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The Christadelphian | February 2016

In the magazine this month:

A sample article from this edition:

An A-Z of discipleship

‘H’ for Humility

“Humble yourselves … under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

In his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus contrasts two men who had very different approaches to religion. The Pharisee openly boasted that he had done all that was required of him, whereas the tax collector cast his eyes to the ground, humbly acknowledged his sinfulness and asked God for mercy.

The context of this parable is significant. Jesus was speaking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (verse 9). [1] In other words, he was speaking to those who, like the Pharisee in the parable, were self-satisfied, self-righteous and who lacked humility. They boasted about their good deeds, refusing to acknowledge a need for repentance and forgiveness, and looked down on those who did not meet their ‘high’ standards.

Whitewashed tombs

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus criticised such a hypocritical attitude, saying:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (23:27,28)

Jesus knew that their hearts were full of deceit, but others believed the façade and the scribes and Pharisees were held in high standing.

We may not consider ourselves in league with the scribes and Pharisees when it comes to self-righteousness, but how often do we seek to give a good impression? How eager are we to flaunt our godliness and to maintain a good reputation amongst our brothers and sisters? We know that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV). Our hearts try to convince us that we’re inherently good people but, if we use God’s word as our guide, we should be only too aware of our sinfulness. How much effort do we put in to cover up this sinfulness in order to appear more righteous than we really are? If our brothers and sisters could read our hearts and our motives, would they see us in a different light, or do we already openly confess our faults and failings, in all humility? Could we too be accused of being like whitewashed tombs?

Such a proud attitude is problematic in many ways. Firstly, if we fail to acknowledge the extent to which we miss the mark, we shall never truly understand the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice, nor our need for it. Not only this, but the more highly we think of ourselves, the less humility we demonstrate, and we know that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). This lack of humility can also pose a huge stumbling block to our brothers and sisters who see and believe in our outward holiness, unaware of the struggles and flaws just underneath the surface. Without meaning to, we may intensify feelings of inadequacy and isolation in others.

Raising the bar

In January’s Editorial, we read about how the Sermon on the Mount eliminates any claim to righteousness we could possibly have. When asked to go one mile, we are exhorted to walk two. When someone asks for the shirt off our back, we are told to give them our coat as well (Matthew 5:40,41). There is always more we could be doing, so we can never sit back and say, ‘I have done all that is required of me, therefore I am holy and righteous’.

When it comes to the Ten Commandments, Jesus again raises the bar. Not only does he condemn adultery, but adds that to even look at a woman (or man) “with lustful intent” (verse 28) is to sin. Everyone knew that murder ran contrary to God’s law, but Jesus extended this command, saying that we must refrain also from anger and from harbouring resentment and grudges (verse 22). He finishes by telling us, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48), thus raising the bar impossibly high. Surely this is to show us that, without God’s grace, we cannot be made righteous.

We must therefore never underestimate the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice, since it is only through the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ that we are reconciled to God. We can do nothing to save ourselves. If we truly understand that God’s standards are far higher than anything we can ever achieve, there will be no capacity for self-righteousness. Rather, we shall approach God like the tax collector, in all humility and with thankful hearts, knowing that we deserve death, but that God has granted us life.

Christ in you

As humans, we are rarely altruistic, often selfish and far prouder than we like to admit. Even when we do the right thing, it is often for the wrong reasons, yet we shall only truly appreciate this if we regularly immerse ourselves in the word of God and apply His standards to our lives. We need constantly to compare our thoughts and conduct with the perfect example of the Lord Jesus. Doing this, we become more and more aware of how often we miss the mark, how impossible it is to be like him, and how in need we are of God’s grace.

The result of this is godly humility and a desire to do the right thing, even though we know that we shall so often fail. Though we know it is an impossible task, we must nevertheless strive to be like Christ. In doing so, we show that we belong to him and that we desire, like him, to follow the spirit of the law of life, which “has set [us] free … from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).

Drop the façade

Knowing how sinful we are – how deserving of death – we would never claim righteousness before God, rather coming before Him in all humility. Why, then, do we so often cling to our human desire to appear righteous before our brothers and sisters? We have an innate tendency to think too highly of ourselves and too little of others, and this shows in the way we interact with others and conduct our lives. If we become proud of our good works and godly characteristics, bolstered by the well-meaning praise we receive from others, then we are at risk of believing ourselves to be more righteous than we really are, and better than those around us.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing good works and displaying godly characteristics, but we need to get the balance right between setting a good example to those around us and openly admitting our human frailty. If we constantly hide behind a mask of spirituality and confidence, we greatly distance ourselves from our brothers and sisters. Putting up too much of a barrier means we come across as intimidating, judgemental and unsympathetic – whether or not that is actually true.

Our brothers and sisters are more likely to trust and confide in us if they know that we have just as many imperfections as they do. We don’t need to shout about our deepest, darkest secrets, but simply admitting small faults and struggles can make a big difference, both to us and to those around us. If we begin to let the cracks show, we not only seem more approachable, but we also open ourselves up to receiving support and compassion from our brothers and sisters. Suddenly, our ecclesia starts to feel more like a family and less like a room full of perfect people who make us feel guilty and inadequate about our own flawed discipleship.

The right kind of humility

As with any character trait, it is possible to take humility too far to one extreme. An absence of humility leads to boastfulness and arrogance, but an excess of humility can be just as damaging. It can be only too easy to let humility develop into feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, constantly comparing ourselves to others. Conversely, we may already experience these self-deprecating emotions as a result of our life’s circumstances and proudly label them “humility”, but humility and low self-esteem are not the same thing.

We realistically know that no one is righteous, no one is good and all fall short of the glory of God, so we need to stop regarding our own fleshly nature as any better or worse than anyone else’s. We should only feel inadequate when comparing ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ and our heavenly Father. It would be hypocritical of anyone else to make us feel like we are worthless or somehow inferior to them, and we should never purposefully cause any of our brothers or sisters to feel this way about themselves.

The most remarkable thing is that God, who above all others would have every reason to make us feel inferior and to look down on us with contempt, tells us again and again that He loves us. He does not treat us the way we deserve to be treated, but instead tells us that we are worthy, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). We know that the very hairs of our head are numbered, and that we are of more value to Him than many sparrows (Luke 12:7). God tells us that we are precious in His eyes, and honoured, and that He loves us (Isaiah 43:4), and we know that nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:39). “He … did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (verse 32). Our robes have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14), and our transgressions have been removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), so that it can be said of us – the bride of Christ – “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (Song of Solomon 4:7). What other response would suffice, except to bow before our heavenly Father with utmost thanks, reverence and humility?

Amy Parkin

[1] Quotations from the ESV, unless otherwise noted.

 

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