Why Humility is Hard to Find

Jan_Luyken's_Jesus_24__Jesus_Washes_his_Disciples'_Feet__Phillip_Medhurst_CollectionWe all love stories where some great person stoops. The Mayor of a great city moves into the housing project for a month. The CEO of a billion dollar company works on the loading dock for a day. The NBA star joins a pick-up game in the neighborhood. The college president helps a freshman unload the car in the first week of school.

We like hearing stories like these. But the truth is, excursions like these have very little to do with real humility. Humility is not a day trip. It is not a place we occasionally visit in moments of extreme devotion. Humility is a realm that Jesus calls us to explore deeply and inhabit permanently.

Despite its importance, the truly humble person is not marked by an extreme interest in humility. What we sometimes mistake for humility in others is often just a carefully disguised form of pride. Such attempts at humility are intended to set us apart from others. These acts of false humility are not merely comparative, they are competitive. It is hard to serve those with whom you are in competition.

Real humility is harder to recognize than we think. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis observes, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

This is what differentiates true humility from false humility. False humility is conspicuously self-conscious. But the truly humble person, as Lewis observes, is not thinking about himself. This is not because the humble person loathes himself. It is because the servant is genuinely interested in the other.

Love, it turns out, is the real secret to humility. Before Jesus’ great act of humility, the Scripture testifies: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 ESV). The key to humility does not lie in thinking about humility at all. What we call humility is really just another name for love.

Grace & Personality

Not long ago I had dinner with an old college friend named Dave. I reconnected with him last year through the magic of social media, but until the other night it had been 25 years since the two of us had talked face to face. Dave was just as I remembered him. Older, of course, but the same essential person: a serious follower of Jesus Christ who is devoted to his family, his church and his friends. He has been in the same church and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for over 25 years.

Dave is a people person. He is someone who is energized by the crowd. He loves being part of a small group. In other words, he is pretty much everything I am not. I am energized by the crowd, but only when there is a pulpit between us. I hate small groups, for the most part. I am, as Dave told me at dinner the other evening, the same curmudgeon that I was in college.

This came as something of a shock to me. Because to tell you the truth, when I was a young man I did not see myself as a curmudgeon. In fact, I thought I was a people person: an outgoing, vivacious, life of the party sort of guy. Looking back on it, I can see that what is true of Dave is also true of me. As far as my personality goes, things have not really changed much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus hasn’t made any difference in my life. He has. My values and behavior have changed radically since I began my walk with Jesus in the early 1970’s. But being a Christian does not seem to have changed my personality, at least not fundamentally.

The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones once observed, “There is no profounder change in the universe than the change which is described as regeneration; but regeneration–the work of God in the soul by which He implants a principle of divine and spiritual life within us–does not change a man’s temperament.” In other words, what the gospel does promise to do for us is something more radical. Instead of changing our temperament, it promises to set apart what I am and have for God. The shy person does not suddenly become outgoing but learns to glorify God with his or her shyness. The surly person does not lose the capacity for surliness but will be able to subject this natural tendency to the purpose and power of God through the Holy Spirit (often with great struggle).

What I saw in my friend Dave the other night is what I see in my own life. Jesus Christ set us on a trajectory of grace and we are still following its arc. We are further along than we when we last met face to face. The intervening years have altered our appearance. But the aim is still true.

My latest book Folly, Grace & Power is now available from Zondervan. You can order a copy at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com or Christianbook.com. Click here to learn more about it.

Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

The Myth that Became Reality

As a child, my favorite book was a collection of Greek myths. I checked it out of the library again and again and read it from cover to cover. To this day, when I stumble across a copy of it in the bookstore, I can’t help thumbing through it. I was captivated by the colorful pictures but even more by its stories of gods who acted like men. They loved and fought, were jealous and plotted against one another. The humanness of these ancient gods appealed to me, perhaps because I recognized myself in them.

Years later, when I began to study the Scriptures, I read of a God who was very different from these ancient deities. “God is not a man, that he should lie,” the Scriptures said. The Christian God–the God of the Bible–is also the God whose son’s birth was the death knell for the gods of the ancient world. Scholars have long recognized that the growth of Christianity made the all too human antics of the ancient gods such an embarrassment, worship of them eventually became untenable.

Perhaps that’s why I find the Christmas story so surprising. Because in the Bible’s account of Christ’s nativity it almost seems as if one of the ancient myths has come to life. The theme of the God who takes human form and comes to earth is a common one in these ancient stories. The unrecognized visitation of the gods is one of the most familiar story lines in Greek and Roman mythology.

