The Primacy Of Humility

Have a close look at Romans chapter 12 and I think you will agree that one trait stands out from the crowd. Emerging from a substantial list of imperatives is the call for followers of Jesus to be marked by humility.

I wonder if that surprises you. Perhaps you were expecting love to be the dominant trait. Or maybe you expected kindness, or forgiveness, to be our primary trait.

Could it be that the reason Paul emphasizes humility is because our level of humility determines our capacity to excel with these other traits?

We can actually test this hypothesis with a simple question: If I struggle with pride and self-centredness, will this impair my ability to love others?

If that’s true—if selfishness hampers love, if pride hinders peace, if self-centredness stunts my generosity, then you would expect the remedy to lie with humility, wouldn’t you?

Paul begins his emphasis on humility in 12:3: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.

It is important to avoid the temptation of regarding yourself according to the opinion of others. Inevitably, some will think too highly of us while others will think too little of us. Paul wants our self-evaluation to happen within the context our our relationship with God. There we will find a necessary balance. We’ll celebrate that we are children of the King, but children by grace. We’ll rejoice in being forgiven, but we’ll remember that this standing was not something we earned.

In 12:5, Paul arrests our tendency to pursue our own personal preferences when he declares that “each member belongs to all the others.” We have an obligation to one another that can only be met within an environment marked by humility. Paul says something quite similar in 12:10 when he writes, “Honour one another above yourselves.

Notice that Paul does not simply say, “Honour one another.” He doesn’t simply give an imperative for mutual respect. No, he takes this to another level: “Honour one another above yourselves.

Imagine how progress in this regard would help to transform marriages, churches, and communities. Think about it—how does conflict survive if I care more about what you need than what I need?

Paul closes out this section with even more explicit instruction on humility: “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Rom. 12:16).

It should go without saying that Paul’s statement relates to worldly standards. God does not look at some as though they were in a high position and others as though they were in a low position. It is the world which distinguishes between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

You could even summarize Paul’s teaching in Romans 12 by saying:

“Don’t be like the world. Be like Jesus.”

“Don’t be governed by societal standards. Be governed by biblical standards.”

As a young boy, I was obsessed with being in first place. I wanted to win every race and every competition. I wanted to be first in line for everything.

I’m trying to grow out of that remembering the words of Jesus, “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk. 9:35).

By every appearance, my capacity for kindness, my capacity for generosity, my capacity for love is determined by my ability to “be the very last, and the servant of all“.

Humility is not some secondary trait for the follower of Jesus. Humility is of massive importance for our advancement in Christ-likeness. To this end I urge you to pursue last place.

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“Be Humble”, based on Romans 12, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, September 18, 2011.

Good Religious Zeal

Many will read the title of this post and think that I’ve just stated an oxymoron.

“The word ‘good’ and the words ‘religious zeal’ do not belong together”, some will say.

This generation has certainly seen its share of religious zeal gone bad. History  also records a trail of religious movements that sought to forcefully impose their beliefs on others.

One of the unfortunate side effects of this is that today’s Christian church is feeling pressure to produce a brand of Christianity that is devoid of any zeal. There is a pressure to be moderate. There is an expectation for us to be entirely quiet and private about what we believe.

I want to suggest an alternative. The answer to “bad zeal” is not the absence of zeal. The answer to “bad zeal” is “good zeal”—what I would term “biblical zeal”. I say this because the Bible actually commands our zeal. The apostle Paul says to the Romans, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).

The Greek word, translated “keep“, literally means “to guard“. What is implied here is that every follower of Jesus begins with zeal—zeal for the Lord and all that He has done for us. We begin with zeal for the mission, and all that we are required to do. But it appears that there are things that threaten our zeal, and so we must “guard” it.

I appreciate Paul’s imperative while living in an age where there is pressure—sometimes even the expectation—that we will give up our zeal.

As I seek to guard my zeal from those who would have me give it up, I am challenged to examine the nature of my zeal. Because as I look at Paul’s command in context I see a particular kind of zeal being described.

The imperatives which surround the call to zeal are marked by selflessness. Paul begins with a challenge to love with sincerity (12:9). He goes on to encourage devotion to others, to the extent that we would honour the needs of others above our own (12:10). Paul exhorts Christians to be marked by joy and to be patient in affliction, while remaining faithful in prayer (12:12). Paul goes on to encourage generosity and hospitality (12:13).

