Last fall, the ladies’ Bible study group at my church did a book study of One Thousand Gifts. What follows is the manuscript of the introduction I gave each week, designed to be a summary and a homily based on the week’s reading assignment.
from Chapters 9-10
This week we’re talking about Humility. This is a little bit of an elusive topic, because not only is she “shy,” as we read in chapter 9, the people who know her best don’t usually have much to say about it. I was convicted in my studies this week that I certainly need a lot more personal experience with this topic! So, I’m thankful to have read some great thoughts about humility that I can repeat to you today.
Obviously most of what I have to say comes from our OTG readings this week, but I’ll also be drawing on a book I borrowed from Stephen: Humility by C.J. Mahaney.
So, although this exercise might be a little bit like catching sight of a leprechaun, let’s see if we can’t get a few glimpses of this elusive–but essential—virtue.
Humility maintains no expectations.
Sometimes expectations seem totally reasonable: I expect that you’ll show up when we make an appointment. I expect water to come out of the tap when I turn the faucet. I expect that Mom will make my favorite cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving dinner next week. I expect to eventually wake up when I go to sleep at night.
But there’s not really that much difference between “having reasonable expectations” and having an attitude of entitlement. I deserve to have my time respected. I deserve cold or hot clean water on demand. I deserve cornbread dressing. I deserve another day…and another one, and another one, until I’m so old or sick that I don’t want any more.
We believe that we are entitled to—we deserve—a life of health, comfort, happiness, fulfilled dreams. We deserve life at a certain level. Anything leading up to that is just what God owes us. It’s only what is above and beyond that point that we call blessing and gift. And then if–and when!–when we don’t get something that we think we are entitled to, we’re disappointed, angry, disillusioned. We feel like God has let us down or that he has left us altogether.
A humble heart has no expectations, no sense of entitlement. A humble heart recognizes that we are dust, and that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath. A humble heart lives surprised by blessing: Another day! Cold water! Love! Happiness! Cornbread dressing! Ann writes, “Instead of filling with expectations, the joy-filled expect nothing, and are filled.” (170)
Humility laments in suffering, but it does not complain.
This is one of my favorite points out of Chapter 9: the difference between lament and complaint. Nowhere in this whole gratitude experiment are we asked to deny our suffering, our brokenness, our places of deep sadness. This is not “Chin up! At least you don’t have cancer!” No, we can be honest and real when our hearts ache and the world seems like too much to carry. I loved the line from Chapter 9: “Theories and theology stillbirth unless they can take on some skin, breath in the polluted air of this world, and make it happen” (174) If the idea of eucharisteo, if the gospel itself, cannot speak to us in our worst pain, they are of no value. Because pain is when we need them! What use is a god that is a fair-weather friend?
So we can take our faith into our darkest places. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
Ann defines: “Lament is a cry of belief in a good God, a God who has his ear to our hearts, a God who transfigures the ugly into beauty. Complaint is the bitter howl of unbelief in any benevolent God in this moment, a distrust in the love-beat of the Father’s heart.” (175)
I’ll be honest: faith does not come easy for me. Maybe because of that, I’ve always thought of unbelief as one of the more noble sins. I feel like I have no control over it: “I would like to believe, but I just can’t.” And I picture that God really appreciates my effort and feels sorry for me that I have such a hard time. Occasionally I pray, “Lord, help my unbelief!” but then I move on, and use “unbelief” as an excuse for complacency and laziness.
But I recently read something that put this in a different perspective. I subscribe to a blog called “The Old Guys,” that sends quotes from old pastors and theologians to my email. One of the first ones I got was so convicting that I held on to it: it was by Charles Suprgeon, titled “The Sin of Unbelief.”
I read it eagerly, expecting to feel affirmed in my noble struggle to believe. Wrong! Here’s what he says:
Is it not a sin for a creature to doubt the word of its Maker? Is it not a crime and an insult to the Divinity, for me, an atom, a particle of dust, to dare to deny his words? Is it not the very summit of arrogance and extremity of pride for a son of Adam to say, even in his heart, “God I doubt thy grace; God I doubt thy love; God I doubt thy power?” Oh! sirs believe me, could ye roll all sins into one mass,–could you take murder, and blasphemy, and lust, adultery, and fornication, and everything that is vile and unite them all into one vast globe of black corruption, they would not equal even then the sin of unbelief. This is the monarch sin, the quintessence of guilt; the mixture of the venom of all crimes; the dregs of the wine of Gomorrah; it is the A1 sin, the master-piece of Satan, the chief work of the devil.
