Wednesday, January 30, 2013


There's an old story about a preacher who was so humble that his congregation gave him a medal for humility -- and then fired him when he wore it.

The other day I received a call from a friend who was troubled about her perceived lack of humility.  She was wondering if I had any words of advice for her, biblical or otherwise.  As I was busy at the time, Uni took the call and passed the message on to me.

I pondered quite a while before returning the call and realized (as I had when questioned about prayer) that I had not written much on humility, probably because I felt inadequate to say much since I am not humble.

Uni suggested I start with the example Paul gave in his letter to the Philippians.

“Set your minds on this among yourselves,
which was also in Christ Jesus,
Who being God in form
did not consider being equal with God,
something to be clung to,
but emptied Himself
taking the form of a slave
becoming in the likeness of man
and being found in appearance as man
He humbled Himself
becoming obedient right up to death
even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
After a long conversation with my friend I decided I needed to dig a bit deeper into the concept.  So here are a few thoughts.

The Greek word used in the New Testament that usually is translated "humble" is TAPEINOS.  The related words for "humility," "humiliate," etc. are all derived from this word.  Its original meaning was "low" -- sometimes "lowly," "weak," "poor," even "insignificant," "servile."  In ancient secular Greek it was not used as a compliment; as in our modern culture, lowliness was not considered a virtue.

In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek Old Testament -- ca 200 BC), the verb form was often used of bringing someone low -- humiliating them, as a warrior does to his enemies or a rapist to his victim (Genesis 34:2; 2 Samuel 13:12).  But it was also used of bringing oneself low -- humbling oneself -- before God.  It was commanded of the Israelites (Leviticus 16:29, 31).

And this idea carries over into the New Testament.  Both James (4:10) and Peter (1 Peter 5:6) tell their readers to humble themselves before the Lord, echoing the Old Testament commands.

So I guess that to be humble, to have humility, is to acknowledge our lowliness before our Creator and Redeemer -- to bring ourselves low in His presence.  Or to use a more modern cliché, to recognize that He is God and I'm not!

But there's more to it than that, and this is the hard part.  It is to take that same attitude (or action?) toward my fellow human being.  Paul tells his readers in Ephesus:

"I the prisoner in the Lord, urge you therefore to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all humility of mind and gentleness with long-suffering, putting up with one another in love."  (Ephesians 4:1, 2)

Paul is writing from prison, probably house arrest in Rome, and seems to be emphasizing that he himself was in a low or humble position.

And in his letter to the Philippians, most likely written somewhere about  the same period of time he wrote the passage quoted above (Philippians 2:5-8).  But he leads into it with an exhortation to unity and what I believe is a good description of what humility is:

" ... complete my joy by having the same mind, having the same love, having your souls together, having your minds set on the one thing.  Do nothing according to selfish ambition, nor empty conceit, but in humility of mind considering one another as more important than yourselves.  Not each looking out for your own interests, but  those of others."  (Philippians 2:2-4)

Humility is then, as Paul seems to define it, a deliberate action or actions to be taken -- a putting self aside and considering the other person and his/her own interests as of more importance than my own.

It seems to be not so much a character trait to be developed, as an action to be practiced.  Interestingly Paul does not list it among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, 23, nor in his many lists of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere.  Nor does Peter list it in his list of qualities to be cultivated in 2 Peter 1:5-8.  A humble person is simply one who practices humility.

Of course we understand that we cannot behave with humility, we cannot deliberately humble ourselves apart from the work of the Spirit of God in our lives.  And of course Paul holds up for his readers that greatest example of humility, the self-emptying of Christ in the incarnation.

And Jesus holds Himself up as the humble One in His saying recorded in Matthew 11:29 -- "I am gentle and humble in heart."

It has been said that humility is the virtue which, when we finally know we've got it, we've lost it.

So to my dear friend, I'd say, stop fretting about your lack of humility.  You are humble.  I've seen you practice humility with myself and others.  [Now don't let what I've said about you go to your head so that you lose that humility!  :^)  ]

Thursday, January 10, 2013


We are told that our concept of God as Father is tied to our concept of our own physical father.  If our father was gentle and kind, we think of God as gentle and kind.  If our father was cruel and abusive, we think of God as cruel and abusive, and so forth.

My wife Uni is the oldest of nine children, raised in a home where money and material possessions were often lacking.  Her father worked in a blue collar job to provide food and shelter for his family and there was usually enough to go around -- but sometimes barely.  Though Dad Cook was the most loving man one could ever meet, he usually couldn't provide for his children's desires, and sometimes even for their needs.

Uni went to work at an early age simply to provide clothing and a few extras in her life.  She started baby sitting at 11; of course, by that time she had had some training  in this at home.  At the age of 12 she began to deliver papers in partnership with her brother, the second-born in the family.  This was a radical thing in 1950 -- not a child delivering papers, but a girl.

Nobody complained; that was just the way things were.

There were times when matters got serious.  When she was about 14 and sitting in class crying because of a severe toothache, a caring teacher asked who her family dentist was.  When Uni replied that they didn't have a dentist, they'd never been to one, the teacher called a dentist whose office was within walking distance of the school and Uni worked out a payment plan with him.  (She suspects that she was severely undercharged.)

