Good morning. As we continue our Lentern series on ‘Giving Up’, I wonder if you have chosen to give up anything before? If so, why did you do so? What was the experience like for you and how did you benefit from it? Often when we think about Lent and giving up, most of us think about the more common external behaviours like fasting – the giving up of certain foods, the giving up of TV or Netflix, the giving up of social media, etc. Choosing to give up certain behaviours is not a bad thing. In fact, the discipline of doing so can help us become more aware of our addictive and numbing behaviours. Fasting or giving up can sometimes open up the way for us to examine ourselves, and our motivations or triggers more clearly.
I remember many years ago, I went on a 7-day fast. It was quite the “in” thing among my circle of friends and colleagues at that time. I was in Japan preparing for a project together with my team and some of us thought it might be a good idea to go on a fast as we pray for ourselves and for the project. We all did different variations of fasting and I personally felt led to do a 7-day fast — only juices and liquids for 7 days. That was the first and last time I did a 7-day fast. Not that it was horrible or anything. In fact, I quite enjoyed the experience and learnt some profound things about myself. The first three days were a little difficult as my body adjusted to not having any food. One interesting adjustment was suddenly realizing that I seemed to have so much more time on my hands. When I wasn’t preoccupied with buying groceries, preparing, cooking and eating my meals, I just had more time to pray, to observe, to read, to write. Of course, my days also felt more monotonous because there was less to look forward to during the day as I greatly enjoy going to the supermarket, planning meals, cooking and eating with my teammates. But I realized having that extra space and time helped deepen my self-reflection and I was able to notice better when God was speaking to me. From the fourth day, I felt like all my senses were very alert and I remember while praying one morning, God convicted me regarding my attitude towards one of my team members whom I didn’t really like. I could feel the rebuke cutting into my heart and it humbled me. I realized I had been blaming the other person for being difficult but I didn’t see the darkness of my own heart and what a prideful person I was. I realized at that moment that I had thought of myself as better than some other people, and that broke my heart. I took time to repent and asked God to renew my heart and my mind, and to give me grace and strength to love that team member. To be honest, it still wasn’t easy but I was a lot more intentional and caring in our interactions, and our relationship started to improve.
I share this experience with you not to extol the benefits of extreme fasting. Neither am I trying to make you think I’m “holy-moly” because I fasted. Afterall, that was the first and only time I did a fast like that. The reason why I didn’t do it again was because I realized we needed to be more careful when we do extreme fasts so I wouldn’t recommend doing something like that without extensive research and medical advice. But more importantly, I realized that the most significant thing about that fast wasn’t the absence of food but the presence of God. It was about decluttering, creating space and time for God in our lives so that we can be still, observe, listen, reflect and respond to how God is moving in and around us.
So as we think about giving up this morning, I didn’t want to talk to you about external behaviours. I wanted to talk to you about something more internal and insidious. Something that keeps all of us from creating that space for God in our lives. This morning, I wanted to talk with you about pride and bitterness. I decided to cover these two together because they are intrinsically linked to one another. Pride can often lead to bitterness when things don’t go the way we plan. Let’s take a look at pride first, okay? What is pride to you?
Pride is thinking that we can or must do everything on our own without God’s active grace or presence. Oswald Chambers says, “Pride is the sin of making “self” our god. And some of us today do this, not like the Pharisee, but like the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). For you to say, “Oh, I’m no saint,” is acceptable by human standards of pride, but it is unconscious blasphemy against God. You defy God to make you a saint, as if to say, “I am too weak and hopeless and outside the reach of the Cross of Christ.” Why aren’t you a saint? It is either that you do not want to be a saint, or that you do not believe that God can make you into one.”
So pride manifests itself in many ways. For some of us, it’s thinking we can’t rely on anyone but ourselves. If we want anything done right, we have to do it ourselves. For others, it’s thinking we’re not important enough for God to actually care about us. We say, “Why would God bother with someone like me?” or “I don’t really have many gifts so I can’t do much in ministry. I’m just an ordinary churchgoer. Leave the important stuff to those with the gifts and calling.” By human standards, these may sound almost humble, but as Oswald Chambers says, it is “unconscious blasphemy against God.” Why?
Let’s turn to Romans 12 and today, we’ll be starting from the middle of the chapter and we’ll work backwards to the beginning. Then we will work our way to the end. Why is it “unconscious blasphemy” when we say, “Why would God bother with someone like me? I don’t have many gifts so I’ll just be a regular churchgoer”? Because Paul tells us something very different in Romans 12:4-8.
Romans 12:4-8 (NLT)
4 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.
6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.
