Tag Archives: Humility

Gratitude

Thanksgiving has come and gone and we now find ourselves fully immersed in the lead-up to Christmas.  However, one of the things Thanksgiving turkeys are known for is their encore appearances as leftovers.  It is in this spirit of culinary sequels from the fridge that I would like to spend some post-Thanksgiving time thinking on being thankful.

Thankfulness or gratitude is an idea that often crosses our mind (to a greater or lesser degree) on a daily basis as we pray before each meal.  Other times we encounter it as part of Sunday worship.  Yet other times we are grateful when we are blessed in a particular way or when a specific crisis is averted.  Regardless of the context, we typically think about thankfulness and gratitude as a feeling.  We feel thankful.  With this heuristic in place, we judge our degree of thankfulness based on the feeling of being thankful and seek to produce that feeling when we think we ought to be thankful.  There is a difference, however, between feeling thankful and being thankful.

To feel thankful is a feeling and, by definition, is something that is temporary.  It is therefore impossible that we should feel thankful all of the time:  this feeling will come and go as it replaces and is replaced by other feelings woven throughout our lives such as happiness, sadness, anger, cheerfulness, and so on.  Our feeling thankful will also be affected by things such as how tired we are, where our attention is focused, and a whole host of other factors beyond the other feelings coming and going from our consciousness.  The sum of the matter is that our feeling of thankfulness ultimately comes up short as a means by which to evaluate whether we are living our lives with gratitude or not:  it is too vague and volatile a thing.  For example, we may become especially adept at producing this feeling of gratitude by our own efforts at the times we deem appropriate.  Yet, in spite of our feeling the right way at the right time, we may not possess the least bit of genuine gratitude.

This begs the question:  what is gratitude?  What is thankfulness?  From the above we can glean that it is not a feeling as we often suppose at first glance.  The feeling stems from something else and is an echo or footprint of that something else.  When we attempt to artificially produce this feeling, we are no closer to gratitude than an artist attempting to convey the idea of a cat by drawing only its tracks.  We may be very good at drawing paw prints, but that doesn’t mean we know what a cat is.  Nonetheless, we can learn some things about a cat by its footprints and the same holds true with gratitude.

Gratitude invariably shifts us out of the center of attention and instead focuses on something outside ourselves.  It goes against the grain of the self-made man or woman that is idolized by our culture and instead acknowledges the fact that, while we exercise agency and stewardship in our lives, we did not create ourselves.  From here, it is not difficult to see that gratitude is a very close relative of humility and has a large chunk of the same DNA.  As such, being thankful means that we are necessarily humble.  Being thankful, just like being humble, translates into action and how we live our lives.  It seeps into our attitudes and dispositions.

Rather than a feeling, gratitude is what we might call an attitude of the heart:  something that is near the core of our being and that affects everything which proceeds from our heart, be it word, thought, or deed.  It is not something that we turn on and off at will.  Of course, there are times when it closer to the forefront of our minds than others, but this does not affect its presence and influence in us.  As we grow in our relationship with God, gratitude becomes a stronger influence in our lives.  This is because we come to rely on God more fully and keep Him in mind in all we do.  Gratitude is a natural outcome of growing intimacy with God.  It proceeds from an increasingly God-centered view of the world and of ourselves.

Gratitude is a topic that is worth thinking on and digesting as we move into the Christmas season and Advent.  With reminders of Christ’s first coming so readily before our eyes and minds, it is a fitting time to consider our response to the love that God shows us.  Do we take it for granted or do we respond with thankfulness?

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Temptation is no Laughing Matter!!

Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! (ドウンタウンのガキの使いやあらへんで!!) is a popular Japanese variety show the name of which translates as “Downtown’s ‘This is no task for kids!!’”.  It is hosted by the comedic duos known as Downtown and Cocorico along with comedian Hōsei Yamasaki and features a variety of skits, games, and other antics.  Perhaps the most intense of these is the annual “no-laughing” batsu (punishment) game that the cast engages in to ring in the New Year.  During these games, the hosts undergo a 24-hour “training” session for some job (such as spy, reporter, or hotel man) during which they are strictly forbidden to laugh.  If they do laugh, they are immediately punished (usually with a swift whack to the posterior).  However, the “training” that they receive is a series of skits and set-ups designed for the sole purpose of making them laugh.  The winner is the one who receives the least number of punishments.  Needless to say, the final tallies are all always in the triple digits.

