They sound like opposites, don’t they? Maybe that is because they are. However, during my time with the organization, they often were so mixed that I was a bit confused as to their meaning.
It was totally unacceptable to be proud, of course. So we would do various things to make sure we stayed humble. Sometimes this meant doing things to humble ourselves (menial chores, obeying an authority when we didn’t want to, or asking forgiveness even if we weren’t really wrong). Sometimes it meant inwardly berating ourselves for our weaknesses and sins. Sometimes it meant letting someone else berate …er… encourage us. On the other hand, it could mean flaunting our humility – sharing a story in such a way that everyone listening could see how humbly we had behaved. But of course, we could never actually claim to be humble either, because that would be pride.
Did it matter whether we really were humble in heart? Well, no, not really. Supposedly it did, but what really mattered was that we looked humble to those around us, especially our authorities. This could lead to two extremes, and they could both be true at the same time: self-loathing and/or secret pride in our “humility.”
We also knew that we were supposed to be righteous. That meant doing all the right things and being sure to follow all the rules – written or unwritten. There were a lot of unwritten rules. Our “righteousness” was judged by outward things: clothing, hair style, what emotions we let be seen, how hard we worked (genuine productivity might or might not be included in that), how faithfully we attended meetings and nodded at the right points, etc.
Failing in any of these areas, we would feel guilt. If we didn’t feel it on our own, we would be sure to feel guilty and ashamed after being rebuked. Sometimes this rebuke would come from people around us, sometimes through a sermon or a talk by some authority figure, or from something we read in Scripture. Often the Scripture we read would not really be condemning us, but because various words had been given different or extended meanings (programming), we often took it that way. For example, we might read about Abraham letting Lot have first choice of the land. Rather than rejoice that Abraham had been so giving towards Lot, we would feel guilty because we had disagreed with someone the day before. False guilt, yes, but we didn’t know that.
This weird relationship between righteousness and guilt led to something that I still have great difficulty describing. But we actually came to look forward to and delight in times of heavy guilt. It felt to us like we were making progress spiritually if we were being “convicted” (i.e. condemned and shamed). We could then “repent” and ask forgiveness of whoever we had wronged and be considered to be at a higher spiritual level afterwards. The shame would be accompanied by an adrenaline rush and then a peace after things were resolved. If we weren’t regularly being “convicted” about things, then how could we prove our humility in listening to the Lord?
Most of the time it was considered shameful to have problems. But in situations like I described above, there was actually a glory or an honor in having a problem and “resolving” it. This was especially true if, in the process, we became committed to a “higher standard.”
All these high standards, of course, eventually led to us looking down on those who didn’t or wouldn’t live up to our standards of outward conduct. We didn’t call this judging, though. We called it “discernment.” We could discern (in “love”) that other people had problems that we could help them with. All we had to do was convince them to do things the way we did. If we could just get them to conform, that would really prove our higher spiritual status.
What a mess!!! If you are thinking that this resembles the Pharisees, you are correct. I definitely was a pharisee. I was sure that I was part of a very special group who would get very special blessings because of the very special commitment we had to following God’s ways.
I remember so clearly the first time I read Romans 14. I was in the middle of a situation where I was trying to get others to conform to my convictions. I read it, blinked, and re-read it. Paused, took a deep breath, and read it again. I thought sure God had it all wrong.
“Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Romans 14:1-4 NASB
Wait. God is calling the brother with higher standards the weaker brother?!?!? I was taught that the one with the higher standards was the stronger brother. I was stunned, incredulous, disbelieving. It couldn’t be. But God had said it. And God said I wasn’t to judge others. God was going to make sure the weaker…er…*cough* stronger brothers would stand as well as the others? Well, ok, maybe.
I memorized that chapter, thought about it a lot, and struggled to believe it. At the time, I was not able to shift my belief totally, but the concept that God doesn’t want us demanding that others live up to our expectations became a seed deep in my heart. It lay dormant for many a year, but did bear fruit eventually.
Now, I understand that humility is not something that earns me anything. It comes as a result of seeing how much God loves me even when I totally mess things up. Righteousness comes from Jesus. I have none of my own. But He lives in me and does right through me. My job is to listen to Him, not to make rules for myself. Love is my only rule. Judging right from wrong is now based on what is loving, not on superficial things like appearance.
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:13 NASB
God desires compassion. Not the sacrifice of higher standards, more commitment, or greater works. Compassion. Love God. Love people.
Eliza is a young woman who was burned by legalism, but then discovered that Jesus already kept the law for her. Her desire is to get to know Him better. You can contact her at elizabethwysecook(at)gmail(dot)com. You may remember Eliza from this article by Sarah Posner.