Monday, September 16, 2013

Humility and Pride

I am new to social media and recently "liked" Anne Lamott, the Christian author.  She posted something recently that included what she described as an old joke.  I'd never heard it before, but it is quite apropos of the new direction of this blog.  The joke asks, "what is the difference between us and God?"  The answer and punch line: "God never thinks he's us." 


So often we Christians speak and write with such a confidence in our beliefs.  We know what we know.  We're certain.  We cannot be wrong. 

What's more, we're often quite loud about our rock solid beliefs because the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) told us to go out and make disciples of all nations.  Many of us seem to think that you "make disciples" by force and being loud.  However, that is not the example Jesus gave for us.  He fellowshipped with people who became his disciples.  He became their friend and taught when they were receptive.  He did not force them to believe what they were not willing to accept.  He drew followers to him with love, not angry words. 

People who are adamant about being loud about their rock solid beliefs often give the excuse that they are simply following the example of John the Baptist.  John had a lot of great attributes.  And he was an in-your-face sort of guy.  But the reality is that John was not Christ.  Thus, it is Jesus, not John, after whom we should try to model our behavior.

And when we are so sure our religious beliefs are absolutely correct, we forget that even Christ's followers, who were with him during his earthly ministry on a daily basis, didn't always understand what he was talking about.  Jesus constantly had to correct them because they literalized figurative language.  Even though he taught in parables with agrarian symbolism, with which they would have had familiarity, they didn't always grasp his spiritual meaning.  Christ's teachings are not simple and easy to understand.  If it was a struggle for those who were with Jesus during his earthly walk, how much more difficult it is for us two thousand years later. 

I encourage us all to remember that.  Whenever we feel absolutely certain we know what the Bible is saying on a particular topic.  Whenever we feel absolutely certain we know God's mind on a particular point.  That certainty should be a huge red flag, my friends.  It is a type of pride.  The Bible repeatedly warns against pride, and instead urges us to adopt a humble attitude.

I often think how egotistical it is for us mere mortals to be so confident that we know for sure God's will and his teachings in every instance.  He is the great I AM, who has been in existence longer than our puny brains can even fathom.  He is the creator of the universe.  The same universe that we're still struggling to understand.  Heck, I cannot even wrap my mind around my daughters' math homework sometimes.

Beyond the sin of pride, another thing that is dangerous about being so certain we already understand God's will and his teachings fully is that it closes us off to new learning.  Believe me, I know what I'm talking about.  I've been a college peer tutor, a middle school teacher, an elementary school teacher, a law professor and a homeschooling mom.  I've also taught in various church ministries.  So, I've seen this happen in many different contexts.  When we think we already know something, our minds tune out.  If we think we already understand a passage in the Bible, we may gloss over it when we read it again or when someone tries to teach us about that passage.  In more extreme cases, we may even argue with the person who tries to share new insight.  They cannot be right if we already have a monopoly on truth.

Being closed is not good, my friends.  There is at least one commonality of all the people described in the New Testament as having converted to follow Jesus: they had an open-mind and an open spirit.  I have a friend who is originally from a small village in Nigeria.  I have heard him pray in thanksgiving that his grandfather was open to the missionaries who came to his village decades ago.  He and his whole family are now devoted Christ-followers.  Their faith is the center of their lives.  And conversion is not a one time only thing.  The holy spirit is constantly working in our heart if we are open to being guided.  We are not a finished product.  The potter is still working with the clay.

I encourage you to consider that even when a passage may seem to clearly mean something, perhaps our initial understanding is not correct.  I know sometimes I've latched onto a passage of Scripture that appeals to me because in my modern perspective, it seems to be saying something that I really like.  But sometimes when I read more background or scholarly explanation of the wording, I eventually come to understand that the passage didn't really mean what I thought.  Often there is historical or cultural context I was missing that makes it more apparent that the author was really writing about a completely different topic.  That can be disappointing to learn the passage did not really say what I had thought.  But it would be foolish to cling to my apparently ego-driven pearl of wisdom instead of embracing what the passage actually was teaching.

Alternately, our initial understanding of a passage from the Bible might not be wrong, but often it is not as full or deep an understanding as we might eventually gain if we keep studying.  This can happen not only with Scripture but other texts as well.  This summer I taught Criminal Law, a course that I had taught many times in the past, but had not taught for almost two years.  During that break, my focus had been on other legal topics--primarily business law, as well as a few others.  So when I returned to Criminal Law this summer, I had a very different perspective.  As I re-read the same Criminal Law casebook for the umpteenth time, and discussed the materials with a new set of students, I had all kinds of epiphanies.  I noticed parts of the same old text that I'd glossed over to some extent in the past.  I realized certain connections with other topics I had been studying and teaching in the break period.  Coming back to Criminal Law after all this time, I am quite sure I got as much out of the material as the students, and frankly had more to share with my class than I had in the past.  The same thing typically happens each time I teach a course.  It is not unique to Criminal Law.  The more one studies a topic, the more one integrates other learnings.  One's understanding becomes fuller than after the first, fifth or even tenth read.  If we work at it, the same happens when we study the Bible.

I write these words as a reminder to myself and to you, dear reader.  The need to avoid pride and to adopt a humble attitude is so critical when we sit down to study Scripture.  This is not easy, obvious stuff.  It takes time and struggle.  I encourage you to not be afraid of the time commitment or the struggle.  Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.

And we shouldn't be afraid or ashamed if we aren't sure.  Lack of certainty is looked down in our secular culture.  None of us what to appear ignorant or unprepared.  But before the Lord and in the company of our fellow Christ-followers, being unsure is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.  Indeed, it is a sign of honesty and humility.  It is also a sign of a deep, seeking faith.  Keep seeking.  Be wary when anyone tells you a passage from Scripture is obvious or clear.  Do your own due diligence.  Dig deep over time to decide for yourself.  It is in that seeking that we come to understand God and his plan better.

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