May 3, 2015

Being Real

Alright, I want to start with another poll question this morning because these are fun for me (and I won’t be hateful like I was last week).  Who in here really enjoys being around somebody who’s arrogant?  Any takers?  Why?  Here’s one reason: arrogant people inhabit their own little universes and whenever they enter a room they immediately begin to suck all the air into the black hole at the center of it.  So really, you can’t breathe very well around an arrogant person.  This is especially true when they don’t have a lot to be arrogant about.  But, even when someone has achieved a sufficient level of success that a bit of arrogance is understandable it’s still off-putting because nobody achieves any meaningful measure of success on their own and the arrogant person makes this their assumption even if they don’t realize it.  Most of us have a general sense that humility is better than arrogance and pride.  The funny thing is, though, we think that’s normal.  Let me tell you: it’s not normal.  Such an assumption of normalcy is merely a reflection just how impacted by Christianity our culture is.  The truth is that pride is the more natural state of people.  The reason for this should be pretty plain: nobody else is going to toot our horn for us and so we’d better do it or nobody will know how great we are!  Now, that may sound silly, but it’s how people have always thought.  It’s true even in a culture like ours where we are programmed to assume on the goodness and rightness of humility.

My friend, John Chandler, actually wrote an article about this a few months ago.  He wrote about “the pervasive plots of the attention-starved to gain accolades on as broad a platform as possible, and without being accused of gross bragging.”  Citing a writer for the NBC comedy series, Parks and Recreation, he called this phenomenon of hiding our pride in humble clothes “humblebragging.”  (Which, by the way, must be a real thing since it wasn’t flagged by Word as a misspelling.)  John described humblebragging as “a way of describing your irreplaceable busyness and selfless service to humanity without actually having to pay the social price of naked braggadocio and egomania.”  In other words, it’s a way of letting out the pride that is always screaming for a chance to shout about how great we are without being obvious about it.  For a culture filled with sin-broken, prideful people (but I repeat myself) who have long since been schooled in the virtues of humility even though they don’t really buy it, it’s an entirely expected state of affairs.  Rather than being openly prideful—which would affect a negative cultural response—we have developed a highly nuanced way of disguising pride with humble-sounding language.  Culturally it sounds good, but if we think much about it, this can’t possibly be what God wants.

Thankfully this morning we are in the third and final part of our series, What Does God Really Want?  For the last couple of weeks we have been looking at this question that everybody asks at one point or another in life.  Usually we ask it when we feel like we are doing pretty much everything right and yet the wheels still seem to be falling off the wagon as we roll down the road.  We get frustrated and ask the hard question: What do you really want God?  We’re not alone in this.  About 2,500 years ago God sent the prophet Micah to the people of Judah with a word of judgment for them.  This caught them off guard as they had been going through all the motions of following God just fine.  So they asked just as you have: What do you really want God?  Then, instead of dropping the hammer on them for even daring to ask such a question, God answered through His prophet.  Do you remember what Micah said?  Say it with me: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Two weeks ago we looked more specifically at the idea of giving God what He wants through justice.  We discovered with the help of another prophet, Amos, that justice is worship.  Apart from a regular involvement in causes of justice we cannot properly worship God.  The reason for this becomes plain when we understand what worship is.  Worship is composed of three parts: acknowledging who God is; proclaiming God’s identity to the world; and participating in God’s character which will always involve pursuing justice since God is essentially just.

Last week amid the delight of hearing from Beth and Nury and commissioning the Honduras Team for their work there in about a month, we talked about the second part of giving God what He really wants: loving kindness.  With a look at the operative Hebrew words (and an unexpected shower for the folks in the row in front of you) we discovered that loving the fullness of God’s love involves being intentionally dedicated to seeing it fully recognized and put into practice in the world around us.  We found examples of how exactly to do this simply by observing the pattern God set for us in His word: performing radical acts of kindness for the people around us, accepting people just as they are, meeting the physical needs of those who can’t, gently working to keep people away from sin, helping move people in the direction of Jesus so they aren’t left where they are, and so on and so forth.  If we can put these kinds of things into practice we will be giving God what He really wants.  We will be making God happy.

