Humility, part 6: All from God
I want to come back to the idea we were pursuing before that tangent last time, which was a discussion of self-esteem, and false humility versus true humility. Many Christians have a false notion of humility in that they believe that true humility require us always and in every circumstance to esteem everybody else higher than our self. Now I know Paul says in Philippians 2:3 that we should “in humility, let each esteem other better than themselves.”
That is a general statement which is generally appropriate, but is it always and everywhere true? Let me make up an example to demonstrate my point. Better yet, let us use an event that occurred early in the George W. Bush administration. There was an American EP3 Orion surveillance plane which was forced to make an emergency landing on communist Chinese territory.
Let’s assume for the sake of illustration that our surveillance plane was in international waters. By international law, it has a right to be there. But the Chinese government naturally sends up its fighter planes to “escort” and harass the American surveillance plane. Again, for the sake of this illustration, let us assume that one of the Chinese fighter pilots got aggressive and “traded paint” with the American Orion plane. Let’s stipulate that it was clearly the Chinese pilot’s fault, that he was a cowboy just hot-dogging and playing chicken with clumsy, relatively unmaneuverable propeller EP3 Orion, and hence, the damaged American plane needed to make the emergency landing.
The Chinese government then unjustly demanded that President George W. make a full apology. Question: should President Bush esteem the Chinese premier more highly than himself and say (falsely): Oh, we’re sorry. We are totally at fault here. What can we do to please you? You say you want to execute the 24 crewmen as spies? Well, gosh, whatever you think is right. We just want to esteem you higher than ourselves.
Obviously, that is an exaggerated example to make the point. But the principle applies in many places. In the Christian community, there are levels of authority and responsibility. Those charged with leadership must fulfill their mandate.
You see, Paul’s exhortation to esteem others higher than ourselves has to be understood in context. This is even brought out more clearly by Paul himself in Ephesians 5. The word humility does not appear in verse 21, but the idea of submission clearly implies humility.
Ephesians 5: 20 Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;
21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
Again, this is a general statement. But does this mean that the elders are to submit to the deacons? No! That would be out of order in the church family. The example that Paul gives is in the marriage context:
22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
Yet, to the best of my knowledge, the Word of God never tells husbands to submit to their wives, because that is not the biblical order in the family unit. So the general statement of verse 21about “submitting yourselves one to another” does not mean that everybody, no matter what their position or role, is to submit to everybody else.
At the same time, however, President Bush can speak to the janitor of Podunk, Pennsylvania Christian church and he can esteem the janitor higher than himself in many ways without compromising his responsibilities as president of the United States.
Similarly, the pastor of Podunk Christian church can also esteem the janitor higher. It means we treat the man with dignity and respect and do not think of ourselves as any more worthy in God’s eyes than is anyone else.
It reminds me of an advertising blurb I saw for a book in which it read in part: “YHWH could restore our nation with a small flick of his finger…BUT Israel is not worthy of his salvation.” …“but when our Israel nation takes a stand against Anti-Christ…” and the implication was that when we do, we will be worthy.
Dear reader, when did you or I or any collection of individuals, Israelite nation or not; when did we or when will we ever be worthy of salvation? …Never! That’s the whole point of God’s grace and mercy. If we ever became worthy, then it is something God owes us and it is no longer grace.
This relates to self-esteem in that there is a level of healthy self-esteem. It is having a true and moderate opinion of our worth and value. The CEO of GM has more value and worth in a very practical business sense than does the janitor in the Chevy plant. But in the eyes of God, neither of them is worthy of salvation. Moreover, the janitor who is humble may be more pleasing to God than a proud CEO. Conversely, a CEO can be humble and a janitor can be very proud.
The proper attitude of humility is that we always recognize that, as Paul says it, “I am what I am by the grace of God.”
Humility is not a weak and timid quality; it is understanding that all we are and all we accomplish is given to us from God. We can excel in various areas. For example, we can be brilliant in academics, talented in sports, skilled in mechanical areas or artistic in arts and crafts, wise in business, and wealthy as a result, etc. But all comes from God.