Keep reading and you’ll find imperatives for humility, empathy, and harmony (12:14, 15). There is a call to integrity (12:17) and a call to peace (12:18-20), ending with the command: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).

As I consider the placement of the command for me to be zealous, I cannot help but connect that command with the traits which surround it.

The answer to “bad zeal” is not the absence of zeal. The answer to “bad zeal” is biblical zeal.

Biblical zeal loves sincerely.
Biblical zeal acts humbly.
Biblical zeal serves joyfully.
Biblical zeal endures patiently.
Biblical zeal prays faithfully.
Biblical zeal gives generously.
Biblical zeal pursues peace.

Our world bears the scars of misplaced zeal. Biblical zeal is different. Biblical zeal promotes healing and transformation.

Don’t be shy about pursuing biblical zeal!

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“Be Zealous”, based on Romans 12, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

My Job Has Changed

Urban Renewal CentreMy focus in ministry has changed over the past year. I didn’t mean for it to. I’m not even sure how to explain it. My theology is pretty much the same, so why is the application of my theology changing so dramatically?

For the first 13 years of ordained ministry, I was consumed with the work that took place within the walls of the local church I was called to. I was like a manager seeking to maintain peace and order within the institution. Today, I find myself consumed by the work which lies outside the walls of the local church I am called to. I feel like a hybrid between a local church pastor and a missionary.

Some of my colleagues would say that I’ve moved from an “attractional” ministry model to a “missional” one. That might be the best explanation. For the sake of those who do not recognize those terms, an “attractional” ministry sets itself up in such a way as to become attractive to those who might be looking for a church home. In the attractional model, ministry is largely fixed in a particular location while hoping to draw others in. The “missional” model, by contrast, is marked by sending (see John 20:21). Members of the local church are encouraged to go (see Matthew 28:19) and be difference makers in their respective communities.

I don’t know that there was a defining moment that pushed me into the missional mindset. Nor can I point to a meeting or a decision that rendered St. Andrew’s Kirk a missional church. But as I write this, it has become obvious that the shift has already happened. We’re meaningfully involved as a primary partner for the Bain & Grant’s Town Urban Renewal Centre. We have a regular presence at the Ranfurly Homes for Children. We’re in discussion with a nearby high school about how we can help mentor teens who are struggling. Every Sunday we pay for a bus to go through the neighbourhood to pick up children who have no other way to get to church.

The number of Kirk members who are involved in these efforts is growing at a rapid pace. The resources being expended beyond our walls is increasing. I discern our ministry posture becoming joyfully missional.

One of the other really neat things I have discerned in this ministry shift is that the ministry within our walls is being enhanced.

I know—it sounds counter-intuitive to say that focussing ministry outside the walls of the church is the key to improving ministry within the walls of the church, but that’s exactly what I perceive to be happening.

This approach may be counter-intuitive, but it’s biblical. Jesus told us to “Go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:19) and explained that we are to be His “witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

I’m grateful to be able to say that I think we might be tasting some of the blessing described in Isaiah 58, where the Lord says,

“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isa. 58:10, 11).

I’m a bit embarrassed by how long it took for me to embrace this ministry emphasis. And I get the sense that we’ve only just begun. Being missional can’t be reduced to a few strategic initiatives. Being missional, I suspect, is something we become and will grow in as we give ourselves to Jesus and His priorities. It’s entirely possible then, that my job will continue to change.

God Will Change You

I am currently experiencing a number of changes in my life that I’m not real happy about. My daughter recently pointed to an old photograph of me and commented on how much hair I used to have. Over the past year I’ve noticed a subtle emergence of gray hair. I’ve also noticed that my body is not coping with the rigors of sport as well as it used to. I spend far too much time with my physio therapist.

Sensing my frustration with these changes, you can imagine my delight as I read about the positive transformation spoken of by the apostle Paul in 2Corinthians 4:16. Here Paul assures us, ”Though outwardly, we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2Cor. 4:16).

What’s this transformation about? What are we being transformed into?

Paul answers, “(we) are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, with ever-increasing glory” (2Cor. 3:18).

We know from Romans 12 that there are things for us to do–there are things prescribed for us as we pursue Christ-likeness. In other words, growing in Christ-likeness requires our participation. But here’s the awesome thing: Growing in Christ-likeness does not depend upon your participation alone. The reason we can be confident in our spiritual progress is because God promises to help us along.

