Great Themes of the Bible (#25-Humility)

"When [Jesus] noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, "Give this man your seat." Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, "Friend, move up to a better place." Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted' " (Luke 14:7-11).

Opening Prayer: Holy Father, we invoke the blessed name of Jesus to seek your grace in living as citizens of your kingdom rule. We pray for the power of your indwelling Spirit to build humility into our lives. Yet how we tremble to pray such a prayer, for it asks at the same time that you attack, strip away, and deliver us from our tenacious pride. Teach us to be like Jesus in his self-emptying holiness. Let us empty ourselves for one another and for you. Give us a genuine humility that will discern our ignorance, accept counsel, and confess sin. In all things, give us the humility that recognizes our utter poverty and emptiness apart from you. Amen.

John Bradley was one of six men forever immortalized in the famous photograph and now-equally-famous Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. He helped raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. He never talked much about that event. When asked about his heroism on Iwo Jima, he would only say, "I just did what anyone else would have done" or "I was just doing my duty." In the only taped interview he did on the subject, this was his comment: "I saw some guys struggling with a pole. I just jumped in to lend them a hand. It's as simple as that."

It was only after his death that John Bradley's son learned from government documents what happened around that event. It was hardly as simple as his father had left him to think. Neither his wife nor son had known what happened half a century before. His wife would later say that he talked with her about it only one time — on their first date, for "seven or eight disinterested minutes and then never again in a 47-year-marriage did he say the words ‘Iwo Jima,'" she said.

Two days before the flag-raising, Bradley's company was penned down by enemy fire on the beach. On February 21, 1945, with screams of the wounded and dying all around, Bradley saw a fellow-Marine fall wounded about 30 yards away. He was a Corpsman and immediately sprinted through what the official report called "merciless Japanese gunfire" to stabilize the wounded man and drag him back to safety. A few days after the flag-raising, he became a casualty himself when an artillery shell drove hot shrapnel into his feet, legs, and hips. Eyewitnesses said he would not tend to his own wounds until he had taken care of other wounded Marines around him.

All his life afterward, Bradley kept these exploits essentially private. He didn't write about them. He didn't sell his story to anyone. He didn't even tell his wife and children what he had gone through. He insisted that he "really didn't do much" and said simply, "I was just doing my duty." Remember this story. We'll have occasion to return to it later.

Pride vs. Humility

Pride is the sin above all others that humans cherish, defend, and rationalize. We are proud of country, proud of education, and proud of achievement. We are proud to be recognized in public and to be sought out privately. We are proud of family name, company title, and educational rank. And it is not only the world but perhaps even more especially the church of God that fosters this haughty spirit. We are proud of our denomination or the claim to be un-denominational. We are proud of our own congregation of believers. We can quickly become sectarian, exclude others as unworthy to be included in our fellowship, and hold all who are different under judgment and in contempt.

Lest anyone misunderstand or misrepresent what I have just said, let me hasten to say that our English term pride is rather ambiguous. The word may be used to refer to healthy and honorable things. For example, there is a pride in self and family name that has helped some of us avoid the most shameful snares Satan has set. There is pride in country that brings us to our feet when the National Anthem is performed and causes young men and women to serve in the military. There is pride — we most often use the term "self-confidence" here — that allows one to acknowledge gifts from God, put those trusts to work for his glory, and expect him to use them for holy purposes. There is even pride in — we would probably choose "dignity of" or "respect for" — one's faith heritage that anchors her to noble motives and worthy perspectives.

There are, indeed, at least two kinds of pride. One is the polar opposite of humility and shows itself in self-centeredness, eager criticism of others, impatience, self-pity, and the willingness to steal God's glory by taking credit for things he has given to or done in a person's life. This evil quality in one's heart shows itself as condescending treatment of others. It generates enmity in families, strife in the workplace, and division in churches. It brings people to isolation and loneliness — which they interpret, of course, as standing on principle or defending the faith. This is the unhealthy and sinful pride so constantly denounced in Scripture. Just think of a few texts from Proverbs: "When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom" (11:2). "Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice" (13:10). "The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished" (16:5). "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (16:18). "A man's pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor" (29:23).

There is a virtuous sense of pride, however, that may be thought of as the polar opposite of stigma, shame, or personal insignificance. Jesus most certainly did not lack confidence, was not intimidated by challenge, and was not ashamed of his racial stock, social position, or religious heritage. Life didn't threaten him. Critics didn't deter him. Failure in the eyes of the world did not destroy his sense of identity as the faithful Son of God. He could bill himself as "gentle and humble in heart" (Matt. 11:29) and still be determined, strong, and courageous. The healthy and indispensable pride every believer needs is referenced several times in Paul's writings. At least twice in writing to the church at Corinth, he spoke of taking pride in the people of that church: ""I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you" (2 Cor. 7:4a). "Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it" (2 Cor. 8:24). He wrote to Christians in Galatia to encourage them to personal spiritual responsibility and said: "Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else" (Gal. 6:4).

