October 21, 2020

Fridays with Michael Spencer: Feb. 24, 2017

Shadows. Photo by Emanuele Toscano

Sometimes someone else’s sins become the light of seeing our own.

Several years ago I was working with a particularly difficult young church staff member. His pattern was to do everything his way, and when negative consequences arrived, to be completely defensive. Insight into his own character wasn’t much of an interest. Finding others guilty was. His personal drama usually involved anger and outrage, always featuring his own innocence as the main character.

Keeping this young man placated became a full-time job. As his own ministry deteriorated, his skills at blaming others never lost steam. He was a master at claiming to be persecuted when, in fact, he simply was not doing his job.

On one occasion, one of his older family members (not from our church) passed away. During the visitation at the funeral home, this young man called me in his usual tone of practiced outrage, this time because only a few members of our church had come out to visit at the funeral home. He was right. Probably less than ten people had visited this relative, who wasn’t part of our church or community.

Why am I telling this story? Because of something I noticed in the middle of that young man’s outrage.

I had worked with him on staff for a couple of years, and I’d never seen him at the funeral or visitation of anyone. He was outraged about something he did all the time.

When I realized this, I thought about the hypocrisy of his outrage, but I soon found myself wondering about my own “outrages.” How many of them were conducted in the shadow of my own obvious sins?

James says that the anger of man does not create the righteousness God requires. (1:20) I think there’s another aspect to what the anger of man does (or doesn’t do): it masks and hides other obvious sins, and despite all the “insight” that we claim when we are angry, we’re often the blindest at that moment we’re most angry and most certain we’re not wrong.

Perhaps this is why the angry man is the fool in Proverbs and elsewhere. My young staff member was outraged and thought he saw an outrageous truth. What he didn’t see was the truth of his own life. He was the fool blinded to his own sin by his raging anger.

In playing the part of the “righteous” judge- which is required of the angry person- you must claim the mantle of correct insight. But a knowledge of sin comes in the quietness of humility; in those moments when God shows us what we usually do not see.

Is this why Ephesians 4:26 counsels us to not let the sun go down on our anger? Before the end of the day, we need to restore a truthful, humble view of ourselves and lose the self-righteous assumption that our anger guarantees that we are right.

When Jesus was angry at the moneychanger in the temple, he was insightful about the truth of the situation and the truth about himself. Put yourself in the same situation: would you have the combination of truthful humility and righteous anger that Jesus has at that moment?

What you are looking at in that answer is your own fallenness. It’s the difference between yourself and Jesus, and why you should be careful of thinking that your imitation of him insures that you are right.

What sins lie obvious to God and others, but invisible to me in the shadow of anger or other emotions?

In past months, I’ve learned that believing I am right has little do with the sins that may have taken root in the soil of my “rightness.” I’ve learned that I’m quite good at excusing sinful anger, cruel words, gossip and worse sins with my conviction that I am right about something that matters.

As I’ve seen this pattern in many, many others, I’ve learned to expect it in myself. Sometimes I feel that a creeping sense of conviction of my own rightness is a sure sign that I am sinking down into the deceptions of arrogance. I realize that all those times I, like so many preachers, have given an indulgence to my flock for their anger towards persens, groups and events, I have likely simply led them to sin with impunity.

These days, Christians are often a very angry group. (And so too, btw, are their critics.) We’re certain we’re right on a whole catalog of issues, and I believe we usually are right on many of those issues. I’m also certain that in the shadows of our anger about cultural and political issues, there are many of our own sins, putting down roots and growing more powerful.

Jesus, I am not like you. It’s the enemy that leads me to believe my own “righteous anger” flies clear of petty sins and hypocrisies. Open my eyes to the duplicity and delusions attached to my sinful nature. Break those chains and give me true humility. Work in me so that conviction is not the enemy of humility. Show me the seductions of believing I am right and righteous in any way apart from you. Amen.

• • •

From a 2009 post, What’s Growing in the Shadow of Anger?

Photo by Emanuele Toscano at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. Michael Spencer at his best. Looking at the brokenness of someone else and then reflecting on how he might’ve been broken like that as well.

  2. “Work in me so that conviction is not the enemy of humility.”

    Stunning, just stunning.

  3. Looking back over my life, the graph of my anger is a slowly but steadily decreasing line starting out from huge. One of the factors in this is the parallel line of a peak and decrease in testosterone, which has its own set of problems but I’ll take the trade off. Still rares its head up from time to time but mostly manageable, for which I am grateful since I have never seen the world at large so angry and fearful, not even during the Vietnam or the World Trade Towers debacles.