It’s not that scandalous when a worm murders, steals, vandalizes, sleeps around—in other words, when a worm acts like a worm. But when a worm rises up in the face of God and says, “I don’t think you are who you say you are,” or “I think I can do this job better than you,” that’s blasphemy. My unbelief is really pride—telling God that there’s not enough room in my intellect and my understanding for Him to live.
Should I confess, “Lord, help my unbelief!”? Absolutely. But I should do it with a heart that hates that sin, not one that thinks I get a gold star for trying.
So, back to suffering. A proud heart, an entitled heart, will rage against suffering and ask, “Why me?” A humble heart asks, “Why not me? Why do I deserve peace and comfort any more than the next person?”
In our suffering, will we cling to Christ as our only hope, will we trust his goodness even when we don’t feel it? Or will we lash out at God and presume that we know what we need more than he does?
I’m not saying it’s easy. We discussed this in our small group a few weeks ago when we read Chapter 5. Can you look into the face of a woman whose husband has been killed and tell her it is for her good? Do you even want to say “God is in control” to a friend who has just found cancer in her body? Can you tell a sister it’s a gift from God to bury her child?
We grieve and we rage and we cry. And while a graveside is not always the place for a sermon from you on the sovereignty of God, we must not comfort one another with lies and say that God did not want this to happen, that He was not powerful enough to stop it. Making God small does not help, it does not comfort. Rather, we must remember that God is big—big enough to see what he’s doing, big enough to hold our pain.
This has been a long point, but I wanted to dwell here for a little bit because I think it speaks so powerfully to where we live. Even in deepest pain, humility remembers who is God and who is not.
Humility serves Christ by serving others.
It’s not really a new revelation that we should be serving others. We all know the second-greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus preached, “To whom much has been given, much is required.”
But if you’re like me, you’ve grown comfortable with a breach between what you know you should be doing and what you actually do. Serving orphans and widows? Giving to the poor? Putting the needs of people in my own household before my own? Yes, yes, yes. But I don’t.
Chapter 10 is where the rubber really meets the road.
Ann describes a complete cycle of eucharisteo: “the hand that opens to receive grace, then with thanks, breaks the bread; that moves out into the larger circle of life and washes the feet of the world with that grace.” (193)
When faced with the reality of abundant blessing received, a humble heart responds by becoming a blessing to others.
I know that I don’t deserve anything, and yet God has lavished me, almost embarassingly, with so much money and time and comfort and resources, compared to the rest of the world. So how can I look him in the face and tell him I’m too busy to serve? Or I don’t have enough money to give?
In a Bible study I participate in on Wednesdays, we recently discussed the question: “What might you have to give up in order to be part of spreading God’s kingdom?” One woman’s answer convicted me: “I would have to give up the idea that God doesn’t really expect anything from me.”
God expects us to obey his word. And he has clearly commanded us to be his hands and feet in this broken, hurting world.
But let’s dig even a little deeper. Maybe you already spend most of your days cleaning up after others, making their food and washing their dirty clothes. Or you’re a generally nice person and hold open doors, volunteer at a homeless shelter, send mail to soldiers you don’t even know. Guess what? You’re not off the hook yet, either.
You don’t have to raise your hand, but who needed to hear this from Chapter 10? “When service is unto people, the bones can grow weary, the frustration deep…The moment you think of serving people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains…You will begin to bargain for reward, angle for applause.” (194)
This was my problem a year ago. I was pouring out in service to my family, but I was resentful and martyr-like about it because my focus was all on my own hard work and sacrifice and my own calculation that I was giving a lot more than I was getting in return.
