Monday, October 10, 2005

humility (a sermon)

Practicing Humility
a sermon by Troy Cady

Ephesians 4:2 says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Let's take a deep look at the virtue of humility. We’re going to do this by asking 3 questions:

1. “Why is humility important?”
2. “What is humility?” and
3. “What are some concrete ways I can practice humility?”

First, “Why is humility important?” There are at least two big reasons:

1. Humility is important because “you can’t see your own butt.” This picture illustrates that.

In this illustration, let the hippo’s rear end represent a “character flaw.” The humble person is like this hippo: they’re willing to ask the tough question about themselves (“Does this bikini make my butt look too big?”). Further, the truly humble person is willing to hear the answer: “Yes, your butt is rather large.” Finally, the humble person is also willing to take off the ridiculous costume they’ve been wearing and change into something that suits them better.

The proud person, conversely, never even concerns themselves with asking the tough question; and, if anyone had the guts to tell the proud person the truth, the proud person would simply ignore their observations. The problem is: if you’re proud, there’s bound to be other flaws that everyone else can see but you can’t, because your pride is blinding you to them. Pride has a way of stunting personal growth. Humility says, “Do yourself a favor: be willing to ask the tough questions about yourself. Be willing to listen to what others have to say about that. Open yourself up to real personal growth.” It takes humility to let others show you your faults and speak into your life in this way, but we all need that because “you can’t see your own butt.” That’s why humility matters.

But there’s a second reason humility is important; specifically, humility is a foundational virtue. Thomas a Kempis puts it this way: “Hold always in yourself a firm ground and a sure foundation of humility, and then the height of virtue will shortly be given to you, for the high tower of virtue cannot long stand unless it is based on the low foundation of humility.”

The development of the other virtues in our lives depends on the foundational virtue of humility. That’s why Paul opens up the second half of Ephesians (about the practical development of godly character) by admonishing us to practice humility. Paul seems to be saying, “Practice humility first and the other virtues will more easily be incorporated into your life.” If you’re not humble, however, you may succeed at pasting on a thin veneer of virtue, but it will be shortly evident that this is simply covering up an empty shell--and the virtues you do possess will be colored with a judgmental, ugly, proud attitude. Humility is foundational. That’s why this matters.

Okay, second question: “What is humility?”

Three points here: First, humility is something you practice, not something you become. Humility always says, “How can I focus on God and other people, not myself.” As such, it is something we need to practice daily; it is not something we should think we will ever master.

So, humility is defined generally as something we practice, but let’s take a closer look at how we define it with respect to our relationship with God.

Author Gary Thomas says: “…humility is entering into the life of Christ through a radical God-dependence. It’s an inner orientation of actively receiving from God and acknowledging our need.” Jesus puts it more bluntly: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” That’s really true, isn’t it? Even the air we breathe is a gift from God! We are totally dependent on Him for everything! Humility towards God acknowledges that and embraces it through gratefully receiving from God.

Next, how is humility defined when it comes to our relationship with others? It’s pretty much the same principle, but I think it’s helpful to take a slightly different look when it comes to this form of humility. By the way, the Bible does tell us to show humility towards people, not just God. Titus 3:2 says, “Show true humility toward all men.” This is called “social humility.” Social humility is essentially self-forgetfulness.

A couple of notes about self-forgetfulness: First, self-forgetfulness is not self-abasement when we constantly say to ourselves, “I’m no good. I’m no good. I’m no good.” Often we think that’s humility, but actually that’s another form of pride. The person who is constantly obsessing over their own faults is constantly thinking about themselves. That’s self-centeredness and that’s another word for “pride.” Peter Kreeft, a professor at Boston College, defines humility this way: “Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.”

But, self-centeredness also expresses itself in self-gratification. Self-gratification says, “I expect others to fit into what will make me more happy, more comfortable, more affluent…” This is the form of pride most of us adopt.

Here’s a story about how self-gratification looks in everyday life: Heather and I are sitting down comfortably at home to enjoy a movie. We’re about 20 minutes into the movie when the phone rings. Someone is going to have to get up and get the phone. My first response is: “Let it ring! I don’t want to get up from my comfortable chair.” But Heather thinks we should get it. Meanwhile, the phone is still ringing. I think, “Well, the voice mail will pick it up. I don’t want to get up from my comfortable chair. Doesn’t that person know I’m sitting in my comfortable chair trying to enjoy a movie?!” What’s more: I figure if I just sit here long enough, Heather will get it. And you know what? It works every time!