By the same token, it might also be helpful to point out that there are also distinctions to be made about humility. The genuine humility of Christ's obedience to the divine will (cf. Phil. 2:8) stands in sharp contrast to the pseudo-humility some people offer in the name of religion. Paul censured some people who were trying to make ascetics out of the church at Colosse by writing this: "Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence" (Col. 2:23).

The Practical Meaning

Let me see if I can pull all this together. Let me try to fix the distinction between healthy and unhealthy pride, genuine and false humility. Let me offer you some things that might help us fix humility as a meaningful goal for our lives. It is, after all, a virtue to pray for but for which we can never give thanks.

Spirituality is learned and virtues are developed only in the frustrations of living. We have put Christianity in church buildings, Sunday School classes, and books, but it is first and foremost an experience-related faith. When we come to our buildings, attend our classes, and read the books, we should be reminded that we are then only reflecting on, getting perspective about, and getting ready to face again the realities of life. Christianity isn't calm reflection and beautiful sunsets. It is Christ's Spirit-presence in our midst on what is often a battlefield. Sickness, poverty, setbacks, discouragement, accidents, mistakes, ignorance, failure — these are the everyday terrain for the battle. Satan, death, sin — these are the specific tactics of evil that are trying to destroy us.

Failure is one of life's best teachers. We are conditioned by our culture to see success and achievement as desirable and mistakes and failures as unpalatable. The reverse may actually be closer to the truth. Failure keeps us humble, and humility is frequently a good thing in the Kingdom of God. The devil would have a field day in ruining anyone's character, spiritual life, and relationships, if he could grant that soul unbroken success in life. If churches and individual believers would be more honest about our failures and sinfulness, I suspect we'd be more effective in reaching unbelievers. No wonder the obvious strugglers and mess-ups avoid places where everybody puts on a happy face in order to look pious on Sunday. They get the impression they're the only sinners in the crowd. Oh, we don't have to become a group outdoing one another with tales of woe and sinfulness. But we can and must be honest about our weakness, failures, and sinfulness in order to avoid a holier-than-thou attitude. Peter sinned. Christ sought him out to forgive him. And Peter spent the rest of his life helping other sinners. There's the model for all of us. Failure keeps us humble and honest with one another. It makes pretending unnecessary.

Be gracious in your triumphs and even more gracious in others' failures. I was once called to help another church deal with a serious moral failure by its most visible and notable member. Sitting in a den with four elders of that church, I asked each to voice his most urgent concern. "We have to preserve our reputation in this town," said one. "We have to serve notice to our own members that we won't tolerate this sort of nonsense," said another. "I just want him to know there is no excuse for what he's done," said the third, "and that he has set this church back ten years." When the final brother spoke, it was softly and with tears. "God graciously rescued me from the same sort of humiliating failure thirteen years ago," he said. "I am painfully aware every day of my weakness and vulnerability that would take me there again." I asked him to be the one to take the lead in trying to reach that erring brother and quoted these words from Paul: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted" (Gal. 6:1).

Know that your relationship with God is entirely of grace. No matter what gifts, triumphs, or successes you have had in this world, you have no ground of boasting in what you have done before God. Even if you stand head and shoulders above your fellows, you fall far short of his divine perfection. Jew and Gentile, black and white, male and female, company president or federal prisoner, top of the heap or lower than a snake's belly — right standing with God is a gift of grace. "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:22-24). We have no status or claim in ourselves. Everything is God's gift to us through Christ. We stand only because we are in him.

Conclusion

As was the case with James Bradley's father at Iwo Jima, you are I are at war. We didn't create the conflict, and we didn't ask to be drafted into it. But here we are! We are in enemy-held territory and on vulnerable terrain. We are under fire — wounded ourselves and watching others go down around us. Christ has gone before us, and his promise is that we will share in his victory if we continue with him through the ordeal of this testing.

Remember Mr. Bradley's line? "I was just doing my duty," he said (cf. Luke 17:7-10). Don't give up because you aren't being applauded or appreciated for what you are suffering. Don't quit because nobody has given you a medal. Just do your duty today. Stay on line with the Captain of Your Salvation. Rewards and recognition come later.

In the parable we read at the start, Jesus wasn't making a comment about social etiquette. He was explaining a critical principle of kingdom living. Against our human tendency to want recognition and honor, Jesus taught us that humility is better. Modesty is virtuous. To be conscious of one's shortcomings and personal unworthiness is to depend on Christ alone for redemption and award.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
You are not sufficient of yourself for this life-or-death campaign, but you will be given full sufficiency in him. You can't crash the heavenly festival, but he will invite you to enter on his merit and to sit with him in resurrection glory. So don't worry about being noticed. Don't look for someone to give you credit for what you're going through. Humble yourself before Christ, and he will exalt you in the end by confessing your name before the Father.

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[1] This story is taken from James J. Bradley, "‘Uncommon Valor Was a Common Virtue,'" Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 2000, p. A18.

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