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Fasting from Self-importance

Rediscovering the Art of Humility in an Age of Arrogance

In one seat at the congregational meeting, a church member quietly prays for a peaceful resolution to conflict. In a different seat just across the room, another member makes clear his opinion that there is only one correct path forward: his way. Same room, same church, same vinyl-covered seats, but very different approaches.

Lent may be the most counter-cultural of all liturgical seasons, what with all the ashes and self-denial that fly in the face of our vainglorious culture. While the world delights in power, fame, and wealth, Jesus’s journey to the cross calls us to sacrifice, to surrender, and to that decidedly radical virtue: humility. The Lenten season can be a time for us to reflect upon the attitudes and behaviors that set us apart from the world as followers of Jesus.

It can be easy to be lured into the brash, boastful circus of self-promotion where the loudest voices rule the ring and the show must go on so the stars can shine brighter. Even in the church, we fall for false promises of fame and fortune, celebrating bigger and better at the expense of humble, Christlike hearts.

Perhaps it’s time to set our hearts on rediscovering the art of humility. Along with giving up chocolate or abstaining from social media in our Lenten observance, I invite followers of Jesus to choose words and actions that reflect our Savior’s self-sacrificing, merciful, humble heart.

Biblical humility begins with seeing ourselves as God sees us. It’s not about low self-esteem or false modesty. It doesn’t mean we can’t influence the world around us. Just look at Jesus, who humbled himself unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8), and thereby changed the world by giving humanity the hope of new life. Humbly lifting up those who are weak or stepping aside to allow others a chance to lead doesn’t diminish our value and shouldn’t threaten our self-worth.

If the Lenten season inspires you to fast, could it be that God is leading you to a fast from demanding that your own needs be met, so you can more readily offer compassion to the hurting bodies and hearts of people around you?

Instead, when we see ourselves in relation to God, through the eyes of humility, we recognize two divergent yet intertwined realities. First, we embrace our identity as bearers of the image of God, confessing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made to reflect God’s glory with the miraculous capacity to know and love our Creator. Second, we become aware of just how sinfully broken we are. Humility requires that we admit we are human, in the amazing, beautiful, imago Dei, broken, self-seeking, foolish reality of being made “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) and yet falling “short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Philippians 2 calls us to become like Jesus, who emptied himself, took the form of a servant, humbled himself, and became obedient. Joining our Lord in humility can take many forms, each of which cuts against the grain of our pride-driven culture and calls us to courage, submission, and faith.

During the challenges of the past year, we have seen needs skyrocket, along with opportunities to humble ourselves in loving action. From food pantries to shelters for people without homes, from anti-racism marches to domestic violence shelters, our communities are awash with ways to help hurting people in the name of Jesus.

Humility fuels ministries of compassion. It takes individuals who are willing to bend their backs and get their hands dirty in the tiresome, often thankless work of lifting others up. There is nothing glamorous about service. Despite how we may crave to be seen as good people, posting our charity work on social media for all to admire, the incarnational, hands-on ministry of caring for another person’s needs demands a humble heart.

If the Lenten season inspires you to fast, could it be that God is leading you to a fast from demanding that your own needs be met, so you can more readily offer compassion to the hurting bodies and hearts of people around you?

Our world and our churches also thirst desperately for humility in leadership. This thirst may go unnoticed—until spiritual and emotional dehydration leaves us incapacitated. The leadership game of our age is played almost exclusively by the arrogant, the self-serving, the boastful, and the bullies. Sure, we have grown to expect that in politics and corporate boardrooms, but arrogant leadership also infects churches when leaders build their own empires so they can reign on high.

I have tasted this temptation. My ideas, my vision, and my personality could rule the day. There are times when I wish it did. Except when I remember Jesus, who led with humility by laying down his life for me. And I remember that good leadership doesn’t demand, “My way!”

Of course, churches need leaders. We need people to chart the course forward and make hard decisions. Churches need vision, direction, and steady guidance, especially through hard times. Leadership matters, but leaders who act and speak with humility are probably more effective in the long run than those who simply demand their own way.

Humility in leadership means making space for others to step forward and use their gifts, even when those gifts may overshadow the leader’s own area of influence. It means coming alongside those who have not yet caught the vision to understand their struggles, instead of pushing them aside in the rush to accomplish a goal. Humble leaders listen, encourage, welcome new voices, make room for differing views, and serve from a heart of compassion.

