I was first given Andrew Murray’s Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness while I was serving on a ministry team at a rather large church. It was a gift to each member on our team from our director – a really thoughtful one at that. Yet, this gift came at a time in my life where pride was my greatest quality trait. In fact, while I was thankful to receive a gift from our ministry director, I thought myself above reading this small, short book. After all, I didn’t need to read the same book that everyone else would read – I’m above that. I needed to read more challenging things – you know – more books that were actually worthy of my caliber. So, I set the book on my shelf and neglected it…until now.
In case you were wondering, that paragraph is laced with delicious irony, and you are meant to chuckle at me.
You see, I have a certain problem with desiring to be the “best.” When I was in high school, I was really into music – which meant that I absolutely needed to be the “best” musician that I knew. When I was in college, I was actively involved in martial arts – which meant I needed to be “better” than everyone that I knew. When I became a Christian and realized I love theology and religious thought, I needed to be the “best” and “smartest” Christian I knew – able to outsmart anyone I knew and “beat” people in debates that I started. All because I needed to be the “best.”
Some years ago, Pastor Timothy Keller gave a series of lectures at Gordon-Conwell called “Preaching to the Heart.” In one of these lectures, he tells the story of a football player whom he knew in college. This guy was the all-star football player on campus, and was known for being able to sleep around with any woman that he desired. By college standards, he was the “best” on campus. So it was a great shock to Keller and his friends in college when this individual converted to Christianity. Yet, what they soon came to find out was that the football player – while he now conformed to Christian morality – was still obsessed with being the all-star. He had to be the “best Christian” and the boss of everyone in the college ministry. He simply traded one idol for another.
For a long time, I was exactly like this football player. I traded one idol – the desire to be the best at my various hobbies – for another. Needless to say, this didn’t work out so well when I decided to enter into a path towards vocational ministry. What I thought I would be the “best” at, God had completely different plans for. He knew this would be the time when he would break me and teach me some of the biggest lessons that I’ve needed to learn.
Andrew Murray describes humility conceptually in this way, “When we realize that humility is something infinitely deeper than contrition, and accept it as our participation in the life of Jesus, we will begin to learn that it is our true nobility, and that to prove it in being servants of all is the highest fulfillment of our destiny as men created in the image of God.” He goes on to describe how pride is the most insidious and natural thing to our own human nature – it is the very presence of pride that made the act of redemption necessary.
Humility has never been one of my strongest attributes. When I became a Christian, theology became a means to be better than others and win at intellectual ascent. I had no desire to care for or minister to other people – if I had any concept of such things, it was only in the manner by which I could prove to them that they were wrong. Murray describes my particular form of pride perfectly when he says, “Let us consider how our lack of love, indifference to the needs, and feelings of others, even sharp comments and hasty judgements that are often excused as being honest and straightforward, are thwarting the effect of the influence of the Holy Spirit on others. Manifestations of temper and touchiness and irritation, feelings of bitterness and estrangement, have their root in nothing but pride. Pride creeps in almost everywhere, and the assemblies of saints are no exception.”
You see, the community of saints are no exemption to the insidious nature of pride. In fact, pride is probably our biggest blindspot as the church. How often do we genuinely pray for a real Christ-like humility? How often do we run from the very means by which God intends to humble us? Murray says it this way, “Many Christians fear and flee and seek deliverance from all that would humble them. At times they may pray for humility, but in their heart of hearts they pray even more to be kept from the things that would bring them to that place. They have not reached the level of seeing humility as a manifestation of the beauty of the Lamb of God.” He goes on to diagnose the problem, “Why is it that those who have joyfully given themselves up for Christ find it so hard to give themselves up for fellow Christians? It seems that the church has failed to teach its people the importance of humility – that it is the first of the virtues, the best of all the graces and powers of the Spirit. It has failed to show that a Christlike humility is what is needed and is also in the realm of possibility.”
I am grateful that the Lord has seen fit not to exempt me from his discipline (Hebrews 12). As a good and loving Father does, he has chosen the correct form of discipline to begin rooting out my otherwise unconquerable pride. For the sake of my humility, the Lord has placed several trials and afflictions in my life over the last few years. For the sake of my union with Christ, the Lord has often chosen times of severe mental anguish, anxiety and even depression to teach me some small aspect of what it means to be humble.
