Practicing Humility, Humor, and Grace
I’ve never understood the appeal of that song. Did you catch the lyrics? Can you imagine meeting people that actually lived this way? They would probably be so full of themselves, so pushy, so proud and unreasonable that it would be miserable to be around them. I doubt that very many people would be so honest as to admit that this song represents their mission in life. They may live like it, but I don’t think most people would state it so blatantly. “Hey, I do it my way!” I would bet that everyone here can think of a “It’s my way of the highway” kind of person that they are certain will one day end up like the lady in the drama: a boss, a neighbor, and in-law. But we certainly don’t honor people for being like this because there is an unwritten assumption that people of character will have at least a smattering of humility and grace somewhere in their lives.
I’m sure this is why we want our celebrities of all sorts, athletes, entertainers… the whole lot, to be down to earth people that don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. And why we relish the downfall of those who don’t seem to have a drop of humility in their blood. Who among us worries about Paris Hilton’s troubles? Almost everyone pays lip service to humility, grace, and the ability to laugh at ourselves as being good qualities. But the problem is that while most people do ascend to these virtues of humility and grace it seems that “My Way” is fast becoming a 21stCentury American theme song. I don’t know if it is just me, but the worlds of business and sports and social life all just feel like they are becoming more demanding and rough and self-absorbed. I could be wrong… things could just be like they have always been… but it just seems to me that we are becoming more and more self absorbed.
As most of you know we are in the middle of a series we’re calling ‘Riffs on a Sustainable Life.” And from the very first moment that we started thinking about this series I knew that I, like many of you, would be doing a lot of soul searching. In some ways I was thankful that my first topic in this series had to do with the things I’ve been talking about: how Humility, Grace and Humor are important ‘riffs’, as we are saying, in a sustainable life. Now, at first I thought that all I would need to do was talk about how much nicer the world would be if we all were a bit more humble and kind and willing to laugh at ourselves and that would be that. You see, I also knew that by this point in the series you’d have been given plenty of practical suggestions for altering your schedule and re-prioritizing your life. So, I was thinking that maybe a break from the practical might be nice. We could all agree that being humble and gracious and humorous are good things and simply move on to next week! But, no such luck. You see, the more I looked into what God means when HE says we are to be humble and graciousness the more I realized that this is a really serious and practical subject, a subject that God must take seriously because the Bible is chocked full of verses that talk about the importance of being humble and gracious:
Here are just a few examples:
Proverbs 3:34: The Lord mocks proud mockers, but he gives grace to the Humble.
Ps. 25:8-9: Good and upright is the Lord, therefore he instructs sinners in his ways; he guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his ways.
Is. 66:2: “This is the one I esteem,” says the Lord. “He who is humble and contrite in spirit…”
I Corinthians 13: 4: In a classic definition of a humble gracious person wells us how we should treat those we love, “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered and it keeps no records of wrong.” If that isn’t humility and graciousness, I don’t know what is!
And then today’s passage Eph.4:1-3. As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Something that I was really surprised to learn about this passage is that at the time the Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Christians living in Ephesus much of what he said would have been thought of as either radical or ridiculous. Humility was about as far from being a virtue in the Greco-Roman AND the Jewish world as was possible. The Greek word that we translate as humble or humility is tapeinos and this word didn’t mean what we think of when we think of humility: we tend to think of humility as not taking ourselves too seriously or not being a braggart. But then it was a much more caustic term: it meant to be lowly, weak, meek, and insignificant. It was a word that described someone who was trivial. Tapeinos was originally a noun that described the stars at the edge of the horizon: the stars no one ever looks at. And get this…to be humble was considered a vice and to be humbled was a disaster. So much so, that people that acted in any sort of humble manner were suspect… folks figured that if you were acting humbly, you were up to something. NOT being proud was considered unnatural. Listen to this quote from Plutarch written just about the same time as Paul wrote to the Ephesians. “One should only humble oneself before God. Humility is both vain and irrational. Fate may afflict a man with sickness, take away his goods, kindle hatred of a person or make him a tyrant but it cannot make him bad, fearful, ignoble envious or humble.” In other words, no matter what life might throw at you, if you were a person of 1st Century virtue, someone of deep character, then you’d never allow yourself to be humble. You would always stand up for yourself and your rights. And yet here is God, through Paul, calling on his people to humble themselves!
