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Set the right goals

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:5

President Eisenhower has been in the news recently as the one who added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. He was a man who sought to live his life “under God,” trusting his Lord in humble faith. So did his mother.

One day during the Second World War, when her remarkable son was supreme commander of the Allied forces, the elder Mrs. Eisenhower was traveling by train. The woman next to her on the train had no idea of Mrs. Eisenhower’s identity, and spent the entire trip bragging about her son who had just been made a corporal. Finally she asked Mrs. Eisenhower, “Tell me about your son.” Her entire reply: “He’s in the army too.”

Today, let’s talk about humility and “I trouble.” Not “eye” trouble but “I” trouble. The middle letter of “sin” is “I.” The middle letter of “pride” is “I.” The root cause of all our trouble is “I trouble.” The third Beatitude is the cure. Here are steps to biblical humility.

Value humility as God does

First, value humility as God does. The Third Beatitude shows what God thinks of this characteristic: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed”—happy beyond all circumstance, the kind of blessing only God can bestow.

“Are the meek”—the Greek word is “praus.” It has several hues within its spectrum of meaning, but it reduces to the idea of humility before God.

Such people will “inherit the earth,” being blessed by God in every way. Not just part of the earth, but all the blessing God might give. No conqueror has ever won what God promises here.

But we try. We try to inherit the earth through our performance, possessions, and perfectionism. By trying harder to do more, have more, be more. And so genuine humility is hard for many of us.

Like many of you, I am a performer by nature. It is my natural personality to want you to like me, to be impressed by me, to affirm me. Many of us are this way. We live in a performance-dominated culture, where we are rewarded for what we can produce. But it’s hard to want to impress people and be humble at the same time. Performing makes biblical humility hard.

On the other hand, many of us also struggle with self-esteem issues, making the wrong kind of humility easy.

I read recently this profound statement by psychologist Paul Tournier: “I believe there is a great illusion underlying both the despair of the weak and the unease of the strong—and the misfortune of both. This great illusion is the very notion that there are two kinds of human beings, the strong and the weak. The truth is that human beings are much more alike than they think … All … in fact, are weak. All are weak because we are afraid. They are afraid of being trampled underfoot. They are all afraid of the inner weakness being discovered. They all have secret faults; they all have a bad conscience on account of certain acts which they would like to keep covered up. They are all afraid of other men and of God, of themselves, of life, and of death” (quoted in Ten Habits for Effective Ministry, 21).

Many of us feel badly about ourselves, leading to a self-punishing, demeaning kind of humility. A performance-centered society and low self-image both make biblical humility hard for us.

But listen to what Jesus said about such humility. He described himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29); he promised us, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4); he warned us, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). And he taught us, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).

The blunt fact is that we cannot be “blessed” by God unless we value humility as he does.

See yourself as God sees you

But valuing humility doesn’t mean that we know how to experience it. Here’s the second biblical step: see yourself as God sees you. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones defines “praus” or “meek” as “a humble and gentle attitude to others which is determined by a true estimate of ourselves.” To be “meek” or “humble,” develop a “true estimate” of yourself. Learn to see yourself the way God does.

So, how does God see you? As a redeemed sinner. A person who sinned and fell short of his glory; a person whose sins cost his Son his life; a person worthy of eternity in hell. And also a person he loves so much he gave his Son to die in your place, to pay for your sins, to purchase your salvation. A sinner, redeemed by his love.

A rabbi once said, “A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ On the other, ‘For my sake was the world created.'” Both inscriptions are true.

Imagine yourself a condemned criminal on death row, scheduled for execution.

All appeals are exhausted; the final hour has come. You are strapped to the gurney, and tubes are inserted in your arm. The doctor is about to administer the lethal injection when the phone rings. The governor of the state is coming over.

But when he arrives, something unprecedented occurs. He does not pardon you. He insists that your sentence be carried out. But he then orders the guards to remove you from the table. He takes off his coat, and lies on your gurney. He rolls up his sleeve, and orders the doctor to connect your tubes to his arm. He receives your injection; he takes your punishment; he dies for you.

