone else? What do you do then?
You see, when we try to find satisfaction in the things that make us feel good or in how others see us, we are bound to eventually become unsatisfied. We will eventually become jealous. We will become hungrier and hungrier for more good things and more recognition. Sooner or later, we will begin saying things like, “If I only had a better paying job. If only I could be as popular as that guy. If only I were as good looking as that woman. If only I could travel more. If only I could find more time to get away. If only I could find a moment of peace and rest. If only I could be like Joe. If only...If only...If only...”
Let’s break from this train of thought just a moment so that I can show you how oftentimes even in the church, we get caught up in this kind of idea. In our first lesson from the book of Acts, the writer, Luke, shows us some of what the earliest disciples did. He shows us how they gathered together to study, listen to the apostles’ teaching, to hang out and talk about life, to break bread–eat together, worship together, and pray. The new life they had in Christ also manifested itself in how they treated possessions. They sold everything they had and distributed the proceeds to anyone who had need. Their lives revolved around God, and they had generous hearts, generous lives, and they helped out anyone who had a need. We are told that people were in awe of this.
Folks in the church today look at this passage and have a tendency to say, “If only we were like that. If only we were like that early church which gave away everything, took care of those in need, worshiped, prayed, ate together, engaged in fellowship; and devoted ourselves to Bible study, then our church buildings would be full. We would truly make an impact in society. We would see tons of visitors, and they would be impressed with what we were doing. They would be in awe, and they would join us. They would see our works and want to be like us. If only...If only...If only...If only I could be like Joe. If only we could all be like Joe.
That last sentence of our lesson this morning is rather intriguing, I think. Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Who was adding to their number? Who was bringing people to salvation? Was it because of the works of the disciples that people were being saved? Or was it the work of the Lord? Who brought people to faith: the disciples, or the Lord? Of course, it was the Lord. Folks might have been in awe of what the disciples were doing, but it was the Lord who brought about salvation. It was the Lord who added numbers to the growing church. And it is the Lord who brings such salvation to you and I as well. It wasn’t about the “if onlys.” It’s never about the “if onlys.”
Look, whenever we get caught up in those if onlys, we are simply trying to justify ourselves. We are trying to find our worth, our happiness, our satisfaction, our joy in the things that we do. And we can never do enough. We can never buy enough things to fully satisfy our desires. We can never make enough money to fully satisfy our desires. We can never travel enough or have a good enough job. We can never impress others enough because sooner or later someone else will show up who will gain their attention and draw them away from us. No matter how hard you work at it; no matter how much time, energy and effort you put toward it, you will never find yourself being fully satisfied by your efforts to justify your worth or your existence. It won’t happen. Some of you may know this already. Some of you may be sensing it deep down. Some of you know that no matter how hard you try, someone else always seems to be better than you; wealthier than you; prettier or more handsome than you; have a better house; a seeming perfect life; happier than you. And the more you compare yourself to them, the more miserable you become.
And the solution isn’t to try harder. That’s the one many of us fall into. I certainly did. Try harder. Try to be nicer. Try to be more enthusiastic in what you are doing. Surely I will make a difference. Surely others will notice! Surely I can be like Joe and others will want to be like me–they will notice me!
What if I told you you no longer had to worry about justifying yourself? What if I told you you no longer had to try to get your self-worth from anyone else? What if I told you you didn’t have to do anything to find satisfaction or happiness or joy? What if I told you that such things are beyond your reach, but instead have already been provided for you?
You might think I am nuts, but then again, after you work and work and work and find no peace, perhaps you might consider what I am about to say. You see, you can’t be like Joe and you can’t be like those early disciples through your own efforts. You can’t make anyone be like Joe or those early disciples through any sort of coercion or argumentation. You can’t change your ways and make yourself more peaceful and content. It’s too hard. It’s darn near impossible.
But there is one who can. There is one who can enter into the recesses of your very heart to give you a sense of well being and worth. There is one who can give you a sense of justification and joy–not because of what you have done but because of what He has done.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.
Christ died for you and loves you despite the fact that you are broken–that you can’t be perfect–that you can’t be like Joe–or those early disciples–or anyone else for that matter. Christ died for you and loves you so that you don’t have to worry about the if onlys. Christ died for you and loves you beyond compare. Hear that message and let it sink in. Really, let it sink in and contemplate it. It will change you. It might even make you like Joe. Amen.