Category Archives: Humility

Longing for Singularity

As someone who makes a living as a “provider of religious services” in a “pluralistic environment,” I am tired. The cost of admission to work in this context seems too high. I am tired of freedom, though this has little to do with current social issues regarding homosexuality and transgenderism.

The problem starts with what seems like a good idea. We gather a bunch of pastors / priests / rabbis / imams / etc. to provide religious support to a diverse population made up of all sorts of different religious adherents. In order to serve them all, we provide for their religious preferences. That is where this starts to unravel. Religion is reduced to a preference. Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, manual or automatic, Seahawks or Packers. Those are preferences. Choosing any one of those has no lasting impact.

If the claims of any one religion are true, however, then logically, at least some of the others must be false. Furthermore, if the claims of a religion are true, then to choose any other religion has dire eternal consequences. This is error of the most serious sort. I could have wrongly learned, “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” and miss a point on a history exam or in Trivial Pursuit, but to get God wrong is a very grave error.

In our pluralistic environment where we are to “cooperate without compromise,” I find that we are forced to act as if religion is merely a preference. We can promote the overall program and general benefits of religious practice, but we cannot talk about truth and error. This applies not only in chaplaincy settings, but increasingly in our overall western culture. We are committing an error when we allow that which is most dear to us to be reduced to a preference, even though the Church teaches and we believe that it is worth dedicating our lives to and even giving our lives for.

I am not advocating that we cannot or should not be civil to those of different faiths. The sword has historically been a poor evangelistic tool. But we must have the conviction to stand on and for the truth. We must be willing to seek the truth. We must, if we are intent on living in the truth, be willing to step away from error, expose it, and move toward the truth.

This is not a popular stance, especially not in the area of religion. It is seen as elitist, bigoted, and even racist in some cases. However, to seek the truth is not to claim that I am right, but to seek to know and do what is right. It is not to lord it over others, but to live in humble subjection to the truth and encourage others to do the same.

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Filed under Humility, Religion

Take and Read

Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)

These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.

It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.

Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.

There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.

As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)

We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.

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Filed under Bible, Humility

Prayer and Pride

We must be humble in order to pray. In pride, we may do things that are prayer-like, but they are not prayer. At its most basic level, prayer is either asking for something (daily bread, forgiveness of sins, healing) or thanking for something (God’s grace, family, health).

We cannot ask for something out of pride. If I have pride, then I either deserve it (at least in my mind) so I can order it, or I expect it. I may even think I can do it myself. Humility asks. Humility acknowledges dependence upon another. Even in human relationships, just because I am “in charge” or “superior” to someone in position doesn’t mean I can’t ask, or that by telling them to perform some duty I am not acknowledging my neediness. Leaders have staffs because they cannot do it all themselves.

We also cannot give thanks out of pride. If I am full of pride, then I deserve whatever it was that was provided. I expect such service or quality. To be thankful is to acknowledge the receipt of something from outside of oneself. Thankfulness is acknowledgement of a gift.

To petition God in humility is to acknowledge our powerlessness. We ask because on our own we cannot cause it to be. We cannot forgive ourselves of sin. We cannot provide all that we need for life. We may come to think that we are “putting bread on the table” but without God to cause the crops to grow and the rain to fall, there is no bread. We may have a part to play, but it is secondary to God’s, or even tertiary, since most of us don’t even make our own bread today. We are dependent; to acknowledge this truth is a prerequisite to prayer.

To thank God in humility is also to acknowledge our limits. We thank God for his character because if it were different, we would be doomed. We thank God for his deeds because we are the beneficiaries of them constantly. From the breathtaking grandeur of his creation to the blessing of a warm bed on a cold night, we thank God for providing us what we need and so much more.

There is a reason Christians have historically knelt to pray. It is a posture of submission, of humility. It reminds us that we come before one more powerful than ourselves when we address God. Standing is also a common posture for prayer and reflects this as well, especially in our contemporary society. We don’t have many instances outside of church where we are expected to kneel, but we may have superiors at work to whom it is appropriate to show respect by remaining standing until invited to sit.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

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Filed under Humility, Prayer, Pride

Presumption vs. Effort

We are well into Advent, and the lectionary turns our thoughts to John the Baptist and his preparation for the ministry of our Lord. John is an interesting character. We admire his candor and focus, but I dare say we are glad he isn’t hanging out in the back of our church. He came preaching a message of repentance. “Straighten up for the Messiah is coming,” is the main emphasis of his teaching. He had no great regard for the religious leaders of his day; he called them a bunch of snakes and challenged them to repent as well.

