Andy Stanley - The Menace, Myth and Mayhem of Autonomy
Hi, everybody. I have some great news for all the women in the audience. Today's message is for all the men in the audience. Married, single young, not so young, fathers, wanna be fathers, maybe scared you might be a father. Anyway, as men, I think we all have something in common. There's an underlying often I think overlooked component in our pursuit of success. And to be clear, I don't think this is unique to men, but the successful women I know seem to have a way better handle on this than most of us do. And this unspoken, sometimes unrecognized component to our quest for success is this word.
Autonomy, autonomy. There's something I think in most of us that wants to be self-governing, right? I mean, after all, to some extent it's the American dream, or at least the way the American dream has been presented to most of us. I think for most of us men it's pretty much our definition of success, right? I mean, to do what I wanna do, when I wanna do it, and to have enough money to pay for it? I mean, it's an alluring goal to be sure. And I think in addition to our ego, I think some other things fuel this. First, we've seen it, and since we've seen it, we can't unsee it.
I mean, think about it. Most of our role models appear to be completely autonomous. Our corporate heroes, athletic heroes, the arts, I mean, they all appear to operate unfettered by financial or sometimes even relational restraint. But for you, there may be even more to it. Maybe for you there's something else that fuels your quest for autonomy. Maybe it was the way you were raised. If you grew up in a home where money was always tight, if you spent a season or two living with relatives, or maybe worse, autonomy may not feel like a nice to have for you. For you, it's a must have. The thought of returning to that or putting your family through that, well, for you, it's terrifying, it's motivating.
Again, it's not a nice to have for you. It's a must have. You don't ever want to have to depend on someone or something else. And then woven into all of this is an assumption that I think most of us share, and here's the assumption. The assumption is I can handle it, right? I mean, you're absolutely confident that you can handle it. If it ever happens for you, you're ready. In fact, this is why we're so baffled by stories of men who've made it and then turn around and make decisions that undermine their success, that undermine their autonomy, men who become their own worst enemy after they've accomplished so much, after they've acquired so much.
But here's what we think. We think not me, right? When I get my chance, I'll get it right. Once I can call my own shots, I'll call all the right shots. So, off we go. Time goes by. And for most of us, it doesn't happen fast enough. For most of us, it doesn't happen big enough. And when it doesn't happen big enough or fast enough, when it looks like it's not gonna happen at all, it's not unusual for us to develop what I refer to as a low-grade anger. A low-grade anger. Anger that simmers just beneath the surface. We're constantly frustrated. We're constantly frustrated with just about everything and just about everybody.
And this usually happens somewhere around 40 to 45 years old. And eventually it dawns on us, and this is why it happens, eventually it dawns on us, I'm not there. I'm not even close to there. I'm not sure I'll ever get there. And in most cases, let's be honest, we've never even clearly defined where there even is. And on top of all that, since most of us aren't all that emotionally connected internally, we don't even recognize the source of this simmering frustration. Worse, we set our sights on the wrong source. Our disappointment with ourselves eventually spills out on the people who are closest to us.
So let me just put this out there. Men, if you aren't happy with your wife, your kids, your car, or your career path, it may be because you aren't happy with you. And the only way to move past this constant sense of frustration is to recognize that, and here's why I feel I can say that with confidence. Because you married her, you raised them, you bought it, and you chose it. Guys, when we get confused about the source of our disappointment, our discontentment, our frustration or anger, we get lost. And what do most of us do when we get lost? We drive faster, and we generally drive faster in the wrong direction.
This is why I think Don Henley and his co-writers got this exactly right all those years ago when they penned these lyrics. "He had a home, the love of a girl. But men get lost sometimes as years unfurl". Isn't that true? "One day, he crossed some line", some line he didn't know he'd crossed, "and he was too much in this world. But I guess it doesn't matter anymore. In a New York minute", just like that, "everything can change. In a New York minute, things can get pretty strange".
You've seen it. Perhaps you stood at the edge of it. Perhaps you've stood at the edge of it and peered into it. Perhaps you're there right now and you feel like I've read your mind. Perhaps you've grabbed a friend by the collar before he gave in to it. Let's be honest. There's a really fine line between free as you can possibly be and prison. There's a really fine line between this free as you can possibly be and addiction, a hole you can't climb out of on your own. The truth is the quest for autonomy, the quest for autonomy is dangerous. It's dangerous because it is an appetite that you can't fully or finally satisfy. It's a thirst that can't be quenched. And when you feed an appetite, what happens? It doesn't shrink. It grows. The more you get, the more you want. And nobody believes this, but it's true.
