I’ve heard your theology described as the theology of “second chances,” partly because you weren’t a Christian for a time after your childhood and then re-embraced it in early adulthood. Can you tell us more about that time?
I was raised in the greatest of homes…just a really great dad, and I miss him so much…he was a good man, a real simple man….Very faithful, always loved my mom, always provided for the kids, and just a lot of fun.
And a great car mechanic, I hear.
Yeah, a great mechanic. And so when I was wayward…and I was seriously wayward, I don’t really know the best word to use. I was a drinker, I was a womanizer, I was dishonest with friends, personal agendas, I just got really off the track for about three years.
How old were you when this was going on?
I was about 16, 17, 18, 19…all the way until freshman in college. The last time I got drunk, I was a sophomore in college. I quit going to church, I quit anything of spiritual interest because I just didn’t think that God would have me back. Somehow I missed out on that message.
And through the influence of good friends and through the influence of a minister, they helped me see that the whole reason Christ died on the cross is for people like me. And if we could save ourselves, we wouldn’t need a savior. And when that began to dawn on me, it was literally a Damascus Road type experience--the lights went on then. I thought, I can’t believe you mean grace is that great? I had had a view of a conditional grace…as long as I do my part, God does His part. It was a very emotional, life-changing discovery. And that has defined my life’s message, because I’m just a walking second chance.
I was the guy who was given every great opportunity, I really blew it, I really squandered it, and then I was given a second chance. And as I understand how great God is, I understand how much I have goofed up and screwed up, still.
Right now it’s really a battle for me not to get all heady about some of the success of my books. I come to CBA--I was praying about this just this morning--and here they’ve put me up in this real nice hotel and I sign 600 autographs, and you start believing your own press if you’re not careful.
You mention in your book that you’re an applause-aholic…Most people don’t want to admit that.
I don’t realize how addicted I am to it. I guess if I really understood how much God has given me second chances over and over and over, I think I’d even be 10 times more great.
Thankfully, as a grown-up I’ve not had any more trouble with drinking except once about four years ago, when I got in the habit of drinking a beer every day. And I think I am prone to be an alcoholic. I mean, I don’t have any trouble with people drinking a beer a day, but I can’t.
Because you start to need it?
I start to need it. I started to look forward to it in the office. Here I am a prominent pastor and then I can’t wait to go home and have a beer. What’s going on? And to me the turning point was when I was going to speak at a men’s retreat at my church and I had played golf that afternoon and it was a Friday afternoon. I stopped at a convenience store and I thought “I am going to get a beer” and then I thought, “No, somebody will see me.” I put it in a brown bag and I carried it out, snuck it out into the car, and I mean that old conviction just came back.
And I just sat there and I started to cry. I poured the beer out on the pavement. And then the next week… I shared that at a lunch with the 15 men who head up the church. That was a scary moment for me. God forgave me and I never felt I was out of God’s salvation, but I did feel like I was disappointing Him. I’m just prone to those types of things.
It must be hard to keep yourself on the straight and narrow if you know that about yourself. What was going on four years ago? Anything in particular?
Nothing. It’s not stress—I don’t think. Brendan Manning is a former Catholic priest who has admitted he’s an alcoholic. I heard him speak once and he said, “I don’t know why God gave me this insatiable appetite for beer.” And I’m kind of the same. I have this genetic predisposition to beer. .
Do you think it’s something about people who have great appetites and great intellect and great need for approval and need to be in the spotlight?
Well, there is something about alcohol....It’s not a daily struggle with me, but it could be. And what helps me is being real upfront.
That takes a lot of courage.
That or desperation. I mean, I don’t feel courageous when I share with my church what I struggle with. I just feel like if I don’t share it I can really screw it up.
Well, I don’t seek a higher profile. I don’t think I try to avoid it. I’ve got two or three curves that run along the side of the road that I use to keep me balanced. One is that I really want to succeed at home first. I’ve got three great daughters and I’ve got a great wife. So if they feel I’m taking myself too seriously or if I’m taking on too many jobs I listen to that.
And then I want to succeed at the church. I want to be a good pastor. I think often about leaving the church, not in a spiritual fashion, but in resigning from that job and just writing. But I love the church in San Antonio. They’ve been so good to me for 16 years, and also I haven’t felt the Lord letting me do that. I feel like we’ve got a lot of work to do there.
Does the hold of the church itself kept you on a path of humility?
I think it does. The church is a huge reality check for me.
Why this book now?
All of my books come out of sermons, and this came from a lesson that covered two Sundays on why God’s glory matters. I started by telling the story about running into a friend in a hotel lobby back in 1998. And he’s the one who said that phrase, “It’s not about me.” We had five minutes to visit. A short conversation. I said, “What’s the biggest thing that’s happened to you since I saw you last?” He said, “I’ve learned something. It’s not about me and it’s not about now.” And that really resonated with me. I wrote in on my napkin, I stuck it in my notebook and I carried it around with me, and it became one of those little philosophies that helped me since I’m prone to be self-absorbed and think that everything has to work in my direction.