There’s just one more part to this puzzle: walking humbly with our God.  On the surface it seems like that should be pretty obvious both in terms of meaning and practical application.  But this morning I don’t want to make any unjustified assumptions.  With as fully integrated into our lives as pride is and with the often silly misunderstandings of what humility really is so prevalent in our culture this is worth looking at in some detail.  If walking humbly with God is how we can make Him happy, how do we actually do that?  Well, that’s an important question, but we need to ask and answer two others before we can get to that one: What does it really mean to be humble and what does it mean to walk humbly with our God?  For the rest of our time together this morning I want to treat these two questions in order and see if we can’t come up with an answer to our first question by this.

When it comes to defining humility, there are numerous passages in the Bible that mention it in some fashion.  But one that stands out to me as perhaps the clearest statement comes near the beginning of Paul’s application of his brilliant theological exposition of the Gospel in his letter to the believers in ancient Rome.  Grab a Bible in some form and turn or thumb your way to Romans 12 with me.  After making a kind of banner statement regarding what we need to do with the riches of the Gospel in the first two verses of the chapter Paul starts getting more specific in v. 3.  And of all the places he could have started, he begins with a statement on humility.  Look at this with me: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think…”  That’s about as clear as you could ask for, right?  Being humble involves not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.  Easy!  I can do that.  And, since I’m awesome, I can think of myself pretty highly.  Excellent!…  Oh…hmm…maybe we need a bit more to go on to get this right.  Keep reading with me: “…I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.”

Okay…what does that mean?  Well, the operative word there is sophroneho.  Its range of meanings includes things like, “to be in one’s right mind,” “to put a moderate estimate upon one’s self,” and “to curb one’s passions.”  The idea here is that when we think about ourselves, if we are going to error, we should error in the direction of modesty.  It’s better to think less of ourselves than we should than it is to think more of ourselves than we should.  It’s always better to be honored by others because we’ve undershot our worth than for folks to think us arrogant because we’ve overshot it.

But, if that’s all we have to say about humility it would be very easy for us to fall into our culture’s basic definition of humility being mostly about thinking less of ourselves than we are otherwise tempted to do.  But, that’s not exactly what Paul says here.  He tells us to think with sophroneho judgment about ourselves.  If we assume only that being humble is thinking less of ourselves than we are otherwise tempted to do we are gravely in danger of falling into a pattern of humblebragging wherein we just make self-deprecating comments all the time with the purpose of allowing others coming along and rhetorically or even just mentally lifting us up.  It works like this: we make comments about how lowly we are or how hard we have it or how busy we are or whatnot so that people will think, “Wow.  She’s so humble; so hardworking; so selfless,” so that we can think, “Yes, yes I am.”  That’s not humility and that’s not what Paul has in mind here.  We’re to put a moderate estimate on ourselves, yes, but because relative to God, we’re all moderate.  More on that in a second.

The word also means to be in our right mind about ourselves.  Well, being in our right mind about ourselves means being aware of our weaknesses to be sure, but it also means being aware of our strengths.  To think with sober judgment about anything means being realistic about it.  It is neither gloomy pessimism nor sunny optimism, but hopeful realism.  It is realism in the sense that it relies on an accurate assessment of things and hopeful in that we look forward to being made more by God’s grace.  True humility then is not merely about avoiding thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, nor is it thinking more lowly of ourselves than we ought.  True humility is having an honest assessment of ourselves.  We know our strengths (but also that our strengths don’t come from us) and are comfortable with them.  We also know our weaknesses and are comfortable with them.  If we’re good at something we’re okay acknowledging that.  And, if we’re terrible at something we’re okay acknowledging that too.  Humility in this sense is chiefly concerned with honesty.  A humble person is an honest person; a person who is fully in his right mind.

