…is not against the forces of hell themselves.
And Satan himself, while the arch-enemy of souls, is not even my greatest enemy.
Now, a church-attending nay-sayer (who may or may not be a true Christian) may argue that anyone who could say what I just did cannot possibly be a Christian. Some might even call it heresy.
But before I respond to that, I need to bring the other strand of this post into the mix…
As both a Christian AND a musician, I face the same enemy. Enemy who is not the devil, that is. And if I am defeated by this enemy as a musician, I lose my effectiveness and my usefulness to that profession. If I am defeated by this enemy in my spiritual life, I lose my capacity to be someone truly worth knowing. And what is the point of being alive if one is not a human being worth knowing?
I propose to enlist the assistance of no less a person than Sir Colin Davis – one of the most outstanding conductors of this era – to help us understand the message of this post.
Earlier this year, the journalist Tom Service wrote: “Sitting in his north London home, surrounded by the accoutrements of a life at the heart of classical music – busts of Berlioz and Beethoven, a letter by Sibelius, a slew of scores on his table – Davis tells me he has spent a lifetime fighting a battle. Not against orchestras, managers, or musicians, but against his ego.”
Now, I’m a conducting graduate of a fairly prestigious institution in the English-speaking world, and I studied with some of the top conductors in the world (not only the UK) – including a three-time Grammy award winner. I’ve become much more involved in the world of professional classical music – as a prospective conductor – and this kind of admission is more common than many people might think. But – only behind closed doors! This is just not the kind of stuff that conductors tend to talk about in wide public forums! So this is not just another sound-bite from a highly-decorated musical public servant – this is a little ‘leftfield’- as contemporary parlance has it.
So, what has this got to do with anyone’s Christian journey?
Let’s now hear from A.W. Tozer (google him right now if you’ve no idea who he was):
“The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress is because they haven’t yet come to the end of themselves. We’re still trying to give orders, and interfering with God’s work within us. ”
This failure to “come to the end of [oneself]” sounds pretty similar to the idea of ‘battling one’s own ego” to me… Let’s hear from Sir Colin himself:
“One’s ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.
“The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that’s as good as it gets.”
Davis is telling me that whether I get to his exalted level, or somewhere less high-flying, as a conductor, my role is HELP people to feel free to do the best job they can by the music – and that I (me, myself and I) am of ‘no account whatsoever.’
In conducting school I learnt many things – not least that while the best conductors worked incredibly hard to become the best conductors, they were not averse to a few ‘power trips’ every now and then. The very concept of a ‘self-effacing conductor’ was a real oxymoron until I began to work (as a student with some world-class conductors behind closed doors and discovered that they are actually really humble about what they can and can’t do, and what they do and don’t know. But, as I stated earlier – these things are ALWAYS said behind closed doors and NEVER admitted to singers or instrumentalists! So for Sir Colin to express himself in one of the most-read newspapers of our time thusly is very, very interesting to me.
So, if a world-renowned conductor – who is not in any way religious – is able to admit that his greatest battle over the years has been with his own ego, how come more of those who claim to subscribe to a faith that requires the subjugation of self for a greater spiritual good don’t achieve anything close to this level of basic humility? Indeed, why do so many Christians, having ‘surrendered all’ soon find themselves wanting recognition for having been such a self-sacrificing Christian?
I know that deep in my own heart, I have struggled at times with the temptation to view myself as being more important than I am. This has taken both a positive and negative form. The first tends to surface at times when I experience success and victory in whatever arena – even the spiritual, where I could not have less excuse for forgetting that I did not deliver myself. The second seems to take the form of guilt and personal recrimination for things I have indeed done wrong. Far from being a sign of deep spirituality, the failure of any Christian to truly focus on Jesus as opposed to their own failings, frailties and foibles is in fact one of the subtlest forms of self-absorption that exists. This will keep people going round in circles for YEARS sometimes with no progress whatsoever…
Let’s look again at something Sir Colin said: “One’s ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.” Would to God that this were true of most of us, and especially those of us in ministry!
I desperately want to win the battle against my own ego – but not just so that I can succeed as a conductor – or, even more crucially, as a pastor. I want to win because I want to see God’s face one day. And Romans 7 makes it very clear what I am up against. Let’s look at this passage from The Message translation: “14-16….”I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.”
The reason why I choose to make this point using the Message is because it is absolutely impossible to miss the point of the passage – one of Paul’s toughest, and one frequently butchered by well-and-not-so-well-meaning Christians. And the narrative continues below:
17-20But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.
21-23It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
Amazing. Madness. Insanity. Paul is telling us that it is possible to be fully sold out to God, and yet do things that one actively despises. Indeed, the Biblical picture of man is incredibly dark. Although the virtuous self has proved capable of great moral feats, a wicked self lurks within the shadows of the human heart. The prophet Jeremiah famously described the heart of man as being “desperately wicked.” As someone called Paul Thompson states, “Within every human being is the capacity for great good, but also an evil that is deceitful and riddled with selfishness.”
So my propensity to do something really good in music – or in ministry – and especially both – opens me up to a situation where I really fancy myself as being a bit special. As a secular person, this is not unwarranted. But as a Christian, this is absolutely unviable. And yet, this temptation to regard myself highly is more pressing and urgent than any of the sins ‘major or minor.’
So what is the answer to the curse of self? Let’s go back to the Romans 7:
24I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
25The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
I am personally SO grateful for the saving work of the Man Christ Jesus – who literally gave His life so that I would no longer be condemned to fight my own ego-driven flesh without hope for the duration of my time on the planet. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!