Friday, January 7, 2011

The Race for Our Humility

Dear friends,

Be encouraged today! Read this wonderful post by my freshman roommate, Emily Powell. She is a wise, godly woman and a dear friend. She writes from the perspective of a Christian philosophy major at the University of Oklahoma.


This note is the product of the combination of my insomnia, stimulating conversations with my parents, and the current quandary of what in the world God wants me to do with my life.

There are several passages of the New Testament that give us images of running a race. We are exhorted, as Christians, to run the race with perseverance, run in such a way to get the prize, run, run, run. I don't know about you, but when I read these passages, I often get rather excited. I am called to the noble, glorious task of running the race, complete with a slow motion ending and Chariots of Fire theme song as I cross the finish line. Sadly, these images of glory are not easily reconciled with the reality of life. I'm not hearing the theme song whenever I'm having a bad day or someone cuts me off in traffic or especially when I'm told that I basically have no chance of achieving my philosophical aspirations because everyone just thinks I'm a stupid Christian. The nerve! Don't they know who I am? I'm a child of God. I've got a race to run here, people and you're making it really hard for me to look great while I do it. But I am beginning to grasp something that is very important. My frustration stems from a misconception. For we are not called to greatness. We are called to lowliness. The actual goal of the Christian life is to lose all our pride, all our glory for the sake of Christ.

However, from the time we are young, we receive a different message, a different goal. We are fed the wisdom of the world, and inevitably as well as unfortunately, some of it sinks in. One of the core "truths" the world teaches us is that we are our own gods and we should live to exalt ourselves. Now, of course, they don't come right out and say this, but it is the underlying message behind all the "believe in yourself" posters pasted across elementary school classrooms. Perhaps, the more adult version of this are "self-help" Christians like Joel Olsteen who assure us that we just have to actualize our own potential. We race for our own sakes and God is that nice teddy-bear-like guy in the sky who loves us so much He just can't wait to help us along in the pursuit of our own glorification. Beware. This is not only wrong, it is, as I am becoming increasingly aware, completely contrary to the message of the Bible.

Yet, we can easily fall prey to this, at least to some extent. It is actually quite alarming how many people ascribe to this kind of soft, fuzzy Christianity complete with a simplistic, "Jesus Loves You" Gospel. The danger of this is that we completely misinterpret and misuse the truth that God loves us. Jesus is then put on the sidelines of the race, cheering us on and saying, "just believe in yourselves!" His love becomes nothing but a bonus prize that confirms that we're really something special. We know it and we're glad God does too. This is basically nothing but worldly wisdom dressed up in its Sunday best. Don't misunderstand me. God does love us and He loves us in a powerful, unfathomable, and lavish way. However, it is not a love that elevates us. Rather, it is a love that first, brings us low and then, draws us near. If we truly grasp who God is and who we are, the knowledge that He loves us should not inspire pride, but rather, the deepest humility.
One of the main themes of the Gospel is restoration. Jesus, through His sacrifice, has restored what was lost in the garden of Eden. But what was lost? It says in Genesis 2:25 that "the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." Think about that, and not just literally, but symbolically as well. Think about being totally and utterly exposed and yet, knowing no shame. This was possible for Adam and Eve before the Fall because they knew exactly who they were. They were in an incredibly humble state, but they were His. They needed no covering for this was enough.

However, after they ate the fruit, "they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves." Genesis 3:7 They lost their identity in God that allowed them to exist just as they were, just as they were created to be. Now, they had to find ways to cover themselves and the shame of their exposure. I think of this symbolically. We use all manner of things to "cover" ourselves. Whether it be wealth, relationships, position, intelligence or even legalistic self-righteousness, we find ways to make sure we're not exposed and to convince the world and ourselves that we are okay. This is what is at the heart of the wisdom of the world, to dress ourselves up so we look better than we really are. We attempt to recreate, by our own efforts, the absolute peace and assurance of worth and identity that Adam and Eve had in the garden. But we cannot do this on our own! In fact, the message of the Gospel is to cast off our "coverings", our own feeble attempts at righteousness, and to merely be found in Christ.

I think that this idea of casting off our coverings is inextricably linked to the metaphor of running the race. One of my favorite pictures of the race that the Bible gives is the familiar passage of Philippians 3 where Paul exhorts us to "press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus." Can't you just hear the Chariots of Fire music now? But let's back up a little bit to verse 7. Here Pauls tells us that "whatever was to [his] profit he now considers loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, he considers everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord." Beautiful, eloquent, inspiring words indeed. But what is Paul really talking about here? What is he losing for the sake of Christ? In the preceding verses, he tell us. "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." Philippians 3:4-6 Basically, the point is that, legalistically, Paul had it all. In terms of self-made "coverings," his were made of silk. And yet, he considered "them rubbish, that he may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ." Philippians 3:8-9 Paul, contrary to the wisdom of this world, was trading his high rank and reputation in order to know Christ and "the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death." Philippians 3:10

All this talk about suffering and death doesn't quite fit in with the self-glorification message of the world and my dreams of following in Eric Liddell's footsteps. And yet, this is the call of the Christian life, not to pomp and glory, but to imitate the incredible humility of the death of Christ. Think about it. We are commanded to be like Christ, but what was Christ like? As he walked to Calvary, did He grasp at coverings, at dignity, at pride? No. Rather, for our sake, He was humbled and completely and utterly exposed. Should we not, in turn, be willing to do the same for His sake? Yes, we should! So, "let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." Hebrews 12:1 Yet, we should remember, with sobriety, that in throwing off everything that hinders, we may very well be left totally exposed, totally humiliated. We may not achieve anything particularly remarkable according to worldly standards or gain any kind of recognition. We may not gain much of anything on this side of the finish line. In fact, it is much more likely that we will gain the censure and the mockery of the world, suffering and humiliation. We might lose it all. We might have to stand exposed for the sake of Christ. If that is the price of His glory in our lives, we must be willing to pay it.

Yet, the beautiful and wondrous part of it is that, by casting off these "coverings", by forsaking the approval of man and the wisdom of this world, we are found in Christ. We belong to Him once more. We are, before God, as Adam and Eve were, exposed and yet, without shame. We are restored to that perfect state of humility, being just what we were created to be, nothing more, nothing less. Like them, we need no covering. For Christ's righteousness is our cloak, His grace our mantle. Now, freed from the need to cover ourselves, we no longer race in pursuit of our glory, but rather, we race in pursuit of our humility for the sake of His glory.

And now, I am going to bed. Or else I won't be racing anywhere for a really long time.

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