And being gracious? For us being graciousness is a very fluid word; it’s being polite; it’s being patient; it’s being forgiving; and in fact, the next three qualities that Paul mentions here in Ephesians 3, gentleness, patience and forbearance, would constitute a good definition of what we mean when we say someone is gracious. But in Paul’s world being gracious meant something very specific. For them it meant doing something for someone you weren’t obliged in any way to do; it meant giving someone something they didn’t deserve. It meant condescending to someone and being kind to them. You could only be gracious toward someone below you on the social ladder. Can you see from this definition that you had to be careful about showing grace? The last thing you would want to do was cavalierly be kind to someone beneath you and then have them thinking you might be a pushover. Being gracious wasn’t a necessarily considered a virtue; it was a tool of the powerful.
And as far as having the ability to laugh at yourself, in the first century the concept didn’t even exist; there was no such thing as ‘laughing with you;’ it was all ‘laughing at you.’ And allowing someone to ‘laugh at you’ was considered great shame, the kind of shame that often led to terrible cycles of retribution. So, you can see how unthinkable Paul’s words would have sounded to the Ephesians the first time they heard, “Be completely humble…” “What?” “Be gentle...” “What for?” “Be patient...” “Why?”
Now I may be overstating this a bit but I don’t think by too much. Paul making virtues out of humility and grace would have been a shock to many. Of course, for us, Paul’s words don’t shock us especially when we line them up against what we think of their opposites:
Paul calls us to Humility and the opposite of humility is Pride and self absorption. The opposite of being humble is having an overblown opinion of our own self worth… and we know how bad that is.
Paul calls us to a Graciousness characterized by gentleness, patience and forbearance. The opposite of being gracious is Self centeredness, it’s being demanding and condescending. It’s treating people as if they have no value… and we know how bad that is.
And while there isn’t any mention of being able to laugh at ourselves here in the passage we probably all understand that the opposite of seeing humor in our own lives is continual self protection… and we know how bad that is.
The differences are obvious. But, if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that the only real difference between the ancient world and our world is that while people have always lived proud, self-centered, self-protective lives, we just don’t have the nerve to call these things virtuous.
I think that first time I realized that I had this kind of a tendency in my own life was when I was twelve. It was the end of the baseball season and it came time to pick the two members of my team that would represent us on the All-Star team. I knew that I was one of the best two players on our team and I deserved to be an All-Star. And I was going to do what I could to make sure that I got chosen. Granted, there wasn’t a whole lot that I could do, but one thing I could do, which was way outside of bounds for the etiquette of 12 year old baseball players, was vote for myself. I’d have to keep it quiet and act like I’d voted for someone else if asked but at least that way I would know I had one more vote than I would if I didn’t vote for myself. Well, we voted by writing out our choices on little slips of paper and we stood in a circle waiting for the results. Soon, the team captain said, the votes were in and that I was one of the members of the All-Star team. And then he said, “Everyone voted for you, Tim, but you.” Then one kid in the circle said, “I didn’t vote for him!” And you could have heard a pin drop as everyone stood there looking at me. I’d committed the greatest of sins; I’d voted for myself. How cocky did I think I was? I remember the Circle breaking up and being left alone to walk to my car. The humiliation ruined the joy of being chosen by my peers and as an added benefit our All-Star team got destroyed in the All-Star game. That was a long time ago… fast forward to three years ago. I’m at a social ‘thing’ with people from my past. And there is a guy there that I haven’t seen since the eighth grade. And while some of us were making small talk, all of the sudden he say, “Hey, do you remember when you voted for yourself for the All-Star team? What were you thinking?” Forty years later and to him I’m still that same full-of-myself kid…
I know this story isn’t a tale about the revelation of a great character deficiency, but for me it has been very instructive… because of this experience I learned how badly things can go when I’m not thinking beyond my own desires; I learned to stop and think before I act out of selfishness; I also learned one good reason why God calls us to purposefully live gracious, humble lives. And it’s this: the energy it takes to live constantly working to make sure that in every circumstance, in every conversation, in every activity, in every interaction, that I am getting my due, that I am getting the respect I think I deserve, that I am getting to state my opinion, that I am letting everyone know just how smart and capable I am… the energy that it takes to do all of this is unsustainable. In fact, if my prime focus becomes making sure that I’m ‘doing it my way,’ I won’t have any energy left for anything else. And what’s worse is that I’ll take this self-centered focus into every situation: I’ll take it into my home and my family will suffer; I’ll take it to work and my co-workers will suffer; I’ll take it into restaurants and the waitress will suffer; I’ve often wondered, now that our children are grown and gone what our children’s teachers and coaches and umpires remember about me and my attitude.