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

Matthew 3:8-9 (ESV)

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Do things that are congruent with pursuing holiness and turning from sin. Actively seek to root out pride, gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, envy, and wrath from your life. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t be presumptuous.

“We’re children of Abraham. We are God’s chosen race.” One would think that 70 years of exile in Babylon would have tempered that a bit, but they were short-sighted and stiff-necked, as are we. We always seem to hope for assurance but don’t want it to require much from us.

Jesus, once he eclipses John and begins his ministry, reinforces John’s message.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21 (ESV)

If you skim the preceding chapters of Matthew, it seems like Jesus’ idea of “doing his Father’s will” is more than just “giving him your heart.” Matthew 7:21 and its implications unsettle those of the “eternal security” camp, as it should. There is something to be said for not constantly worrying about “losing” your salvation, but then again, this seems to have a long lineage in history. Most of the saints were concerned about pleasing God through their actions. They sought God with devotion and effort.

To some degree it comes back to Gnosticism. If we think that because “I know I’m saved,” then “I’m good,” we are proclaiming that we have knowledge (the meaning of gnosis) and by that knowledge we are saved. This idea that “we don’t have to do anything, just believe,” has become so entrenched in American evangelicalism that suggesting we must do something is viewed with shock and horror. John the Baptist would be scoffed as a legalist.

But what is Scripture? Is it not a lot of teaching on how we are to act? Perhaps we should quit worrying about vainly trying to earn our salvation and focus a bit on being cast into hell for not being obedient. Not very popular these days, I know. But Scripture hasn’t changed.

We are on dangerous ground we when presume to be “good.” Scripture’s default assumption concerning every one of us is that we are sinners worthy of judgement. We can do nothing to earn salvation — because we have already irretrievably blown it. God’s grace is truly the only thing that can save us, not because he’s so nice and wants to make it easy on us. He desires us to be holy as he is holy.

We should be working double-time to try to appease the wrath of God. We should cling to Jesus like a man dangling from a cliff clinging to a rope. Not presumptuously swinging about and enjoying the view, but doing everything we can to get back up onto the straight, narrow, and high way of the Lord.

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Filed under Faith, Gnosticism, Humility, Obedience

Guilt and Shame

guilt_woman

My wife was in a women’s Bible study that recently brought up the topic of guilt. The comment was made that, “All guilt is from the devil.” As we discussed this on our walk that evening, she said that the comment pretty well summed up the attitude of the group, but that she did not feel comfortable with it. When we got home, we turned to the dictionary to see if maybe we were missing something.

Guilt:
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct
2a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach
3: a feeling of culpability for offenses

2b comes closest to something that may not be an accurate self-assessment, due to “imagined” offenses. Perhaps shame was what these ladies were really speaking of when they talked about guilt.

Shame
1a : a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
b : the susceptibility to such emotion
2: a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute : ignominy
3a : something that brings censure or reproach; also : something to be regretted : pity
b : a cause of feeling shame

Well, maybe not. What is going on here? These ladies seem to be missing a fundamental truth.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Romans 3:22b-23 (ESV)

We have sinned, therefore we should feel guilt and shame. So, what are we missing?

The dictionary tells me that guilt is feeling bad for what I have done and shame is feeling bad for what I am. I am what I do; that is the way the world (generally) works. It is also the way Scripture works. If I commit sin, I am a sinner. I am guilty, therefore I should be ashamed.

As we’ve continued to revisit this topic, we think the issue is not that guilt (and shame) are bad. The problem is that we don’t like them. Americans, and their churches, are about feeling good. The internet will gladly give up quotes along the lines of, “Don’t feel guilty; just do what you want.” Sounds a bit like, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5 ESV)

Yet Scripture is clear that we are to feel bad for our guilt.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:7-10 (ESV)

Just in case you think James is too harsh, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21b ESV) “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25b ESV)

The proud man dwells more willingly on the little good he does, on the little devotion he feels, than on the thought of the evil he has committed and which he does daily. He puts behind him the multitude of his sins, so that he need not be ashamed and humble himself; and he reflects often upon certain of his minute exercises of Christian piety, so as to indulge his self-complacency, as St. Gregory says: “It is easier for them to see within themselves that which is  pleasing to them, than that which is displeasing.” Perhaps you also have this tendency.

Cajetan Mary da Bergamo, Humility of Heart

If we do wrong — and Scripture is clear that we all have — we are guilty and therefore should feel shame. Though it is unpleasant to feel guilt and shame, the answer is not to do away with them, but to fight against sin.

