In Luke 18 Jesus tells a story about two men. One is a Pharisee, the other is a tax collector. They both went to the temple to pray. Jesus said the Pharisee, who was known for his religious proficiency, prayed about himself and said, “God I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
Meanwhile, the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus told us that the tax collector rather than the Pharisee went home right with God. He wanted us to see the importance of humility and the danger of spiritual arrogance in our lives. As we turn to Romans 12:3 Paul shows a similar concern.
Let’s get the context of Paul’s words. As we come to Romans 12 we are confronted with words of application. Chapters 1-11 explain what a Christian believes. In chapters 12-16 we learn how that belief should change us. In the first verse we were told that we should be willing to serve the Lord . . . we should be willing to give ourselves unreservedly to Him after all that He has done for us. In verse 2 we were warned to resist thinking like the rest of the world and choose instead to be transformed in the way we think.
As we move to verse 3 Paul points to one of the areas where we need to adjust our thinking. We need to think properly about ourselves. Paul writes,
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
There are two extremes in the Christian community: there are those who think too highly of themselves (spiritual arrogance), and those who suffer from spiritual inferiority (seeing yourself as worthless in God’s kingdom). We are going to look at both sides of this issue of self-esteem in the hope of finding the balance that will help us be healthy and faithful in our Christian lives.
THE PROBLEM OF CHRISTIAN ARROGANCE
The very fact that Paul has to warn the people of Rome NOT to think of themselves more highly than they ought to, indicates that this is a common problem.
Jesus has much to say about pursuing humility rather than arrogance.
- He said the humble in spirit would be blessed (Mt. 5:3)
- He told us that He was gentle and humble in heart (Mt. 11:29)
- He told the disciples not to seek titles . . . they were to recognize that the greatest person is the one who is a servant. (Mt. 23:8-12)
- He told a parable that said we should always take the lowest place in banquet seating and see if you are invited to a position of higher honor (Luke 14:7-11)
- Jesus took a humble position when He washed the disciples feet (John 13)
Jesus called us to serve God with humility. This is often not the case. Spiritual arrogance rears it’s ugly head in many different ways.
- We may feel proud because of our spiritual knowledge. We may become proud of how much we know, our degrees and our mastery of facts.
- We may be proud because of our spiritual experience. We become smug because we have had great experiences with God. Maybe you experienced a miracle in your life, you believe God has spoken to you in a unique way, you have been blessed in your ministry, you have spoken in tongues, or others have applauded you.
- We may become arrogant because of our Christian position. Perhaps you have been tapped for a position of leadership or are friends with a significant people. It’s easy to begin to feel that you are more valuable than others.
There are other, more subtle, manifestations of spiritual arrogance that we don’t quickly recognize.
- From time to time I have had people tell me that they have stayed away from the church because they are afraid of all the people that will talk about them if they come to worship. I usually quickly point out that most people are not as concerned about your life as you think they are! It is pretty arrogant to think that everyone goes home on a Sunday and talks about you!
- Sometimes people who appear humble are really not. Sometimes we tell everyone we are not “worthy” in order to get them to tell us how worthy we are! Suppose you have a rich musical gift. You are asked to perform for a function. You respond by saying, “I’m really not that good” (even though you think you are). In truth, you are fishing for a compliment. You are hoping the other person will tell you how great you really are.
- Arrogance reveals itself when we are unwilling to use a less visible gift or serve in a less obvious way because we don’t want to serve in the shadows . . . we want the spotlight.
- Often people who find the need to “rain on someone else’s parade” are guilty of arrogance. They can’t stand to let someone else have a moment in the spotlight because it means the spotlight isn’t on them. They don’t want to celebrate what happened to another because they think it should have happened to them.
- Sometimes the most mature Christians struggle with arrogance and become so proud of being “mature” that they are no longer teachable.
We must be on guard that we not think more highly of ourselves than we should. The Bible tells us that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Arrogance makes us feel self-sufficient. It causes us to trust ourselves rather than the Lord. It makes the Christian community competitive rather than a family.
THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN SELF-ESTEEM
There is another extreme in the Christian community. There are those who believe they have nothing to offer and that they hold no value. Even though they may recognize Jesus as the Savior they still feel like they are nothing . . . even in God’s eyes.
Paul is not telling us that we should despise ourselves or that we are worthless. He says we need to see ourselves honestly and accurately. A Christian should have a healthy self-esteem. Christian self esteem is thinking of ourselves clearly and accurately. There are at least three principles we must keep in mind.
First, we must recognize that every one of us has been created in the image of God. What happens in our society is that we usually determine a person’s worth based on their functionality. In other words, we believe a person’s value is based on what they can contribute and do. We need to view people in terms of their intrinsic worth. One author illustrated this concept exceptionally well.
Let’s consider two people. John is thirty-five. He is a researcher for a major chemical firm and is financially secure. He is happily married and has two wonderful children. As a church elder, he ministers extensively. He is a success by most standards.
Linda is also thirty-five. But she is deformed from birth, her arms and legs misshapen and nonfunctional. She is also blind, deaf, and mute. Her intellectual ability ranks her far below average. Her parents, who are divorced, never visit her. She is often sick for months. Until she dies, Linda will remain in a hospital as an unloved financial burden on society.
What is John’s functional worth as compared with Linda’s? John has great functional worth to his society, his family, his church, and himself, while Linda has little to contribute. If John bases his love for himself on what he does, then he has good reason to love himself. Linda, however, will detest herself if she evaluates only her performance.
But John and Linda are more than their actions. They share the same intrinsic nature and value to God. . . God values each individual as a person created in his image.