Were it not for Christ’s intervention in my life, I would likely be headed down a much different and darker path. Murray describes what could very easily become my future when he writes, “We find professors and ministers, evangelists and Christian workers, missionaries and teachers, in whom the gifts of the Spirit are many and manifest, and who are the channels of blessing to multitudes, but of whom, when tested, or close interpersonal relationships reveal their true characters, it is only too evident that the grace of humility, as an abiding characteristic, is rarely to be seen.”
So how do we begin to pursue genuine Christian humility? Simply put, it is coming to understand that Christ’s humility “became our salvation. His salvation is our humility.” We must understand what it means to truly press in to our union with Christ in both his sufferings and afflictions, his compassion for others, and most of all his desire to exalt the Father in all that he did. Murray writes, “It is only in the possession of God that I lose myself. As it is in the height and breadth and glory of the sunshine that the smallest speck dancing in its beams is seen, even so humility is taking our place in God’s presence to be nothing but a speck dancing in the sunlight of His love.”
Oh Lord, I ask that you would have mercy upon me, a sinner. I pray that you would see it fit to discipline me in the ways I need discipline, humble me even if it comes at the greatest cost to me. For in humility, your Son was spared no cost for my sake. Teach me and guide me in the ways of humility – the path to true holiness. Forgive me for my pride, my lack of empathy, and the ways in which I have forsaken the identity of Christian for my own vain glory. Exalt your name in my life not because of me, but in spite of me.
My wife and I had an unexpected visit from a saint last night.
Ever since we moved into our house, our kitchen sink has been getting more and more clogged until it finally stopped draining at all last night. For the first time – but certainly not the last – we called a plumber to our house to come help us fix this clog that was embedded somewhere deep in our pipes. Our new friend Young came to help us.
As it turns out, Young lives in the condo’s right behind our new house. This gave us a great place to start our conversation. Young is a middle aged man who served in the Korean army, but has now been a plumber for eighteen years. He is married with four young kids.
As our conversation progressed, I began to ask him about his pastor and church. Young began to tell me what it was like for him to go to just one of the many Korean churches that populate our small suburban sliver called Centreville. In this area, Korean churches are like 7-11’s in most other cities – there is one on every corner. Young told me about how that was so hard for the Korean community because there are so many churches and none of them seem to want to work together. He described how every young Korean seminary graduate wants to come and plant the new “next big thing” in the Korean community, rather than build up churches there that already exist.
He continued to tell me how this creates a culture in the Korean community where each pastor becomes a salesman for their own church. He described one scenario of a young, fresh seminary graduate who was starting a new church showing up on his doorstep and handing out his business card.
“I don’t want your business card,” said Young. “But tell me, where did you graduate from school?”
Instantly the young seminary graduate lit up and got excited to tell Young about his educational credentials. He gloated in his prestigious degree from Westminster California, and how he previously had a degree from MIT. This green pastor was very proud.
By this point, Young knew who this man was. Before him was another young, prideful wanna-be pastor who didn’t understand the Church and was perfectly fine with stealing sheep from another flock to start his own thing. “Get out of my house and never come back,” he told the pastor. While blunt and possibly lacking in grace, that certainly got the point across.
Young left my house shortly thereafter. He never knew anything about my wife and I other than that we too were Christians who attend church regularly. He didn’t know that I have plans for vocational ministry, or that I am currently in seminary.
I tell this story for two reasons.
One, it is a clear example of how in the family of God we are all on the same footing. No one is better than any other or in a higher status. More knowledge or degrees do not qualify someone for always being the teacher instead of the student. The Church of Christ turns the categories of the world on its head! Only in the Church is it common to find a janitor teaching a lawyer, a school teacher instructing a doctor, or a stay-at-home mom counseling a CEO. I’m reminded of Colossians 3:16, where all believers are commanded to teach and admonish one another. It doesn’t matter what your profession is or how much money you make; you have something to give and teach to your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to share the comfort and knowledge God has shown us with others.
Secondly, this conversation really stuck out to me as one of those bright-eyed seminary students Young mentioned in his story. From personal experience, I’ve noticed that we seminary students tend to place a lot of weight on our seminary credentials and training. We take pleasure and pride in what we learn in all of our various classes. We think that we have something within ourselves to offer people. When this happens, we begin to place confidence in ourselves rather than in the cross of Christ. Our churches begin to look a lot more like our personalities, rather than looking a lot like Jesus.
