What Would Jesus Undo? Arrogance
Rev. Louis Timberlake
September 20, 2015
We are in the midst of a sermon series on the Book of James, called “What Would Jesus Undo?” We’re focusing on some of those things in our culture that Jesus seeks to undo. The first week, we talked about how Jesus would undo favoritism. Last week, we talked about how Jesus would undo toxic talk. This week, we’re talking about how Jesus would undo arrogance.
I have to tell you, the Book of James is really working on me this month. Just in my own study, I’ve gotten a lot out of this series. If you haven’t, I’d encourage you to read through James. It’s short and we’re not covering all of it. James doesn’t have a filter; he tells it like it is. As I was reading this past week through this passage, I started to think, “Man, I don’t know if I have any business preaching on this passage. Talking about what it means to have true wisdom. About what it means to have no trace of pride or arrogance.” It’s kind of a trap for preachers. It says that those without true wisdom tend to run their mouths a lot and share their opinions on things, whereas those with true wisdom tend to be unwilling to force themselves on others. Basically, talking like you have tremendous wisdom and insight is the surest sign that you don’t. It almost makes you not want to preach.
I’ve always found stories to be good vehicles for wisdom. Growing up, I always enjoyed Aesop’s Fables. These stories, which tend to be very short, all have a simple, but powerful moral. I’m sure you’re familiar with at least some of them. The Tortoise and the Hare is a popular one. So is the Ant and the Grasshopper. I like the Bald Man and the Fly, which tells of a fly that bites a bald man on top of his head. In an attempt to kill the fly, the bald man smacks himself hard on the head. The moral is that revenge always hurts the avenger. It’s fairly simple when you’re talking about a bald man hitting himself on the head, but that’s a powerful bit of wisdom.
What is wisdom? What does it mean to be wise? You could probably ask five people and get five different answers. In scripture, at least, wisdom is very practical. James is a part of the Wisdom Tradition, along with books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In most of these books, there isn’t a lot of abstract talk about who God is and how God is active in the world. Rather, these books tend to be full of teachings on how to live. Books in the wisdom tradition don’t try to explain everything, they don’t spend a lot of time trying to answer the question, “Why?” You get some of that, but it’s not the main focus. Instead, they simply try to lay out, in as understandable a way as possible, how to live your life in a wise manner. Wisdom in scripture is practical.
In religion, sometimes people make a distinction between belief and practice. Sometimes they will say that a religion is more about one or the other. Is being a Christian all about believing all the right things or is all about doing the right things? What’s more important? It’s a good question, but it’s also a trick question. Faith is important, but actions are important as well. Faith compels us to action and action produces faith. They’re intertwined. Wisdom isn’t all about good ideas, it’s about good practices, good habits. That’s what James is saying. He’s saying that the way we live our lives reflects a certain kind of wisdom. And if the way we live our lives reflects arrogance, selfishness, and ambition at the expense of others—then that shows that we subscribe to the kind of wisdom that he describes as earthly, unspiritual, and devilish. But, if our lives reflect peace, gentleness, and mercy—then we subscribe to the kind of wisdom that comes from God.
Wisdom is about the way you live your life. The practices and habits in which you engage reflect and shape the wisdom that guides your life. Your outer life both reflects and shapes your inner life.
Many of us are familiar with Mother Teresa. She gave up a fairly comfortable life in India as a school principal to live and serve among the poor, the sick, the outcasts. She devoted her life to the people that others thought had no value to society. And it made her famous. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, met presidents, spoke at Harvard’s graduation. It’s strange, right? That’s not how fame tends to work. Famous people tend to be those with tremendous talent or wealth. But Mother Teresa had none of that and wanted none of that. She didn’t want the attention. But, the more she resisted it, the more she got. Tim Elmore, a leadership guru, calls it the Calcutta Paradox. You see it all the time. People that demonstrate great humility, that seek no attention--others are drawn to them. There’s something magnetic about someone that shows great humility, but elevates others. We’ve all encountered those people. Mother Teresa said, when asked about her work, “I am just a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” How powerful is that?
This passage from James links wisdom with humility. It says that arrogance ultimately comes from that other type of wisdom. But humility comes from God. If you’ve known a truly humble person, you know that humility doesn’t mean weakness. Humility is not about shrinking the value of yourself, but about elevating the value of those around you. I love the way that Tim Elmore puts it. He says, “Humility doesn’t mean that leaders think less of themselves. It means that they think of themselves less.”