For the rest of your life you will be a ransomed sinner, a condemned criminal. But you will also be someone loved beyond words by someone of great standing, of enormous power, of the highest significance.

This is exactly who you are.

When we see ourselves as God does, our twin problems with humility are solved. We are set free from performance anxiety, the intense “drivenness” to impress people with our value, because we are valued by the Lord of the universe. And we are set free from debilitating, demeaning, demoralizing humility, because we are valued by the Lord of the universe.

You are a person of indescribable worth, not because of who you are but because of whose you are. See yourself as God does, and you’ll be freed for genuine humility.

See others as God sees them

Value humility as God does, and see yourself as God does. The third step to biblical humility: see others as God sees them. Greek scholar Fritz Rienecker has this definition for “praus:” “The humble and gentle attitude which expresses itself in a patient submissiveness to offense, free from malice and desire for revenge.” To be “meek” is to “submit to offense,” no matter how others have offended you.

To do this, we must see others as God sees them. As people of infinite worth, for they are the creation of God. As sinners just like us, saved by God’s grace as we are. To be humble before others, do not judge them as better or worse than you are. Choose to pardon them when they hurt you, for God has pardoned you. Release your anger, or need for revenge, or pain.

When we do this, we are free to be humble before every person we know. Not just before those people we judge to be superior to us, those who humble us with their abilities or success. But also before those we consider inferior to us, those we judge and criticize and condemn. We can be humble before the lowest sinner, when we see him as God does.

Two quotes challenged me this week: “Only God is in position to look down on anyone;” and, “Any experience which makes me feel superior to other people is not of the Lord.” See others as God sees them, and you’ll be humble before every person you know.

See your gifts as God sees them

Here’s the last step: see your gifts and abilities as God sees them. James Montgomery Boice defines “praus” as strength under control. He illustrates the word this way: a powerful stallion, strong and fast, completely bridled and submitted to the control of its master. To be “meek” is not to depreciate the stallion’s strength, speed or abilities. It is to submit them to the control of their master.

How does God see your abilities? As his gifts, entrusted to you to be used for his glory.

It is not biblical humility to debase yourself. Neither can you be humble when you exalt yourself.

It is biblical humility to embrace and affirm the gifts, abilities, opportunities, education, and experiences God has given to you, and then use them to glorify your Lord. Develop them fully, and engage them completely.

One of my mentors said to me, “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind.” Develop fully all that God has given to you. But yield it to the control of God, and use it for the glory of God.

The great scholar J. I. Packer made this incisive point: “It is impossible at the same time to give the impression both that I am a great Christian and that Jesus Christ is a great Master.” For what purpose am I preaching this sermon—to impress you or to glorify Jesus? For what purpose will you teach a class today, or sing an anthem, or lead a ministry? For what purpose will you earn money this week, engage clients, help patients, finish tasks?

Mother Teresa, the tiny Albanian nun, became the world’s most famous Christian next to Billy Graham. But her goal was just the opposite. From the time she first entered ministry, her life purpose never changed. In her words, she wished only to be “a tiny pencil in the hand of God.” And what he wrote with her gifts changed the world.

Conclusion

Do you value humility today as Jesus does? Do you see yourself as he does—a redeemed sinner, loved for whose you are? Do you see others as he does—fellow sinners, equal in value with you as your sisters and brothers? Do you see your abilities as he does—gifts to be used in his will for his glory? Then you are “praus,” “meek.” And you are “blessed.”

Here is one of the finest faith commitments I know, from a Muslim who became a Christian and prayed: “O God, I am Mustafah the tailor and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali. The whole day long I sit and pull the needle and the thread through the cloth. O God, you are the needle and I am the thread. I am attached to you and I follow you. When the thread tries to slip away from the needle it becomes tangled and must be cut so that it can be put back in the right place. O God, help me to follow you wherever you may lead me. For I am really only Mustafah the tailor, and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali on the great square.”

Whose thread are you?