I’ve said this before, and I need to repeat it to myself often: at the end of the day, nobody really cares how much we know, what school we graduated from, what degree we have, or what classes we’ve taken. People want to know what we can give and show them. And what do we have to give? What we possess does not come in the form of fancy theological terms, understandings of church fathers and tradition, or new emerging ideas on critical linguistic studies. It does not come in the form of “5 points in improving your marriage” or our latest thoughts and speculations on a certain text. It does not come from loud music, flashy lights or big buildings. All we have to offer people is a 33-year-old naked Jewish man hanging on a Roman cross. That’s it. If your theology and seminary education does not give people this Man then it is useless, vain speculation. Don’t waste anybody else’s time with it.
This message of a crucified, suffering Savior is utter foolishness to the world, but to those of us who are being saved we know that it is the power of God. We know that it is the only hope that we have. That dear friends, as a saint equipped to minister with the gospel (which we all are in Christ), is all we have to give to each other. Glory to the crucified King!
As the school year came to a close last year, I published a list of things that I had come to learn during my time in the introductory year of my studies. Following the pattern I’ve set for myself, here is another list from year two.
1. Being a Christ-like husband is infinitely more difficult than even the most strict and arduous of classes.
I was engaged for only a small portion of my first year. My professors often hit on the Biblical necessity for putting wives ahead of ministry and studies, for sacrificing yourself for your wife and striving to love her as Christ does the church. I naively thought this was easily doable and something I would excel at.
Enter marriage and seminary year two, where I discover that sacrificial and Christ-like love is far more than an idea in a Tim Keller book or a good exegetical preaching point from 1 Timothy. It’s hard. Really hard. Pride, envy and selfishness in marriage – sin – are a very real thing.
Despite its difficulty, marriage is so, so good. Through all of the struggles and tears God is growing both my wife and I to better understand the deep commitment that exists between Christ and his church. I am so thankful for my wife, her support, her patience and the gift of grace that marriage is which God uses to grow and sanctify us in our wilderness journey. I’d be twice the cynical and selfish goober that I am today if it wasn’t for her.
2. Nobody cares about my theology.
I don’t say this in a mean way, but at the end of the day – nobody else really cares about my theology other than my classmates and professors. Quotes from Augustine and Calvin don’t help anyone get through the struggles of life. There is hardly a person in my church who could give a lick about the theology of the Reformers and church Fathers, Greek nuances or eschatological differences. What people want and need – and this is a very good thing – is the grace of God through the sustained and faithful ministry of His Word to their souls. Grace, assurance, exhortation, the person and work of Christ and his gospel are the fruits of our labors; all of which are nourishment for our tired and weary souls. As it has been said, “Show them the Bread, not the bread factory.”
3. Nobody cares that I am in seminary.
Honestly, I think there was a time where I had a bit of an elitist mentality to seminary, as if it was somehow unique over other learning institutions. The truth is, its really not any different and it is incredibly dangerous to think anything different. Like every other masters degree programs, seminary requires hard work, sacrifice and dedication. The attendance of seminary is not something to boast in but something to be humbled by, something that creeps into the background of our lives as we instead seek to share what we have in common with our brothers and sisters – the riches of all that we share in our union with Christ.
4. Doubt and fear are paralyzing.
Theology is the remedy for doubt and fear; yet, knowing theology is not a vaccination for doubt and fear. Throughout my second year in seminary I faced many doubts and moments of paralyzing fear over my future, slowly and cripplingly putting me in a place where I forgot the promises and graces of God. It was only recently as I’ve been studying the book of Deuteronomy that my doubts and fears were cast out. I was struck by Moses’ attention to detail as he recalled the victories of the Israelites that were won because of the promise-keeping God that they served.
A remark by Pastor Ajith Fernando is what really shattered my paralyzing shell of fear and doubt. Commenting on Deuteronomy 1:28, he said this: “We must apply the implications of what we believe about God to every situation we face. Then we can conclude, ‘If God is God and I am obedient to him, he will see me through.’ That is the logic of faith. Believing God’s goodness, power and love for us helps us to be obedient.” I realized that this God of the Israelites is the same God we serve today, and I can rest assured in God’s promises and goodness to me not because of anything I do or my circumstances but because of who God is as a covenant and promise-keeping God. Truly, he is so good to us.