When Paul says that we “are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory“, he says in the same sentence that this “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Cor. 3:18).

Now, someone might ask, “Why do I need to change? Doesn’t God accept me the way I am?”

Yes, God receives you as you are, but He does not leave you the way He finds you.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:25, 26).

By His grace, God saves impoverished souls, and in His love He does not leave us as impoverished souls.

He cleanses us. He imparts new qualities to us. In short, God changes us.

And so, even as I mourn the breakdown of my physical body, I rejoice at the inward transformation that is taking place. And as I struggle to help this process along with my imperfect devotion to Christ, I am consoled by the fact that God is nevertheless changing me.

As the hymn writer well puts it, “Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Amazing Grace!

What Kind Of Person Talks To Others About Jesus?

Sharing Your Faith In JesusThe apostle Paul asks the question, “How can they hear (the Gospel) without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14).

I get that.

I believe that.

My livelihood as a pastor is based in part on this principle—that people are supposed to talk to other people about Jesus.

What I’m sometimes uncomfortable with is the how, and the by whom, part. While I concede that every follower of Jesus ought to be ready to share the reason for their faith in Jesus (1Pet. 3:15), I suspect that there are some who are not the least bit ready but are sharing anyways.

I liken sharing the Gospel to preparing a meal on a stove–with some experience in the kitchen, some basic instruction on food preparation, and with careful attention, we gain the capacity to deliver an outstanding meal for others to enjoy. Without these things, we run the risk of ruining the food—or worse, possibly setting the kitchen on fire in the process. This is why I don’t allow my 9-year-old daughter to cook dinner without close supervision.

I don’t mean to sound unkind or harsh, but I worry that some well-meaning Christians have done injury to the Gospel by the manner in which they conveyed Jesus to others. I suspect this, in part, because I have observed this. But I also say this reflecting back a number of years and remembering my own manner as I attempted to share the reason for my own faith. Yes, I do realize that “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2Cor. 4:7), but I worry that we often lack the humility that should accompany our position as “clay jars”.

As I recently closed out a short message series, entitled, “Spread The News”, my concern focused on the qualities of the person who is sharing their faith in Jesus. My text was 1Peter 3:8-17 and my conclusion was that two particular marks are necessary for the evangelist:

1) Mindful of the needs of others

2) Intently focused on the Lord Jesus Christ

The danger is to overexpose on one of these marks while neglecting the other. We need to be marked by both.

Before Peter urges us to prepare our defense of the Gospel, he first exhorts us to “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble” (1Pet. 3:8). It’s as if Peter is telling us that our success in promoting the Gospel is linked to our capacity for relational health.

Theologian, Edmund Clowney, argues that the Greek translated “be sympathetic” means to “enter into the other’s needs and concerns”. The call to “be compassionate” is along those exact lines. You could say that compassion is sympathy in action. Sympathy feels for others. Conmpassion acts for others.

So, how are we going to get there? Because my default, as much as I’d like it to be, is not the well-being of others. What’s going to help me to be more sympathetic and compassionate?

Peter’s answer: Humility.

This makes perfect sense. In order to live in harmony with others, I not only need to increase my concern for the needs of others, but I also need to decrease the attention I give to my own needs.

In addition to being mindful of the needs of others, we also need to have an intent focus on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter exhorts us accordingly in 3:15, “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” I think Peter realizes that we don’t always assign Jesus to an appropriate place and priority in our life.

I often hear people say, “You’re in my heart”, or “She is close to my heart”. That is saying something significant. Peter wants Jesus to be assigned to our heart—but not simply as someone we love deeply, not simply in a place with dear friends and family—Peter says “in your hearts set apart Christ as LORD.

Jesus is not simply to be “close” to my heart—He is to be the Master of my heart.

As I try and connect what is going on in my heart with what I am required to say, I am reminded of what Jesus has said: “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Could it be, that as I think about talking to others about Jesus, my biggest burden is not to get my speech right, but to get my heart right?

What kind of person talks to others about Jesus?

We need to set Christ apart in our heart as Lord, and we need to care more for the needs of others than we do for our own.

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“The Labourers Of Mission”, based on 1Peter 3:8-17, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, August 14, 2011.