    Currently not as severe as it was a month ago, and much of it orchestrated, but I would say if the present trend toward disclosure of the full truth of our past history and present situation continues, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This lull is a good time to work on not being manipulated into the kind of anger that prevents rational thought. These pages are a good place to practice. If you are living downstream of the Oroville Dam, it would be prudent to stay as awake and aware as possible and to have a plan. Seems to me we are all living downstream of the Oroville Dam.

    That aside, why would a church or a church organization hire someone like the young man described in the first place? Or if it only became evident later, why retain him? Or at least why not confront him and offer to help work things out? Maybe find him a job as night janitor. Someone like this can do immense harm to others and to the organization if they are interacting with other people. I’m looking back at myself in that young man’s shoes. No one ever helped me in a helpful way until when I was about 30 and a highly attractive woman asked me why I was always so negative. It had never occurred to me before and I see that as the turning point into a long, slow, and painful recovery, not over yet.

    • Why would a person like this be hired? Why retained? Why not confronted?

      The last 30 years of my life in church leadership in a nutshell:

      Church #1: Local man hired as organist/choir director. Guy with known psychological issues. Tenure in church marked by insubordination, poor work. When fired, fed the church grapevine with false reasons for firing. Half the congregation took his side because he was local. Split the church.

      Church #2: Pastor struggling with mental issues. Denomination moved him along. Church closed.

      Church #3: Associate pastor alcoholic; senior pastor covered it up and moved him along–overseas! Then senior pastor hired new staff person out of pity because she was down on her luck. Staff struggles split the church (see first scenario). Afterwards, on his way out, this same pastor gave children’s ministry position to congregant struggling with narcissistic personality disorder. Predictable results as church leaders struggled to work with her, then tried to remove her, all while she manipulated the congregation and destroyed the church. Church closed.

      There are a lot of folks who gravitate to church work who have deep-seated personality and addiction problems and are good at hiding them, at least to get in the door. There are pastors and church boards who hire because they think they can help someone, and are blind to the damage they could cause. They do not put the health of the church first. I have come out of my experiences with one motto: Yes, help everyone you can, be a home for those in distress—but do not do so by putting them on staff or giving them positions of leadership.

      • –> “There are pastors and church boards who hire because they think they can help someone, and are blind to the damage they could cause.”

        Seen that, too. There’s really nothing worse for a church than a pastor who is a “rescuer.” (Unhealthy rescuing, that is.)

        –> “They do not put the health of the church first. ”

        Rescuing strokes the ego. It’s selfish of pastors to do this kind of thing over what’s best for the church.

        • Agree. Pastor at church #3 was a “rescuer.” That’s how we got the alcoholic associate to start with; although the board was never told that—he was a friend of the pastor who had been fired from a previous church.

          My experience is that church staff hiring is not conducted well at all. Boards don’t know how to hire or count the cost of additional staff. Pastors can railroad through the need/cost of staff as “God will grow us into this step of faith,” or “God has told me we need staff.” I’ve heard both. Often they already know who they want to put in and push for them—the board’s role is to rubber stamp the pastor’s plans. Or, conversely, someone in the congregation has a relative or a friend who gets put forth as the inside candidate or only candidate.

          Actually, I don’t think I have ever seen a church staff hire done in any kind of due diligence, professional way.

      • >> The last 30 years of my life in church leadership in a nutshell:

        Vera, what you are describing seems like a self-solving problem, a sad comment. I would hasten to add that I am aware of and in contact with churches that seem to be functional with good people, but as far as I can see they are also nearing the end of their shelf life to a greater or lesser extent. I would say of the three I know most about, the Methodist is rumored to have five years left at best, the Episcopal might make ten, and the Evangelical Covenant might last 20-25 because they are the only one with young kids in attendance. What will make the difference is when the die-off reaches critical stage, whether the remaining people view themselves as the church, or the building and professional they can no longer afford. I experienced the latter a year ago and it is disillusioning, if human nature. On the other hand, this could be a return to the original Church before it was hi-jacked.

        • Charles, it does self solve, as you note, but the collateral damage is great. My heart always went out to those who came in hoping for a good, solid, safe church home where they could learn and grow, love Jesus, do some good for others and feel they were part of a larger family. Because of our geography, church #3 attracted all ages, including those in college, 20s-30s with young families, all the way up to seniors. We were quite multicultural and multi-racial too. It was an excellent mix. But it was all done in by the succession of staff crises. What must these people think of church now? Will they try again, or was that it for them?

          I especially mourn for those younger people who we were just introducing to leadership when these things happened. Some left right away, others tried for a time before they gave up, and a few stuck it out until the end. But all were damaged.

    • Currently not as severe as it was a month ago, and much of it orchestrated, but I would say if the present trend toward disclosure of the full truth of our past history and present situation continues, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

      I saw a very insightful reddit comment yesterday related to this, wish I had bookmarked it. Basically the author said that this is the difference between millennials and prior generations: we want transparency in all things, especially things like politics and business. Be open with what your profits/margins/expenses are, be open about benefits and kickbacks, show us in detail how the sausage is made, etc.