Picture a set of old-timey scales. My ungrateful heart had this ridiculous notion that my giving was outweighing my getting. But counting gifts has helped me to see that Jesus has put an elephant on that “receiving” side, and that all the feathers of my own service will never, ever let me catch up. As Ann writes, “I can bless, pour out, be broken and given in our home and in the larger world and never fear that there won’t be enough to give.” (197)
Jesus tells us whatever we do for “the least of these”–the hungry, thirsty, needy, naked, sick, imprisoned–we do to him. When I bring milk and cereal to the table, I’m not just serving Abby, I’m serving Christ. When I take my neighbor a meal, I’m not just feeding her, I’m feeding Christ.
That alone should be motivation enough. But we still get a kickback:
“When Christ is at the center [of my service], when dishes, laundry, work, is my song of thanks to Him, joy rains.”
The entitled serve expecting thanks, and are always disappointed.
The humble serve expecting nothing, and are filled.
So, after reading these chapters, I want to be humble, don’t you? But how? I know that praying for humility is one of those dangerous prayers, like praying for patience–we kind of pray and then brace for the worst. But while it never hurts to pray, I have a few other suggestions of practical habits you can practice to cultivate a spirit of humility; to position yourself in a place where God can keep your pride in check.
There is actually a complete list of ideas in C.J. Mahaney’s book on Humility. Because of time, I’m only going to cover a few of my favorites.
- Always reflect on the wonder of the cross of Christ.
Listen to this quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a British preacher from this past century:
There is only one thing I know of that crushes me to the ground and humiliates me to the dust, and that is to look at the Son of God, and especially contemplate the cross. “When I survey the wondrous cross On Which the Prince of Glory died, My richest gain I count but loss And pour contempt on all my pride.”
Nothing else can do it. When I see that I am a sinner…that nothing but the Son of God on the cross can save me, I’m humbled to the dust. Nothing but the cross can give us this spirit of humility.
And this one from John Stott:
Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to be saying to us, “I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.” Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.
2. Begin your day expressing gratefulness to God.
I’d add, keep expressing gratefulness all day (whether you write everything down on your gift list or not!). In Chapter 9 of OTG, Ann writes:
What humbles like an extravagant gift?…I humbly give God thanks for the gifts. And in that place of humble thanks, God exalts and gives more and more of himself, which humbles the soul down lower. And good God responds with greater gifts of Grace and even more of Himself.
I loved the quote about God placing his best gifts on the lowest shelf. We get there with humble thanks.
3. Seize your commute time to memorize and meditate on Scripture.
When left to their own devices, our minds will always revert to pride, whether it takes the form of entitlement, complaint, or self-pity, or self-righteousness. So don’t give it a chance to get away from you!
You may or may not have a “commute,” but this idea applies to any kind of down time where your mind has a chance to wander. Maybe it’s nursing a baby, waiting in a carpool line, or sitting at the table waiting for a toddler to finish lunch. Even think about taping up some memory verse cards to read while you use the bathroom! Use that time to fill your mind with the words of God, and don’t give your wicked mind a chance. You’ve got to be thinking about something, right? Might as well make it worthwhile.
4. Before going to sleep, receive this gift of sleep from God and acknowledge his purpose for sleep.
You don’t have to twist my arm on this one! I love sleeping! But this was an interesting perspective.
Each night, as I confront my need again for sleep, I am reminded that I’m a dependent creature. I am not self-sufficient. I am not the creator. There is only one who “will neither slumber nor sleep,” and I am not that One…
Sleep is a picture and a parable of what it means to be a Christian. Your sleep tonight will be a small but real act of faith. You’ll lay your full weight on a bed, trusting this structure to support you. You can fully relax, because no effort at supporting yourself is required; something else is holding you up. And in the same way, throughout the night as you sleep, Someone else is sustaining you, [protecting you while you are completely helpless and unable to protect yourself]. This is a picture of what it’s like to belong to Christ.
So don’t just crash into bed; take a minute to reflect on your own weakness and give thanks to God for His provision.
5. Identify evidences of grace in others.
Our natural response to others is to see them as either greater than or less than us. “Greater than”-and we feel defensive and intimidated. “Less than” and we feel smug and superior. Humility removes the habit of comparison. Looking for evidences of God’s grace in others reminds us that we are all broken creatures receiving grace from a generous God.
The humble do not see others as competition; they recognize that we are on the same team, and they can sincerely rejoice in the ways that God bestows grace on others.
Let’s pray and then we’ll break into our discussion groups.