Christian wisdom and humility
(This is a more in-depth discussion of the “Pet Righteousness” article.)
One of the strongest desires people have is to feel good about themselves. This is fine if done in the right way (more on that in a minute) but it can easily become self-reliant pride. It’s amazing how much effort people put into this, but they usually do it in the wrong way. It comes from things like physical traits, job, friends, various possessions, abilities, etc. (“pride of life” 1 John 2:16). These simple categories encompass millions of things in the world that are designed to meet this desire; Marketing people thrive on exploiting it. However these things are not reliable so people often feel bad about themselves and are easily offended. It’s obvious when some people do it, like buying expensive sports cars or overdoing the latest fads; but all of us are tempted with them constantly in small and large ways and we can easily fall into this trap if not very careful.
For people who believe in God, this can happen with Christian things as well. The temptation to feel good about ourselves can come from things we’ve learned or good things we do-things that aren’t wrong in themselves at all. The perfect example is the Pharisee feeling good about things he’d done. Notice that the things he’s bragging about are not bad at all. The problem is that he’s proud of them. Also notice he’s focusing on himself and trusting in himself.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: … 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ … For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-12
There are many verses that condemn pride and self-reliance but you get the idea that it is bad.
So how are we supposed to feel good about ourselves then? Simply by coming to a full understanding of just how much God loves us. The love of God is absolutely amazing and totally enough to give us all the contentment we need. It’s all throughout the Bible as a prominent theme. When you take time to think of how amazing God is and how important you are to him, you’ll feel like gold, or a great ambassador, etc. But we will have to empty ourselves of all pride and stay focused on God for it to have an effect.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:17-19
Don’t take this lightly or for granted. It will take a long time to understand this so that it becomes part of your awareness. It takes effort. Really take some time to study these verses: Acts 17:24-28,John 3:16,John 16:26-27,Luke 12:6, 7, Rom 5:6-8, Rom 8:13-18, Rom 8:31-39,1 Cor 2:9, Eph 2:4-6, 1 John 3:1-3, 1 John 4:9-10, Acts 14:17, Titus 2:11-14, Matt 15:32-34, Gal 2:20, Eph 5:1, Eph 5:2 , 1 Th 1:4 , 2 Th 2:13.,2 Th 2:16-17, 1 John 4:16, Jude 1:1, Rom 1:7 Psalm 139:13 and many more. Reject all other means to feel good about yourself.
Right along with knowing God loves us, we also need to know He accepts us. Not only to feel good about ourselves but also to know we are doing what he wants so we can know we are going to heaven, which is another very strong desire most of us have. That’s why there are so many theories developed by various theologians and church groups of what God requires of us-some make it easy, some hard. We need to be super careful about following any of these theories but only get our truth from consistent searching of the scriptures for ourselves. Instead however, many people will follow one of the theories or even make up some idea of their own and follow that, choosing a particular theory depending on how much effort they want to put into this. One of the easy ways is to latch onto some kind of a “pet righteousness” – some little thing they choose to do to show their piety. They can be trivial and unobtrusive but enough to convince themselves (falsely) that they are okay. Another way is to align themselves with some kind of spiritual elite group. This gives a sense of pride and the assurance they’re going to heaven (unfortunately a false assurance). The only sure way is to sincerely seek the truth in the Bible as you ask God to lead you. He loves you and so he will. You just need to be careful not to fall into one of these false theories to cut off that process.
The Christian growth process is simply learning to stay humble and focused on Him while learning to do your part. You learn what works and what doesn’t by fruits in your life (Galatians 5). Humbly and consistently seeking God thru Bible study and prayer works. Gimmicks, hype, and showy things don’t. So the best picture of true Christian maturity is not like an Einstein or a Socrates (symbols of great personal thinking ability) but would be more like a broke horse, which has learned to be humble and submissive to his master, and therefore useful. As usual the Christian principle is opposite of the masses and what seems normal to the flesh.
More Detail on Spiritual Elitism and Pet Righteousness
As I mentioned briefly, for those who want to go to heaven but not be bothered by religion too much, it’s tempting to take a short cut from this growing process and just latch on to some small item for this feeling of security. I’ve heard stories about people living wicked lives but they have some little pet item they hang onto for that security blanket. For example, eating Fish on Friday (which is not wrong in itself, the point is that they do that alone to feel righteous). Other people might bump it up a little and volunteer once a year at a food bank or something. Or maybe once a week. The idea is that it is bypassing a humble seeking relationship with God and a constant state of obedience. Many times I believe there are other very serious areas that God would want to work on in them and which may very well be keeping them from heaven. But since they are not seeking Him like this, they never discover it, and really don’t want to.
There are all kinds of different ways people find this assurance of their salvation and they are from one extreme to the other. Many people in the Christian church now days go to great lengths to convince themselves and others that you only have to believe in God to go to heaven. How’s that for easy. Of course James totally refutes this, as do several other passages (see my article “Build on the Rock” for more). Other people go too far the other way and develop a very narrow set of beliefs from detailed interpretations of unclear passages and end up practicing spiritual elitism. The problems usually occur with unclear teachings in the Bible like this. If people would just stick to the clearly stated scriptures and obey those, they would be okay. God in His wisdom made the important things clear. We do need to be very careful to seek out the truth directly from scripture, and the truth is on a narrow road (Matthew 7:13, 14), so it’s good to be somewhat “narrow minded”, but thinking your particular group is the only one is a common sign of cults.