So, wisdom, for James, means cultivating practices that put God and put others above yourself. He writes, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Wisdom is about far more than what you think or say, it is about what you do. How you live. I told you that this passage was a trap for preachers. Our job is to think and talk about all of this, which makes it easy sometimes to not do it. To not practice it. But, it’s not just preachers that fall into that trap. It is far easier to say something than to practice it. Paul even acknowledges it. He says (paraphrase), “I want to live a certain way, I talk about living a certain way, but then I find myself not always living in that manner.” Have you ever felt that way?
Peter Rollins tells a great parable about a preacher with a strange gift. This preacher found that whenever he prayed for someone, that person would lose their beliefs about scripture and God. It didn’t seem to be a very helpful gift. One day, this preacher was flying across the country and found himself sitting next to a businessman. This businessman had been incredibly successful, partly because he was ruthless. But, he was respected by both his friends and his adversaries. The preacher and the businessman struck up a conversation and, when the businessman learned that his seatmate was a preacher, he got excited. He told the preacher of his deep faith and commitment to God. He told him that, while he had been successful in the business world, it didn’t really define him. He just did what he had to in order to succeed. He admitted that it was difficult sometimes to balance life in that world with his Christian convictions, but that he did the best he could. In fact, he attended church every Sunday, he was involved in a prayer group, he even taught a Bible study. He said, “That is who I really am. Work is just what I have to do.”
After listening for a while, the preacher, who had always questioned why he had been given this strange gift, began to realize that it had a purpose. As they got ready to land at their destination, the preacher asked the businessman if he could pray a prayer of blessing upon his life. The businessman agreed, of course, oblivious to the preacher’s gift. Sure enough, as soon as the preacher finished praying, the businessman looked up and said, “I’ve been so foolish! Why did I waste so much time on church and God? Clearly there is no God and the bible is just an old book!”
As they got off the plane, the businessman was confused. He returned home with no religious convictions. Over time, he found it more and more difficult to continue in his line of work. Now, he was just a hard-nosed businessman in a corrupt system and he began to despise his work. After a few months, he had a breakdown. Eventually, he gave up his work completely. Feeling a little bit better, he decided to use all of his considerable wealth to help the poor and his managerial expertise to fight corrupt, unjust systems and help the oppressed.
One day, years later, the preacher happened to be traveling through the man’s town and the man saw him walking around town. The man ran over and fell at the preacher’s feet and began weeping with joy. After a moment, he gathered himself, looked up at the preacher, smiled, and said, “Thank you, my friend, for helping me to discover my faith.”
Sometimes, we have to lose what we think has meaning before we can find that which has true meaning. Sometimes, we have to lose what we believe so strongly before we can discover true faith. The kind of faith that is simply utter trust in God. The kind of faith that recognizes that, despite our great knowledge and intellect, there is so much we don’t understand. That, despite our great achievements, we are but a blip on the radar screen of human existence.
I think at the core of arrogance—and I say this as someone who fights this battle—is a fear that our knowledge, our abilities, our achievements won’t be enough. And so we try to make them feel like enough. We elevate ourselves. We get bitter and envious towards others. We pour everything into trying to cultivate an image of success and competence--and then just pray that no one will see through the facade.
But, what if your knowledge, abilities, and achievements don’t have to be enough?
What if life is not about “being enough” or meeting some obscure standard?
What if our value isn’t determined by ourselves or by others?
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
Jesus tells us that finding life begins with giving it up. With denying ourselves. With letting go of what we think we know, what we value. When we deny ourselves, we allow God to reshape our values and our habits.
This passage from James tells us that, if we are to grow in wisdom, we must first acknowledge that we have none. It invites us to let that facade fade away, to realize that our value is not anchored in our own knowledge, abilities, or achievements--but in the God who loves us without condition. It invites us into a life of humility, a life full of the grace of God. It invites us to realize that there is no greater call, no greater meaning than to be “just a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”
- What is wisdom? What does it mean to be wise? Who do you know that exhibits wisdom?
- What did you think of the scriptural idea that wisdom is practical, rather than theoretical?
- Talk about someone you know that demonstrate great humility. What kind of effect does it have on those around him/her?
- What do you think about the notion that arrogance is born out of a fear that we won’t be enough? Do you ever struggle with this fear? Do you ever feel like you have to put up a facade of success or competence?
- What did you think about the parable about the preacher and businessman? How can losing what you think has meaning lead to finding something of even greater meaning?
- How do we become wise, by God’s standards?