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It is rare to find a Westerner who would be troubled by an advertisement using the desire for greatness as a hook. Why not? Our pursuit of greatness or self-worth is regarded as an acceptable goal.
However, Jesus reserved His praise for those who didn’t believe that they were worthy or great. Amazingly, a Roman commander confessed to Jesus that he was not worthy that Jesus should come to his home to heal his servant. In his humility, the commander understood that it was enough for Jesus to simply pronounce the word, and his servant would be healed.
However, if anyone should have felt worthy, it was the Roman commander. After all, he was a Roman – a member of a great empire that had conquered most of the known world. Besides, this commander had shown the necessary character and valor to rise above others.
Did he have a low self-esteem problem? Jesus didn’t think so:
· When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. (Matthew 8:10; ESV)
What did Jesus see in this man? He saw a man who was not filled with conceit, with pretentions of his own importance, worthiness, and greatness. The commander was a man who knew who he was and accepted himself as unworthy. As such, he knew that Jesus was worthy.
In contrast, we are desperate to prove to the world and to ourselves that we are worthy. We have pride parades and assemblies of various kinds to prove that we and our group are worthy.
Jesus commended the faith (and wisdom) of only one other – again, a Gentile. As an object lesson for His proud disciples, He initially denied a mother’s request that Jesus cast a demon out of her afflicted daughter:
· He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:24-26)
These words reflected the arrogant worldview of His disciples, who believed that only Jews could be saved. They thought that the Gentiles were dogs, and they didn’t want anything to do with them. They must have been troubled that Jesus had taken them on a tour of Gentile Phoenicia. They must also have been relieved when Jesus had answered this Gentile in a way that affirmed their ethnic worth and superiority.
However, Jesus abruptly turned the table on them:
· She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:27-28)
She proved that she was just as worthy of the mercy of Jesus as were His disciples. But what made her worthy? The recognition of her unworthiness and need for the Savior.
Meanwhile, we are trying to climb the ladder of success and recognition in order to establish our own worth and superiority. Either we celebrate our success, ethnicity, or our race. We celebrate our genealogies and the contributions of our ancestors, attempting to ride on their worthiness-coattails.
However, these forms of celebration cut us off from the mercy of God and, in the long run, are quite costly. They harden and make us arrogant. Jesus told a parable about religious leaders who:
· Trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’“ (Luke 18:9-12)
The Pharisee had convinced himself of his worth and moral superiority, but what was the result? He became self-righteous and “treated others with contempt.” Meanwhile, the other man humbled himself to acknowledge the truth – that he was a sinner who needed the mercy of God as everyone does. What lesson did Jesus draw from this?
· I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other [the Pharisee]. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
This raises an important question for us. Should we teach our children to believe in themselves and to have a positive self-esteem? To have a biblically-based, God-based self-estimation is one thing. However, to believe that “I have whatever it takes” is unbiblical. We don’t have what it takes, as the Bible continues to inform us at every turn of the page. Paul wrote about his inadequacy:
· Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God. (2 Corinthians 3:5)
If “our sufficiency is from God,” we are violating Scripture when we tell our youth, “You can do it.” Nor do we need to feel inadequate or inferior, because, with God on our side, nothing is impossible.
Nor did Jesus teach us that we should believe in ourselves. Instead, the opposite:
· I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Isn’t this helplessness depressing? Certainly not! Instead, Scripture assures us that we can do all things through Christ, and even our failures, He works for our benefit (Romans 8:28). Besides, we are beloved, forgiven, and have an unfading heavenly inheritance! Through these promises, we are ennobled and empowered to take our depressed eyes off from ourselves and onto God.
Why then do we try to build up the self-trust and self-esteem of our children? Don’t these make them feel good about themselves? What can be wrong with that? Because it bears only a temporary and deceptive comfort!
Eating candy might satisfy hunger, but this satisfaction is temporary and comes at a great price. I had felt bad about myself. I compensated by building my self-esteem through positive affirmations. I would look in the mirror, flex my muscles, and tell myself that I was great. And it worked, if you really believe it. I had dreaded going to school, but these affirmations gave me a certain measure of confidence.
However, reality would not agree. The higher you are, the harder you fall, and my falls were thunderous. What was the answer? Greater infusions of self-esteem, like a drug that had ceased to produce a high.
I also used my Jewish ethnicity to restore the high. To some degree, it worked to remind myself that I was part of a great race of people who had produced many Nobel Prize winners.
Even as a Christian, I would give myself regular doses of this self-talk. Consequently, I felt very alienated from other Christians and even from God. Why? The more we attempt to exalt ourselves, the more we will be humbled! The more we attempt to trust in ourselves, the less we will trust in God.
However, our Lord humbles us in order to exalt us, and I was humbled to a depth I could never explain. Through this incredibly painful process, I began to see the folly and superficiality of self-exaltation.
I now warn people against this tempting drug. It is not wrong to enjoy our cultural endowment and to even find good in it. However, we must not use it to exalt ourselves and to prove that we are worthy. Paul issued the same warning. He explained that if anyone had a reason to boast – a reason to trust in their own worthiness – it was he. He mentioned his pedigree, education, and “righteousness” regarding his compliance with the Mosaic Law. While there was nothing that matter with these things, he came it realize, in Christ, that placing trust or deriving self-worth from these things was manure. Even worse, they blocked him from receiving the gift of righteousness found in trusting Christ:
· But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. (Philippians 3:7-10)
Paul claimed that he had “suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish,” not because his education or his righteous performance was rubbish, but instead the identity of worthiness he had derived from them. Why did he forsake this comforting identity? So that his identity might be derived from Jesus alone!
Paul also suggests that this growth is a process. The more he would resist the temptation of thinking himself worthy or superior, the more he would enjoy Christ.
And this was such a temptation for Paul that God afflicted him with a “thorn in his flesh,” “a messenger of Satan” so that he would better be able to resist pride. In contrast, we teach our children that they should be proud of their ethnicity or even sexual orientation. Schools teach them about successful people of their own race or orientation. We teach them that self-confidence and a positive self-esteem are virtues. The children are instructed that they have to believe in themselves. But does this candy that ruins our appetite for what is truly nourishing – a life-transforming relationship with the Savior.
Even worse, belief in our own worthiness can alienate us from God. Jesus told a parable about a lost son, the prodigal son, who had wasted his life and his father’s resources. When he returned in a humbled condition, his father celebrated. However, the “good” son, who believed in his own worthiness and deservedness, looked down on his undeserving brother and refused to partake in the celebration, rejecting mercy.
Although the temptation remains, I never want to feel that I am worthy of anything from God. Everything good that I have comes from Him, and I don’t want to forget it. Once I exalt myself, I fall. Once I believe that I am deserving of anything good that comes from God, I embrace self-delusion and its inevitable crash.
King Herod had regarded himself worthy of the most extreme forms of praise and adoration:
King Herod had regarded himself worthy of the most extreme forms of praise and adoration:
· On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:21-23)
When we partake in our national or ethnic celebrations, we must ask ourselves, “Am I giving all the glory to God or am I taking a portion for myself?”
My Savior has delivered me from the most debilitating depression and panic attacks. If have no right to boast in anything apart from my Savior. I pray that His Church will adopt no other attitude.