Composition (Part 2)

Ken Blanchard once famously said, “Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It means you think of yourself less.”

When it comes to the notion of humility, I think that many of us have conflicting ideas of how it should actually look.

I think Paul puts it brilliantly in Philippians 2:

“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.” Philippians 2:3 (MSG)

I feel like I got this talk a lot when I was a child. Anyone who has ever had siblings has likely experienced the beauty of sibling rivalry. The unfortunate reality is that many Christians, while biologically adult, are still spiritual children – picking fights and competing with fellow brothers and sisters. We crave success – sometimes at all costs.

Jesus tells a famous parable in Luke 14 that goes something like this:

(Forgive my creative license)

Imagine that you show up a little late to a friend’s wedding. The service is a few minutes away from starting. You poke your head into the sanctuary and spot a couple of open seats at the front of the room.  You quietly sneak into the room and quickly take the seat you spotted.  As you settle into your chair in preparation for the ceremony, an usher sheepishly approaches you and says, “I’m sorry sir – but you’re in Nanna’s seat. I have to ask that you move.” And then, just moments before the service began; you are stood up in front of everyone and escorted to the balcony. Guests look back at you with embarrassment and contempt as they shake their furrowed brows.  For years to come the bride and groom will watch their wedding tape and ask themselves, “What was he thinking?”

Now, picture that same wedding scene unfolding with just a few changes. You show up to the church a little late, poke your head into the sanctuary and realize that all available seats are taken. You quietly make your way to the back row of the balcony seating and peruse the ceremony program that was handed to you. Just before the service begins, the groom, standing upfront, notices you sitting in the balcony. He calls an usher over, points to the balcony and says, “That is a dear friend of mine. He should not be sitting back there by himself. Please go get him and give him this seat up front before the service starts.”

So now you’re being escorted down the aisle – the right way.

See, if you start with exaltation, God is going to give you humiliation. But if you start with humility, God can exalt you. Many of us don’t see this as the problem it truly is. We’re bold, maybe a little pushy, but because most people don’t like confrontation, they let it slide.

From what I can understand, Jesus doesn’t mind you getting the good seat. The question is “Have you taken it or was it given to you?” This is why Peter says:

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” -1 Peter 5:6

One of the first conductors born and educated in the United States to receive worldwide acclaim was Leonard Bernstein. He directed the New York Philharmonic, conducted concerts by some of the world’s leading orchestras, wrote symphonies, and numerous pieces for Broadway. His obituary in The New York Times (October 15, 1990) called him “one of the most… talented and successful musicians in American history.”

Bernstein once was asked which instrument was the most difficult to play. He said, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm—that’s a problem.”

There’s a somewhat famous poem by Cicely Fox Smith actually called “Second Fiddle.” It goes like this:

The hardest instrument to play
Is second fiddle, so they say
And I believe this is so
I’ve tried, but haven’t mastered it though
It takes more grace than pen can tell
To play the second fiddle well.

The second fiddle compliments
All the other instruments
While faithful to keep time and tone
Tis of great price and worth unknown
It takes more grace than pen can tell
To play the second fiddle well.

The master looks for those who he
Can use in his great symphony
Tis but a few can bend and blend
On whom he always can depend
It takes more grace than pen can tell
To play the second fiddle well.

I began thinking about this idea of life as it pertains to an orchestra. Our Ministry Director of Worship Arts put it brilliantly while teaching our musicians about this idea of humility in service.

“An entire band equals 100%,” she told them. “If each member is playing at 100% the entire time, then all you have is a mess of noise. But if you understand that you are collectively 100%, you can really make something beautiful.”

Anyone that has ever played in a (mentally healthy) band or on a (relatively ego-free) sports team understands this important dynamic. Blazing solos don’t make a band any more than a hot-dogging striker makes a soccer team. As Christians, we are a part of a much bigger narrative – a much bigger composition. And we miss out on the beauty of community every moment that we fail to understand this important truth.

For example, if I played you this clip, I’d venture to guess that most of you would have no idea what it was you were listening to (if the title didn’t give it away, of course). You might even be slightly embarrassed that I chose to post it.

Not all that impressive, right?

But if I played you this clip, few of you would have any difficulty identifying exactly what song this was.