Autonomy is power, right? That's why we want it. It's power, and the more you have, the more you want. And power? Power is generally intoxicating. And intoxicated people don't make good decisions. They don't listen. In fact, before long, they're surrounded by people who don't have anything helpful to say, nobody with the courage to say, "No". Nobody with the courage to say, "I think you need to rethink that". Nobody with the courage to say, "I think you need to take a different approach". In the quest for autonomy, relationships become, you've seen this, you've been on the other side of this, in our quest for autonomy, relationships ultimately become a means to an end.
Everybody is a potential customer. Everybody is a potential client. Everybody is a potential contact, right? Which leads to further isolation. And success? Success just makes it worse. Before long, everybody around you is either getting a paycheck or they're related to you. And their honesty, their honesty would be costly. So when we accidentally or purposefully embrace this misguided approach to success and masculinity, at the end of the day, we're either frustrated because we aren't there or we're disappointed and isolated when we get there.
Now, quick story. When Israel's second king, we're all familiar with Israel's second king, David, King David, when King David was around 50 years old, he made a decision that would become his most famous decision as a king. Actually, I should say it this way. He made a decision that would become his most infamous decision as king. Of course, he didn't know it at the time, because when we make those decisions, we never know it at the time, right? By the time this story comes around, David had been king for about 20 years. He had multiple wives, as was the custom for kings. He had concubines, as was the custom for kings. He had enormous wealth and enormous power.
Early on in his life, as you know, he had developed a reputation as a warrior. I mean, he is a man's man. He'd secured his legacy, he'd already secured his legacy. He was the king who secured the borders and established peace in Israel. But now he's in his fifties. He's not cute anymore. And he's not satisfied. And you know this story. One evening, you know, he's roaming around on the palace roof overlooking the city. He sees his neighbor's wife bathing in what should have been the privacy of her home.
And guys, let's be honest, this probably wasn't the first time he'd wandered over to that particular part of the roof to stare in that particular direction. On this night, however, he sends a servant to find out who she is, and this particular servant takes a really big risk. He actually attempts to wave David off from what would turn out to be the worst decision of his life. This would be the moment David would give anything to go back and relive. This was the decision he would give anything to go back and unmake.
When the servant returns, he chooses his words so carefully. Here's how he reported back to King David, here's what he said. He said, "She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam". You know Eliam. She's not just a body, she's somebody's daughter. And not only that, she is the wife, She is "the wife of Uriah the Hittite". You know, honorable, brave Uriah. You've fought beside him. He's risked his life for you. In fact, he's camped out in the mud right now, risking his life for you right now. It's that Uriah. And that should have been enough to send David back inside, but, and you've seen this, powerful people? Powerful people have a very difficult time listening to payroll people, don't they?
"Then David sent messengers to get her". I mean, what could they say? What could she say? He's the king. And you know the story. David and Bathsheba spend the night together, probably more than one night. She becomes pregnant. She sends a message to David, letting him know, and David does what he's now in the habit of doing, he powers up. He powers up and he comes up with a plan because, at the end of the day, he is going to control the outcome, control the outcome. He allows Bathsheba to know what his plan's all about, he informs her of his plan, and apparently she decides to play along.
Then he sends a message to Joab, his military commander who is with Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, on a military campaign. David tells Joab, "Send Uriah back to town with a progress report on how things are going with the siege". When Uriah shows up, Uriah gives David the update, and then David smiles and encourages Uriah to go on home to his wife, and Bathsheba was expecting him.
And I'm sure, I don't know, but I'm sure as Uriah leaves the throne room, David congratulates himself on controlling the outcome. But you know the story. The next morning, he gets word that Uriah didn't go home. Instead, he did the honorable thing. He slept at the entrance of the palace with the guards assigned to guarding David. And David can't believe it, so he sends a messenger to get Uriah before he leaves the city. And when he gets there, David says, "Haven't you just come from a military campaign? Why didn't you go home"?
