Your average preacher is the spiritual equivalent of the TV weatherman. He pays enormously for an academic education, then he gets put in front of an audience that expects him to be entertaining—and gets furious when he tells them something they don’t want to hear.
Paul understood this. This is why he tells the young pastor Timothy to press in, because times are tough and there will always be rivals. In his letter to this young pastor, Paul writes:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
What was the danger? Paul knew that Timothy would face an era where people turned from God’s truth to instead embrace a seductive lie. Itching ears? By that he meant that sometimes our “felt” needs outstrip our deeper, spiritual needs.
I hope you recognize that this danger is no less real today. Go into any bookstore—even the Christian bookstore—and you’ll be confronted by a wall of self-help teachers that offer advice on finance, dating, weight loss, and anything else you can conceivably think of as leading to personal happiness and fulfillment. With itching ears and greedy stomachs, modern day Christians have unrepentantly devoted themselves to a curious blend of spiritual platitudes and consumerist delight.
Why is this so dangerous? Doesn’t God want me to be happy? But that question only assumes that my deepest problem is unhappiness. If my deepest problem is financial, then financial planning is my surest savior. If my problem is singleness, then dating advice becomes my gospel. If my deepest problem is low self-esteem, then a self-help manual works wonders. But the gospel says that my deepest problem isn’t a lack of personal fulfillment, but the excess of personal fulfillment. What the Bible calls “sin” is a form of self-indulgence, self-interest, self-absorption. And the only true remedy for that is the gospel.
You see, the greatest problem within the walls of today’s church is that we’ve assumed the gospel to be elementary when it should be elemental. We’ve assumed that the God has saved us from hell, but fail to recognize the ways he has saved us for new life. And when we minimize that, we’re left to thrive on the petty dalliances of consumerist religion. What today’s church needs is not a change in her substance, but a return to it. To refocus our eyes on the beauty of Jesus and his message of forgiveness and transformation. To realize that when—not if—we fully understand the exhilarating, electrifying joy that comes from knowing Christ, that our so-called needs and “itching ears” will seem trivial by comparison.
Paul’s letter to Timothy was the last that would appear in the New Testament—and most likely his final before being killed in Rome. Paul faced this inevitability with courage, with conviction, and with words of encouragement for the rough road ahead:
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
If we care deeply about others, it naturally means caring less about self. Often people struggle to find a church that “meets my needs.” But such an approach treats faith as if it were a series of projects, self-improvement schemes with Jesus as the means and self as the end. But Christianity says that religion isn’t something that you can master; religion is something that must master you. And so if the gospel is true, I find hope and purpose and joy in Christ alone—and not the cares of my earthly appetite and itching ears.