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Sunday, October 22 Local

Perspectives: Finding humility in a one-up world

Several years ago, I had an awesome experience in the Apple store on Greenwich Avenue.

Caught up in the allure of the store while in the process of purchasing my first iPhone, I found myself coveting a rather lovely iPad. I was creatively strategizing how I might justify such an expense to my wife when I got a call (ironically on my Blackberry).

A book that I had written a few years earlier had been entered in a business innovation competition and, out of 70 finalists, it was selected to be in the top 10. In recognition, I would receive an iPad.

I had literally won the iPad that I was holding in my hand!

I felt like I had suddenly joined a very exclusive club. Now I could hang out in dark corners of coffee bars and look cool and moody, with my MacBook, iPhone and iPad beside a five-shot venti, 2/5th decaf, ristretto shot, one-pump vanilla, one-pump hazelnut, breve, one sugar in the raw, with whip, carmel drizzle on top, free poured, four-pump mocha. I was very, very happy with this surprising turn of events… until the Apple “genius” let slip that a new, slimmer, shinier, sharper and more sophisticated version of my iPad would be arriving in stores the following week.

Oh, cruel fate!

I recovered my senses and did what every man does in the face of technological one-upmanship: I gave the iPad to my wife and started dropping hints about my birthday.

It seems we cannot escape this iMe, iFirst, I must be “top dog” compulsion to have the best advantage, the best thing, the fastest lane in the traffic, the shortest line at the supermarket checkout. It is a universal phenomenon. It’s like we were born with it in us. So how does God speak into our rampant preoccupation with self-interest?

Jesus told a curious little parable about a wedding feast and the coveted seat at the top table. In this parable, it feels almost like Jesus huddles up with us, draws us in close and says: Look, this desire you have to be top-dog… Let me tell you how a professional does that! Don’t do what these amateur social climbers do — breeze right in and take the best place for yourself.

Come on… think about. Another guest will enter the room who is clearly better at this than you are, he’ll get your seat and you will have to make the walk of shame to the back of the dining hall to sit at the kids’ macaroni and cheese table! That’s not the way to do it. Watch and learn, boys. Here’s what you should do: “…take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’” (Luke 14:10a). If you can do this, the walk of shame becomes the walk of glory! There you will be, in all your finery, passing the table of assorted second cousins on your way to the very top table where you will be crowned supreme king of all society!

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If you do it this way, “Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests!” (Luke 14:10b). And you say: “Jesus, that is brilliant! Honestly, that is the best self-serving, self-promoting, narcissistic advice that you have ever given me! In fact, come to think about it… that might be the only self-serving, self-promoting, narcissistic advice you have ever given me.” And just there, if you are really paying attention, you might just smell a trap!

What is going on? Has Jesus suddenly become a wedding planner or a life coach? Did we imagine that Jesus is now giving counsel on social engineering? The answer is no! And, yes, this is a trap!

Let me ask you: How much humility are we showing as we “humbly” take our seat at the low end of the social spectrum, all the while hoping and praying that someone more important will notice us and lead us to a more socially-advantageous spot, preferably while others are watching? This parable is a snare. This is not advice on social advancement; this is a trap that rather artfully exposes the true condition of our hearts: all we really care about is ourselves! “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled….” (Luke 14:11). Ouch!

So, if this is the state of our hearts, what are we supposed to do now? Actually, there is really nothing at all we can do. The prophet Jeremiah summed up the chronic state of our condition: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Penned more than 2,600 years ago, the diagnosis is still true. We cannot fix ourselves. We just don’t have it in us to more than just APPEAR humble (even as we secretly congratulate ourselves for our humility!). Nothing short of a complete heart transplant will do because there is simply no cure for what ails us.

And where am I going to get this new heart? Psalm 51 captures that plea and tells us where to look: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (verses 1-2) and “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (verse 10).

In other words, we must go to God, acknowledge that we are truly helpless to save ourselves, and ask him to forgive us and help us. The parable ends, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).

This is what Jesus was truly referring to when he said, “humble themselves.” Jesus’ objective in this parable was not to collude with our insatiable desire to put ourselves first and neither was it to shame or ridicule us. His desire was that we would catch sight of our own madness and experience his forgiveness and help. Jesus, the great physician, is still in the business of spiritual “cardiac surgery.”

And if we would humble ourselves in this way, what happens next? We are told, “For all those … who humble themselves will be exalted.”(Luke 14: 11). To which we might say: “Hold on a minute, is this yet another trap? This ‘exalted’ thing sounds a bit dangerous! How would I know if I have humbled myself before God and have been exalted? And if I thought I was exalted, have I failed the test in this parable all over again?!”

Let me offer three ways that would reassure you that you had been safely exalted.

First, you are going to KNOW that you have been forgiven. Furthermore, you are going to know beyond any doubt that you did not deserve to be forgiven and yet you have been. Psalm 51 again, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (verses 3-4). You will know the true condition of your heart and you will know the amazing grace of God’s forgiveness.

Second, you are going to be surprised! What I mean by this is that your new heart is going to start surprising you. You are going to find yourself doing things and saying things for no other reason than to bless and encourage and help another person. Jesus said that this would happen. “Then the righteous [that would be the exalted] will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?...The king will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25: 37-40].

And finally, you will be really happy — not artificially happy, materially happy, chemically happy or even politely happy… but really, truly, wonderfully, gloriously happy! Why? “…remembering the words the lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35). And this is a happiness that increases. This is not just about a change in some of our habits, such as the occasional bit of philanthropy; this is about being transformed from the inside out. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14: 11).

Drew Williams is the senior pastor of Trinity Church.

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