It would be easy for me to plan worship services each week, choosing all the music and ordering each element of the service. It would all go how I want and would perfectly reflect my vision for the ideal service. But I have tried to rely on the creativity and equally good ideas of others through a collaborative worship planning process. I don’t lead the meetings, and in the end, I believe our worship is more honoring to God because we invite many voices to the table.

Could it be that God is leading you to fast from demanding your own way, so you can learn from others, invite more people into the leadership process, and put on the towel of a servant?

If humility in service and leadership encompass outward, public aspects of our lives, we also need to attend to the quieter, more subtle ways we can reflect Jesus’s humble heart, such as through the humility of unanswered questions.

Making my point, I learned, is rarely worth causing someone else pain.

One of my first pastoral mentors encouraged me never to be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” His point was not that we should shy away from proclaiming truth but rather that sometimes, even after studying Scripture, reading theology, and considering all possible solutions, we just might not know how to explain some things. Some questions are hard, and we should be honest about the limits of our understanding.

That wisdom has served me well in Bible studies and sermon preparation, but perhaps even more so in the face of tragedy and death. When people get knocked to their knees by suffering and loss, they often cry out, “Why?” Why did my child die? Why do I have cancer? Why did my wife lose her job? The temptation, especially for pastors who are supposed to be authorities on these things, is to soothe a grieving heart with quick, stale answers. We might appeal to God’s sovereignty or suggest that all things happen for a reason. But both responses cleverly sidestep the real question at hand.

Humility calls us to honesty, and that may lead us, more often than we would like, to admit we don’t know why. That isn’t a rejection of truth or an admission that God must have made a mistake. The humility of unanswered questions embraces our humanity, acknowledges our frailty before the Almighty, and recognizes our limited capacity to understand the unsearchable heart of God. It echoes Paul, among the greatest theological minds in church history, who confessed, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV).

Might God be calling you to fast from easy, shallow answers in order to trust God with the things you can’t explain and help others find peace in a faith that reaches deeper than our limited understanding?

Then comes humility in expressing our beliefs. This age of arrogance finds its loudest voice and most public expression in how aggressively people promote their views with a religious fervor. For many in our culture, simply having an opinion doesn’t count; we must share it, post it, yell it aloud, and insist that others join in accord.

Nearly three decades ago, I wrote a weekly political column in my college student newspaper. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I made some witty point about our nation’s victory in the Cold War, but my words offended a student from Russia who happened to be studying on our campus that semester. Although she was still learning English, she penned a heartfelt defense of her homeland. Regretting the callous tone of my words, I helped edit her letter for publication in the next edition. Making my point, I learned, is rarely worth causing someone else pain.

Politicians and media personalities may exemplify forceful expression, but sadly, the church also produces its share of harsh opinions demanding attention and conformity. All too often, that’s the perception many outside the church hold of us. We come off as critical, judgmental, pushy, intolerant, and in the minds of some, arrogantly ignorant.

That perception, of course, cuts at the heart of our mission to share good news. We exist to proclaim truth into the world and to help others accept the faith by which we have found new life. Evangelism is critical to our obedience to Jesus. So we better get it right. We share our faith with humility and in kindness and love. We defend our faith and proclaim it as truth while also respecting those who have yet to open their hearts to the good news.

In the same way, we can express our moral and political views with humility. We can share what we believe without demeaning others or smearing their characters. Some may see humility as weakness in contrast to the aggressive tone that so often dominates public discourse, but perhaps being seen as weak is an acceptable price to pay for remaining true to the biblical standard of speaking truth in love (Ephesians 5:14).

Is God asking you to fast from pushing your views on others, so you can listen more, love those who disagree with you, and be an instrument of God’s grace?

Humility does not come naturally. We have to fight against the pride in our hearts and through the relentless waves of arrogance crashing around us. Jesus found it worth the struggle and invites us to follow him in the way of humility.

About the Author

  • Mike Mirakian

    Mike Mirakian is pastor of Broadway Covenant Church in Rockford, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, two children and one furry canine named Blaze. The trailcam behind their home recently caught two other canines visiting their yard, a curious coyote and a nimble fox.

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