You Can Be Lifted

An interesting conversation between two women occurred beside me at my super-secret restaurant hideout this past week. I was alone with a gift card, my phone, a chicken salad sandwich, and a desire to get a moment of solitude with some required reading materials.

You should know I don’t try to overhear anyone’s conversation. On the contrary, to avoid distractions of every kind, I prefer to sit as far from everyone else in the room as possible. And yet, you know the sort of dialogue to which I’m referring. No matter where you sit, one person is speaking with uncomfortable volume and animation—almost as if she craves the admiration of everyone within a ten-table radius. And the other person at her table isn’t saying a word, only bobbing her head in agreement with everything shared.

As it would go, the story she told was dreadful. She spoke of their mutual friend’s shortcomings in the worst ways, pinning this and that personal injury upon her, making her seem like a ruthlessly unfeeling villain. After a few minutes of unrestrained mockery, it became clear that the two conversing women were related, and the target of their ill-witted ire was also a family member. However, I couldn’t quite figure out the person’s exact location on the family tree. Nevertheless, so goes William Thackeray’s observation that if “a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”

Amazingly disheartening. And vicious. I couldn’t imagine living in such a family.

If you recall, I began by calling the conversation interesting. I meant that. Nearly all the grievances described by the blustering woman (and heard by everyone else in the restaurant) occurred while serving together at their church. Fascinatingly, this woman was utterly ignorant of the Christian witness she was portraying. And the fact that a man wearing a clerical collar was sitting a few tables away betrayed her confidence in her behavior. She knew I was there. Usually when someone is misbehaving, so to speak, and a clergyman happens by, they tend to alter their behavior, if only to keep from embarrassment. They go from cussing about their neighbor to suddenly explaining how often they read their Bible. That happens in my presence quite often. Not this time. In fact, I think she was counting on my approval.

Firstly, I’ve learned over the years that people who speak about others this way are usually far more capable of the actual atrocities in any failing relationship. I’ve also learned that in the economy of offenses given and received, they always ensure the scales are tipped in their favor. In other words, their sins are never as horrific as those committed against them. They’re bad, but not that bad. In fact, they’re pretty good—much higher up the ladder of decency and deservedness than so many other wretches.

There’s a portion in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that goes:

“He that is down needs fear no fall, he that is low no pride. He that is humble ever shall have God to be his guide.”

Saint Paul’s words concerning the truest depths of our guilt are Bunyan’s inspiration. He wrote, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s instruction is undoubtedly born from his Savior’s words, such as the Lord’s concluding remark to a parable about a wedding feast: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11). Four short chapters later, Jesus would repeat this teaching word for word, once again demonstrating in unequivocally crisp detail what He meant by His preceding parable.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

I think what’s most interesting about this particular parable is the tax collector’s words. In English translations, he’s portrayed as humble, but it seems little more than humility that knows its sinfulness in a basic way. The English renders quite plainly, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the original Greek, it’s so much more than that. He doesn’t just call himself “a sinner” but refers to himself with the demonstrative definite article “τῷ,” which means he is calling himself what Paul called himself in 1 Timothy 1:15—the chief, the epitome, the sinner of all sinners. In other words, Jesus is portraying the tax collector as someone unconcerned with the sinfulness of everyone else in the room by comparison, preferring to take his place before God not as one of many but as the only one—and the worst one. No one is lower. No one is more horrible. No one is more deserving of God’s rightful wrath.

He is not a sinner. He is the sinner.

Jesus ends the parable so abruptly that it must have shocked His listeners. He didn’t describe a propitiating sacrifice, which would have been expected. He didn’t mention negotiations between the tax collector and God—that he would work harder to be a better person. Jesus simply describes the man as calling himself the worst sinner and then caps the parable by saying, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14). A contrite confession born from faith was enough at this moment. Knowing his truest identity as a contemptible sinner, he asked God to give him something other than what he deserved, something he knew was relevant to God’s innermost character: mercy. And that’s what God gave him. The tax collector left God’s presence forgiven.

Bunyan’s words ring true. You cannot fall if you’re already as low as you can be. But you can be lifted. And for all who know their sins, as Jesus describes, God promises to be the One to do the lifting. Look to the cross. You’ll see the One who submitted Himself to depths far lower than any of us could imagine. That’s the mystery inherent to Paul’s words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

I’ll never get my mind around what it means that Christ actually became Sin in my place. But I don’t have to understand it for it to be true. I believe it. That belief, established by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, moves me to remember my place before Him. I was as low as is humanly and spiritually possible. He lifted me up. I was Sin through and through. He took my place in its dust. But then He went even lower, taking into Himself anything that Sin, Death, and hell could ever inflict. As He did this, He won my innocence before the Father. Humble repentance and faith receive this victory in its absolute fullness.

It’s much harder to pummel others for their crimes when we know this about ourselves.