Now: we laugh at this illustration, but seriously: what is that except “expecting people to make me more comfortable and happy”? And what is that but a small grain of self-centeredness? In this instance, the world revolves around me: my happiness, my comfort, my benefit. I call this Ptolemaic spirituality. That’s when the universe revolves around me. What’s needed here is humility: a Copernican revolution in the world of my soul. Practicing humility at that point would involve a small, self-forgetful thought and action: getting my rear end out of the chair, picking up the phone, and cheerfully saying, “Hello!”

We’ve talked about why humility is important, and we’ve talked about what humility is. Now, here are 4 ways you can practice humility daily.

First, change your focus. Get your eyes off of yourself and focus on God. There are many tools you can use to help you do this, so I’ll mention just three of them here. They are (one) contemplative prayer, (two) Scripture reading/meditation, and (three) worship.

First, contemplative prayer. This is exactly what it sounds like: it’s prayer that has as its sole focus contemplating the character and actions of God. In contemplative prayer, you can think about God’s love, or God’s holiness, or God’s gentleness, or God’s patience, or any number of God’s attributes for a concentrated period of time. In doing this, your focus is taken away from yourself and put on God.

Second, there’s Scripture reading. By reading the Scriptures, we get an even clearer picture of “our need” and “God’s supply”. The other day in my Scripture reading I read these words from Psalm 30: “I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths…O Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me. O Lord, you brought me up from the grave; you spared me from going down to the pit.” At that moment, I was keenly aware of my need and God’s supply. I was a beggar and God was my provider. It was truly humbling.

Finally, worship can help change your focus. Worship happens whenever we praise God and declare that life is all about Him, not about us. You can do this through music, singing, painting, writing, speaking, sculpting or any number of other outlets. The main thing is: when we worship God, we need to take the focus off of ourselves and put it on God. Worship is simply the tool.

That means that, as strange as it sounds, it is possible to engage in the actions of worship without really worshipping with a humble heart. For example, if you’re leading worship singing some time and thinking, “Wow! I sound really good!”: that’s pride. Now, since that would never conceivably happen to me (because I’m not that great a singer!), here’s how worshipping with a self-centered stance looks in my own life:

In Barcelona once, we were in church and the worship leader proceeded to lead us in a song called “There’s a wind a’blowin’!” Immediately, I thought, “I hate this song! It’s so stupid and cheesy! Why do we have to sing this song?” Then, I looked around me and saw that the song was really touching other people. I realized how self-centered I was being, so I decided to take the focus off of my own tastes and desires and I tried to appreciate the song for what it was. After all, I realized, some songwriter genuinely wanted to express himself to God by writing this song. I realized how petty I was being, criticizing what, for one person, was an authentic expression of humble worship and praise to God. Who was I to judge and put down?

That’s when I realized that true worship is not as much about the songs you choose to sing; it’s about the heart you choose to bring. The quality of the song may not be under your control, but the condition of your heart is.

Scripture reading, contemplative prayer, and a genuinely worshipful heart expressing itself in worshipful actions are three powerful tools you can use to help change your focus which will help cultivate humility in your life.

Second big way of cultivating humility: adopt a posture of receiving. There are at least two ways we can do this:

First, we adopt a posture of receiving whenever we admit that we don’t know everything, and therefore need to receive wisdom from God and possibly even advice from other people. Think of the humility it takes to come to someone and say, “I’m having a hard time with something lately. Maybe you could help me get a handle on it. What do you think?” That’s a practical way to help you adopt a posture of receiving.

Another way is by receiving help from others in more tangible ways. For example, when Heather and I were first married we had to learn the value of this when we had very little money. One month, we didn’t know how we were going to pay the rent, pay the bills, buy gas for the car and buy groceries. Then, one night, someone from our church called and asked, “How are you doing?” By the way he asked the question, I could tell he really wanted to know “how we were doing.” It was hard, but I had to say to him, “Well, actually, not so good. We don’t really have enough money for food right now and…” He stopped me and said, “Well, we had wondered that, and that’s why I’m calling. We’d like to help somehow, if you want.” To be honest, it was hard accepting their help, because that meant I wasn’t providing for my wife, but I knew it was stupid to refuse their help. I had to learn to adopt a posture of receiving. That was a practical way of developing humility, let me tell you!

