Editor's Note: As church leaders, our ability to stay focused on Jesus and the power of the Gospel is an everyday thing. No one heralds this more than the grandson of Billy Graham and pastor of Coral Ridge, TullianTchividjian. We recently spoke with Tullian about his new book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, the danger of approval addiction, and the power of the Gospel.
The book was born out of a terrible season of pain and suffering for me. I’m only 39 years old, but so far the hardest year of my life was 2009. It was very difficult for a handful of reasons, the primary one being that was the year the church I planted down here in South Florida merged with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. The church I planted in 2003 was about five-and-a-half years old and about 15 minutes up the road from Coral Ridge. Coral Ridge is a well-known, famous church that was founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy in 1959. He passed away in 2007. The church was, for the very first time, in the unique position of having to go out and find a pastor. They had never been in that position before so they approached me. I told them I was humbled and I was honored but that I was not interested. They came back a couple of months and basically asked the same thing. Again, I said I’m humbled, I’m honored, but I’m not interested.
About four or five months later, they came back, and that’s when they proposed a potential merger between the two churches. So we put a team of guys together from our church and their church, and we met for probably three or four months going through a meticulous due diligence process, looking under every rock and behind every tree. It became very clear at the end of that process that this is, in fact, what God wanted us to do. He wanted us to merge these two churches and birth one new church out of it. So we knew it was going to be very difficult. We knew it was going to be painful. Coral Ridge, as well known as it was, had been in decline for about ten years and really needed some updating, needed a facelift, needed a change. So we knew it was going to be painful. We knew it was going to be difficult.
I felt like the father of a blended family, and all of the fireworks that we anticipated started going off almost immediately. There was a small but vocal group of people in the church, long-time Coral Ridge people, who opposed the merger before it even happened. And then after it happened, they started opposing it from within the church and really challenging me publicly in various ways, through letters to the congregation, anonymous blogs, a petition drive. Because the church is well known and my family is well known, it became fodder for the press. It was widely publicized that there was trouble at Coral Ridge. It was embarrassing on numerous levels. I was being attacked; my character was being attacked, not only inside the church but also publicly outside the church. I had never been through anything like this before. The shelling was heavy. I wanted to give up on numerous occasions.
I had been there for about two-and-a-half months when a petition drive was started inside the church to get me removed. Of course, as you can imagine, it was very painful for my wife and for my three kids. We wondered what in the world we had done. God had been doing great things in our church plant and through our church plant. Everything was going really well, and my life as I knew it had come to a screeching halt. Life became very, very hard. And I can remember, I tell the story at the beginning of the book, I tell the story of me finally having it out with God in the summer of 2009 and basically telling Him, “I want my old life back. God, You really screwed up here, and I want my old life back.” And very gently but firmly, through Colossians chapter 1, God reminded me that it wasn’t my old life I wanted back.
It was my old idols I wanted back, and He loved me too much to give them to me. And what I realized in that moment was just how dependent I had become on human approval and human acceptance and what other people thought of me to make me feel important and to make me feel like I matter. And it was during that time that God liberated me by helping me to see that Jesus plus nothing equals everything. And I know that sounds like a trite, preachable tagline, but it became my lifeline.
You don’t realize just how desperately you need Jesus until He takes away a lot of the things that you are depending on that are infinitely smaller than Him. There were people out to get me, there were people wanting to take me down, there were people who were opposing me at every turn. I didn’t realize just dependent I had become over the years on what people thought of me until God took that away. And now, for the very first time, I have those who don’t like me, who don’t approve of me, who are out to get me, who are criticizing me privately and publicly, and stirring up trouble to get me thrown out. God brought me to the end of myself. He broke my legs, and in the process, taught me grace.
So this book is basically an autobiographical account of the most difficult year of my life, the year when God brought me to the end of myself and helped me rediscover the “now” power of the Gospel, that everything I need and everything I long for, in Christ, I already possess. All of the approval I long for, all of the affection that I long for, all of the acceptance I long for, all of the worth and value and purpose I long for, I already possess in Christ. And when that grips your heart, it absolutely sets you free because now you’re no longer dependent on transient things like what other people think of you to make you feel as if you matter. It absolutely set me free, and I wrote the book because I love pastors.
It seems unfair to me that just because I come from a well-known family and the church is well known that I’m the only one telling this story and it’s getting press. I know a lot of pastors who have gone through not only similar things but worse things than me, but my hope is to give voice to the painful struggle of pastoral ministry and church leadership and to really exhort Christian leaders and pastors to find their identity and security and worth and value in what Jesus has already accomplished for us. I think so often, at least this is the case for me, you begin to believe "If my ministry is successful, I’m a success. And if my ministry’s a failure, then I’m a failure." That just confines you to life in a prison cell. It steals your joy, it robs you of your freedom, it takes away your courage and your boldness to say things and do things you need to say and do because you’re afraid of what other people might say or how they might react.
The only thing that got me through, the absolute only thing that got me through was coming to a fresh realization that everything I need in Christ I already possess. And that just liberated me to live and lead in a free, Gospel-centered way.
FREEDOM IN CHRIST
What I realized during that difficult time is that it was only the Gospel that had the power to free me from my addiction to be liked. And that is something that we struggle with, whether we’re conscious of it or not. One of the reasons we get into ministry and get into preaching is because we’re people pleasers. And that’s something that only the Gospel can free you from and can free you for living life in a posture of “to live is Christ; to die is gain.” I’ve discovered that pain and suffering are the primary tools God uses to set us free.
Throughout the book, I state that real slavery, according to the Bible, is self-reliance, trying to secure for myself the approval and acceptance and meaning and validation that I long for. Realizing that the Gospel is just as important after you become a Christian as it was before is something that was brand new to me. I grew up in church thinking that the power of the Gospel was for people outside the church. When I heard the word Gospel, it was synonymous almost exclusively with evangelism, that once God saves you, He moves you beyond the Gospel. Another way I thought about it theologically was justification is step 1, sanctification is step 2, and once you get to step 2, you never need to go back to step 1. And what I’ve learned is that sanctification is a process, that daily process of getting used to your justification and believing that what God has said about you is true.
That’s the hardest thing to believe. Unbelief is at the bottom of every temptation we face to locate our identity in something smaller than Jesus. It just seems too good to be true. "You’re telling me that all of the approval I long for and all of the acceptance I long for and all of the affection I long for, I already possess in Jesus? I don’t believe that. I’ve got to go out and get that stuff for myself, and I need other people to give it to me." And so the Gospel, the “now” power of the Gospel—I don’t think too many Christians have a problem believing that the Gospel justifies us, and I don’t think too many people have a difficult time believing that it’s the Gospel that eventually glorifies us, but I think we have a terrible time believing that the Gospel alone is what sanctifies us. It doesn’t just ignite the Christian life; it’s the fuel that keeps the Christians going and growing every day. I could have said that theologically with great passion before 2009, but it wasn’t until 2009 that it became a functional, heartfelt reality for me.
The other thing, too, is that I don’t want to readers to think that the burden is on them to apply. I tried to redefine application in terms of rediscovering on a daily basis by the power of God’s grace through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, realizing what Christ has already applied to us. When we think of application, it’s how do we now put into practice what God is telling us to do, and God’s always saying, "No, the real meaning of application is daily rediscovering what Christ has already applied to you and living in that reality of acceptance and approval and unconditional love."