Monday, May 22, 2006

Pride and Humility

This sermon was delivered at Ampang Gospel Centre on 21 May 2006

‘There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. - Benjamin Franklin, from his autobiography.

We are all familiar with the wise sayings: ‘Pride Comes Before A Fall’, or ‘The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall’ warning us not to get ahead of ourselves. The proverbial squirrel who ‘Pandai pandai… melompat, akhirnya jatuh ke bumi jua’ reminds us not to be too clever. As an obese 12-yr old, I once heard my headmaster speak aloud his wish that our school badminton team might win an inter-school tournament. I stupidly muttered, ‘Fat Hopes!’ Disgusted, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘It is you who are fat. They are the hope.’ I was duly humbled.

But what is pride really? How are we set free from pride? Is it even possible in this lifetime?

Pride vs Humility

Paul exhorts us to ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.’

The Bible has many words for pride in various contexts -primarily in relation to God but also with man. Collectively they describe the nature of pride, its consequences and its relation to sin. To be proud is to have a presumptuous self-confidence – I can do everything on my own. A refusal to consider God or others – it doesn’t matter what God says or what others think, a failure to respond to God – when God calls or instructs we refuse Him. To deny that we are created beings before a Creator – we put ourselves at the center of the Universe, everything revolves around me. To deny the authority of the Word and an insensitivity to others – who cares how others feel, as long as I am satisfied.

Pride results in disgrace – how often have been humiliated by something we said or did when we refused the advise of others. In quarrels – it could be argued that every fight starts with stubbornly sticking to our own opinion and not considering others’ views. Destruction, jealousy, anger, factions, slander, and gossip or many others. Pride is the root of sin when Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God and went against His prescribed orders. Satan is Satan because in pride he wanted to be God himself. Paul teaches us in Romans that we degenerate into ever increasing sin because we first disavow God and refuse to bow to the Creator. The ultimate result is death and judgment.

Deut 1:42-43 is a fitting illustration. We read that the Israelites practically march OUT of the will of God and into destruction. Every act of pride is exactly like that - walking out of the good and perfect will of God, persisting in our own way, and ending up in trouble.

Humility is the exact opposite. To be humble is to respond to God immediately, to recognize His authority, to have a childlike dependence and responsiveness to God, to honor others before ourselves and to look to others interests. The consequences of humility is honor and wisdom. Jesus humility was the root of His obedience taking up the Cross. And the result of our humbling ourselves before God is to be saved. Pride and humility are opposites and mutually exclusive so that they cancel out one another.

Mission Impossible

Because Christ has saved us, we are called to be ‘transformed in our minds’. In Romans 12:1-2, we are told to ‘be not conformed to the world, but be transformed in our minds so that we may test and approve what is the good and perfect will of God.’ In the same passage we are told not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and to honor others before ourselves.

How are we to be transformed from an attitude of pride to one of humility? Shall we work at it – let’s BE HUMBLE. Screw up our resolve and perform great acts of humility? Shall we say, From today onwards I will be the humblest person in church. I will come one hour earlier and arrange all the chairs and sweep the floor every week. I will always speak lowly of myself, and praise everybody else. Everytime someone praises me I will screw up my face in this pathetic, meek form and keep saying, ‘O it was not me, it was God. Praise God only. Hallelujah.’ And what do we expect at the end of that great performance, ‘The Humblest Christian of The Month Award’?

Sometimes we resort to such shallow attempts at humility and they betray the fact that ‘attaining humility’ is a paradox, impossible apart from God.

Notice how both in the passage from Philippians and Romans, Paul doesn’t tell us to strive at being humble.

Humility simply cannot be gained by trying. It is unattainable in the sense that you cannot strive for it like you train for a race. The harder you try, the more proud you become. The moment you think, ‘maybe today I am humbler’, you have just thought a proud thought. Humility is not achieved, it emerges through the death of self. Because pride is the over-expression of SELF above God and others, humility can only emerge in the undoing of SELF. Have you ever TRIED to go to sleep? Have you noticed that the harder you try – count sheep, think serene thoughts, relax your body, whatever – the harder it takes to sleep? Paradoxically humility, like sleep comes without you trying but by letting go.

Humility also cannot happen in a vacuum. In fact it has no meaning apart from a relationship. We are humble UNTO someone – to God and to people around us. Humility abdicates the throne, and moves away from being in the center. God and others take priority over ourselves. The Way of Humility is best learnt in Christ’s example.

The Way of Christ

Paul in Phil 2:1-11, exhorts the Philippians to ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves’ and points to Christ. ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ,' he says. If we are to learn humility, it is to walk the way of Christ. What were those attitudes? Those orientations that defined the whole way Christ lived and died? It seems to me to be summed up in these three declarations. ‘He made himself nothing,’ ‘taking on the very nature of a servant,’ and ‘became obedient to death’.

‘He made himself nothing.’ He emptied himself of every right and privilege accorded to man, much less the honors of being God. Our entire journey on earth may be just for the undoing of the Self-Centred Self. Until we become thoughtless about ourselves. When we no longer have a need to consider ourselves and fret about every hair in place, every button, every step. O how miserable is a life filled with self-concern and self-obsession. Jesus spoke rightly about the anxieties of this world choking us. Haven’t we tasted ineffable joy when our every thought and concern was for another? When we became lost in the love for someone else and my own small world became unimportant, if just for a second? He considered not equality with God something to be grasped – He who rightly is the center of the universe, came off the throne to show the way of eternal life. Of the real joy and meaning of existence – being nothing. The pure in heart will see God.

‘Taking the very nature of a servant.’ ‘The son of man came not to be served but to serve.’ Jesus showed us how to live meaningfully – emptying himself of self-interest he filled himself with loving service of others. Serving others sets us free like nothing else can. All our self-assertive talk about freedom and rights often lead us only into greater captivity – an enslavement to ourselves and to our ego/self-will. But there is nothing more beautiful than a person who has no thought of himself, but only the interests of others. To embrace the needs of others is to declare that I have everything I need in Christ. By serving we do not ‘lose face’ but affirm our richness and glory in Christ. Servanthood sets us free from ourselves, and sets us free to embrace everything else – not least, God. Not clutching on to ourselves, our hands are open to receive. The meek shall inherit the earth.

‘He humbled himself and became obedient to death.’ He died. One could not let go of Self more than to lay down one’s own life. It is the essence of true humility – not an appearance of lowliness, not a token helpfulness to others, not a charitable disposition. But a disciplined determination to DIE. We will all die, but will we die well? Someone once said that we seem to live as though we will never die, and we die as though we have never lived. Christ shows the only kind of living and dying considered worthwhile is to live knowing we will die for others and die knowing that we have lived for others. Christ also taught us the meaning of death – it is the last and greatest gift in a life of serving. To cling no longer to this world, to one’s own rights and comforts, to hold nothing of my own life precious.

Humility by far the hardest virtue to attain because paradoxically we cannot attain it by trying. It is also painfully difficult because every step we take in the direction of humility, we go against the very grain of our human nature. Our sinful nature will not go to the grave quietly, it kicks and screams – ‘My way!’ Our intrinsic drive to achieve, to be independent from God, to attain our own world will oppose us every step of the way. So daily we must choose the Cross. To be emptied. To serve. To die. We humble ourselves before God – saying, Here I am, I am your servant, be it unto me as you will – and in due time he lifts us up, taking us up in his good and perfect will. We choose brokenness – welcoming every opportunity that breaks our hardened hearts , and obscurity – preferring to be hidden and unknown, and in so doing we walk the way of Christ and find the complete freedom that is fellowship with Christ.


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