A third way of cultivating humility is by practicing humility to others. This sounds a bit vague, so here are two specific ways to do this:

One—celebrate when others win. Let’s say you’re at school and someone gives a good speech and they get top marks for it. The humble person says, “Hooray! Good for you!” Period. The self-centered person says, “It was a good speech, but I could have done better.” Celebrate when others win.

Two--practice humility toward others by really listening to and learning from others. While listening, try to understand things from their point of view. Forget about yourself, listen, and seek to understand before demanding to be understood. That takes humility.

That last idea takes us one step further to a fourth way we can practice humility in daily life: adopt a self-emptying spirit. Think of this as similar to number three above, but at a higher intensity.

For example, we can adopt a self-emptying spirit when inconveniences come along by being willing to rise to the occasion, though it may result in some personal discomfort. I’ll never forget Easter of 2003 at Mountainview. Several of our church members practiced humility by adopting a self-emptying spirit. That Easter we were unable to set up the room we were renting by using the customary timetable. Usually, we would set up the room on the Saturday previous to the Sunday service. But that particular Easter, the space we were renting was hosting a big party on Saturday night, so we did not have access to the facility. This presented a difficulty: we knew we were going to need extra help on Easter Sunday morning to assist with the set up. I’m happy to say that several of our members did just that. Not only did many of them show up really early to help, but some of them even spent the night away from home to make that possible. That was an inconvenience to them, but they rose to the occasion, even though they may have been a little tired the next day. That action was a way of putting others first. It was tangible humility. So, when situations like that come, think of how you will be blessing others, even though it might require a small sacrifice on your part.

Another way we can help cultivate a self-emptying spirit is by performing anonymous good deeds (that means being willing to not receive recognition for a job well done).

Some time ago I found this really difficult to do: Heather and I went to a party to celebrate a recent promotion that an acquaintance received. To congratulate him on his promotion we brought a bottle of cava (Spanish champagne) as a gift. When we arrived, however, he was chatting with someone else so we didn’t have a chance to personally hand him the bottle. The problem was: the bottle was not wrapped, and there was no card letting him know we gave him a gift. So later, when we saw him, I said: “We brought a bottle of cava to congratulate you on your promotion. I just wanted you to know that.” Then it hit me: “Why did I feel he needed to know that? What difference does it make if he knows that I gave him a bottle of cava?” And inside, I knew: I wanted him to notice me. I wanted him to think I was a good person and had done a good deed. It’s difficult performing anonymous good deeds, because it takes humility.

I’d like to close now with a true story that tells us the impact humility can have on those around us and on the entire world. It’s a story that tells us: Humility has eternal consequences. It’s a story about three people. The first person was a man whose name no one knows. This man lived in the third century. During that time, it was customary for soldiers to be honored with a particular crown when they did something honorable. However, this crown had pagan origins, so Christians were discouraged from wearing such crowns, even though the intention was to honor noble deeds. On one occasion there were several soldiers receiving crowns and one of those soldiers was our nameless Christian. As the others received their crowns, they immediately put them on, proud to be honored in such a way. But when the Christian was handed his crown, he just held it at his side. The officer dispensing the crowns noticed and asked: “Why are you dressed differently?” The Christian responded: “I am not allowed to dress like the others.” The tribunal asked why. And the Christian knew that his next words would likely seal his death sentence. He responded: “I am a Christian.” The tribunal called the Christian a “proud warrior” to insult him and the Christian was delivered to face his sentence.

They removed his heavy cloak; they took off his boots; they took his sword, and the crown fell from his hand, his honor cast to the ground. At this moment, another Christian recording this event says that in removing his cloak, his load was lightened; in taking off his boots, he stood on holy ground; and in handing over his sword, he was imitating His Lord Jesus who needed no sword of power to change the world. Of course, there was another way He imitated our Lord: he dropped his crown, he let go of his pride, and submitted himself even to death. The Christian then put on a crimson robe, just like His Lord who was robed in blood. The “proud warrior” of God was then put to death. His nameless sacrifice inspired others to follow Christ--others, incidentally, whose names we do know but who don’t warrant mention just now, because what matters is this:

The nameless Christian is one person in the story. Jesus is the second person. Will you be the third? As Christians who have inherited a legacy handed to us by Jesus and by our nameless Christian brother, we too “dress differently.” We, too, are gently summoned by our Lord to hold our crown of honor at our side, letting it drop to the ground, dying to self, living as Christ lived--in humility. So the question is: Will you be the third person in this story? Will you drop your crown? Will you die to self for the sake of another? Will you change the world with a single, simple, humble (yet powerful!) act of service? Humility can change the world.

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