Now, Uriah knows what David's getting at, and listen to his answer. He said here's why. "Because the ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents. And my commander Joab and my Lord's men are camped in the open country. Hey, my friends are living in mud and sweat, they're eating whatever they can carry or kill". And then he says this, "How could I do that? How could I go to my house and eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing". Now gentlemen, there is a man to take our cues from. Free to go, but out of respect for God and his brothers, he just said no. That's who your wife, that's who my wife hopes she married. That's who you want your daughter to marry. Single guys, that's who you should strive to become.
Back to the story. Well, David is so put off by all of this, he insists that Uriah spend another night in town. He invites him to dinner. He gets him drunk. He points him toward home and he sends him on his way, thinking, "Surely, surely, surely he will do what I would do if I were him". But Uriah isn't David. David has lost his way, and he's nothing like Uriah. "But in the evening", the text tells us, "Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master's servants. He did not go home".
Guys, when your kids, when your friends, when your wife tells your story, what story do you want told? I've told you this before but it bears repeating. We write the story of our lives one decision at a time. And certainly some decisions are more important than others, but every decision becomes a permanent part of the story of our lives. And like Uriah, and Jesus talked about this as well, like Uriah, we will be unable to save our lives at some point. But we can preserve our legacy and we can ensure that our story is a story worth telling.
Well, now David realizes that he's been outmaneuvered, and what's interesting, he's been outmaneuvered by a man who didn't even know he was maneuvering. He was simply doing the honorable thing. So then David does the dishonorable thing, the unthinkable thing. He resorts to behavior that in his pre-king years he would have condemned. He resorts to behavior that everybody condemns. And the interesting thing about it is he's absolutely confident that this will remain a secret.
In the morning, "In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and he sent it with Uriah". And here's what he wrote. He said, "Put Uriah in the front where the fighting is the fiercest, and then withdraw from him so that he will be struck down and die". What can Joab do? David is the king. Joab obeys the king, Uriah is killed, along with several of his sword brothers. "And when Uriah's wife Bathsheba heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him". And then, "after the time of morning", when it was complete, "David had her brought into his house and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord". And everybody knew. This was planned in secret but it did not remain a secret.
Here's one of the things we can't understand completely because we live in such different day and age. In households run by servants and slaves, there were no secrets. For household slaves, information was currency. The only person in the dark was David. And what David didn't know was that he, with this one decision, had permanently undermined his credibility and his legacy. Think about this. What else do you know about King David? Not shepherd boy David, King David. And unfortunately this story is pretty much it. This event marked and marred his reputation. But worse, worse than losing his credibility as king, David permanently undermined his moral authority with his children.
This is so important, this is so important. His affair with Bathsheba did not cost him his crown. It cost him his family. And he paid in that area for the rest of his life. The baby dies. Later, his oldest son Amnon rapes his half-sister. David can't bring himself to punish his son, he's so lost, so Absalom, David's favorite son, I think his third son, kills Amnon, his half-brother, to avenge his sister's shame. David does nothing once again. He refuses to reconcile or discipline Absalom. Absalom eventually raises an army and marches on the capital city. David is forced to abandon the city. He goes to war with his son. And then, against David's instructions, Joab, his commander, slaughters Absalom.
Now David's heart is broken again. His dreams for his son and for the kingdom can't come true. Everything else is in shambles. He maintains the crown, but the things that were most important to David, they're gone and they can't be retrieved. In a New York minute, everything changed.
In a New York minute, things can get, come on, guys, they can get pretty strange. But the New York minute in David's story wasn't the whole story. It's never the whole story, is it? There's always a backstory, there's always more to the story. And if you've read this story, you may remember how this entire debacle begins. I skipped that part. It begins like this. In the spring, "In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war", when the weather is good and the crops are planted, "David instead sent Joab out with the king's men and the whole Israelite army". His sword brothers. The men who knew him best. The men who rose to power with him. The men who had hidden with him in caves during the days of King Saul. The men had access to him. The men who knew him before he was king.
"But David remained in Jerusalem", alone and isolated. I'll let the little people fight. I'm king, I'm entitled. David got in trouble, this is so important, "David got in trouble when he isolated himself from the community of men to whom he was most accessible". The king's men. And in his attempt to control outcomes, maintain his autonomy, he paid in the area, listen, he paid in the area where no one, no one, no one can control outcomes. He paid in the area of his family.