Some of you might have even been unable to fight the temptation to get up out of your chair and dance a bit. I won’t judge you.

The point is this: apart from the greater composition of the greater song being written, our feeble attempts have little impact. We must keep in perspective that we are the paint, not the painter, and sometimes it is well worth our while to step back from the canvas now and again to observe the greater configuration around us.

This is why I think Harry Truman said:

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Which is why verses three and four of Philippians 2 is so profound to me:

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

That word “looking” in verse four is the word “scopos,” which is where we get our word “scope” – as in telescope, or microscope. It’s like the scope on a rifle. It’s sole purpose is to help one see clearly and with great focus the target they are aiming at.

If I’m completely transparent, much of my service comes as a result of someone asking me for help. Opportunities often seem to fall into my lap and I merely try my best not to screw it up. But for Paul, the objective and root of humility is not to simply handle well the opportunities that smack us across the face but to search intently for those opportunities.

To me, this means learning how to shut my mouth, to put on hold talking about my life, struggles, and victories, and actually listening to the often cryptic needs that are being communicated all the time.  To stop looking at my own situation first and to begin to hone in on the needs and lives of the people around me is a difficult but beautiful discipline.

We see this on the cross that, while Jesus is moments away from his own death, he is caring, inviting, and forgiving – and not just those who have been good to him.

We imitate Christ by choosing to be genuinely interested in the lives of those around us. When a spouse is sarcastic and you want to lash out, when someone fails to recognize your contribution – our response should be grace and service.

Paul continues:

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Paul understands the importance of our mindset, and sets the bar high. This is the classic “outlook determines outcome, and attitude determines action” mantra, and Paul seems to see this as an enormous priority for Christ’s church. How we think about God and others will have a tremendous impact on how we act.

A reporter was interviewing a successful job counselor who had placed hundreds of workers in their vocations quite happily. When asked the secret of his success, the man replied: “If you want to find out what a worker is really like, don’t give him responsibilities—give him privileges. Most people can handle responsibilities if you pay them enough, but it takes a real leader to handle privileges. A leader will use his privileges to help others and build the organization; a lesser man will use privileges to promote himself.” Jesus used His heavenly privileges for the sake of others—for our sake.

In verse seven we see what theologians call the “Hypostatic Union” which, simply put, is the personal union between Jesus’ two complete natures – adding humanity to His divinity.

For those burrito lovers out there, you probably know the difference between merely a burrito and a burrito con carne. I am confident that I could walk into any gathering of men anywhere in the United States and, if asked what carne meant, would respond with resoundingly:


Now, forgive my redneck theology here, but this is essentially where we get the word “incarnation”. It’s Jesus – with meat.

The creator joins creation. God, who is spirit, takes on a physical body. This means that he got hungry, stubbed his toe, blew his nose, and bled real blood. He stepped out of eternity and down from paradise, not to ride in on a white horse, but to be born in a feeding trough to an impoverished young couple. Not to some glamorous job, but as a laborer. Not to endless wealth, but poverty. In contrast to Adam and his temptation to seize that which would make him “like God,” Jesus chooses to forfeit. Our meager attempts at humility are nothing in comparison to this sacrifice.

Verse eights reads:

8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Many of us are willing to serve others, but only as long as it doesn’t actually cost us anything. The moment is makes us remotely uncomfortable or stretched our pocket book, many of us bail.

Martin Luther once said:

A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing. –Martin Luther

The test of the submissive mind is not just how much we are willing to take in terms of suffering, but how much we are willing to give in terms of sacrifice. Thinking of “others” in some sort of safe or abstract sense only is insufficient; we must get down to the nitty-gritty of true service and stare suffering straight in the eyes. After all, Jesus went from having throngs of angels sing endlessly “Holy, holy, holy” to hearing the violently cries of an angry crowd scream “Crucify, crucify, crucify.” Don’t forget that this King of Kings knelt to wash the dirt from his followers feet – a truly backwards and upside down model of leadership for many of us.

This section ends with a statement of exaltation:

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The whole purpose of Christ’s humiliation and ultimate exaltation is the glory of God.

When I try to think of the fundamental differences between pride and humility, this is how I think of it:

So, perhaps you’re sitting there asking yourself the question, “I wonder if I’m prideful.” Well, inquisitive reader – you are in luck. I stole this rather helpful “Pride Test” from a pastor that might be of some benefit to you:

First, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you long for a lot of attention?