To continue on this theme, let us look at a passage in the book of Deuteronomy. One of the reasons God brought Israel into the wilderness was to teach them humility. Can you see how God might bring us into our own personal wilderness to humble us as well?
Deuteronomy 8:2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness…
Why did God lead them around the wilderness for 40 years?
2… to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.
3 And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.
16 Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end;
17 And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth.
That verse describes the pride that must be eradicated.
18 But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.
Why is Bill Gates so wealthy? Because God gave him the power to get wealth, right? Humility is the antidote to pride. Here God humbles Israel in their wilderness trek so that they will acknowledge that all wealth comes from God. Some years ago I wrote briefly about the fact that there is the false “prosperity gospel,” not the false gospel of prosperity.
There is a difference, because God gives both prosperity and poverty. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with riches per se. Rather, the abuse and false gospel comes in when preachers tell their flocks that all they have to do is become Christians and have faith and they will have as much wealth as they desire, especially if they plant a “seed faith” in the collection basket.
We need to understand that being poor is not necessarily any more spiritually pleasing to God than is being wealthy. But I am afraid that all too many Christians actually take pride in their poverty as though it somehow makes them more spiritual than a person of wealth. Moreover, it is often an excuse for laziness, plain and simple.
So the crux of this essay is that if God has blessed you with talents to be successful in business and to get great wealth, then do it! It does not prevent you from being humble. The two can co-exist. We have two very prominent examples in Abraham and Job of how great wealth co-existed perfectly with great humility.
I think one of the simplest yet most important principles we can glean from our study of humility is this: if we do not humble ourselves, God will do it for us. And when God does it, it can vary from embarrassing to extremely uncomfortable to downright painful. Let me close with a personal incident to illustrate that.
Most readers are probably aware that some of the old TV comedy shows from the 60s are still around in syndication creating mirth and hilarity for a whole new generation. So while some of us are old enough to remember the Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show, the young people like my nieces and nephews, chuckle with great amusement when they watch a DVD of those old programs.
Just as I did in my childhood years watching the original airings, they roar at the antics of Jed Clampett and Granny and Ellie May on the Beverly Hillbillies, and Andy and Barney and Goober from the town of Mayberry.
It would be a real toss-up about whether the Mayberry village idiot was Deputy Barney Fife or Gomer Pyle. Keeping that in mind, perhaps many readers are familiar with Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He has a national radio broadcast called “Grace to You,” and he’s written several books, one of which I have in my library which purports to “expose” the charismatics. On the back cover is a photo of MacArthur.
Quite a few years ago I wore larger eyeglasses that had thin rims which apparently helped cause some people to remark to me that I resembled John MacArthur. Of course, it you look at his and my photographs today, almost no one would say that.
But the point is, back in those years, one day I was teaching my teenaged niece about how to operate my old computer because I was preparing to sell it to her dad, my brother, primarily for use by the children. And on the hard drive I had a copy of a “business portrait” photograph of myself from a few years prior to that. And with me dressed in my business suit and comparing it to Pastor MacArthur’s thumbnail portrait on the back cover of his book, there was indeed a strong resemblance.
Anyhow, I was proudly telling my niece how some folks had said that I resembled John MacArthur. Now, true confession here: In my mind, I knew I probably had many serious doctrinal disagreements with Pastor MacArthur, but golly, he was somewhat famous and here some people were saying that I looked like him. Yes, there was that pride rearing its ugly head in me again.
But if we don’t humble ourselves, God will do it for us. And this time, he used my dear niece as His instrument. Because she had no idea who John MacArthur was, and so with complete sincerity and innocence and with no “slam” meant, she said: “Gee, Uncle James, I think you look more like Barney Fife on Andy Griffith!”
Ouch! That got my attention about my pride. And I would like to say, “Lesson learned,” but that’s the paradoxical thing about humility. One can never say that, because the moment we think we have our tendency towards pride under control, Father brings us the same challenge but with new circumstances—just to keep us humble, you understand.
Now hear the words of the great scholar, Erasmus, the debating partner of Martin Luther. “It is in vain to gather virtues without humility; for the spirit of God delights to dwell in the hearts of the humble.”
Thank you, Father, for keeping us humble when we fail to do the job ourselves. (To be continued.)