Tuesday, June 16, 2009

When the Way Up is Down

Solomon speaks extraordinary wisdom when he warns us that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Like a lot of lessons we learn, it was born of experience. Solomon knew that for all his accomplishments, it was finally his unwillingness to obey God and his prideful determination to go his own way that led to the tearing of his own kingdom in two (1 Kings 11: 9-11). He was guilty of that ancient sin that first set in motion what, theologically speaking, we call “the fall.” It’s the sin of trying to “fire” God; and replace him as CEO which is exactly what Genesis says “the first couple” did when they presumed to know better than God what was best for them.

John Ortberg tells the story of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who pulled into a service station to get gas. He went inside to pay, and when he came out he noticed his wife engaged in a deep discussion with the service station attendant. It turned out that she knew him and used to date him in high school. The CEO got in the car, and the two drove in silence. He was feeling pretty good about himself when he finally spoke: "I bet I know what you were thinking…you're glad you married me, a Fortune 500 CEO, and not him, a service station attendant." "No, I was thinking if I'd married him, he'd be a Fortune 500 CEO and you'd be a service station attendant!" Let's face it, if pride goes before the fall then we’ve all fallen flat on our faces; but by the grace of God I believe we can learn how to stand up again… turn from the sin of pride, and begin to develop genuine humility.

Let’s begin by looking at The false signs of humility & spiritual pride. Jesus tells this parable "to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.....Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18: 9-14).

Jesus' words teach three things. First, that spiritual pride doesn’t see its own sin. Notice how this Pharisee clearly saw the sins of everyone else around him but himself. The reason he stood in the corner by himself was that he didn’t want to be contaminated by the am-haaretz, who did not keep the law. Then, he actually thanks God publicly that he is not like these other low life’s.

It’s really too bad that Jesus chose a clergyman to illustrate pride and arrogance: the person who went to church every Sunday, who put money in the offering plate each week, who gave to the poor, who did all the right things – religiously speaking. Doing religious things does not exempt us from the sin of pride… oh no! Because we can do them for human approval; and not God’s. So let's agree right now…that we who “go to church” have nothing to boast of except the grace of God. Mike Yaconelli once put it this way in The Door (Sept./Oct. 1989): “Let's--all of us--decide to stop trying to convince the world that Christianity is true because Jesus makes us prettier, happier, thinner, wealthier, bigger, more successful, more popular, healthier, or stronger…than everyone else.” Friends, seekers are not drawn to Christ through a prideful church, but a repentant and broken church that is just as in need of God as anyone outside it.

Secondly, spiritual pride is proud of its own humility. See how the Pharisee recounts for God his religious virtues: not only did he keep the law, he exceeded its demands. The Pharisees were well known for their fasting and tithing of all they owned. The problem was not with fasting or tithing per se (Jesus fasted), but that these actions did not reflect a heart humbled before God.

Excuse the Trek metaphor, but spiritual pride is like a Klingon. Remember the Klingon’s? They had this very cool cloaking device that made their ships invisible; right up until the moment they attacked. Pride sneaks up on us like that. We can be engaged in the most noble and godly activity…and then, before we know it, our shields are down and “WAM!” We’re fantasizing about how impressed others will be when they discover how selfless we’ve been. It’s really laughable…and perhaps laughter, not taking ourselves too seriously, is the best remedy for this kind of pride.

Third, spiritual pride is eager to teach while being un-teachable. Note the irony that this Pharisee was a teacher of the law…and the most un-teachable person in the temple that day. When we’re convinced that we have everything to offer and nothing to learn, we’re in a spiritual free fall. We can see this not only as individuals, but in our collective pride as a church (thinking our particular church can stand on its own) or as a country; thinking that because we have more political and material blessings that we are somehow better than others.

John McDermott, author of Seeing God (a modern spin on Jonathan Edwards' Treatise on Religious Affections) observes that in the late 1980’s after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, many Christians there complained that missionaries from the West assumed they had little or nothing to learn from the churches in these formerly communist lands. Their pride was hurtful to these suffering Christians; and worse, the missionaries lost a chance to learn from those who had trusted Christ despite persecution & poverty. A great remedy for pride, is the commitment to remain teachable; to say “God has something to teach me in and through every person I meet.” Some of the most important lessons you will learn will be taught by those you assumed had nothing to teach you.