I want you to know I did two things before I left the restaurant. First, I paid for the women’s meal. It wasn’t that much more than what I had left on the gift card. Second, I left a note for them. I wrote one thing on it: Luke 18:9-14. I don’t know if they read the text. I’m hoping my first gesture stirred them to at least consider it. If they do eventually read it, I don’t know if they’ll get the point. What I do know is that God’s Word is powerful. It has everything necessary for converting and convincing proud hearts. I also know that our reflection of the Gospel’s light before the world around us has muscle, too (Matthew 5:13-16). I hope they read the text, take a chance on what Christian humility truly is—what it means relative to Sin—and then beam that humble trust in Christ to others.

The Cruel Grave of Jealousy

I’m wondering… have you ever experienced a moment when you felt like you were at the bottom of the barrel in your station? Like you were the worst accountant in the firm? Like you were the least valuable engineer on the project or the worst teacher in your school? Like you were the least relevant mother in the PTL? Like you brought the least muscle to the team?

On second thought, what am I saying? Of course you’ve had these thoughts. Everyone has. Only a narcissist can exist in a way that preserves the “self” from such honest reflection. Only a narcissist would believe his or herself to always be right, to always know what to do, to have no imperfections, and to be the brightest star in the sky.

I’ll admit to having had a moment not too long ago when I felt like the most useless pastor on the planet, that everything about who I am as a person in comparison to others who hold the same office—the things I appreciate, the activities I enjoy, my personality that communicates my very real humanity—all of it was of little value, and maybe even in complete contradiction to the office I hold.

I suppose when it comes to serving in the church, that’s probably about as close as one can get to reconsidering one’s future in any role.

But again, I presume we all go through this. I have to believe that Saint Paul felt this way sometimes. There was a time when he was a persecutor of the Church. He hunted and killed Christians, and yet God made him an essential asset in the proclamation and spread of the Gospel of justification for the sake of Christ. The proof of this rests in the simple fact that Paul wrote most of the New Testament. We receive the words of our Lord by way of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But so often we see how Paul was put into place to help us see how it all fits together.

Just thinking out loud, I wonder if one reason we find ourselves in such low points, perhaps as I hinted to before, is because of a kind of jealousy born from comparison between individuals. In other words, I wonder if Paul ever slipped into comparing himself with Peter. I wonder if he ever found himself jealous that Peter was with Jesus from the beginning. Peter saw the miracles. He was with the Lord for the Transfiguration. He walked on water, even if only for a moment. He saw the Lord on Easter Day. Peter certainly didn’t have a past like Paul’s. He hadn’t been complicit in the unjust executions.

I wonder if Paul was ever jealous of Peter in these things.

This certainly is an itch that I sometimes need to scratch. I see other pastors—their seemingly carefree schedules, casual workloads, the freedom to pursue higher degrees in education—and I get a little jealous. But it’s also in those moments that I have to be mindful of just how easy it is to fool myself. The jealousy of self-comparison has a way of sharpening the eyesight, but in reality, it only sees in part. It’s only fixing itself on one piece while missing the bigger picture. It sees what another person has, but really, it’s seeing what it “thinks” the other person has. It’s not seeing that perhaps Peter, as a normal human, sometimes feels as though he’s doing all he can to stay afloat. It’s not seeing that he still wrestles day and night with his betrayal of Jesus. It’s not seeing that he’s still pit against his bumbling inadequacies that not only played out with regularity right in front of Jesus and the other disciples, but because of his personality, they probably still do. It only sees the Peter it wants to see (and maybe even expects to see), rather than the one who’s truly there in a very holistic way—someone with flaws, someone who’s often burdened by the cares of this life, someone who struggles with relationships, someone whose efforts in the ministry are by no means perfect because he is not perfect.

I like the way the King James Bible translates Song of Songs 8:6. It reads, “Jealousy is a cruel grave.” It sure is. It buries us with unnecessary and unrealistic concerns. It tempts us to measure our worth in the Kingdom of God according to the wrong standards.

I suppose in conclusion, and being as honest as I can, if everything I’m doing is a product of my intellect and muscle, then the only kind of pastor I can be is a bad one. In fact, the only kind of father, husband, or friend I can be is a bad one. I’m of the same mind as Paul when he said that when it comes to sinners, I’m the chief (1 Timothy 1:15). As a sinner, I’m not fit for any of these roles, let alone the job of pastor, and I’ll never produce anything by way of these roles that would ever meet the Lord’s lawful expectations. I just can’t do it.

But on the other hand, if it’s the Lord who is at work in my life and labors by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, if He’s the One who has taken such a flawed and quirky individual and set him here and there in the world, all the while knowing the flaws—sometimes using them and other times sequestering them—then I can be content with where I am and happy with what I have. I can be found willing and able to change the aspects of my person that seem to get in the way, and I can pursue enhancing the more helpful ones. In all of this, I can be faithful and keep on keeping on, knowing that I’m right where God wants me.

This is His gig, not mine. It’s His plan. It’s His work. By faith, I know it’s all for my good—and God-willing, yours, too.

Having said all this, I know what I’ve rambled on with this morning might seem somewhat relative to me, but I’m hopeful there’s something here that you can take and apply to your own circumstances, especially when you’re feeling down. Remember that God loves you, and if you ever question your value, look to the cross. He exchanged the life of His only begotten Son for your life. That’s a pretty big deal.