And probably most disturbing is that this ‘my way’ attitude changes the nature of all of our relationships. A highly self-protective attitude creates an unnecessary dialogue in my own mind. I’m always asking myself, “What are they up to? What are they trying to deny me? Are they trying to keep me from getting the credit I deserve?” I’ve also found that living like this not only makes me suspicious of others, it makes me petty: I start worrying about insignificant things; I see conspiracies against me everywhere; everything becomes everyone else’s fault and I become really difficult to be around. And if that’s not bad enough, a proud, self-protective spirit will never, under any circumstances, lead to the kind of unity Paul talks about in verse 3 of Ephesians 4, where he says, “Live in humility and grace and make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This kind of unity, a unity that is predicated on peace between people, is the only kind of unity that can give us the strength to continue on; it is the only kind of unity that can bring about sustainability.
Now I know that some of you do not struggle with this “My Way” thinking. I know that a good number of you are humble and gracious and naturally find humor in your own foibles. And I’m so thankful for your example. We need you among us. I also realize that some of you are probably also thinking that while I might be right about a proud protective spirit robbing us of a lot of energy, it takes a lot of energy to be humble and gracious. You might even be thinking pride just happens naturally while humility is hard work. I understand this. But here’s the truth: they both take work: pride and humility; they both demand a great deal of inner energy and yet, if you think about it, they lead us to such different places. Pride leads us to questioning other’s intensions while humility allows us to celebrate other’s accomplishments. Pride leads us into a constant battle for recognition and power; graciousness takes us to a place of unity where shared trust helps us sustain one another… one is a world of always being suspicious about what others are thinking about you; the other is a world of relationships based on mutual respect. Live one way and very few if any will want to be anywhere near you. Live the other and many people in your life will want do whatever it takes to stand with you. I’ve come to believe that all of our previous discussions about sustainability will be useless unless we’re working at living humble, gracious lives, because in the end sustainability isn’t about me getting what I want right up to the end; sustainability is about living well to be useful to others right up to the end. And God can only use us to be useful to others when our lives are centered on his concerns and when our lives reflect his son’s life.
There is a passage in the Bible that tells us exactly what God expects from us with regards to both his concerns and the life of his son. Let me read to you from Philippians 2. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!” The only life that is sustainable, the only life that can be lived well right up to the end, the only life that will have deep meaning is a life that is lived like this: not out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility, graciously considering others better than ourselves. And how do we do this practically? Well, what I’ve found is that this isn’t spiritual rocket science. It has to do with decisions of the will. For me it’s simply things like thinking before I speak; stepping back before I act out of anger or pride; corralling my thoughts before I let them get out of hand. It’s just these kinds of things really… it’s being faithful in prayer… asking God to renew my mind and to help keep me from being an idiot. It’s listening well; it’s looking for opportunities to encourage and support others; it’s considering others lives to be at least as valuable as mine… tough stuff, but well worth the energy it takes to accomplish.
Again, I know that this is all pretty obvious. But it is so difficult to live out. But we want to be a place where we can struggle well with pride and self-centeredness together… and so we thought it might be a good idea to look at passage of scripture together and take the time to write out some thoughts together.
The passage is Luke 14:7-14.
When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Luke 14:7-14
What words or thoughts jump out at you in this passage and why do you think this is so?
How do you respond when you don’t think you’re getting the respect or the credit you think you deserve?
What is your attitude towards people you perceive as being below you socially?
Which of your relationships are being affected by a proud, haughty spirit, whether it’s yours or someone else’s?
Is God calling you to some change in the focus of your life?