In God’s grace, God has given each of us different gifts for doing certain things well. This is not just for our own sake but for the sake of the body of Christ, where we all belong to each other. So we owe it not only to God, but to each other to exercise our gifts fully and live out our calling as deeply as we can. When we think we are nothing special or we have nothing special to offer, that is “unconscious blasphemy”. Not only that, the entire book of Romans leading up to chapter 12 explains very carefully how because of the grace of God in our lives, our status has changed from foe to friend, sinner to saint, condemned to free. When we take all that God has done for us lightly…when we think we can or must do everything on our own without God’s active grace and presence, that is pride rearing its head in some way.
Pride is quite isidious because it’s not just about arrogance or showing off. That’s the obvious stuff. We are more complex than that. What I’m asking us to reflect about today is our attitudes and beliefs regarding who God is and who we are next to God. People often think of humility as having a lowly concept of oneself. But that is an incomplete definition. How would you describe a truly humble person? Is it someone who constantly puts themselves down and thinks lowly of themselves? No. If we move up the chapter of Romans 12 and look at verse 3, we will see:
3 Because of the privilege and authority[c] God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.
Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. What does that mean? Various thinkers and theologians have shed light on the issue of humility based on this verse:
“True humility is not an abject, groveling, self-despising spirit; it is but a right estimate of ourselves as God sees us.” – Tryon Edwards
“Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” – C. J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness
“One of the best quotes about humility I’ve heard recently came from Tim Keller who was paraphrasing C.S. Lewis. He said, “If you met a truly humble person, you wouldn’t think him/her humble, but happy and incredibly interested in you.” Humility is not exhibitionist self-deprecation. The only difference between self-obsessed people who put themselves down and self-obsessed people who build themselves up is the strategy they use for making themselves the center of attention. Truly humble people express their humility by not needing to say anything about it. Truly humble people are other-focused instead of self-focused. They self-deprecate only as a means of showing solidarity with others if the situation calls for it. They don’t need to be known either for their accomplishments or their failures; they simply want to avoid harming others with their self-preoccupation.
There are many Christians today like me who make ourselves miserable and unpleasant to others with our self-hatred, thinking that it’s somehow pleasing to God. God doesn’t want us to hate ourselves. God wants us to love ourselves enough that we stop thinking about ourselves all the time. God doesn’t get any pleasure from seeing us beat ourselves up. God wants us to feel safe and confident enough in his love that we can face our sins and repent of them without any melodramatic self-flagellation.” – Morgan Guyton
“A vision of God secures humility. Seeing God for who God is enables us to see ourselves for what we are. This makes us bold, for we see clearly what great good and evil are at issue, and we see that it is not up to us to accomplish it, but up to God–who is more than able. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (I Peter 5:5). Remember, “grace” means that God is acting in their lives. So the humble are dependent upon God, not on themselves. We do the very best we know, we work hard, and even self-sacrificially. But we do not carry the load, and our ego is not involved in any way with the mission and the ministry. Everything comes down to actually loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to making foremost in our plans those activities that will meet the active grace of God to let that love be our life.” – Dallas Willard
I just want to pause here for us to reflect on what humilty means to you. In what way has humility been real in your life? Or perhaps humility has been a distant reality in your life right now because for some reason, God has felt distant for some time? And I wonder if that is something you want to change? If I were to sum up the wisdom of Romans 12:3, I would say:
Humility is having an accurate measure and perspective of ourselves in light of who God is — not so high that we think we are above God’s ways; not so low that we think we are beyond God’s reach. Godly humility begins when we start to see ourselves as we really are – that we are both sinner and saint, purely because of God’s grace. We become truly humble when we start to see ourselves as God sees us.
