The Asbury Revival and the Danger of Spiritual One-Upmanship

Spiritual one-upmanship is an easy game to play. But how do we avoid it? In this latest "Byer's Choices" Ezra shares several thoughts to consider.

The Asbury Revival and the Danger of Spiritual One-Upmanship

Ten years ago, I had a wake-up moment.

I was hanging out with a group of friends, and we were swapping stories. That’s when one of the guys made a lighthearted joke. “I'm not sharing any more stories with Ezra," he said, "because he’ll always have one that’s a little better.”

Even though he made the remark in passing, his comment stopped me in my tracks. Why did he say that? I wondered. I could tell from the laughs that others agreed with his assessment, and this made me think.

And the longer I thought, the more I realized he was right. Whenever someone told a sports story, I shared one a little bit better. Whenever people talked about funny moments, I had one a bit funnier. And whenever a friend spoke about what they read, I’d follow this up with, “Nice, but have you read X?” I was what I’d now call “a one-upmanshipper.”

The worst type of one-upmanship is the spiritual kind. Sometimes spiritual one-upmanship is unbearably patronizing, but most times, it’s masked in clever language.

 Oh, I used to think that way too before I became more spiritually mature.
 That’s great! But have you heard of X?
 Nice sermon. But you really should check out X’s series he did on the subject.

Notice what each of these statements accomplish. They elevate the speaker at the expense of the listener. It’s a “kind word” that serves as a veiled undercut.

Spiritual one-upmanship happens in many forms and in every Christian circle. In theological camps, Pentecostals do this with spiritual gifts, Wesleyans with the concept of Christian perfection, and Calvinists with the sovereignty of God. "Fundamentalists" leverage their lifestyle choices to look down their noses at other Christians who do not share their values. And "social justice Christians" highlight their care for the marginalized to elevate themselves over others who see the world differently. (These are obviously sweeping generalizations)

With the rise of the Asbury Revival, the opportunity for spiritual one-upmanship is great. To be fair, about 90% of the responses from people of all theological traditions I’ve seen have been positive. Call me a cynic, but I suspect this will change. There are and will be those who want to pull back on the reigns. “Are we sure this is a move of God?” “It just goes to show God can work with anyone.” “Well, if it’s real revival, this is what is going to happen.” “Yeah, let’s see how spending a week in church helps these Christians impact their local communities.”

And on the flip side, I’m sure in the coming days some Christians who attend this revival will use God’s movement to further their own agendas. I had to laugh the other day when author Jared Wilson wrote,

“I don’t know if what is happening at Asbury is true revival — and most of you watching on social media don’t either. Time will tell. But if it’s true, I know two things: charlatans will try to exploit it and our self-appointed theological wedgie-givers will begrudge it.”

Now that’ll preach!

Here is the reality. With any move of God, there will be a lot of God mixed in with some acts of the flesh. To this point, Josh Howerton says,

“What happens in every season of revival is... 70% God 20% man 10% Satan (for proof, read 1 Corinthians or historical accounts of the First Great Awakening).”

Anytime God does something great, there will be those who feel compelled to qualify and quantify. Some of this is good. Personally, I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of jacked-up emotional services that predispose me to criticism over celebration. But frankly, that’s not the person I want to be. When God is at work (as I believe he is at Asbury) I want to be much quicker to celebrate than I am to criticize and clarify.

Spiritual one-upmanship is an alluring game to play. For crying out loud, I’m even tempted to use spiritual one-upmanship for this post! Look at me. I’m not a spiritual one-upmanship type of person and I’m going to correct all the people who are!

That said, one of my favorite verses is Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” A psychological term for this passage we might use is “mirroring.” It’s choosing to match the body language and emotions of those with whom we’re interacting.

Doing so is tougher than it sounds. When a friend shares something they’re excited about, our natural default is to provide “balance.” If they are sad, we try to make them happy. If they are too happy, we like to pump the breaks and pour a little water on their fire.

Sometimes I do this with Janan—which thrills her to no end. She’ll be excited about some new project, and I’ll point out how all her hopes and dreams could be dashed in a moment. And if she’s sad, I’ll rush to cheer her up. But I’m learning (emphasis on learning) that the better approach is to sit and be present. I don’t have to always fix a situation or provide balance. I don’t have to play the spiritual one-upmanship game and present myself as the “stronger person.”

Spiritual one-upmanship is tricky and tempting. But when we do this, we often downplay God's activity, discourage others from engaging, and miss what God is doing.

If spiritual one-upmanship is something you struggle with, here are a few choices you can make to break free of this tendency.

Byer’s Choices

Choice #1: Practice the Discipline of Presence

I once heard a speaker say that “listening is not waiting for your chance to talk.” That’s some good advice. The next time a friend shares with you something they’re excited or sad about, refrain from giving instant advice. Don’t rush to add balance. Be still and listen. Avoid thinking about what you’re going to do next. Don’t look at your phone. Rejoice and weep. Focus on being present.

Choice #2: Learn from People with Whom You Disagree

It’s comfortable sitting in rooms where our voices are heard. When we speak, others listen. This is what feels natural and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But authentic listening often helps shave away some of the barnacles from our one-upmanship (you see what I did there?). This is a key reason I love podcasting!

Choice #3: Soak Your Mind in Philippians 2

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to say or do something dumb, and then my mind shifts to Philippians 2 and I think of verses 3-4:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Don't be a spiritual one-upmanshipper. Instead, rejoice when others rejoice and weep when others weep.

If you don't, clearly I am a better Christian than you.