Again, no complaints.  Dad did the best he could and when he couldn't, the kids had to find their own way.

So, later in life, when she'd pray she was always troubled by nagging doubts as to whether God could answer her prayers.  We had many long discussion and it took years for Uni -- and me -- to even recognize that she thought of God as she thought of her father.

He loved her deeply.

He also had others in the family whom he had to take care of, whom he loved deeply.

He had limited resources with which to respond to her needs.

The answers she heard to her prayers were not "yes" or "no" or even "wait a while."  What she heard or thought she heard God telling her was "I love you and really want to help, but I'm just not able to right now."  And so many times she did not bother to let God know her needs or desires just as she'd learned to not bother her father.

Yes, Uni knew the promises in the Bible.  She had read them many times and could recite them from memory.   But for years the lessons she'd learned in her youth superseded those in the Bible.  She never doubted God's love -- she doubted His ability.

But gradually, over the years, I began to recognize a change in her attitude toward prayer and toward God.

It was those times, she told me, when God supplied a desire she hadn't even asked for (at least verbally).  Especially, when we had left behind good-paying regular jobs and I had gone into the pastorate -- when our financial situation was approaching that of her youth.  When she would just wish we had more money, or even cloth to make new clothes, or even (at one time) a ham.  God would through friends or circumstances supply even these simple desires.  He heard the prayers that she wouldn't even bother to ask.

Somewhere I read that God doesn't answer our prayers because of the greatness of our faith, but because of its smallness.  I wouldn't be dogmatic about this one, but we've seen this happen frequently.  It seems that often when we are not quite sure of God's desire or even His ability to answer, this is when He clearly does come through.

Like Dad Cook, God cares deeply about His own children and desires the best for them.  But unlike Dad Cook and unlike me or any earthly father, God both loves His children and has the resources to supply all of our needs, and occasionally even some of our desires.

(P.S.  Uni collaborated with me on this post.  She supplied most of the thoughts while I simply supplied the words.)

"For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.  So let us approach with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace for help at the time of need"  (Hebrews 4:15, 16).

Monday, January 7, 2013


So read the large letters of the red, white and blue bumper sticker on a co-worker's pickup truck.  There were other, smaller words beneath them, making them a complete sentence, though I can't remember exactly what they said.  Something to do with America's greatness, of course.  I think they said "make America great" or "keep America great."  But this was years ago and my memory fails me.

The sad thing to me is that this guy really believed what the bumper sticker said.  And in office discussions provoked by the sticker I found that this was the prevailing opinion -- at least of those who put forth an opinion.

Is it true?

Every time there is a mass shooting in America the discussion of guns comes up.  It begins in the news media, continues in Washington and other centers of government and I suppose, in work places around the country.

Unfortunately, like those other two great areas of disagreement, religion and politics, it soon degenerates from a genuine dialog to a heated battle of slogans, clichés and propaganda.

We hear and see the talking heads pontificating on TV, radio and the internet.  And soon I find myself receiving e-mails and reading on facebook, a series of arguments in favor of guns and gun ownership, most of them irrational, many in long lists.

-- "Timothy McVeigh didn't use a gun.  We don't outlaw fertilizer!"
-- "More people are murdered with baseball bats than guns.  We don't outlaw baseball bats!"
-- "It's our Second Amendment Right."
-- "I have a responsibility to protect my family."

And of course the old favorite, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

Then there are some really scary ones:
-- "If everyone in the theatre was armed, that guy could have been stopped quicker."
-- "Teachers should be allowed (or required) to carry guns in the classroom."

I'm not going to attempt to refute these arguments.  Though most of them could be and have been refuted pretty easily, those who make them aren't listening.  These slogans and clichés seem to be used in the same way that many religious people use Bible verses as "proof texts."  If I can just hit you with enough data (at least more than you have), I have won, whether or not you are convinced.

What really bothers me is that many who hold their pro-gun positions claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.  How can this be?  How can one follow the One known as the Prince of Peace and at the same time be an advocate of violence?

How can we claim to follow the One who told us to turn the other cheek while we're holding an assault weapon in our hand?

How can we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as the answer to America's needs and at the same time proclaim a gospel of violence?

How can we claim to serve God rather than Mammon, while repeating without reservation the propaganda of one of Mammon's minions -- the arms industry?

I'm not anti-gun.  I'm not advocating we take away people's hunting rifles or sports pieces.  Nor am I saying that people shouldn't own guns for protection.

American is a violent nation, filled with violent people.  We always have been.  We are all sinners and as I understand the Scriptures, we are all capable of violence.  And we are armed to the teeth.

And I believe we who claim to follow Jesus should not be advocating more of the same.  We should be saying, "Enough!"  The solution to violence is not "Mutually Assured Destruction"; it is peace!  Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" and He wasn't talking about the Colt 45!

I know that there will be no complete peace in America or anywhere on this earth until Jesus returns.  But paradoxically He has left us here with the task of bringing about His peace, first of all by being people of peace and secondly by preaching the gospel of peace to others.

So is the bumper sticker true?  I suppose it depends on how we define greatness.