5. Adoption is the “height of our privilege as God’s people.” – John Frame
I can’t say enough of how much I love my church. The congregants, members, leaders and volunteers have all been such a blessing and gift of grace to me. I’d be nothing if it wasn’t for the way my brothers and sisters challenge me, sanctify me, pray for me, and love me. I am coming to really understand how, as John Calvin says, there is no sacrifice more pleasing to God that cultivating brotherly good-will. If any of you are reading this – thank you.
Out of the great 1980’s movie era came what is widely regarded as one of the most iconic films in movie history, The Karate Kid. In this film, the protagonist Daniel-San is perpetually bullied and beat up by the Karate students of the Cobra Kai dojo until the wise sage and Karate master Mr. Miyagi steps in and saves him. Eventually, Mr. Miyagi reluctantly agrees to teach Daniel-San Karate in order to beat the Cobra Kai bullies in a local Karate tournament.
Unbeknownst to Daniel-San, Mr. Miyagi begins teaching him Karate through regular household chores; waxing Miyagi’s car, painting his house and fence, and sanding his wooden deck. Of course without the end result in mind, to Daniel-San this is nothing more than being an errand boy in a feeble attempt to earn Mr. Miyagi’s time so he’ll teach him real Karate. This only lasts for four days, until finally Daniel-San has had enough with the chores and furiously decides its time to go home.
“Daniel-San!” exclaims Mr. Miyagi. “Come here!”
As a martial artist myself, I love what follows in this scene between these two characters. Mr. Miyagi begins to unfold what his plan has been all along. “Sand the floor” is not simply a technique Daniel-San learns to make a deck look nice, but to block kicks coming at his midsection. “Paint the fence” is not only the proper technique for exterior remodeling, but for blocking high and low punches as well. “Wax on, wax off” is another way of saying, “Use correct technique or you’re going to get punched in the face.”
Daniel-San finally gets it; he’d been learning Karate all along.
Sometimes I feel like my attempts at learning theology are much like Daniel-San’s approach to learning karate. I don’t want to know application and wisdom, I just want to know facts and answers. My pride gets in the way and turns theology into an intellectual pursuit rather than worship. It is all too easy for me to turn my studies of the Scriptures into an attempt to tear down other peoples philosophies and worldviews, completely neglecting the fact that I’m supposed to be drawing closer to the holy and loving God of the entire universe. In haste, I determine that people who aren’t teaching me enough facts aren’t teaching me enough “theology.” After all, in order to be the best around you have to know more than everyone else, right?
Take for example when I started my Islam class a couple years ago. I went into the class wanting a five-point systematic discourse on how to tear apart Muslim apologists. Instead, I learned that if I don’t actually love people, I have no business engaging in evangelistic dialogue – regardless of how much I know.
Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence, Ben-San.
When I first became a Christian and the majesties of God were opened to me, I bought every apologetic resource I could find hoping to prove to my friends why I was right and they were wrong. I had no conception that a right understanding of God should only lead me to a correct worship of God.
Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence, Ben-San.
I think about how often I go into a sermon on Sunday simply looking for new nuggets of information and knowledge, rather than a desire to draw near to the throne of grace through the preaching of God’s Word. Instead of setting myself at the foot of the cross, seeking to have the Word of God pierce my heart, I elevate myself to a place where I feel worthy of picking apart good or bad facts.
Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence, Ben-San.
After every one of these examples, I had a moment where I realized that my original desires weren’t for real theology, but something entirely different. Every time my knowledge and pride puffs me up, like a crane kick to the face I get knocked down and realize I don’t know real theology at all.
The truth is, more often then not I act like one of the antagonist students from Cobra Kai than I do a protege of Mr. Miyagi. My goal is to show no mercy, sweeping the leg of my opponents and humiliating them at whatever cost. Oh Lord, shape my study of you to lead towards praise of you! It has been said that a right theology leads to proper doxology. May my life be evidenced not by how much I know, but by the magnitude of the God I worship. He must increase, but I must decrease.
Being the best around isn’t about how much you know, but instead is defined by being united to a compassionate and loving God through the sacrifice of Christ, as evidenced by your kindness and goodness towards other people. Being the best around means realizing that Christ is Lord over all, and that I am the least of these worthy to be called one of his own.