That answers the first of our clarifying questions, what about the second: what does it mean to walk humbly with our God?  Let me give you the answer and then I’ll explain it.  The answer is that we take our definition of humility and apply it to our relationship with God.  If humility is chiefly about honesty, then walking humbly with God means being honest in our assessment of us and honest in our assessment of God.

Well, what’s an honest assessment of us?  After all, we were created as the pinnacle of creation.  David in Psalm 8 describes us as a little lower than the angels in our glory.  That’s true, but because of sin all of that was pretty well shot to pieces.  Paul offers us a bit more accurate an assessment earlier in this same letter.  In Romans 3:1 he writes these rather gloomy words: “What then?  Are we Jews any better off?  No, no at all.  For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’”  So what Paul argues here is that while we are not as bad as we could be, relative to God, we’re not good.  A little later in the later Paul writes that he knows that nothing good dwells in him, that is, in his flesh (flesh being a figurative reference to that part in us that neither has nor desires a connection to God).  The point here is that on our own, apart from God, we’re a hot mess.

If that’s a realistic assessment of us before God, how about a realistic assessment of God.  Again, Scripture is full of these, but two stand out in my mind as especially powerful.  The first comes on the lips of the prophet Isaiah.  Late in his rather thick book of prophecy, Isaiah is writing about the compassion of the Lord and calling the people (once again) to repent.  In Isaiah 55:6 and following he says this on behalf of God: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”  That’s pretty powerful in and of itself and we’ll come back to it in just a minute, but what comes next is even more to the point for us right now.  God explains why people should repent and return to Him from whatever else they were following: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty; but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His thoughts and ways higher than ours.  God is superior to us in every way.  He’s smarter, stronger, more powerful, wiser, more moral, bigger, and on and on and on.  When God decides something is going to happen…it happens.  Period.  If you’re a parent you know that puts God on a higher plain that you’re on.  I mean, how many times have you told your kids to do something and it didn’t happen?  You’ve probably filled up at least one hand this morning.  His words have a power that ours can’t touch.

Let me give you one more.  In Psalm 50 the psalmist is speaking on behalf of God to call the people of Israel to abandon the kind of ritual-only worship that the prophets Micah and Amos both addressed.  He makes the point that God wants our hearts, not our stuff (but, as Jesus observed, asks for our stuff as the way to our hearts), but look how he makes it.  Look at what he says in Psalm 50:7: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you, I am God, your God.  Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.  I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds.”  So He doesn’t like purely ritualistic worship.  We already knew that.  But look at His explanation why the sacrifices themselves were worthless to Him.  “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.  If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all its fullness are mine.”  So not only is God higher than us in every way but everything belongs to Him.  We can’t give Him anything He doesn’t already own.   He’s higher than us.  He’s better than us.  Everything belongs to Him.  Is the picture here clear enough yet?

The real takeaway here is this: He is God and we are not.  He is Lord and we are not.  That’s just the way things are whether we believe it or not.  We don’t have to believe in God to validate His existence and identity.  He left plenty of clues and all the evidence points in His direction but we’re great at finding creative (or not so creative) reasons to reject all that.  But none of that changes the fact of who He is.  And so when we forget this or act in any way that suggests a belief it isn’t the case, what we are doing is dramatically misunderstanding the nature of reality.

You know, thinking on that, our culture right now prizes being “real.”  It purports a desire to put off all airs and for people to just be honest about themselves and their stories.  We see this all over the place in pop culture.  Reality television as a genre plays into this.  We also see it all over social media today.  How many times have you seen or heard some version of the phrase, “I’m just being real here…”?  Usually that’s a cover for saying something really awful about another person or situation, but culturally speaking, if the person is just “being real” they generally receive a pass on being unkind.  The deceit here is that we want to live in accordance with reality to the best of our ability.  Culturally we’ve turned that righteous desire into a license to let loose our ugliest selves on the world with a built-in defense against possible repercussions of it.  But according to what guys like Asaph, Isaiah, and Paul had to say, living according to reality, “being real,” doesn’t mean letting our sin-broken,, ugly selves hang out for all the world to be sickened by, it means living with an honest awareness of who God is and who people are in light of that.  In other words, being humble—which is exactly what folks today who claim they are just ‘being real” are not being—is being real.  Being humble is being real.

