pho·to·bomb (verb) To spoil a photograph by appearing in the camera’s field of view as the picture is taken. Oxford English Dictionary
I met Jesus in a dramatic way, which made for what some called an “amazing testimony.” I was once on a hell bound path paved with drugs, parties, gambling, and girls, but Jesus turned my heart to run after Him. Because of this, I was quickly ushered onto the stage of local churches and campus ministries to tell what God had done for me.
After preaching a few dozen times (Lord, remember not the sermons of my youth!), I became convinced that I needed to learn more about the Bible. God led me to Denton, Texas to take part in a discipleship program led by a pastor named Tommy Nelson.
As part of the program, we were charged to find an area of service in the church. I assumed that since I’d done ministry with college students, I could jump into College Life and help lead the way. It was a thriving ministry that attracted some 600 students to its weekly meeting. I was certain this was the place God brought me to be a blessing.
Instead, it was the place God intended to begin breaking me.
John Bryson was the leader of the college ministry during those years. By my estimation, he was a gifted man who knew how much the ministry could use someone like me. By his estimation, I was an eager, prideful young man who needed to learn some humility.
As we neared the first gathering of the year, he pulled me aside to let me know he had an important opportunity for me. I assumed he wanted me to share my testimony or maybe even preach, so I showed up ready to go.
But instead of leading me on stage, he led me backstage. He pointed to a white tethered chord and told me I had the important job of serving the people on stage that evening by opening and closing the curtain for them.
With each tug of the rope, my frustration increased. My hands burned and my heart criticized the people on stage. I assured myself that if I was out there, God would have used me in a more powerful way.
I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, but near the end of the evening, everything seemed to slow down and I had a distinct impression from the Lord that went something like this,
“If you can’t be just as joyful back here serving Me where no one can see you, as you would be out there where everyone can see you— then your heart is seeking your glory and not mine. And I will not share My glory with another .”
In that moment, the Lord convicted me that I came to serve with mixed motives.
I hoped for lost people to be converted, but I wanted to be the evangelist God used to save them.
I desired Christians to be encouraged, but I wanted to be the one through whom He gave the edification.
I wanted people to think God was awesome, but I hoped they would think I was awesome, too.
This is where it gets tricky. The desire for God to be glorified through me is the height of my created purpose— “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
But there is a fine line between wanting God to use you for His glory and you wanting everyone to know God is using you for His glory. That fine line is the line between pure worship and photobombing idolatry.
Most of us don’t consciously desire to steal glory from God. Because we love Him, we want Him to be magnified. But if we are honest, we hope that when people see Jesus as amazing, they see us as amazing.
I need to be crystal clear at this point…
It is not wrong to desire to be a part of what God is doing—you were created for this purpose.
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10
It is not wrong for you to want people to see God being glorified in your life—you are commanded to do this.
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” John 15:8
It is not wrong to serve with the hope that people will be convicted of their sin and trust in Christ—you have been called to this.
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:12
In fact, I would say it is sinful if you do not desire these things. Rather, what I am saying is that we must give careful attention to our heart to make sure we are not sinfully seeking to steal glory from Jesus.
Confessions of a Glory Thief
What follows are six glory-stealing confessions along with accompanying Gospel corrections. I encourage you to prayerfully process these with the help of a few honest, godly friends.
1. I want Jesus to be glorified, but I want glory too.
I have left wonderful Sunday services discouraged. Not because my caffeine crashed or my adrenaline tapped out. But because I wanted someone to say to me, “pastor, that was the most amazing sermon I’ve ever heard.”
I can desire Jesus to be exalted, while lusting for affirmation from others. Wanting affirmation is different than wanting to be useful. Useful servants are satisfied when no one applauds them as long as everyone is applauding Jesus.
But a servant who seeks affirmation steals something that doesn’t belong to them. As a friend once said, “a pastor who preaches to gain glory for himself is flirting with Christ’s bride whom He died to have for His own.”
When do you feel the need for affirmation? How do you respond to it? When you see yourself responding with self-pity, confess it to God and read Matthew 6:1-21. Plead with your Heavenly Father to satisfy you with His care and affirmation of you in Christ.
