When the non-Christian is asked, “If there is a heaven, will you be admitted,” the vast majority answer “yes.” When asked why, 95-98% answer, “I’m a good person.”
Are we all “good people?” By what standard have we determined this? It seems that we have merely deceived ourselves into believing in our surpassing moral superiority, as many parallel studies indicate:
- In one study of nearly a million high school seniors, 70 percent said they had “above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average.” Another study found that 94 percent of college professors think they do above average work. And in another study, “when doctors diagnosed their patients as having pneumonia, predictions made with 88 percent confidence turned out to be right only 20 percent of the time.”
- 25% of college students placed themselves in the top 1%, relative to their ability to get along with others.
- 84% of Medical Residents thought that Doctors influenced by gifts from pharmaceutical companies, but only 15% of the respondents thought that they would be so influenced.
- Psychologist Shelley Taylor writes, “Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases.” (Positive Illusions, p.214)
We don’t suffer from a low self-esteem but an inflated and costly one. The more we inflate ourselves, the more we need to justify our inflated esteem against reality and the more scaffolding we need to maintain our façade. While servitude is measured by the incessant need to maintain a front or image; freedom is not having to. It is the freedom to simply accept ourselves as we are, warts and all, and not have to worry about what people might think!
This is the point of humility – not to beat ourselves down but to simply accept the painful truth about ourselves, the truth from which we have always fled, including the fact that we are not worthy of any of God’s gifts.
The Apostle Paul explained why he had to be vigilant against inflating himself and trusting in his moral merit before God:
· But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. (Philippians 3:7-9)
Paul was not arguing that his attainments were rubbish. Instead, trusting in their merit before God was rubbish. Considering himself more deserving than others, because of his attainments, was rubbish.
However, this kind of self-trust is worse than rubbish. It is a spiritual and inter-personal poison. The higher we think about ourselves, the lower we think about Christ and His cross. The more we trust in ourselves and our own attainments, the less we will think about His gift of righteousness. Therefore, Paul actively regarded all those things that had given him a sense of entitlement as manure - nothing that would entitle him to receive anything good from God.
However, manure provides a good basis for growth, as long as we are willing to recognize its utility. Why was Paul so strenuous about this practice of humility? So that he would “gain Christ!” Receiving Christ requires that we see ourselves as we truly are – sinners who need a Savior. It also requires that we see Christ as He truly is – our only hope of deliverance from the darkness of conceit and death.
It had to be broken by decades of depression followed by panic attacks before I was willing and able to see my manure. Once seeing it, I began, with more earnestness, to cry out for the only One who could turn my rotting life into a garden.
Pursuing an accurate self-concept doesn’t simply get us into salvation’s door; it also bears a continual harvest – “the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Learning more about Him and about us is the “truth that sets us free” (John 8:31-32).
How? In so many ways! As we learn and grow convinced of His all-sufficiency, we learn to put down our guard, to accept ourselves, and then to live the life to which He has called us.
Strangely, as my Savior has become more, and I less, I have been set free from so many self-concerns that had imprisoned me. I no longer obsess about myself but about Him and what He has done for me. As a result, I just want to serve Him.