Gentlemen, autonomy is a myth. It's a trap. It is an unworthy goal. You may or may not be familiar with the name Albert Speer, Albert Speer. Albert Speer was Adolf Hitler's architect. Most people don't know this, but Adolf Hitler had a dream to create a Berlin that rivaled the beauty and the elegance of Paris. The interesting thing was when he had this dream he'd never even been to Paris. Hitler actually kept a scale model of his future Berlin in his study. Hitler didn't trust many people, but he trusted Albert Speer, and eventually he appointed him as the minister of armaments and war production. He was at Hitler's side throughout his rise to power.
After the war, Albert Speer stood trial at Nuremberg for war crimes. He spent about 20 years in prison. He was released in the late '60s, and he died around 1981. But his memoirs were published under the title "Inside the Third Reich". Now, every book I'd ever read related to the Second World War quoted Albert Speer, they quoted him as a source, so several years ago I sat down and I actually read his book. And when I got to page 83 in the version of the book I read, he writes something that stopped me in my tracks. In fact, Sandra and I quote one of these lines so often it has become part of our vocabulary.
Now, according to Speer, Hitler knew nothing about his enemies and refused to listen to anybody. He trusted his inspirations, no matter how contradictory his inspirations were. In fact, Speer says that Hitler's inspirations were governed by extreme contempt for just about everybody. But here's the section that serves as a constant reminder to me to resist the lure of autonomy and to resist the lure of entitlement.
Here's what he writes. He says, "There is a special trap for every holder of power, whether the director of a company, the head of a state, or the ruler of a dictatorship. His favor, the leader's favor is so desirable to his subordinates that they will sue for it by every means possible. As a result, servility becomes endemic among his entourage, his entourage who compete amongst themselves in their show of devotion".
And then listen to this next part. Here's what happens as a result. "This in turn exercises a sway upon the ruler, who becomes corrupted in his turn". And then here is his observation having watched this happen right before his very eyes. He says, "The key to the quality of the man in power is how he reacts, how he reacts to this situation. I have observed a number of industrialists and military men who knew how to fend off this danger". And then here's the statement that just stopped me in my tracks. Hitler himself, "Hitler himself put up no visible resistance to the evolution of a court".
Gentlemen, regardless of how old you are, regardless of what season of life you're in, regardless of how much life you have ahead of you, resist the evolution of a court. Resist the evolution of a court. People who will tell you what you wanna hear rather than what you need to hear. Resist the isolation and autonomy that comes with success, because it always follows on the heels of success. The isolation that almost always follows on the heels of great achievement. Give people who don't work for you and who don't need anything from you access to you, and here's why. You were not created for autonomy. You were not created for autonomy. It is a myth, it's a trap, it's an unworthy goal. It will leave you isolated and vulnerable.
You may not lose your crown. You may not lose your crowning achievement. You may not lose the tangible rewards of success. But you may lose your soul. You may lose your legacy. You may lose your family. You were not created for autonomy. You were created for community. And if you're a Jesus follower, if you're a Jesus follower, you're part of a body. And when a body part goes rogue, what do we do? We diagnose that as a disease and we either cure it or we remove it.
Autonomy is an appetite that cannot be fully and finally satisfied. It is a thirst that cannot be quenched. So, if God sees fit to make you a king, if God sees fit to make you a king in the realm of industry, the marketplace, academia, arts, athletics, so be it. But when that day comes, keep those who knew you before and know you best close. They are not impressed. But they are oh so important. And in the springtime, when the kings go to war, suit up and go with them.
You were not made for autonomy. You were created for community. And if you embrace that, you will survive and you will thrive and you will have a story worth telling, a story your friends, your children, your wife, and perhaps your grandchildren will be proud to tell. I'd love to pray for us, guys.
Heavenly Father, easy to talk about, difficult to embrace. Please give all of us wisdom to know what to do with what we just heard. I pray that we would be like Uriah, that we would be men of extraordinary self-control. Men who are honorable, who are known for our honor. So Father, however this lands with us, give us wisdom to know what to do, wisdom to know what to change, and give us the courage to embrace community. And I pray all of that in Jesus' name. Amen.