Was anyone surprised by Lance Armstrong’s confession about cheating at cycling? (If Oprah Winfrey could not tug it out of him, who could?) The problem of cheating has dogged humanity since the beginning. Remember that Jacob cheated by impersonating his older brother, Esau, to get his father’s blessing and birthright. Today we might not think of cheating as one of the more serious moral issues, but God does. In Deuteronomy 25:16 it says, “All who cheat with dishonest weights and measures are detestable to the Lord.” Ouch! I don’t cite this verse to make Lance Armstrong feel bad or to sound morally superior (I’m not even morally superior to my Border Collie, and he’s a miscreant), but to point out that something sinister occurs when people cheat.
Proverbs 16:11 says, “The Lord demands accurate scales and balances; he sets the standards of fairness.” This Proverb is for all who make rules, follow rules, and enforce rules. If we don’t accept that God is the ultimate author of fairness and his standards are much more important and perfect than our notions of fairness, we are doomed to compromise fairness to meet our own desires. Granted, Armstrong may have been competing on what he perceived as a level playing field while doping because most of the other top competitors were doping, but the ethical waters certainly got muddied. And people got hurt in the process.
God knows it is dangerous for flawed humans to think that ethics, morality and fairness are contrivances that society can create and manage for the sake of having a smooth-running society. If a society is to survive and thrive, its people must hold to the belief that there is a moral God who cares about our decisions and actions. Any standards of fairness without the foundation of God are ephemeral. In other words, ethics and fairness are not important because societies can’t survive without them (though that is true), they are important because they are part of God’s character.
Fortunately for Lance Armstrong, and all of us, Psalm 51:17 says: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, or God.”
Hopefully, Lance Armstrong has started the journey towards a broken and repentant heart. The thing he will need to watch out for is time. As time passes, he will likely desire to move forward and get on with life while people and other forces will want to keep dragging him back to his painful mistakes. It will be challenging to maintaining a broken and repentant heart until he weathers all the storms ahead and comes to the place where God desires to take him. Lance Armstrong can be a better man. But it can only be accomplished with God’s help. Maybe that’s the lesson for Lance Armstrong: this is one race he can’t win on his own. It is a truth that applies to all of us when we stumble.
When I was in middle school, the teachers held a contest to see which student could come to school dressed in the most authentic costume representing a famous person from American history. I selected Johnny Appleseed (even then I had no life). If you’ve never heard of Johnny Appleseed, Google him! Johnny Appleseed was known for traveling about the country barefoot and dressed in rustic garb. And yes, he planted apple trees, lots of apple trees (these days we’d call him pathological).
I was excited about the contest and enlisted my mother’s help. She was a proficient seamstress (an archaic term used to describe someone who actually makes clothes by hand). My memory is a little fuzzy, but I am sure my costume looked great. We used burlap to make a tunic. My breeches were worn and torn. I had a cloth sack full of faux apple seeds. An old battered felt bag became my hat. I studied the life of Johnny Appleseed in preparation of my short presentation. I showed up barefoot on the day of the contest. The only problem was that another student had also selected Johnny Appleseed as his character (what are the odds?). His costume was pitiable. Hey, the kid was wearing rubber boots, jeans, and an old jacket. I felt confident of winning in my category.
As the judges announced the winners to a packed house of beaming parents, I felt sure of victory . . . too sure. I almost stepped forward as they called out the winner, but it wasn’t my name they announced. Wait, what? Yep, they called the name of that other would-be Johnny Appleseed. I choked back tears and took it like a man . . . on the outside. On the inside I was livid. Oh the indignity and unfairness of the whole affair. I felt resentful. My friends tried to assure me that I had the best costume. It didn’t ease my indignation. I would have left that school and never returned if I had the option.
After the contest, the principal called me to his office. He said the contest judges wanted to express their apologies because they had called the wrong name for the contest winner. They got my name and the other kid’s name mixed up. They couldn’t officially declare me the winner but they had pitched in and bought me a consolation prize. The principal assured me that my costume was excellent. Even though I wouldn’t get a trophy, I felt vindicated and recognized for my effort.
Don’t most of us crave some recognition? I’m not saying recognition is bad, but let me give you an example of a potential problem with recognition: Jill volunteers a lot in church. She comes to church early to set out refreshments. She stays late to clean up. She chaperones at junior high youth outings (in which case she’s practically Mother Teresa). Jill always shows up on work days at the church sanctuary. She paints and cleans and scrubs the church to keep it looking nice. She serves on the hospitality and visitation committee. Jill thoroughly enjoys serving in the church; she feels like it is her calling from God. Then one Sunday she’s sitting in church when the pastor calls Walt to the front and praises him for all the work he does leading the missions committee each year. Jill feels a twinge of indignation that steadily grows. Walt only works a couple hours on the missions committee once a year, she thinks to herself. She has poured her life into serving behind the scenes and the pastor has never once said thank you. Before she knows it she is shopping for another church, or left church altogether and reactivated her Facebook account.
I am not making excuses for insensitive behavior. But why do we (I) get hurt and offended when our efforts go unnoticed even when doing work we cherish? We know God appreciates us. Still, it’s nice to hear people appreciate us now and then. Neglecting to say thank you is simply considered ill-mannered behavior. The Bible tells us to encourage one another. Yet we know all humans, even clergy (I am not implying that clergy are not human), are flawed and can unintentionally overlook proper etiquette.
So why does the heart still crave recognition, fairness, validation? Are we justified to crave these things? Or do we simply need a thicker skin? There are some Scriptures that can guide us through the problem.
James 3:13 -16:
“If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.”
Strong language for jealousy and selfishness! Such things lead us into the work of the enemy. Ouch!
This sentence in the Scriptures above really caught my attention: “But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth . . .” In other words, it just feels better to wallow in our indignation but the Bible tells us to confront the resentment in our heart. We may have indeed been wronged. But the Bible urges us to react different—to not be in denial. It’s like this: the work we do with God inside our heart is just as important—if not more so—as our physical acts of service.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
(So much for good citizen awards) It’s about our motive; the inner urge that compels us. Is it duty, ambition, bragging rights, a desire for affirmation from others . . . or love? Part of the problem is that we don’t fathom the depth of God’s love and largesse.
In Matthew 20 you’ll find the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It’s the story of a landowner who hired some workers at different times of the day and sent them into his vineyard to work. At the end of the day, the workers who worked longest expected to receive more pay. But the landowner paid each worker, regardless of how long he worked, the same wage—one denarius (a day’s wage). The parable is there, in part, to describe access to the Kingdom of Heaven by both those who serve God all their lives and those who find God near the end of their lives. I always thought the landowner was unfair. I just couldn’t get beyond the appearance of unfairness. But it recently dawned on me—we see the Kingdom of God from a feeble human perspective. Think of it this way: If the landowner paid each of his workers one billion dollars for one day of work, would the workers squabble about the unfairness of the landowner? Maybe, but I doubt it! You see I think we don’t comprehend the largesse of our God. We just can’t get our head around his actual generosity and how much he does for us. From our imperfect earthly perspective it looks like God pays us a denarius when in fact he has given us access to the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s generosity should overwhelm our indignation about unfairness and recognition.
All we need do is think of the generosity of God when we feel our nose getting bent out of shape when we don’t get any recognition for our efforts.