But those visitations differ significantly from the biblical account of Christ’s birth. In those ancient tales the human form of the gods is really just a mask. Like a celebrity who wishes to remain incognito, they disguise themselves in order to pursue their own, usually selfish, ends. They disguise themselves to seduce a human lover or get their petty revenge on someone.

When Christ comes, however, he does not merely use human form to disguise himself, he becomes a man. The incarnation of Christ is no mask, it is essential to his being. What is more, Jesus does not take a human form and then discard it at the resurrection. He retains his human nature. This is one of the proofs Christ uses to show his followers that he has truly risen from the dead. Luke 24:39 the risen Christ urges his disciples, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Moreover, when Jesus arrives on the scene, he doesn’t come to pursue his own ends. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” he declares to his disciples in John 4:34. And that work, it turns out, is to offer his body as a sacrifice for sin. Indeed, that is why the nativity story is so central to the Christian faith and is why it was inevitable that Christ’s infant cry in the manger in Bethlehem would be the death knell of the ancient gods. Because their worship was dependent upon the paltry things that men and women can offer: a bull, a goat, a cup of wine. Things that might satisfy God if he had human appetites.

The appearance of the babe in Bethlehem showed that true worship is dependent something else. It rests upon Christ’s offering of himself. That’s why the author of the book Hebrews ultimately attributes the words of the Psalmist to Christ when he says, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”

 That is also why we ultimately show our misunderstanding when we romanticize the gritty details of the nativity. Our image of the night of Christ’s birth is one that is largely sanitized. In our romanticized image of Christ’s birth there is no sobbing pain from a pregnant girl who isn’t even out of her teens yet. No infant cry and flail of limbs as the umbilical cord is cut. No sudden chill as the rush of blood and placenta are poured out on straw at the moment of birth. Our image of the event is neat and tidy. Theatrically lit and comfortably warm, like the nativity plays we will watch tonight. But that is our myth. Not the reality that Christ experienced.

Thanks be to God.

My Tribe

This past Sunday my wife Jane and I visited a new church. Actually, we visited a church that we used to attend that moved to a new location a couple of years ago. It’s complicated. So is our history of church attendance over the last 17 years. A history that I won’t bother to describe in detail. I will say that it has involved a series of sojourns with congregations that have lasted several years and then usually seemed to end badly. Let me put it this way, if my marital life was like my church life…

I think you get the picture.  

Neither of us is proud of this. Nor do we entirely understand it. When I left the pastorate for the classroom, I was convinced that my previous vocation had prepared me to be the perfect church member. My experience as a pastor was still fresh and I was re-learning what it was like to be on the other side of the pulpit. I envisioned myself enjoying the best of both worlds over the next few years, exercising an extended ministry to the church at large and being ministered to by a faithful pastor and finding new friends among a supportive congregation.

 Instead, Jane and I spent the next several years feeling like strangers. Out of place, I realized that while I was no longer a pastor, I wasn’t a typical church member either. The church’s leaders, for the most part, kept a respectful distance. Perhaps my vocation put them off. Nobody wants a Bible college professor in their Sunday school class. Not even me. Maybe I seemed stand-offish and unfriendly. I do have one of those faces. I think the pastors felt that since I had once been a pastor, I didn’t need a pastor myself (they were wrong). But here I go, telling you more than you really need or want to know.

For years we have largely blamed ourselves for this struggle. We have been convinced that the problem is us. It must be our fault. We have expressed our grief to God, repented weekly and tried to soldier on, doing our best not to “forsake the assembling” of ourselves together. All the while living a kind of gypsy life, moving from congregation to congregation (I warned you that my story was a sordid one).

Which brings me back to last Sunday. As I said, we visited a church that we used to attend. Actually, it was the first church that we attended when we moved to the Chicago area. What impressed us the most was the sea of familiar faces that greeted us after the service. But not the familiar faces we had expected. Those we recognized were not the people we met when we first began attending the church seventeen years ago (they were nowhere to be seen), but people we had met in the host of churches we have attended over the years. This was my tribe–a band of restless wanderers looking for a spiritual home and finding it hard to settle.

I know what I would have said about this back in the days when I was a pastor. I would have preached a sermon about lack of commitment and used the illustration about the pastor’s “silent sermon.” You know the story–the one where the pastor visits an absent church member and sits in silence before the fireplace. He separates a burning ember from the rest and the two watch as it burns low and flickers out.

I have my doubts whether this old story is actually true. But if it is, I think that pastor, though well intentioned, might have done better to say a word or two to his “backsliding” church member. Perhaps ask him what he had seen in his travels the previous week. Sometimes all it takes to make an ember burn brighter is a little breath.