Humility is not Thinking Less of Yourself, But Thinking of Yourself Less

August 21, 2011

Romans 12:1-8

           Popular 20th Century theologian, C.S. Lewis once observed, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”  I’m going to let that sink in for a second.  Midway through these 8 verses in Romans 12 assigned for this Sunday, Paul offers this bit of advice: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”   It comes at a transition point in the passage between Paul’s encouragement for each of us to take our personal faith journey seriously (on the one hand) and to appreciate our place as equal partners in Christ’s church (on the other).  Each of you, as a child of God, deserves the very best; but it’s not all about you.  In this way, C.S. Lewis has got it right.  We, who are as followers of Jesus, choose his path of humility not to diminish ourselves, but to discover our true selves by loving others in Christ’s Spirit.  So in that Spirit, let’s take a closer look at this reading.

            I don’t know what the word “sacrifice” does to you when you hear it.  Paul writes, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.”  In his context, sacrifice was a religious observance that often included killing an animal and offering it to God in worship as a way of appeasing God’s anger or trying to please God with our gratitude or generosity.  Sacrifice for the people of Paul’s day often included death.  So when Paul stresses offering ourselves as “living sacrifices,” he seems to intentionally stretch its meaning.  Faithful living is more pleasing to God than offering dead animals.  If you really want to worship the living God, then offer God your everyday living.  And the only way to reach that kind of worship, what Paul calls “spiritual worship,” is by responding to God’s mercy.  God has shown us such goodness, especially through the life of Jesus, that we willingly choose to live that goodness, grow that goodness, and share that goodness in our everyday lives.  That’s the living sacrifice.  That’s the humility Lewis referred to … not thinking less of ourselves, but appreciating the kind of living that will reveal our true selves.

Similarly in today’s context, we find ourselves struggling with what we might have to sacrifice in order to live faithfully as our worship to God.  I’m not sure there has ever been a more self-obsessed generation than this one in early 21st Century North America, where most everything tempts us with self-gratification.  And we have structured our society around credit and debt in such a way that almost everyone believes that it really is all about me.  If I want it, I deserve and I’m going to have it … I’ll worry about how to pay for it later.  Even whole countries are held prisoner to debt.  And so we hear a cry for sacrifice … but who and what?  Today sacrifice means tightening our financial belts and just surviving the pain.  But still Paul’s ancient wisdom reaches into our generation’s troubled circumstances.  “Offer yourselves as living sacrifices.  Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed within by a new way of thinking.” 

Living faithfully means committing ourselves to see beyond the world’s selfishness and negativity, and intentionally choosing to involve and invest our whole selves in life-affirming actions.  As Christians, through prayer and study and conversation, God’s Spirit will transform the way we think and live, and the way we offer our living to others in Christ.  A necessary part of our spiritual worship is the commitment to keep growing in faith and deepening our personal relationship with God.  But that’s not all.  And it’s likely why you are here this morning.  Instinctively you know that being together with the faithful offers you possibilities beyond what you can discover on your own.  Worshiping together matters.

Early in my high school career I had a biology teacher who was fond of quoting the Bible.  Mr. Wessner, I think.  I doubt he could get away with that in this generation, but in the 60’s it seemed natural.   Besides, my memory was that he didn’t try to preach or proselytize in school; rather he used biblical examples to help us understand biology.  My only real clear memory was a teaching of his that came back to me years later while in seminary.  Mr. Wessner once said, that “like the example in the Bible of the body having many parts, and not every part did the same thing, the different organs of our bodies were all equally necessary and important to our health.”  Then he asked us what we thought was the most important organ in our bodies.  Someone shouted out “the heart.”  And someone else, “the brain.”  A too skinny girl, who always had a wheezy cough, hissed “the lungs.”  Mr. Wessner asked, “what about the skin or the skeleton?”  And you could almost see and hear our little minds churning.  “What about our sexual organs?” he shocked.  And the boys giggled while the girls gasped.  “Or our intestines?  Or our pituitary gland?”  You get the point.  Finally he said that the Bible reminds us that every organ in our body is important and necessary.  But that’s when he taught me something I have never forgotten.  He said that he “didn’t know if any one organ was most important, but that really wasn’t the point.  What was important to remember though, was that no single organ in our bodies (however important or trivial we might assume it is) is there for its own purpose.  Every organ does its job not for itself but for the rest of the body.  And that’s why the body is such a miracle.”

Thank you, Mr. Wessner.

Being a faithful living sacrifice to God includes seeing our miraculous connection that we share with each other.  Like Marie said when she introduced the reading, “every Christian is encouraged to work on her or his own faith development for sure,” but at the same time she reminded us that “the Christian faith, though very personal, is never private – individual Christians are meant to live and grow in a church community.”  Because only within the community of faith can we come to fully realize and appreciate how we actually become “holy and acceptable to God” in the first place.  Only in our cooperative relationship within a Christian congregation can we fulfill our spiritual identity, and embrace our true potential in God’s eyes:  We are here, doing whatever we do (however important or trivial it may seem to others or even ourselves) not for our own sake, but for the rest of this community.  And every time we say YES to that, which admittedly is not always an easy task, then we discover our true potential to share our many gifts with grace, in our neighbourhood and throughout the world.

Our partnership within this body of Christ called the church enhances the gifts each of us humbly offers; and offering our gifts for the sake of all underscores the value not only of what we give but also of who we are.  “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”

Glen Stoudt

Orleans United Church