What is The evidence that we are growing in true humility? Here are 4 things: One, true humility grows out of the experience of God’s holiness and love; not just the conviction of one’s sin. Most people have a conscience…and feel guilt when they do something they know is wrong. But true humility is inspired by more than a guilty conscience. True humility is inspired by the holiness and love of God. Isaiah fell to his knees when he encountered the holiness of God (Isa. 6:1-5). The tax collector in Jesus’ parable said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” It was a view of God’s holiness that moved him to humble repentance (Luke 19:5). Remember the story of Zacchaeus? Zacchaeus came down from the tree not just because he felt guilty about ripping people off as a tax collector; but because of Jesus’ surprising love for him: "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today" (Luke 19: 5). I have to say that there have been moments in my life, holy moments, when I’ve been profoundly aware of the goodness and love of Christ…and in his holy presence I’ve felt a profound distaste for the things I know are wrong…and a desire to worship and serve him only.

Two, true humility listens to God and to others. A prideful spirit tends to be noisy. Proverbs 30:32 suggests that “If you have been foolish, exalting yourself…put your hand on your mouth.” And James counsels us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger… Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (James 1:19-21). We can’t listen to other people if we’re angry…try it and see. On the other hand, James says we can’t deal with our anger if we won’t listen to God and his word. The solution, says James, is to rid ourselves “of all sordidness…and welcome with meekness the implanted word.” The word sordidness is derived from a Greek medical term that means “earwax”! James is telling us to get rid of anything that would stop our ears from really listening to the true Word of God. What is the earwax that you need to remove so that you might hear God on a daily basis? God can give us a new security about who we are…he can free us from the need to always have the approval of others or to always be in the right. He can empower us to listen to others with meekness & humility.

Three, true humility works on behalf of others, not just self. When Zacchaeus came down from the tree, the first thing he did was to pledge a change in his behavior: "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount" (Luke 19: 8). If we have truly listened to God or understood the needs of those around us…we will eventually want to use our gives and talents to bless others and God. I believe we are entering a time in which we are recognizing our profound personal responsibility for the messes of this world…the talents we’ve been given by God (as individuals and nations) that are in danger of being wasted. “Do and dare what is right,” Bonhoeffer said. We can because God did. For Christ, the Eternal Word of God, chose to empty himself (Philippians 2), taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human flesh. Jesus said that he came “not to be served but to serve” and to give his life as a ransom for many. God chose the path of the humble servant…can we do less?

Four, true humility sees things for what they are. Many people assume that to be humble means that they must think less of themselves then they are…or deny their gifts and talents. Certainly, to know God and his holiness is to know our sinfulness and fallibility. But I want to underscore that true humility means we see ourselves accurately; neither overestimating nor underestimating ourselves, our gifts, or our abilities. Jesus tells us that we must not seek honor for ourselves. On the other hand, we should accept honor gratefully when it is given. It is not humility to deny your giftedness or your uniqueness as God’s child…it is ingratitude.

Thirty years ago, it was common to see "full service" gas stations. I'm talking about the guys who would check your oil, pump your gas, and wash your windows for about 1/10 of the price of gas today! We laugh at the idea now...but God still wants us to have a "full service" attitude as we approach him and other people; a humble spirit that is eager to put others before ourselves. How do we get there from here? How can we grow in humility? John McDermott has three suggestions. First, you can be sure that if you know you have a long way to go, you’re on the right path. Those who think they have arrived have wandered off the path a long time ago.

Beyond that, don't be afraid to ask for it. Christians are sometimes afraid to ask for humility, thinking that God will ruin their lives in the process. But Jesus taught us that “pride” is a heavy burden that we bear. ‘Take my yoke upon you,” says Jesus, “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11: 29-30). Whatever God takes from us in order to teach us humility, will only bring us a deeper joy and peace and contentment.

Finally, be open to what God may be trying to teach you each day. We need to be open to whatever God may want to work in us through the mundane events of daily life. You may be criticized this week, overlooked, or feel under-appreciated. You may experience failure, weakness, or your own human limitations…but you can ask God to use these experiences to help you see things as they really are…and to develop in you a heart that is humble, freer of pride and arrogance, and increasingly open to God’s infinite love and grace.

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