Tag Archives: humility

Craving Obscurity in a Celebrity Obsessed Culture

Everyone wants to be known and loved, and no one wishes to live and die in obscurity. The “good morning” we receive from a passing hiker, a conversation with a good friend, or the most intimate expressions of love…we need acknowledgement, affirmation and love from others. How else could we feel confident in our own worth and sure of our significance and place in this world? Apart from a sense of belonging we lose our love of life and energy for work. Clearly, desire to know and be known is part of our created nature. But like all other aspects of our created nature this desire can be misdirected and abused.

Jesus warns of the dangers of seeking applause from the public:

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26)

But I want to be well thought of, and I like it when everyone speaks well of me! It feels good. And it feels good because it makes me think well of myself. However, Jesus reminds us that other people are in no position and have no authority to pronounce us worthy of praise. Quite the opposite, the world rarely finds truth praiseworthy, but it loves beautiful lies.

Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ warns against inordinately seeking knowledge lest we look down on others for knowing less or become obsessed with seeking praise for our intellectual accomplishments. He advises seeking something else:

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing (1.2).

In another translation the words “love to be unknown” are rendered “crave obscurity.” Those words cut me to the heart. I don’t “crave obscurity,” and I don’t “love to be unknown.” I fear it. Living in obscurity seems like not existing at all, and dying unknown and unremembered seems like being erased from existence or worse, never having existed. And yet the words “crave obscurity” haunt me because of the falsehood they expose and truth to which they bear witness. Thomas à Kempis is not urging us to “love to be unknown” in the absolute sense. Nor does Jesus allow us to dismiss all knowledge of ourselves that comes from outside ourselves. This is not possible. Instead, both urge us to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God. To know God is to know truth, and to be known by God is to be known truly. If I know the One who knows me truly, I am in touch with truth about myself. And knowing the truth about myself frees me from the endless quest to make myself pleasing to others.

Now I want to apply the principle of “crave obscurity” to the church. Just as individuals need to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God, so does the church. Just as desire for recognition, legitimation, acknowledgement, influence and honor blinds and corrupts individuals, so do such desires blind and corrupt churches. One could write a history of the church from the First Century to today by tracing the church’s efforts to become accepted, honored, respected, visible and influential in the political and social orders of the world.

As soon as a few believers begin meeting in homes or a local rented hall, they begin to dream of “greater” things: greater visibility, greater numbers, greater influence, a bigger staff, a bigger meeting venue, and a larger budget. Their obscurity to the world troubles them. They feel incomplete and insignificant. They crave the things that have come to be associated in the public mind with the legitimacy and permanency of institutions: legal incorporation, property ownership, wealth, visibility in public space and employees.

My question today is this: what would the church look like if it “loved to be unknown and considered as nothing”? What if it “craved obscurity”? What if it put all its energy into a quest to know and be known by God? What if it became invisible to the world? Would it lose anything essential to its existence? Or, would the truth set the church free, free to be the church in truth.

The One Thing I’ve Never Seen on Facebook

We see lots of things on Facebook: pictures of families at holiday dinners, vacation selfies, and nature scenes. We see videos of pet adventures, talking heads, and wild animals. We receive birthday and anniversary notices. And we wade through lots of advertisements! But we also encounter lots of heated political, moral, and theological rhetoric. This rhetoric sometimes involves outrage, name calling, labeling, and hyperbole—all in the name of truth, reason, justice, Jesus, the kingdom of God, and all we hold dear. There is no need for me to give examples. You know.

But the one thing I’ve never seen is a reply to a FB post that reads like this:

“Before reading your argument I held strongly to an opposing view. But your cool, careful reasoning and your fair—even generous—representation of those with whom you differ has convinced me that I was mistaken and that the view you espouse is the correct one.”

I wonder…is there any place in our culture where cool, patient reason reigns? Where there is enough humility before the truth to let it speak while we all listen? Where we leave final judgment to God?

How can disciples of Jesus avoid becoming like those we despise? Perhaps the first question we ought to ask is where our spite comes from.

How can we speak with those with whom we disagree? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves first about the character of the force that drives our urge to speak.

What if we thought of persuasion this way: you listen to others until they hit upon the truth?


Those Arrogant, Obnoxious Christians!

Today we will address a common objection to Christianity. It goes something like this: “So, you think your religion (Christianity) is the true religion, that Jesus Christ is the only way to God? Other religions are false and lead nowhere? Don’t you think that is a bit arrogant? Aren’t those who practice other faiths as sincere in their belief and as faithful in their religious practice as you are?” As we will see in our analysis and response, this complaint, even in this brief form, contains more than one kind of objection. And it is often combined with a long list of associated objections, such as the following: “how likely is it that you just happened to be born where and when the true religion was dominant? Wouldn’t God want everyone to have access to him?” All of these objections and others like them seem to originate from the intuition that religious truth should be universally available and easily accessible. Perhaps we will address this intuition in future posts, but in this post I want to focus on the question of arrogance.

First let’s subject the arrogance objection to a little analysis. Clearly, its power is contained in associating a moral fault with a truth claim, so that asserting truth becomes an arrogant act. No one wants to think of themselves as arrogant or to be thought arrogant by others. Arrogance is an attitude of personal superiority to others. Arrogant people see their real or imaginary characteristics as indicative of their special importance. And for a person to think she or he possesses greater worth or dignity or value than others violates our sense (in the modern western world) that all people are of equal worth. It seems as ugly as it is false.

As I noted above, the arrogance objection explicitly attempts to associate the attitude of arrogance (a moral fault) with the act of claiming that Christianity is true. It implies that an attitude of personal arrogance cannot be dissociated from the truth claim. But here it makes an obvious error. In our analysis of arrogance above we saw that arrogance is a personal attitude that draws an unwarranted moral conclusion from a person’s real or imaginary characteristic or possession. Suppose I really am very rich or brilliant or accomplished in my field. Being rich or brilliant or accomplished in a field does not necessitate personal arrogance. In themselves the statements of fact that describe someone as rich or brilliant or accomplished are either true or false; they cannot be humble or arrogant. Likewise, the statement “Christianity is true” or “Jesus Christ is the only way to God” is true or false. By itself it is not arrogant or humble. Sentences can’t lie or brag or show distain. Only people can be arrogant or humble.

Let’s look at the “arrogance objection” from another angle. Arrogance, as I argued above, characterizes the mood of a false judgment about one’s superior worth based on one’s real or imagined qualities. But when believers express the judgment that Jesus Christ is the revelation of the true God or the only way to God, they are not expressing a judgment about their superiority over others. They are not even making this judgment in reliance on their own (superior) insights into God, other religions, or human nature. Their judgment is not based on a direct comparison of Christianity with other religions, which would require viewing the question from a neutral position and possessing godlike powers of discernment.

Believers’ affirmation that Jesus Christ is the only way to God is a statement of faith derived from their faith in the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection and glorification. If God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus is Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Paul and the original apostles declare that God raised Jesus from the dead. Either they are correct or they are incorrect. Either they are lying or they are telling the truth. Contemporary Christians believe the apostles are correct when they declare “Jesus is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). My assertion that “Jesus is Lord and Savior” is not my personal assessment attesting to my own superior judgment in matters of religion. It is my confession of faith. And when I confess Jesus’ Lordship, I also confess my trust in the apostolic word of testimony. In their act of confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord of all believers are not vaunting their own personal superiority over others but humbly expressing their reliance on the word of the apostles and their determination to live as disciples of the Lord.

Is Jesus Lord of all? Did God raise Jesus from the dead? These questions call for “yes” or “no” answers. Arrogance has nothing to do with it.