Not long after my conversion, I was on stage. An intriguing testimony and apparent gifting opened doors for me to speak in churches and on college campuses. Despite encouraging feedback, I knew I needed to learn the Bible. So I moved to Denton, Texas, to study under pastor Tom Nelson.
We were charged to find an area of service, so I jumped into the college ministry, assuming I could help lead the way.
God had other plans.
John Bryson led the college ministry during those years. He’d been around enough young men to know I needed to learn a lesson.
Before the first gathering of the year, John said he had an important opportunity for me. I assumed he wanted me to share my testimony or preach, so I showed up ready. Instead of leading me on stage, he led me backstage. He pointed to a rope. I would be serving those on stage by opening and closing the curtain.
With each tug of the rope, my frustration increased. My hands burned and my heart criticized the speakers—If I were out there, God would use me powerfully. I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, but that night I had this distinct impression:
If you can’t be just as joyful back here where no one can see you as you would be out there where everyone can see you, then you are seeking your glory, not mine.
And then it hit me: I served God with mixed motives. I hoped lost people would be saved—but I wanted to be the evangelist God used. I desired Christians to be encouraged—butI wanted to be the instrument of edification. I wanted people to think God was awesome—and that I was, too.
This is where it gets tricky. The desire for God to be glorified through me is the height of my created purpose. But there is a fine line between wanting God to use you for his glory and wanting everyone to know it. It’s the fine line between pure worship and idolatry.
There is a fine line between wanting God to use you for his glory and wanting everyone to know it.
It’s not wrong to desire to be part of what God is doing—you were created for this purpose (Eph. 2:10). It’s not wrong to want people to see God glorified in your life (Matt. 5:16). It’s not wrong to serve with the hope that people will be convicted of their sin and trust in Christ (1 Pet. 2:12).
In fact, I would say it’s sinful if you don’t desire these things. But we must give careful attention to our hearts so we don’t seek to steal glory from Jesus.
Confessions of a Glory Thief
Here are six confessions of a glory thief.
I want to glorify Jesus, but I want glory too.
I’ve left wonderful Sunday services discouraged because deep down I wanted someone to tell me, “That was the most amazing sermon I’ve ever heard.” I can desire Jesus to be exalted while lusting for affirmation from others. Useful servants are satisfied when no one applauds them, so long as everyone applauds Jesus. But a servant who seeks affirmation steals from Jesus. As a friend once said, “A pastor who preaches to gain glory for himself is flirting with Christ’s bride, for whom he died.”
Useful servants are satisfied when no one applauds them, as long as everyone applauds Jesus.
When do you feel the craving for affirmation? How do you respond?
Because I want affirmation, I hide my sins.
Shame is powerful. It convinces us we can’t be honest about our true condition, and so tempts us to pretend. When we hide sin, we show that we treasure people’s opinions more than pleasing Christ.
Yet when we confess our sins to another trusted Christian, God begins to crucify our glory-thieving. A unique humility is birthed when you look into the eyes of another person and confess how you’ve sinned against God and others. The idol of affirmation is crushed, and God is seen as glorious in spite of you.
I become bitter when God uses others instead of me.
During my first year in seminary, I learned about senior preaching week. The “best” preachers from the graduating class were chosen to preach in chapel. I wanted to be among that group so much I prayed and fasted for it. I was not selected. As I listened to those brothers preach faithfully, I grumbled that God hadn’t used me as he was using them—and I knew it was wrong.
Are you frustrated or discouraged when God “overlooks” you? Those are good times to re-evaluate why you follow Jesus.
I become more concerned about my public performance than my private devotion.
We often don’t pray because other things feel more pressing. Opportunities for public ministry rival devotion to the God who entrusted us with those opportunities in the first place. Glory thieves feel hurried out of the prayer closet because we value being before men more than before God.
Glory thieves feel hurried out of the prayer closet because we value being before men more than before God
I’m not implying public ministry isn’t worshipful. I often sense God’s presence acutely while preaching or evangelizing. Yet I can be tempted to neglect disciplines of prayer, fasting, and undistracted Bible reading because other things allure and press on me.
I fear moral failure for the wrong reasons.
When a Christian falls publicly, it distorts people’s view of God (Prov. 25:26; Rom. 2:24). This prospect grieves anyone who cares about the reputation of Jesus in the world.
Caring what people think about us isn’t inherently wrong. But pride can lead us to conceal sin, and pride goes before destruction (Prov. 16:18). As J. C. Ryle once observed, “Men fall in private long before they fall in public.”
My desire to be something rivals my desire for Jesus to be everything.
When I stood backstage years ago, I felt competing desires in my heart. I was not content for Jesus alone to be remembered. I wanted people to remember me, too.
John the Baptist would never have photobombed Jesus. Crowds flocked to John, but he had one mission—make Jesus known. “I am not the Christ,” he declared. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28–30).
John was content serving offstage so that Jesus could be seen more clearly.
Can you be content with Jesus being glorified, even if it means no one will ever know your name? Are you happy to be among the “others” in Hebrews 11 and not among the heroes of the faith?
Jesus came to save glory thieves from themselves. Indeed, he gave up his own glory and then died for all the times we steal God’s glory. He alone is worthy of praise.
Garrett Kell (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is lead pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife, Carrie, have five children. You can follow him on Twitter at @pastorjgkell.