"It's Hard to Be Humble When You're Perfect" is a song that would seem to characterize much of popular conservative evangelicalism with its legalism and religiosity. Like my home state saying that "everything is big in Texas," everything seems to be big within the conservative evangelical fold. There is a drift to have the biggest churches, the most well-known and powerful pastors, the biggest salaries, the most books in print, and the most influential people within politics.
This is a far cry from a small, distant, and ancient group of Christians who walked in the way of Jesus Christ. His life exemplified humility at its fullest, to the point of dying the death of a criminal between two other convicted criminals. He started off in this world born to a poor teenage girl in a stable. He grew up in a rural Jewish culture in Nazareth. He learned the trade of a common man before beginning a journey into ministry that left him without a pillow to lay his head upon. This Jesus gathered up a ragtag group of nobodies, teaching them to carry on his lifestyle and ministry. He identified and fellowshipped with those rejected by society. He was thrown out of the powerful synagogues. He wrote no books, earned no salary, and curried favor with no political elite.
His followers stayed on the path he established, although it meant acute, even fatal, persecution. They never forced their faith on anyone, but lived out their life in the way of the "two greatest commandments." In RESIDENT ALIENS, author Stanley Hauerwas describes the early Christians and calls today's believers to model our lives on theirs. But it seems that many in the evangelical movement today are looking elsewhere for models, desiring to be politically and religiously in charge of our society.
We have lost sight of the words of Micah (6:8): "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" How many of us evangelicals really believe this verse? Political slander and a spirit of divisiveness were all too evident in the church during the last presidential election, and those attitudes persist. In contrast, humility requires respecting and loving those with whom we do not agree philosophically.
Service to others, which is what Jesus Christ calls us to, requires humility and sacrifice. Are we willing to reach down and love those on the bottom? Are we willing to get our hands dirty? Are we willing to be like the One who sends us out? I once read somewhere that "the life that Jesus lived is the life Jesus invites us to live." Does this life conflict with ministers having six-figure salaries, being the star of their own television shows, or hobnobbing (and lobbying) with the political elite?
I believe that humility needs to be taught in our churches. It needs to be a part of our active ministry. We need to consider the possibility that our humility might be the most powerful tool for influence that we have at our disposal. In his book WHOLISTIC CHRISTIANITY (Brethern Press, 1985), David Moberg maps out a way for evangelicals to make a way for making change. He calls this road map "Strategic Principles for Confronting Change." The first is being biblical, the second is being Christ-centered, and the third is being humble. If we are going to make change that is positive for our society, humility has to be at the forefront of our actions. Moberg further explains, "A haughty spirit that implies that we have all the answers will turn many away; humility will win respect and often friends as well." This is in contrast to those who proclaim that God is on our side as a nation or culture.
How do we teach humility and better society through that humility? First, we must live as Jesus lived. Leaders in the church should first set the example of serving not just our friends but also those we do not like or feel comfortable with. The power of the resurrection to work miracles is about being able to love those that society does not love. Many of our churches are fortresses to keep out those who are different. We need to serve like the sheep in Matthew 25:31-46, but we are so caught up in our authoritarian piety.
In my job as a caseworker to the mentally ill, I am called on to take some of my people to the county hospital emergency room or ambulatory clinic. It usually will take two to three hours waiting in the ER to be seen and it can up to six hours in the clinic. It is not very convenient to do this and I often find myself around people I might not feel very comfortable with, but it continually teaches me about humility and patience. If our legislators could spend time at the county hospitals that serve the low-income people they might be more forthcoming with health insurance for the poor. I wonder how many ministers have sat in some of these emergency rooms helping someone? Oh, we would rather leave that up to the chaplain or some other professional instead of volunteering some time of our own. But we are supposed to be willing to reach down and lift up the little ones.
Our churches can teach humility by having a consistent outreach to those different from themselves. It has to be consistent and not just every once in a while. I was once visiting a Bible study class in a large evangelical church and they felt proud of themselves because they had donated the leftovers from a church meal to a local family shelter. Of course, they only did this once a year. They had no other ministry where they consistently engaged their people in a ministry that helped those on the bottom.
Pastors and ministers should set the example in their personal life as well as their professional life in relation to humility. If we church leaders would set the example our people would follow. We are so caught up in wanting authority over other people that we have lost our humble edge in the world. We gain greatness and power in the eyes of God only by serving those less fortunate than ourselves.
Our churches need to teach the two greatest commandments in addition to the 10 commandments. I wonder why some of the judges and courthouses that want to display the 10 commandments leave out the two greatest commandments. If we have no humility we cannot love others.
Lastly, I am reminded of the story in Philip Yancey's book, THE JESUS I NEVER KNEW, about an incident in the life Dr. Paul Brand. Dr. Brand put his arm around a young man who had leprosy, and the young man began to cry. When Dr Brand asked why the young man was crying, the translator said, "He is crying because you put your hand around his shoulder. Until you came here no one had touched him for many years." What a travesty that we have lost the idea of the New Covenant, which is the Law of Love. I wonder if the world sees that God is love in our lives? Are we humble enough to love those that only Christ loves? Mother Teresa once stated "we need to first meditate on Jesus and then go out and find Him in disguise."
Walter Norris is a caseworker for the Dallas County Public Defender's Office in Dallas, TX, to defend or to divert from jail people with mental illness. He is also a faithful contributor to the ePistle community.