We don’t need to resort to things like humblebragging to toot our own horn.  After all, in comparison to God, we don’t have much of a horn to toot anyway.  Rather, we can point ourselves in the direction of learning to walk before God in a manner befitting reality.  We can walk humbly with Him.  That, though, just brings us back to where we were at the beginning.  What does that look like?  It’s fine to say that being humble is being real, but how do we put that into practice?

A quick look back at the character of the God who defines reality will help here.  I told you we’d come back to that first part of what God had to say through Isaiah.  Let’s go there now.  Just before God showed us how much greater He is than us He said something really revealing about who He is and what it means for us to walk humbly before Him.  Do you remember what it was?  He called folks committed to a path other than His to get off that path and return to His path, but why?  Paraphrasing a bit now, He said, “Let the folks who have rejected the Lord return to Him so that He may have compassion on them.  Let them return to our God because He wants to abundantly pardon.”  Just a few verses before this Isaiah famously wrote about God sending His servant (Jesus—God in human flesh) to be crushed for our transgressions.  This same servant was prophesied to make intercession for—that is, to pray for, to advocate before God on behalf of—the really, really good people who messed up a little here and there.  Just wanted to be sure you were paying attention.  No, this servant was going to make intercession for the transgressors, that is, the people who are living in active opposition to Him, to reality.  Or perhaps to put that more simply: for us.

So think about this now.  If this God we’ve just been describing is willing to be gracious to and serve us (and so you know: apart from the Christian worldview that concept doesn’t make any sense); and, if being humble is being real, if being humble is chiefly about living comfortably in accordance with reality; then it would seem that the way to walk humbly with our God is to follow His example.

Being humble is being real.  If you want to be humble, be real: Everything you have, in fact, everything there is, ultimately comes from and belongs to God.  Therefore, it doesn’t make any sense at all not to share generously from what you have with others because, again, God owns everything and can easily make sure you have enough to meet your needs and more if you run low because you are practicing wise generosity.  If you want to be humble, be real: God sacrificed His only Son in order to put you in the kind of relationship with Him that allows Him to provide abundantly for your physical needs—needs you can’t meet on your own—and so following suit by working to meet the physical needs of other folks who can’t meet theirs on their own is entirely in keeping with the nature of reality.  If you want to be humble, be real: When you rebelled against God and offended Him in rather visceral fashion He made the first move to forgive you and see the relationship restored and so if there is someone in your life you need to forgive and with whom you can begin a process of reconciliation and restoration, the only sensible thing is to do it.  If you want to be humble, be real: The kindness God has shown us and continues to show us goes beyond what we can get our minds around and so treating the people around us with the same kindness is a no brainer.  If you want to be humble, be real: God not only never claims a scintilla of credit beyond what He is due, but He regularly invites us to take part in His plans even when that means they are delayed and disrupted meaning that reality-based logic would suggest that being patient with the people around us including giving them the freedom to disrupt and delay our plans which are far less important than His plans is a good thing to do.  If you want to be humble, be real: In spite of our sin-brokenness, God created us as the pinnacle of creation and of all the creatures He made vested us with His image and so treating all people as if they were bearing the image of the Holy God (because they are) is the only sane way to treat people.

It is God who defines all of reality and so walking humbly with Him using these examples as a starting point is the only sensibly thing to do.  Being humble is being real.  We were created to be real.  We were created to not hide behind any kind of façade no matter how beautiful and impressive it is.  We were created to walk with our God in a deep, loving, and growing relationship.  Until we are willing to be honest about who He is and who we are, though, that can’t happen.  Being humble is being real.  That will give God what He really wants.  That will make God happy.  That will give you the life you desire.  Being humble is being real.  So stop pretending and just be real.