Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Balanced Self-View

In Romans 12, the apostle Paul urges the Christian community in Rome "not to think of yoursel[ves] more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." On Sunday, when we hear those words in the epistle lesson, I'll be wondering whether most people need to be reminded not to think too highly of themselves or to remember that they, too, are beloved children of God. In my experience, the imbalance of egos in a congregation swings both ways. I almost wish Paul had written, "Do not think of yourselves more highly or lowly than you ought to think..." Either way, however, it's really the same problem.

C. S. Lewis tackles the issue of pride and false modesty in The Screwtape Letters. In Letter 14, Screwtape writes to Wormwood out of concern for the "patient," who is showing dangerous displays of humility. (Remember, Screwtape Letters is written from the Devil's perspective.) The senior demon's advice is two-fold: either remind the patient of his humility or help him believe that he is supposed to think of himself as worthless. Everyone has experienced the former. No one can declare, "Look how humble I am!" without simultaneously unraveling the truth of the declaration.

The latter is trickier. I suspect that we've all experienced it, but I think that recognizing it is harder. This is the false humility that we use to convince ourselves that we aren't allowed to feel good about an accomplishment, that we can't accept a compliment, that we shouldn't think our ourselves as good. When someone says, "The flowers on the altar were beautiful today," or "That was a wonderful sermon," the misplaced humility within us suggests we're supposed to say, "Oh, it was nothing," or "I just show up and hope the Holy Spirit uses me to say something." That's malarkey! If we're not bringing our very best to our God-given task, we're selling God short. And, if we think that by pretending that we didn't have something to do with it we're being more faithful, we've fallen into the devil's trap. Usually, the right thing to do is say, "Thank you. I worked hard on it, and I appreciate your compliment."

Isn't this how congregations work? There are some people who are quite happy to take all the credit, but the ones who do the vast majority of the work would rather say, "Oh, it was nothing." But, when we feel like we must divorce ourselves from the fruit of our labor, we actually deny God the credit for making us the gifted, devoted, faithful people we are just as we do when we take more credit than we should. As Paul writes, "[Don't] think of yourself[ves] more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." God is the one assigning the faith and the gifts that come with it. If we have convinced ourselves that we can't receive any accolades, we have decided that anything we accomplish is our own doing and not the work of God. Isn't it a beautiful thing that God would give that member of the choir such a beautiful voice? Isn't it a remarkable display of God's glory that the faithful usher has had the ability and desire to serve on the door for sixteen years in a row without ever missing a Sunday?

Lewis calls this state of true humility "self-forgetfulness." When we are really in touch with what God has given us and what God is doing through us, we can receive those compliments as testaments to God's glory, not ours. That's what it means to think of ourselves with "sober judgment." God has knit together the Christian community by raising up prophets and ministers and preachers and evangelists and teachers and healers and givers and leaders. When we think of what it takes to hold the Christian community together, let's remember that God has given us the right people with the right gifts. It's not up to us to be something we're not. God has made us who we are. The work we do and the fruit of our work is a testament to what God has given us. From the preacher to the sexton, from the usher to the choir leader, from the Sunday school teacher to the treasurer, none of us is doing this on our own. God enables our work. God gets the glory through us. Don't make the mistake of thinking about your ministry as more or less important than it is. It's important because it's God's work. Thinking of it any other way is vanity.

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