Several Sundays ago I had the opportunity to work as a teacher in the 3rd and 4th grade Sunday School class at our church. Now that Summer has begun, the teachers who work year-round are off, and they must make do with substitutes like me from week to week. Kathy and I both signed up for two weeks, thinking we would work together … instead they split us up and, when the dust settled, I was only assigned to work a single week, while Kathy served in the 1st and 2nd grade class both weeks.
The theme for the Summer in the kids program for all ages is Metamorphosis … focusing on the way that God changes believers through the working of His Spirit in our hearts. It seems to be following a cool bug theme and is based on Romans 12:2:
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is … his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Of course, unless and until a person has accepted the gift of Salvation through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit isn’t able to transform or renew, but seems to rather be limited to convicting of sin … I worry that there are kids in the program who do not know the Lord. Without the power of the Holy Spirit to effect a change in a child’s life, these kind of teachings are like so many self-help books … they sound nice but don’t accomplish much.
This week’s topic was humility … a virtue that is not taught much in the Church and not taught (or valued) at all in the world. While most educated people know to exercise some restraint in their boasting, the command in Philippians 2:3 is foreign to non-believers (and not very intuitive even for people long-steeped in the gospel):
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
Western humanistic and individualistic philosophers and sociologists might argue that you can only be a valued, contributing member of society to the extent that you believe in yourself. Certainly Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seems to indicate that you must take care of yourself in order to reach ‘Self Actualization’, the pinnacle of humanistic achievement.
The idea that I would humbly consider someone else better than myself would be dismissed by the pop psychologists of our day as sick and unhealthy. “What you really need is self-esteem!” they would cry, as though offering some panacea that will cure all society’s ills. As Kathy and I were preparing for Sunday School, I got to thinking about what the world would be like if people really followed Philippians 2:3.
First of all, people would be interested in each other. If I truly desired to serve others, putting their needs ahead of my own, I’d need to know more about them. Perhaps the biggest change of all would be that people everywhere would be talking to each other instead of wrapped-up in their own thoughts and problems.
There would tend to be very little crowding or waiting in lines for anything, since people would not be pushing their own interests or rushing to consume limited resources ahead of others.
Indeed, there would be no artificial shortages, and wealth would largely be distributed among those who needed it. I suspect that there would be very little waste, since any surplus would be accompanied by a strong, proactive desire to distribute that surplus. Telemarketers would be calling around offering free stuff that really would be free, with no strings attached (but of course they would never call at dinner time).
Most people in America would probably live much more modestly than we do, but dissatisfaction in a job would be rare or possibly extinct, since anyone who was unhappy in his work would find no lack of job placement specialists eager to find him or her a better fitting position.
It is hard to imagine something so basic completely overturning our current economic system, but if we all woke up one morning and truly practiced humility, this world could become a paradise.
I wonder if that is what it will be like during the thousand year reign of Christ, before the final confrontation and judgment?
Closer to home, what would it look like if I began to think of others as better than myself?
- My speech patterns would change. I would spend less time pontificating and seizing the spotlight for myself. My words would tend to be much less judgmental and much more encouraging. I would listen a lot more than I do, and take longer to think before I would speak.
- The use of my time would change. I would spend more time helping and serving others, less time pursuing my own recreation.
- The use of my money would change. I would spend less effort in accumulating wealth for myself and more effort spending that wealth on others. I would become a more careful steward of what I have, if I really thought I was holding it in trust for others.
- I would be much less likely to take offense. It would be hard to trample on my ‘rights’ since I would not be asserting them in deference to others.
- I would make a stronger effort to be ‘nice’ … to be cheerful and pleasant and ‘safe’ to talk to … not given to cynical or sarcastic talk, but someone who you are glad to have talked to in an elevator.
- My life would be much more joyful and contented, as I aligned myself more closely with God’s will for me. Already as I have begun to experiment with this ‘humility’ thing, I begin to enjoy God’s smile and I find myself much more prone to peace and contentment. God is on record that he resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
I could go on and on. This simple spiritual adjustment in the way I think can have far-reaching effects on my entire life … in some sense it is the difference between living in world and living in the Kingdom of God.
One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day, in which an intensely self-centered weatherman is forced to repeat the same day over and over again, perhaps as some kind of Karmic penance for his utter disregard for other people. Ultimately, the character Bill Murray portrays learns to love others more than himself … I think that Hollywood stumbles upon a deep spiritual truth, and does a pretty good job of painting a picture of what that would look like. As you follow weatherman Phil Connors around town on his final iteration of Groundhog Day, you see that almost everything he does is aimed at serving others, at treating them as more important than himself. He is not a cringing or fawning character, but rather moves with gracious dignity as he accomplishes the many good deeds of his day. One tiny example is the way that he greets a portly gentleman in the hallway of the bed and breakfast in which he stays … instead of brushing the man’s cheerful greeting off (as he has done many times in prior iterations), he takes the effort to respond with an gracious word, and leaves the man encouraged and with a lifted spirit as he walks away.
I guess I’d like to do more than just play Phil Connors on TV. Rather, I’d like my life to be a blessing to the people around me, showing the love of Christ so that more and more people are drawn to the One who fills me with joy.
Humility isn’t easy. Even the tiny doses which I have sampled have been hard-won and are extremely counter-intuitive to the way that I habitually think. Yet I feel a strange stirring in my heart as the Holy Spirit continues to convict and mold me into a person who can truly, if only occasionally, think of others as more important than myself.