The point of the illustration is that our value comes from the fact that we bear the image of God. In all of creation this one fact makes us special and unique. We must never use our differences in function to determine our intrinsic worth!
Some people have convinced themselves that they are worthless because they believe they have nothing to offer.
- The teenager who is rejected by his friends
- The older person who can no longer serve as they used to serve
- The sick person who is dependent on others to care for them
- The child who feels invisible to the world around them
- The person who feels friendless because of a divorce
- The individual who feels like they are a cancer because of their legal problems
- The person who is battling some kind of substance abuse
- The person who has made bad choices and now feels everyone has turned away from them.
These people often feel they have no value. They are drawing their value from what others say about them. Our job is to draw our value from what God says about us! Friend, you are a masterpiece created by the Master Artist. Some of us are traditional works of art, others are more (let’s say) “abstract”. However, we are ALL masterpieces. You are created in His image and that makes you special. You are loved whether other people seem to realize it or not.
Jesus went to the cross because God loved you. God sent His son to die so that you could be cherished for eternity. You are valuable because God has declared you valuable.
Second, our self esteem must always be tempered by the awareness of our own sinfulness. As good as we feel about the fact that we are loved by God, we must never forget the weakness of our nature. We are treasures who are prone to fail. We must remember that our salvation and our position before God is a result of His grace rather than a reward for our merit. We have nothing in which to boast. Everything we have comes from Him!
We need to remember this for three reasons,
- It’s true and we need to see ourselves clearly
- It will keep us from giving up when we fall. If we forget our nature we can be devastated when we sin. If we remember that we are sinners, we will cling more fervently to the Lord and we will get back up when we fall.
- We will stop looking down our noses at those who struggle because we will remember that the one who struggles could just as easily be me.
Third, Christian self-esteem embraces our position in the body of Christ. Paul tells us that we are think with sober judgment just as God has given to each of us “a measure of faith”. It is an odd phrase but I think the context helps us understand. Paul is saying that we should realize that our various positions of service, and our skills and ministries, are all things that have been given to us by God. It is a privilege to serve Him in ANY capacity.
Rather than grumble that we are not serving in leadership, we rejoice that we can serve God in secret and in the shadows. We recognize that we are not serving for earthly reward but for heaven reward. Each of us is called to do what we can do. And if we do what we can do, God is pleased.
In Max Lucado’s book TRAVELING LIGHT (p. 75) he gives seven suggestions for living with the sober judgment that God desires. They are so good that I want to share his points with my comments on each of them.
1. Assess yourself honestly. True humility is not a matter of putting yourself down. It’s not saying, “I’m no good” at something you ARE good at. It is seeing yourself truthfully. It is recognizing your strengths and your weaknesses. The humble person is able to say, “I can do that!” and also say, “this is not something I am good at”.
2. Don’t take success or yourself too seriously. Learn to laugh at your own weaknesses. In the times of success, rejoice; also remember that there will be times of failure. When you taste fame, remember that it is fleeting.
3. Celebrate the significance of others. Columnist Rick Reilly gave this advice to rookie professional athletes: “Stop thumping your chest. The line blocked, the quarterback threw you a perfect spiral while getting his head knocked off, and the good receiver blew the double coverage. Get over yourself.”1 Everything we do is successful because other people have been faithful at what they do. I can preach a good sermon, but it is dependent on those who have written and studied well before me; it is dependent on those who have provided me time to write and prepare; it requires a willing congregation. So, it is always a good idea to cheer for others. Joyfully rejoice with others who experience success. Point out those who work behind the scenes. Be attentive to those who work in the shadows.
4. Don’t demand your own parking place. Max writes, “Demanding respect is like chasing a butterfly. Chase it, and you’ll never catch it. Sit still, and it may light on your shoulder.” Too many people insist that they be respected because of their title or position. While it is true that we are to respect those in authority over us, it is also true that respect and honor are things that must be earned.
5. Never announce your success before it occurs. In the 2004 baseball playoffs the Boston Red Sox found themselves once again down 3 games to 0 against the Yankees. There were many in New York who celebrated another Yankee trip to the World Series. There may have even been Yankees who believed things were “well under control”. As you know the Red Sox won the next four game to defeat the Yankees and to go on to the World Series where they beat the heavily favored Cardinals. You can’t celebrate until the work is finished. C.H. Spurgeon had a student who went up into the pulpit with an arrogant attitude and then failed miserably. He came down humbles and broken. Spurgeon said to him, “If you had gone into the pulpit the way you came out, you may have been able to come out the way you went in.” As believers we must always keep in mind that our work will not be totally finished until we stand before the Lord in Heaven. We cannot say that we have been successful in the Christian life until we have FINISHED the course and kept the faith.
6. Speak humbly. There is no reason to be cocky. We should let our words be few. In Proverbs 27:2 Solomon advises, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.” When you are tempted to “blow your own horn”, resist.
7. Live at the foot of the cross. Paul said, “The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is my only reason for bragging” (Gal. 6:14). We must constant remind ourselves that who we are and where we stand is not the result of our greatness….it is the result of His grace. If we continually remember His mercy, humility will be easier to find.
Max Lucado has a great conclusion, “Do you feel a need for affirmation? Does your self-esteem need attention? You don’t need to drop names or show off. You need only pause at the base of the cross and be reminded of this: The maker of the stars would rather die for you than live without you. And that is a fact. So if you need to brag, brag about that.”
Good words. My hope is that you will be humble in your service, confident in your value, and determined to focus the spotlight not on you . . .but on the one who saved you by His magnificent grace.