Are you often making a scene so that people notice that you’re upset?

  1. Do you become jealous or critical of people who succeed?

Do you find yourself saying “I can’t believe he got that job!” or “I can’t believe she’s married!”?

  1. Do you always have to win?

Some of us can’t even lose at board games

  1. Do you have a pattern of lying?

Lying is essentially pride manifest in not wanting the real you to be exposed

  1. Do you have a hard time acknowledging you were wrong?

Are you the kind of person that squirms when cornered and tries to deflect to anther issue?

  1. Do you have a lot of conflicts with other people?

Jesus still had conflicts with people and was the most humble person ever. But get two prideful people in a room together, and you know what I’m talking about.

  1. Do you cut in line at the store, airport, on the freeway, etc.?

Many of us will cut in line and stare everyone else down because we know they won’t say anything. Or we pretend to be on the phone.

  1. Do you get upset when people do not honor your achievements?

Are you always wondering where your accolades are?

  1. Do you tend more toward an attitude of entitlement or thankfulness?

When you are a sinner saved by grace, you recognize that we deserve Hell an that every breathe is a gift from God.

  1. Do you honestly feel you are basically a good person and superior to others?

Salvation by grace rejoices in the fact that, while we were deserving of death and no better than any other sinner, Christ saved us.

Now it’s time get your results. If each question is worth one point, this is how to score it:

If you scored 1-10 points – you’re prideful

If you scored 0 points – you’re very prideful

Ultimately, I don’t believe that we ever actually achieve humility. If we did, we would be so filled with pride that it would cancel out all of our hard work. If you want to grow in humility, don’t focus on humility – that kind of focus still results in a prideful self-obsession.

The answer to pride is not humility – humility is the bi-product of growing closer to Jesus. As you get to know Him and grow closer to Him, the things that we brag about seem a little bit more ridiculous every day.

Jesus is the answer to pride. All we can say is “By God’s grace I am a proud person, pursuing Christ.” To grow in humility we must think about someone else and that person is Jesus.

For those pragmatists out there, here are some practical steps you can take towards pursuing humility:

  • Follow truth wherever it leads – Even if that means that you’re wrong, you have to apologize, or you even have to lose your job.
  • Invite and pursue correction and council – Say to someone you trust “I need you to speak into my life.
  • Learn from everyone, even enemies and critics – Have the humility to overlook their pride.
  • Repent quickly and thoroughly – Don’t make someone pin you to the mat before you tap. Just tap.
  • Seek and celebrate God’s work in the lives of other Christians – Look intentionally for it. Make an effort to tell them to their face.
  • Cultivate a spirit of thankfulness – Proud people think they deserve everything – humble people recognize that everything is a gift.
  • Listen to Scripture more than yourself – Our emotions are often inconsistent. Scripture isn’t.
  • Exalt the name of Jesus in all you do – When unsure about a decision, the right answer is always whatever make Jesus look good.
  • Laugh –Proud people can’t laugh at themselves. Be willing to laugh at yourself now and again.
  • Sleep – Sleep like a Christian. Proud people toss and turn wondering if people noticed their work, if so-and-so likes them, and if they’ll be successful. Rest in who God says you are.

I’ll end with two brilliant quotes that I think summarize what I’m wrestling with in my heart.

“Is not the most effective way of bridling my delight in being made much of, to focus on making much of God? Self-denial and crucifixion of the flesh are essential, but O how easy it is to be made much of even for my self-denial! How shall this insidious motive of pleasure in being made much of be broken except through bending all my faculties to delight in the pleasure of making much of God!” – John Piper

“The pleasure of pride is like the pleasure of scratching. If there is an itch one does want to scratch; but it is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch. As long as we have the itch of self-regard we shall want the pleasure of self-approval; but the happiest moments are those when we forget our precious selves and have neither but have everything else (God, our fellow humans, the garden and the sky) instead” – C. S. Lewis

4 Responses to “Composition (Part 2)”
  1. Karen Boehl says:

    Just what I needed, right when I needed it. Thank you.

  2. Emma says:

    This page, particularly the Litany of Humility, set my life towards the desire of humility and I can never escape it…

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