Friday, October 11, 2013

The Christian Habit of Self-Deprecation

 A few months ago while I was visiting a friends’ church the pastor led off his sermon with a prayer prefaced with the phrase “may I fade into the background”.   You’ve probably heard something like that before.  Though his intention was likely just a simple request for humility, what I am questioning is who did this pastor expect to benefit from his request to become insignificant?  I’m wondering why we have to smear ourselves so deep down into the dirt all of the time.     Why are we so polite when it comes to working with God?  Why are we so afraid to, dare I say, take a little bit of the credit? 

Perhaps we think it’s a necessary thing.  Our churches are bigger, brighter, with more “entertainment value” than ever before.  Maybe we think that we need our self-flagellation to clarify things.  Maybe we want to make sure that the people in the seats know that behind the big, bright show, God is at work. 

It could also be possible that we’re just being polite.  There’s great value in meekness, but perhaps we take it too far when, for example, a friend acknowledges our deeds with the compliment of “good work” and we respond by saying “really, it was all God”, as if we had nothing to do with it at all.

As the Church, we love to squish ourselves low while we’re lifting Him up.  This can happen to us during worship services.  We start singing along, and by the end of the song we can feel horrible about ourselves.  And why shouldn’t we?  We sing about “having nothing to lay at his feet”.  We wonder how “ He could be mindful of us” while proclaiming that His glory is nothing that we deserve.  If worshipping God is to commune and give praise to him, how can we do that when we can’t get over how awful we are? 

I don’t know how many times have I heard the sermon about how all of our deeds are like filthy rags compared to God.  Some pastors like to dig out the historical and literal interpretation of “filthy rags”.  You can look it up if you’d like.  It’s not very pleasant, but we sure do like to remind each other of it.  Again, what benefit is there in telling ourselves that, compared to the creator of the universe, we really aren’t all that much?  No wonder so many Christians suffer from depression. 

To be constantly reminded that you don’t measure up are not words of encouragement and edification, but more like the words of an abusive parent.  If my son keeps reminding himself, and everyone around him, that his dad is so much better than him I would have to take him aside to have a good chat.  These comparisons miss the whole point of our relationship.  I would remind him of what he already knows.  He knows that I’m his dad and that I love him.  I love playing soccer with him and building Lego with him.  He knows that I am overjoyed when I see him happy in the middle of an ordinary day.  His smile is a mood changer for me.  So, for him to walk around exclaiming his uselessness as a way of giving me honor would be as silly as it sounds.  

We go to church to get away from this stuff, not to be fed with it.  The world outside is often a measuring stick telling us that we’re not good enough, that we’re not smart enough, and basically that we a just plain not enough.  We need The Church to be a sanctuary from all of this negativity.  With God, our deeds are the deeds of beautiful feet and of the hands of God himself.  The body needs to proclaim this in order to build itself up.

With Jonas at the climbing wall

Here we are, loved by the very definition of the word.  We are loved by God, who thinks so highly of us that he took on skin and bones to tell us about it.  He wants us to know that he’s not only okay with us, but that he’s completely enamoured with us.  Talk about a crazy one, this God fellow, isn’t He?  And here we are, telling each other that we’re not as good as Him.  We sure are weird.

Is God up there pacing back and forth waiting for us to feed his ego?  Does He crave our self-deprecation as praise?  Absolutely not.  In fact, He talks a lot about a new covenant in which our sins and our stains will be remembered no more. (Hebrews 8 :12)  Can we believe that kind of talk?  That He’s forgotten about how awful we are?  That He might even be proud of us?

I must clarify that I agree that humility is highly virtuous.  God has saved us from death.  He deserves all of the glory He’s due.  Humility is walking in that knowledge.  Yet, the bible talks about how if we humble ourselves, God will lift us up.  Lift us up to what?  Well, I like to think that when we give God glory, the part of it that He really savours is when He sees us seeing value in ourselves.

In John 14:12 Jesus talks about the works of His Father.  He tells his friends that he is all about the work of his Father, and that everything he does is within that relationship.  Jesus loves to talk about his Father.  He loves to talk about the work they had been doing together on earth.  It’s a beautiful reminder of how relational God is.  The punch in the gut is when he tells his disciples that they will do “greater works than these”.  Wow!  That’s a few levels up on that whole “filthy rags” business now, isn’t it?  Is it too much to say that the way He feels about his Father is the same way he feels about us?  Can we believe that we will do greater things than God?

The words of Jesus in John 12 have a lot to do with God’s passion for unity and relationship.  God really doesn’t do a whole lot on his own.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that God does nothing on his own.  God is a community.  When the Earth was created, the Father, Son and Spirit were there, working things out together in perfect unity.  It has been that way since the beginning.  And for us, there’s always been an open invitation to join in.  We need not fade into the background when we can step forward and take part in things.

Think of what you did today.  Would it have gotten done without you?  Think of the good things in your life and the time and effort you put into them to help them grow.  Does the pastor’s sermon get written when he “fades into the background”?    

We need to get away from saying that God is “using” us.  If someone is abused, they say that they were “used” by someone, or that someone “had their way” with them.  It’s strange that we use the same words to talk about how God works with us.  We can do better than that.  We are His children, His friends, and His partners in making this world a better place.

If we look at ourselves as just the tools or the mediums through which God can achieve his will, then we are proclaiming a faint shadow of who our God really is.  God works with us and alongside us, and our personalities and creativities weave with his character.  The fact that God set things up this way is itself a testament to his goodness and glory.  We proclaim this when we are brave enough to walk along side him. 

We need to remind ourselves more of what God thinks of us and less about what we think God thinks of us.  Often times, they are two very different things.