      My thinking is that that is a result of the internet and open knowledge available. What used to be hidden away is not exposed. And this trend will only continue until the old has gasped it’s last secrets.

      • Or until the young realize that worldly power is rooted in those very secrets and manipulations. Then they become wiling participants in an ancient game – grasping and finally gasping at the power they have inherited. No generation is immune.

        • Boomers in a nutshell I guess, good point.

          • When boomers were young adults, they wanted the things millenials want now. Life has a way of redirecting us as we age.

          • Stuart,
            Let’s check back in about 30 years and see how millenial idealism is holding out 🙂
            Actually, honestly I hope does. We could use some of it.

      • >> this is the difference between millennials and prior generations: we want transparency in all things, especially things like politics and business.

        Stuart, running across references lately to Generation Z, which I take to be current middle and high school students, which unfortunately I have no contact with. As I understand it, they would agree with you as to the desirability of transparency in all things, but would lump millennials in with all preceding generations as being, if not consciously deceiving, deceived, and would probably point to the current useless college-age generation of snowflakes as the end result of it all. Time will tell, but these initial reports give me great hope for humanity and the world at large. I find it highly amusing to think that I might end up with the most rapport with young kids. We’ll see.

  4. “…it is easier to go to Mars or to the moon than it is to penetrate one’s own being.” Carl Jung
    You might call it Michael’s hallmark that he never shied from the penetrating gaze of self reflection. A very different thing than wallowing in guilt it is the essential and difficult work of spiritual growth. It takes a good bit of failure to see the beam in our own eye.

    • –> “You might call it Michael’s hallmark that he never shied from the penetrating gaze of self reflection.”

      Yes, indeed. That was Michael’s hallmark, and it’s what drew me to iMonk way back when. There’s something special – endearing? unique? honest? attractive? – about a person who so willingly throws himself under the bus. And maybe that’s the difference between pastor/preacher personalities I like and those I don’t (MacArthur, Piper); have you ever seen MacArthur or Piper throw themselves under the bus? Usually it’s all about the wrong OTHERS are doing, or a global, generic “we”.

      • And he does so in a such a humble, refreshing way at that too. Ironically, it’s all too easy too, particularly for preachers, to boast about (insert admission of a generic struggle here), and do so self-righteously/pridefully, drawing further attention to their model humility. When Michael brings up something like this, it’s to pave the road for personal transformation, not to illustrate some generic theological thesis…

    • Yes, Michael was very transparent and authentic (to use a couple of buzzwords) about his own shortcomings but, as you say, he didn’t wallow in guilt. Michael was convinced of the great love Jesus had (and has) for him and that confidence allowed him to be honest about who he was, both for good and for ill. And Michael’s confidence in the great love of Jesus was contagious.

      It was Michael who was instrumental in growing my confidence in this Person he loved so much. You see, when all around me were saying I needed to be constantly improving, being “sanctified”, Michael and those he introduced to me through their writing, showed me that Jesus loves the broken reeds as well as the strong ones. I will forever be grateful to him for that.

  5. Those who criticize what they see wrong in the evangelical/Christian culture church should also look to themselves for some of the same things that they criticize.

    The same goes for ANY stand or belief we may have. It’s called self reflection.

    • Agreed. There is always a danger in putting yourself in the position of a critic which is precisely what Michael did in creating this site. At least in part it was designed to focus on lens on the evangelical, fundamentalist thing, besides being a place for those who had left that life to find communion with kindred souls. There is in fact a place for that and he seemed to find the balance most of the time but it can quickly turn into a slippery slope and a big pile on.

    • Deflection or helpful reminder?

  6. Since I don’t come here as much, now that I don’t get the articles in my email anymore, maybe I missed this. But I remember something about compiling Michael Spencer’s essays for publication? I’d be willing to prepurchase this if it would help complete the project.

  7. 1) I love the Septuagint rendering of Jer 17.9:

    The heart is deep above all else, and so is man – and who shall understand him?

    2) In the last number of years I’ve realized how pointless it is to need to be right. Nonetheless, I still get in my dudgeon, sometimes fueled by residual convertitis. I ask forgiveness for this of those here, for the times I have done that in these pages.


    • Dana, you and Mule both give validity to the mostly unseen and unrecognized presence of the Eastern wing of the church. We in the West are just astoundingly ignorant of this alternate view and the worse for it, and sometimes the official clergy can be exclusive and offputting. You almost always strike me as fair and balanced and tolerant, and Mule is Mule. I learn a lot from both of you and thank you both for hanging in there.