The question is how do you see God? For some of us, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, maybe we view God with some suspicion. Perhaps you’ve experienced challenges with health, work, relationships, family, grief or loss and you wonder, “If God really cares about me, then why did all these bad things happen to me? Maybe it’s better that I just look out for myself.” It’s understandable that we sometimes think like that because we’re afraid of being let down. We think God is going to disappoint us, so we try to pre-empt the disappointment by thinking we must do everything for ourselves without God’s active grace and presence. And I admit it’s tough to trust when things are not going well. As human beings, we all waver at times. We worry, we get upset, we become bitter and resentful. Timothy Keller has a great quote that defines this situation quite well:
“Worry is not believing God will get it right, and bitternesss is believing God got it wrong.” –Timothy Keller
So where are you in your life right now? Have you allowed bitterness to creep in? Do you believe God got it wrong somewhere along the way? I know life can get difficult. I’ve had my fair share of struggles. That’s why I find a lot of comfort in the prayer that we read together earlier in the service:
“God, you are the sea…you remain the same. Out of your love I came to life, by your love I am sustained, and to your love I am always called back. There are days of sadness and days of joy, there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude, there are moments of failure and moments of success, but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love…let me know there is ebb and flow but the sea remains the sea.” – Henri Nouwen
If this is something that resonates with you, if you trust that by God’s love you are sustained and to God’s love you are always called back, then I urge you as Paul does in Romans 12:1-2:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
God’s will for you is good, pleasing and perfect. The question is would you let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think? It is significant that the first aspect of a renewed mind that Paul mentions is humility — having an accurate measure and perspective of ourselves in light of who God is. In the Greek text, Paul uses the verb “to think” or a compound of it four times. This shows us that humility (or pride) is a matter of how we think before God. We need to learn what humility before God is before we can truly be humble with others. When we get our perspective of ourselves right, that is when we can truly love others. That is when we understand we belong to each other in the body of Christ. We owe God and each other a debt of love. That’s why Paul says in Romans 12:9-13, 21:
Romans 12:9-13, 21
9 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection,[e] and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.[f] 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.
21 Do not be overcome and conquered by evil, but overcome evil with good. (AMP)
It is important that we get our perspective of ouselves right because pride is at the root of all relational conflicts. So how do we get our perspective of ourselves right? How do we continue to see ourselves as God sees us? Not just today but tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I believe the only way we can continually see God for who God is, and to see ourselves as God sees us is to first cultivate stillness. In the hustle and bustle of our lives, we need to pause, be still and create space in our lives to know God. That’s why in Psalm 46:10, God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” That is where everything begins. The meaning of “know” in Psalm 46:10 has various dimensions of meaning in Hebrew. It can mean “be sure, perceive, investigate, take hold of, acknowledge, understand”. The words “be still” can also be translated as “cease striving” or “stop striving”. This doesn’t just refer to physical striving. I think the place we truly need to stop striving is in our heads. Can you guess how many thoughts go through our mind everyday? Researchers say we have between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. That means each of us has an average of 35-48 thoughts per minute. With so many thoughts flowing in and out of our mind all the time, can you imagine how hard it is for us to still our minds? That verse sounds like a simple phrase: Be still and know that I am God. But in reality, it is so hard to practise.
So what helps you to cease striving in your minds? What do you do that helps you still your thoughts so you can hear God? What are some spiritual practices that have been helpful to you to be still, so you can have a deeper understanding of who God is and who you are in light of who God is? We are all different but personally, a few ways that I have found helpful to me are:
Taking quiet walks in nature where I can just focus on what’s around me. My eyes take in the lush colors of green and blue before me. My ears tune into the various sounds that different birds make as the wind gently rustles through the leaves. My skin feels the cool air and the rays of the dawning or setting sun. I see sunlight streaming through the trees and I am reminded of who God is and how small yet loved I am by this great God.
Deepening my awareness by journaling my thoughts and reflections. Sometimes I attach a devotion or article that I found particularly helpful and I write down the reflections and prayers that come along.
Praying and meditating regularly because I have found it to be the best way to observe my own life, thoughts, feelings and reactions. Meditation is something I’m still learning to practise regularly, but I create space in my day to be still so I can respond rather than react. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” -Viktor Frankl
I have found that when I create space to be still before God, it humbles me to know how small yet loved I am. Humility naturally gives way to gratitude. I start to notice what I have and I give thanks more. Have you found that to be true in your own life? Humility leads to Gratitude, which in turn leads us to Joy. Like what I shared at Session 2 of Wholeheartedly, research has shown that ancient wisdom was right afterall:
“It’s not joy that makes us grateful;
It’s gratitude that makes us joyful.”
Paul understood the connection even way back during biblical times:
“Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
So if you want to be joyful regardless of what you may be going through, one way is through humility to gratitude to joy. But first we need to still our hearts and minds. Know God for who God is…see and understand yourself through God’s eyes. Then give thanks.
There are many things we can choose to give up during this period of Lent. But if there was anything I could wish for you not just for this period of Lent but throughout your lives, I would pray that you would give up depending on yourself, and embrace yourself as God sees you with humility and gratitude because you are a being made by love, to love and be loved wholeheartedly. I pray for you as Nouwen says:
“But when we lift our cup to life, we must dare to say: “I am grateful for all that has happened to me and led me to this moment. This gratitude which embraces all of our past is what makes our life a true gift for others, because this gratitude erases bitterness, resentments, regret, and revenge as well as all jealousies and rivalries. It transforms our past into a fruitful gift for the future, and makes our life, all of it, into a life that gives life.” – Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink The Cup?
May your life become a life that gives life. Amen.