And so it began to impact me, and as I was doing this study on the word “glory” in the Bible--what God’s glory means and why it’s such a dominant theme--that seemed to be a way to characterize that truth. God’s glory is the big news of the Bible, and my desire is that it would be all about me, but really it’s all about God’s glory.
I do love the idea of it’s not about me, because there’s a letting-go quality and also a humility that is a relief. At the same time, there were times when I was reading the book when I felt you were describing a God who seemed very remote in the sense that it was sort of like, “Pull up your socks and too bad, baby.”
That is exactly the response that many people gave. After I presented that message to the church, people said, “That’s a fascinating thought,” and so I kept unpacking it. Later, two or three people wrote me letters. One of them specifically said, “I think it is all about me.” And this was a real good man in our church. And he was saying, “God loves me, and He cares for me and I’m the prodigal son and He sent His son to die for me.” What he was hearing me say was “If it’s all about God, then I’m just a puppet.”
That’s how I felt, honestly.
I tried to respond to that twofold. One: the most important illustration in the book is asking people to imagine themselves drowning in the ocean because their ship has gone down and the sky is dark and the ocean water is about to consume them and they’re running out of energy and the voice they want to hear most is the voice of the lifeboat pilot. What matters at that moment is his strength and his power and his ability. In other words, his glory. That’s what the word glory means--strength and power and ability—the attributes of God. The reason God wants his glory to be big is because that’s what the world according to the Bible means--a God who has a lifeboat big enough to save us. So to say, “It’s not about me” doesn’t mean that God isn’t concerned with me. Quite the opposite, because God is concerned about us. He wants his glory to be the big issue.
You wrote about marriage and there was a place where you write of a woman describing 17 years of a bad marriage, his mistakes, her mistakes, his drinking, her impatience and now she wants out. How does she know that she’s not in for two more decades of tough times—she doesn’t. You said to her, essentially, “Stay.”
Yeah, it does.
All of this is built on the premise that we are here in some way to reflect the glory of God. And it seems that if we’re here for my comfort or for our own piece of mind and if it’s all about me, then there’s no reason for me to stay in a difficult situation. But if there is a reason God has allowed me to be in a situation that’s very difficult, that could be used for his glory. I think I can accept that easier. That gives me strength to stay in difficult situations. To me the understanding of the glory of God is really the only explanation that makes sense to me of human suffering.
You wrote about your father getting ALS and how there had to be some way that that was used for God’s glory. And again I agree with you—there’s no easy way to explain human suffering. But it just seems like a hard way.
That’s an easier way to look at it I guess.
At that point it sure made sense to him. Then he knew he hadn’t disappointed God and that God wasn’t disappointing him, but that there was some purpose to the suffering.
Who is your audience? Is it primarily Christians who are trying to figure their way through these difficult questions?
It’s primarily a Christian audience but I’ve found it to be well received among some non-believers. They say it stimulates their thought because it messes with their worldview just a bit.
When you say it “messes with their worldview,” what do you mean?
If we’re not told about God, the natural assumption is it’s all about me, so this comes along and directly rebuffs that. But if it’s true, it’s liberating and it helps life begin to make sense, the things we’ve already talked about like suffering or struggles. The big agenda item is God and His glory, not me and my comfort.
Is it a similar audience to the Rick Warren book, “A Purpose Driven Life”?
Rick’s a pastor as well, and I think the books are complementary. I actually presented this material out at Saddleback before Rick’s book came out—he was on a writing sabbatical, finishing “Purpose Driven Life.” And when we were out there, he commented to me, “You know, the first sentence of my new book is ”It’s not about you.”
Tell me why you think it’s complementary.
Rick’s book is a tremendous practical tool. It’s almost a primer on human life. Here’s the reasons we’re here, here’s what you’re here to do, and here’s how you can discover them. Mine is more, I think, a devotional book, more a theological book.
I try to just say, “Here’s glory.” Think about this concept. You know, like somebody might take the word “sovereignty” or an issue like grace. I just want to explore the issue of glory in a devotional context.
A couple things about your personal devotional life. What’s your favorite Bible verse?
It’s Hebrews 6:10, which is, “God is fair and He will not forget the work that you have done and the love that you have shown him by caring for His people.”
I came across that over a decade ago, and I thought, “What a great verse, because I forget the work that I’ve done.”But it says, “God will not forget the work that you’ve done.” That’s so affirming.
It’s also great for a pastor. And it’s a great verse to encourage people. I was speaking at a church just last week that was honoring all their volunteers and I built the message around that verse.
How do you pray?
Irregularly. Inconsistently. I’ve got the hiccups in my prayers. My mind wanders.
That’s also a great confession. And it’s a relief to know that. So you don’t have the disciplined prayer time?
Well, I do. About four days a week I do pretty good at having a morning prayer time. But even at that it’s a rambling sort of thing. What I have learned to do better is to try to keep my mind turned toward God and ear inclined toward God throughout the day and I think I’m doing better at that but I’ve got a long way to go.
My final question is, what’s your favorite hymn?
I think it would be “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
So it sounds like your God is a sovereign, glorious God …your God is really big.
Yeah, and I hope that’s the message of “It’s not about me.” That God is bigger than all of this, and there’s a reason for all of this, and it’s all going to work out in the end.