While the show primarily provides wild and often unpredictable entertainment, it also gives us a mirror of sorts that shows us how things turn out when we try to stop sinning using our own willpower.  Just as the hosts are told to stop laughing one day, we also are tempted to think that we can just decide to stop sinning.  The problem is that our decision is to stop sinning, not to submit to God, which is at the heart of the matter.  We cannot overcome sin except by God’s grace.  Without resting in this grace we keep ourselves at the mercy of sin just as the hapless hosts are at the mercy of the pranks and skits they encounter.  No matter how hard they try, they will inevitably break down and laugh.  Similarly, we can fight temptation as hard as we want, but it will always win in the end if we don’t have God in the equation.

James sums up this dynamic by writing:  “Therefore submit to God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts you double-minded.  Lament and mourn and weep!  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift your up.” (James 4:7-10)  Submission to God comes first and foremost.  When we humble ourselves before God, then and only then are we able to rely on His strength to resist the devil and temptation.  When we think about what James means by “Let your laughter be turned to mourning…” we shouldn’t be lead to the conclusion that being humble before God means that we should never laugh or be joyful.  Jesus presents what this humility is about in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. (Luke 18:9-14)  The tax collector who “went down to his house justified” sounds a lot like James’ description of humbling ourselves.  The key lies not in any particular emotional state, but in recognizing God as our savior, our justifier, rather than ourselves.  “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

So it is that when we trust in God rather than ourselves, we meet with better results in avoiding sin than the Gaki members do in their ill-fated attempts to avoid laughter (and the subsequent punishments).


Advent 2 – The Brightest Display

Scripture:  Philippians 2:5-11

One of the most beautiful sights around Christmas time is the night lit up by the multitude of colorful lights adorning houses, trees, bushes, and anything else they can be hung on.  Perhaps the character most closely associated with these luminous displays is “that guy”:  the one who risks life and limb scurrying up and down ladders; who flirts with imminent electric demise as he tries to plug all of his strings of lights into not so many outlets; all in the name of having the brightest (and sometimes gaudiest) display in the neighborhood.  Competition can be fierce as each homeowner tries to outshine their peers and garner the most praise and attention for their decorations.

When we contemplate the coming of Christ into the world, we find something different, something not so bright and attention-grabbing.  When Jesus was born, He was laid in a manger as opposed to a crib.  This lack of proper bedding is often seen as representing the humility in which Christ came.  However, the humility of Christ goes beyond the manger.  If we look at Philippians 2:5-8, we get a better view of what Christ’s humility is all about:

“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of Himself.  He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of Himself that He had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.  Not at all.  When the time came, He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!  Having become human, he stayed human.  It was an incredibly humbling process.  He didn’t claim any special privileges.  Instead, He lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.”

If we consider only the manger, we see only part of Christ’s humility.  We do not see just how far Christ lowered Himself for our sakes to honor God the Father.  We’re talking about setting aside His position in heaven with the rest of the Trinity.  He had every right not to come to earth and be surrounded by all the vileness of sin. What is especially striking is that, being perfect, He was least deserving to suffer and die for our sins.  Yet he did all of these things just the same.

We read the following in Philippians 2:9-11:

“Because of that obedience, God lifted Him high and honored Him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow down in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that He is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.”

Christ was exalted because of His humble obedience to the God, even to the point of the most disgraceful and humiliating death one could die at the time.  He honored God through this obedience that knew only God; not pride, nor privilege.  He put the honor of His position aside in order to serve and glorify God.

As we consider the birth of Christ, we are called to humble ourselves as He was humble.  This raises the question of how we are to do this.  Fortunately, Paul gives us some pointers a few verses prior to 5:8-11.  Paul writes:

”Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top.  Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.  Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage.  Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

Just like Christ set aside His own privileges and position, so we are to think of others before ourselves.  This isn’t to say that we devalue ourselves; Christ didn’t become any less God when He came down to earth.  What it means is that we don’t focus exclusively on our own benefits; instead we look for the ways, big or small, that we can help those around us.  We become servants to others as Christ demonstrated when He washed the disciples’ feet.

It is not my intention to say we shouldn’t have flashy Christmas displays.  They are great fun (even some of the gaudy ones).  What is of the great importance, though, is what is in our hearts.  If we are constantly thinking about ourselves and how we’re going to get ahead, we will certainly miss something greater.  We will fail to see and take part in the brightest, most brilliant and resplendent display there is:  the praising and glorifying of God with our whole selves alongside the rest of creation.

Practical questions:

  1. Why might we equate humility with devaluing ourselves rather than submission and obedience?
  2. What are some areas in your life where you are especially tempted set yourself before and above others?  Why?
  3. What are some specific ways that you can practice humility today/tomorrow?