Consider this: Touching a hot stove hurts. What is the answer to this problem? Our society would tell us to find some sort of salve or medicine to deaden the pain. Common sense tells us to not touch the stove.

Some would call this being judgmental. I disagree. If you feel guilt and shame, it is because you think you have done wrong. I’m not going to argue that you haven’t, because we all have. Thanks be to God that we have hope of forgiveness through Jesus.

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Filed under Humility, Penitence

The Lord God Made Them All

The title is the last of four books by James Herriot, recounting his days as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, England in the 1930s. It is also the fourth line of a hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander first published in 1848. The first stanza of the hymn served as titles for each of Herriot’s memoirs. Originally written as a children’s hymn, it extols the diversity of creation as God’s handiwork.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

When we look around outside, we can find God’s creative diversity all around us, from whales to hummingbirds, dandelions to redwoods. As far as we know, none of these suffer from envy. Robins don’t seem to wish they were eagles. Slugs seem pretty  content as slugs, not wishing they were rabbits. Sunflowers and sycamores never bicker over which one is better.

So why do we do this to ourselves? Why is envy such a constant temptation even though the Tenth Commandment warns us against it?

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

Exodus 20:17 (ESV)

The opposite of covetousness is thankfulness. We do well to be thankful for what we have and who we are. Whether my analytic, introverted ways come from nature or nurture, it seems highly unlikely that I’m going to become a crowd-loving emotive person anytime soon. At times, I have wished for more extroversion, more ability to interact with people in what to me are awkward (and usually unnecessary) social situations, but that is not my lot in life.

Within the church, we see various gifts and callings — monks and missionaries, deacons and bishops — and we are tempted to want to be more like someone else, yet this often stems from our pride and jealousy. Churches have missionaries share their “adventures” with the congregation, but not the junior accountant or the plumber, or at least not nearly as often.

In my pride, I desire to be consulted, to be sought out as a source of wisdom and knowledge. This desire has driven more of my life than I probably care to admit, from thoughts of teaching, to preaching, to writing these very words. Others pursue their “15 minutes of fame” in different realms. The desire might be to win a local 5K race, to showcase musical talent, or to be acknowledged as “the best” by peers at work. It seems a common human failing.

I can learn (and I have) from both monk and missionary, but I will likely never be either. I may have some gifts that would lean toward one or the other, and obviously, people do become both of these things, but I should not feel envious of anyone that God has called or gifted differently than me.  The hummingbird glorifies God not by soaring like an eagle, but by flitting like a hummingbird. May I glorify God by being who he created me to be.

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Filed under Envy, Humility, Pride, Success, Thankfulness

The Problem of Joy

If we accept that God is holy and powerful and that we are disobedient and rebellious, we have a problem. Actually we have thousands of problems, but they can all be placed under one general heading: joy.

Why does God love us? Why does he send sun and rain on the just and on the unjust? Why do we have sunrises and sunsets of such beauty? Why are we allowed hummingbirds and chocolate?

This has become my default reaction when people raise the “problem of pain” or the “problem of evil,” which are really two sides to the same issue. If God is…, why is there…? I prefer the joy side because it reframes the question in a more accurate light. God does not owe us anything.

Consider some of those struck down by God in the Scriptures — Aaron’s sons for not following the liturgy, Uzzah for not following the rules on safe handling of the symbol of God’s presence, Ananias and Sapphira for being posers in church. If we agree that God was just in each of these cases, how do explain his laxity toward us?

My wife and I had the conversation again last night. Why have we been able to remain married — and very happily so — for over 25 years when so many others haven’t? There is no magic to point to, but only God’s grace to us. It is amazing and humbling as we are well aware that we aren’t any better than anyone else. But we are not the epicenter of God’s grace. We see others being given what appears to be God’s extravagant grace in their struggle and pain.

We are not to focus on what we don’t have, however. That is, after all, the 10th commandment. And more than merely being a commandment, it is an act of ingratitude to have a great gift and look at someone else with a different gift and ask, “Why can’t I have that, too?”

Orthodoxy has always taught that we have done nothing to merit Christ’s death as an atonement for our sins. That is certainly something we should contemplate and meditate upon in wonder and thankfulness to God. We would do well to also generalize that thankfulness and wonder. The General Thanksgiving of the Daily Offices teaches us to live in gratitude toward God.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ of Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

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Filed under Grace, Humility, Prayer, Thankfulness, Wonder