2. Because I want affirmation, I hide my sins.
Shame is powerful. It assures us that we cannot be honest about our true condition. So it tempts us to pretend.
When we hide sin, we show that we treasure people opinions more than we treasure pleasing Christ. This twisted trap is inescapable apart from the power of God. This is why God tells us that true strength comes from boasting in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
We do this is by confessing our sins to God and trusted Christians.
There is something powerful that happens when you look in the eyes of another person and confess how you’ve sinned against God and people made in His image. Humility birthed in those moments is unique and life giving. The idol of affirmation is choked out and God is seen as glorious in spite of you, not because of you. We do not need to pretend to be anything other than blood-bought debtors to mercy.
Do you confess your sins to others? Who knows everything about you? I mean everything.
3. 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 given the honor of preaching in chapel. I so badly wanted to be among that group that I prayed and fasted for it. But during my final year, I was not selected to preach.
As I sat and listened to those brothers preach faithfully, I found myself grumbling that God had not used me in the way he was using them—and I knew it was wrong.
Do you find yourself frustrated or discouraged when you are “overlooked” by God? Those are good times to reevaluate the reasons you follow Jesus. Do you remember what Jesus said when Peter questioned how He planned to use the apostle John? He said to Peter, “what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22).
An envious heart produces a critical eye toward others. This kind of competition has no place in God’s Kingdom. We have all been called to make much of Jesus, not ourselves. When you find yourself comparing yourself to others, read the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) and ask God to grow gratefulness for how He is using you.
4. I become more concerned about my public performance than my private devotion.
We don’t pray more than we do because other things feel more pressing. Opportunities for public ministry rival devotion to the God who entrusted us with the opportunities. Glory thieves feel hurried out of the prayer closet. This isn’t because there isn’t much to pray about, but because we value being before men more than being with God.
I am not implying that public ministry isn’t worshipful. Some of the moments I sense God’s presence most acutely is during preaching or evangelizing. Yet, I can be tempted to neglect disciplines of prayer and fasting and undistracted bible reading because other things press on me.
One of the greatest aids for a recovering glory thief is to prioritize prayer and Bible reading. By pursing these disciplines in faith, love for God grows in your heart in such a way that it will eclipse your desire for people to think about anything other than Him.
5. I fear moral failure, mostly because it would defame Jesus, but also because it would defame me.
When a Christian falls publicly, it distorts people’s view of God (Proverbs 25:26; Romans 2:24). Anyone who cares about Jesus is grieved by this prospect. But glory thieves are doubly grieved because something else is at stake.
Caring what people think about us is not inherently wrong. But when we care too much about what people think of us, the fear of man snowballs with concealed sin in such a way that a fall becomes inevitable.
If you have fallen in sin, step into the light. Allow God to decide how He will use the story of your sin and His redemption. You will be tempted to be the commentator of your own life and control what will happen to you. Remain honest and trust Him with the consequences.
When you think about resisting sin in ministry, is it because you want to preserve the Name of Jesus or your own name? Only one of those pursuits will produce a heart that is honoring to God.
6. My desire to be something rivals my desire for Jesus to be everything.
When I stood backstage years ago, I felt the competing desires in my heart. I wanted to be the one people looked to and said, “that guy knows God and can help me know God.” What made that dangerous was that I was not content for Jesus alone to be remembered. I would have said I was, but my heart testified otherwise.
This is why I have grown to love John the Baptist. JTB did everything he could to not photobomb Jesus. Crowds were flocking to him, but he had one mission in mind—make Jesus known. He said to his followers, “I am not the Christ…He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28–30).
John pointed people away from himself. He was content being behind the stage doing whatever was necessary for Jesus to be seen more clearly. This is the kind of heart that pleases God.
Can you be content with Jesus being glorified in your life, even if it means no one will ever know your name? Are you happy to be known in heaven, but not here? 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. He did this by giving up His own glory and then dying on the cross for all the times we stole God’s glory. Today He is raised and seated above every other Name so that we can look to Him for help, and help others to do the same.
All Glory to God.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.