My family was personally involved in this since we were in the Worldwide Church of God, which really stressed various unique teachings to convince people they were the only true church. When the power-hungry leaders had a family squabble and a sincere Christian came to power, he stopped emphasizing these spiritual elite principles but affirmed that many other people were Christians too. It was really surprising that people started leaving the church in droves and it got in real financial trouble. Apparently the people really valued that elite feeling. Many found another church which had the same elitism mentality.
Dependence on God
So with those warnings, let’s go onto the truth – that narrow path. At the core is the need to be humble and dependent on God but to still do your part to live in obedience. If you watched my testimony on YouTube you saw how I learned about relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to live the obedient Christian life. Part of the victory is realizing that you can’t do it on your own; you desperately need the Holy Spirit living in you. And He’ll only work when you humbly rely on His help and not try to do it on your own. Of course that doesn’t mean you sit back and live idly. No, when he does the work inside you, you want to live for Him and obey Him, and you can with His help. It’s a great partnership. As Paul said, “For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.” Col 1:29. That’s why he learned to rejoice in his weakness and only boast of what God does.
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
See the article “Christian Victory” and the video for more information about relying on God’s power.
Spiritual Pride from true victory.
When God does work in us and give us victory over temptations and start to yield powerful fruits of the Spirit, then we will still need to be real careful not to develop a spiritual pride or self-reliance. If we do it’ll hinder his power in us again. As He works we will see changes for the better, but it’s so important to thank Him for that change and realize you’re victorious with His power. If we’re not careful even godly things we learn can give us pride. For example our stance on avoiding certain entertainments, modest apparel, or even how we are active in sharing the gospel. Unlike the previous things I’ve mentioned, these things are great. But we still need to maintain that humble demeanor. Let’s look at how Paul described himself (in present tense, not past):
1 Corinthians 15:8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (ESV)
Ephesians 3:8 Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
1 Timothy 1:15 This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Romans 7:18)
Now obviously Paul wasn’t a practicing sinner. He described in Romans chapter 8 how he overcame the flesh. But Romans chapter 7 and other verses show that he still knew at the heart he was a sinner and daily relied on the Holy Spirit to crucify the flesh. Ephesians 4:22 and Galatians 5:16-17 talk about this also. See the “Christian Victory” page for a detailed discussion on this.
So I just wanted to remind you to stay humble. There have been countless times when God was working on me and giving me victory on some area and I took note of how well I (emphasis on “I”) was doing and then fell. I can tell now God was working on me because I would always fall right after thinking that thought.
Let me give an example to help illustrate. Let’s say God is working on me and something happens that would usually make me angry – it always has (like being cut off in traffic). But I realize it doesn’t now days. Then I have two options before me. One, I can say, “Wow I’m becoming a more patient person. I must really be maturing.” And no matter how I try to hide it or cover over it with justification that we do mature over time, there’s pride there because the focus is on myself. And it cuts off the power of God and I fall (I’m speaking from much experience). The other option is “Wow, thank you God so much for working in me to have this victory. Please keep working on me and helping me.” (And it’s a true sincere thanks fully knowing it really was Him. Not just a lip service.)
Now with this 2nd option you can’t give a sigh of relief and say, “I’m done with this learning experience. I have this conquered. I can relax now.” No, you need to stay vigilant in seeking God’s help and constantly go to God in prayer (pray continually right? 1 Thess. 5:17) and depend on His strength. That may sound like more effort, but it keeps you close to God and that is the whole point of having a relationship with God? And I mentioned that we do mature. Well THIS IS the maturing process. To depend on God’s power to live righteously. Yes, you’ll develop all kinds of good fruits, but you’ll never be able to point to yourself – only God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 1 Corinthians 15:10
So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. Luke 17:10
5 For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:21)
Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:7)
This may be a pretty simple concept to most people. But I find myself having a hard time with it. So I thought I’d encourage you in it. So just keep your focus on God and not yourself and you’ll be better off. Always consider yourself a jar of clay that is valuable because God loves you and righteous and powerful because He is in you. Some people would go too far the other way and just think they are hopelessly wretched and not even try to be mature or righteous at all, and that is just as bad. But this article is written mainly to those who could fall into temptation the other way.
Appendix: Warning Flags
· Naturally, a lack of Bible study and prayer is a huge problem.
· Watch for particular practices or beliefs which you rely on to make yourself feel righteous or mature (vs. an ongoing seeking relationship with God).
· Be careful for getting your assurance of salvation from your church or those around you (who believe the same as you, and could also be incorrect).
· Fairly Significant efforts to make sure people like you (i.e. expensive fads)
· Wanting to impress people with your maturity. If this is because you desire to be an elder then that is a good thing but the process of becoming and elder would come from demonstrating good works done in humility (wisdom in action) not impressing people with your wisdom by words and mannerisms. Christianity is all about servanthood action anyway, especially for an elder.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. (James 3:13,ESV)
Appendix 2: Charles Spurgeon
Morning and Evening’s is the classic daily devotional from Charles H. Spurgeon. Here’s an excerpt from the evening devotional on April 5th.
God blesses us all up to the full measure and extremity of what it is safe for him to do. If you do not get a blessing, it is because it is not safe for you to have one. If our heavenly Father were to let your unhumbled spirit win a victory in his holy war, you would pilfer the crown for yourself, and meeting with a fresh enemy you would fall a victim; so that you are kept low for your own safety. When a man is sincerely humble, and never ventures to touch so much as a grain of the praise, there is scarcely any limit to what God will do for him. Humility makes us ready to be blessed by the God of all grace, and fits us to deal efficiently with our fellow men