This is the first of two or three posts about humility. But to keep the focus on humility as it is portrayed for disciples of Jesus in the Bible, I’ll avoid that word “humility,” since nowadays it normally represents something quite different. Instead, I say “Avoiding Heroics” because heroism is how we often think of being a disciple of Jesus. Being a “Christian” is perhaps something easier (at least for anyone living in a land of churches, as I certainly do), but “discipleship” sounds more serious. It sounds like something that might involve discipline, risk, and sacrifice, and so we can easily start thinking that the more I give up or engage in spiritual workouts the more I am engaging in “discipleship.” Sometimes we need a reminder that God’s grace can grant us some amount of “normal life.” Something like what we find in Ecclesiastes:
There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and find enjoyment in work. (Ecclesiastes 2:24; so also 3:12, 22; 5:18-19)
Another common theme in that odd Old Testament book cautions against wearing yourself out to get more money, which simply takes away from that same enjoyment of normal life (and you can’t take it with you anyway). The same thing is said about being religious or pious or educated — or, for that matter, about being stupid or evil:
Don’t be over-righteous or too wise: why kill yourself?
Don’t be overly wicked or a fool: why die young? (7:16-17)
Extremes take the living out of life and can, as some researchers have found out for us about repetitive rage, shorten life as well. All that can be taken together as reason number 1 for me not to be charmed by extremes in my understanding of discipleship.
Reason number 2 is the mismatch we often experience between planning and doing. Here, again, Ecclesiastes:
When you make a promise to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because he is displeased by fools. Do what you promise to do; it is better not to make a promise than to make one and not carry it out. (5:4-5)
Ask yourself: if I make this promise to God or myself or whomever and then fail to carry it out fully, will that set me back farther behind than I was to begin with? Better just to do today than to make promises about tomorrow. “Promises” may be too strong a word for it, but it seems that we as individuals can often encounter some sort of spiritual discipline or way of being better or improving behavior that looks good at the time, that calls forth a barely conscious resolution, and that is quickly violated or forgotten. Some people do better with this sort of thing, but the rest of us are left complaining about our lack of self-discipline.
Right after Paul calls on us to give ourselves to God as a sacrifice and to separate ourselves from thinking whose usefulness is limited to this age (Romans 12:1-2), he cautions us in a way that sounds like he might have realized the potential for disappointment that his lofty exhortation could set some of us up for. It’s hard to give any sort of faithful but understandable translation or paraphrase of the next verse, but the sense is clear: Shifting now from exhortation of the plural “you,” the congregation, to a singular consideration of each individual in himself or herself,
I call on each one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should, but to think in such a way as to be moderate, in accordance with how much faith God has given each of you. (Romans 12:3)
Sober self-assessment has a place alongside collective enthusiasm for being “a living sacrifice” to our God. It is not ideals or inspiration but faith that will carry me along any new path of consecration to the ways and work of Jesus. And not some pure and complete faith but the faith I really have, faulty or incomplete as it is. Hard as it may be, especially if self-knowledge is not a habit, I need to be realistic, to hold back from promises that that assessment of faith tells me I won’t fulfill or even remember.
The sort of disappointment any one of us can feel looking back on unsustained resolve is really a lie. It tells us wrong things about our relationship with God. It places that relationship on some other basis than God’s covenant of grace. It gives far too much importance to the promise and to our own consistency, which God knows we are lacking in.
So avoid heroics. Don’t beat yourself up.