When I was growing up there was a bookshelf in every room of the house. Literature, multiple encyclopedia sets, history books and biographies, old text books, my dad’s law books, and children’s books galore. My favorite ones were the old book with the painted canvas bindings. Once I moved past picture books and early readers, it seemed like the best books at home or the library were these old ones with the old fashioned binding.
One night I was perusing the titles of my parent’s books in the living room with a flashlight and I came upon an irresistible title pressed into light blue canvas. I thought, this is a winning combo. A great title and an old cover, it has to be good. The book was The Chance of a Lifetime by Grace Livingston Hill. I had never heard of her before, but I thought the winning combo was worth the risk.
At the time I was in my early teens, and aching for an opportunity to prove myself to the world. I thought if I could just have one chance to show what I’m made of, that’s all I thought I needed. Since no chance had come along, a story about a chance was very appealing indeed.
I have to admit, though the book was fine, it did not live up to the thrill of its title. I learned not all old books are necessarily great masterpieces. In other words I learned the lesson every lifelong reader eventually has to learn: you can’t judge a book by its cover.
In our fame obsessed culture, it seems like everyone, to some degree, is searching for that chance, that opportunity to be somebody. Even if we don’t end up famous, there is enough resources available to attain the micro-fame of being the best in town, or church, or our friend group. The best baker, the best cook, the best soloist in the choir, the best house on the block, etc. Something that makes it all worth it, to mean something to someone else.
It can be very difficult to reconcile this cultural dynamic with the repeated supplication of the bible to live humble lives. According to Strong’s, the word Humble and its various conjugations occurs 72 times in the bible. These fall into roughly 4 categories: 1) Warning, usually something along the lines of “humble yourself or God will humble you.” 2) Chastise, something like, “You didn’t humble yourself so this happened.” 3) Praise, or, “You did humble yourself so God will give you grace and restoration.” Lastly, 4) Plea, generally found in the Psalms. It sounds something like, “Don’t forget the humble and the promises you gave to them.”
Granted that is a major generalization of the topic of humility. It is a rich storyline throughout the entire bible. I could probably write a whole book about it, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to have done so. But for the purposes of this blog, a summary will suffice.
When you look at pop culture, being humble might as well mean the same as being a pushover. Humility means being a suck-up. And humiliation is something to be avoided at all costs. In all these scenarios being humble is not a good thing.
Yet, when you look at our general overview of being humble in the bible, it is a good thing. More than that, an excellent thing. In the bible being humble means inviting God in. To humble yourself before God is to put yourself into a direct route that leads to His salvation and restoration. Humility opens the door to the blessings and promises of God, to having His ear and His eye on you, to fellowship with Him.
Ok, that all sounds well and good, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to reconcile with the push of self-promotion and dominance when we’re out in the world. It looks like a battle of wills that “caving” in “humility” won’t help much.
What about that hunger for opportunity? What if that’s the key to framing this battle of wills into something winnable?
Here’s what I mean. Last December I was listening to a sermon on podcast and there was a line that shook me to the core. The pastor had just quoted Philippians 2, “Our 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!” (Phil. 2:5-8 NIV) He went onto point out that Jesus didn’t even consider being equal with God as something He should hold in Himself. But rather, He laid it down. Here was the line that floored me, “He had the opportunity to be equal and turned it down.”
Paul is saying to the Philippians, “If Jesus, who by the way, is God, didn’t try to be equal with God, then you shouldn’t either. Jesus was humble, obedient, even to a gruesome end, and that is our example.” It seems like if anyone was justified in trying to be God, it’s God; even in the form of a man, that is Jesus. But that’s the thing isn’t it? Part of why Jesus came as a man, a human, was to teach us how to be human. How to order our lives so we thrive in who we were created to be. (Paul doesn’t leave us in the lurch of a gruesome end. He does go on to talk about the hope of the resurrection, so the example we have in Christ ends in hope, not despair.)
We were not created to be God, but to be human. Adam and Eve’s big mistake was trying to be like God and gaining the knowledge of good and evil through eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 3) Paul points that out in Romans, he’s talking about how we are justified by the blood of Jesus and reconciled to God through His death and His life, even while we were still His enemy. Then Paul says this,
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned […] death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. But the gift is not like the trespass. […] Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:12, 14-15, 18. I recommend reading the entire passage, there are so many more layers to what Paul is teaching about Jesus’ death that are worth going back to see.)
Basically Paul is saying that Adam had a choice to stay humble and in right relationship with God, or break the one commandment he had out of pride and invite brokenness into his life and the rest of life to come. Paul is also saying that Jesus was a second Adam, a second chance to make the right choice that leads to reconciliation with God and healing from all that brokenness. One could say it was The chance of a lifetime. The ultimate chance. One that altered all lifetimes.
That’s the opportunity we all have isn’t it? We all have the opportunity to grasp at equality with God (we can never attain it but we sure can grasp) or we can humble ourselves and lay it down like Jesus did. Do I need to be somebody? Or do I need to be myself, in right order with my creator, reconciled to Him through the redemptive act of Christ?
It seems to me that the choice before me is not opportunity or humility. The opportunity is humility. Jesus is the example. The choice is mine to let this opportunity pass or to take it and alter the course of my life forever.
The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. James Strong, LL.D., S.T.D. 1990 Thomas Nelson Publishers. Nashville, TN. Pages 518-519.
Church Of The City New York podcast. Season 17, episode 3. Emmanuel: Us – Jon Tyson.