In Luke's gospel, Jesus draws a comparison between two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, who both went to the temple to pray.
The Pharisee prayed loudly and publicly, congratulating himself on all his good deeds, and saying how thankful he was to be so much better than other people. Tax collectors of the time were all regarded as the worst kind of sinners, and the tax collector was too humble to even raise his eyes to heaven, but simply prayed for God's mercy. And Jesus said, "This tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Humility is a virtue that Christians are supposed to be displaying on a daily basis. But, the thing is … if you THINK you have it, you DON'T.
What is humility? Christians walk a fine line here because we know we're created God, wonderfully gifted, and deeply loved –– and all of that, we need to celebrate. But that's definitely not the "foolish pride" God sometimes needs to step in and take care of.
There are two ways we use to measure our self-worth. One is finding ways to look down on other people, so we can feel better about ourselves. The other is to look UP, to the God who loves us, and find our self-worth in him.
We all compare ourselves to others. We admire the gifts God's given other people, and wish we could do what they do. Our own gifts too often don't impress us too much –– it's OTHER people who are gifted. We can become jealous of other people's possessions, their "perfect" children or their "perfect" lives. Comparing ourselves to others can make us feel inferior, less than, not good. And that's a shame –– no joy there at all.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is when we compare ourselves to others and feel like we come out ahead. Some folks commit sins (the particularly BAD ones, you understand), that we're not tempted to commit ourselves, and we condemn them for it. Others are less educated, poor, of a different race –– or, as the Pharisee said, "thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors" –– all people we can feel superior to. And sometimes, that's where we find our self-worth, in feeling superior to others. If we can feel superior, we feel like we're worth something. If we end up feeling INFERIOR, our self-worth plummets.
Not good. Plus …
Do you know how much work it is to have to be RIGHT all the time? Have you seen folks whose sense of self-worth is so low that, in every situation, it's just imperative that they know more … that they seem smarter than anyone else … that no matter what, they're RIGHT? Tires me out just thinking about it! Actually, sometimes it's a good thing to quit arguing even if you know you're right. It's part of true humility, it does you no harm, it gives other people such happiness … and if that's what they need to feel good about themselves, well, they're welcome to it. Our self-worth comes from God alone.
God has loved us from the very beginning. God continues to love us and reach out to us even when we're sinning and running away from him. And because God hates sin, but loves us, he paid the price for our sin. He gave us the amazing gift of himself, in Jesus … and Jesus paid the price that needed to be paid. THAT'S how much we're loved.
We know God loves the world. But God's love is also personal. It's the profound, perfect, personal love of a parent for his child –– a parent who knows us and loves us completely, a parent whose very nature is grace and mercy.
In the love God has for us, there's no room for the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. There's no need for us to feel, either inferior or superior to those around us. Our self-worth is written in our hearts in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the personal and profound love he feels for us.
Because of his love, we can humble ourselves before God just as the tax collector did, knowing we're forgiven and that God loves us always. And we can humble ourselves with others, as well … because we're God's child, and his approval is what counts. And he's made it clear that HE approves of us, now and eternally.
And here's my promise, strange as it sounds: That kind of humility is what brings us JOY. All the pretense, the hard work, the fear –– all gone. And what we're left with is God's love, for us and for others, and the joy his love brings us.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.