By Pastor Glenn Pease
An officer of the American Flying Corps told of his experience during World War II. He went out over the ocean alone, and he saw a storm coming rapidly toward him. It was blacker than midnight. He looked down to see if he could go beneath it, but the ocean was already boiling with fury. His only alternative was to climb. He turned his frail craft upward and began to mount. He reached 2000 feet, then 2500, then 3000, then 3500, and then the storm struck him. It was like a hurricane, cyclone, and typhoon all in one. It was so black he couldn't see, and the hail struck like bullets.
He kept climbing to 6500 feet, and suddenly he broke through into the glory of sunlight like he never saw it before. The splendor was so dazzling that he felt he was in another world. He began to quote Scripture and to praise God. His way out was up, and this is the way to deal with all the storms of life-look up and climb. Set your affections on things above, says Paul. His own testimony in Phil 3:14 was, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." I'm pressing on the upward way to higher ground is to be the theme song of every Christian. The Christian is to constantly hear the call expressed in the poem of James G. Clark.
I saw the mountains stand
Silent, wonderful and grand,
Looking out across the land.
When the golden light was falling
On distant dome and spire,
And I heard a low voice calling
Come up higher, come up higher,
From the low lands and the mire,
From the mist of earth desire,
From the vain pursuit of pelf,
From attitude of self,
Come up higher, come up higher.
Every aspiration, however, calls for a balancing attitude to prevent a virtue from developing into a vice. Paul is well aware that you can never climb too high, and you can never set your sights too high. The sky is the limit. We aim no lower than perfection and Christ likeness. But Paul also knows that the higher you go the greater is the danger of pride. Pride can bring you toppling from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. Pride goes before a fall, and the history of Satan and men illustrates this truth abundantly.
Paul, therefore, right after urging Christians to total surrender of their bodies and minds to Christ, which will lead them to the heights of knowing God's perfect will, gives a word of warning. Those who climb high and have their minds transformed so that their thoughts rise above those of the world are in danger of thinking of themselves more highly than they ought. Paul is a master of the balanced life, and that is why we see both the negatives and the positives so often in his writings. Be not conformed, but be transformed he says in verse 2, and now in verse 3 he gives us another negative and positive to keep us steady as we climb. Let's look first at the negative advice.
Paul is very serious about this matter, and so stresses the fact that he speaks with authority as one to whom God has shown special grace. He also stresses that it applies to every man that is among them. The danger of pride is not just for a few. It is for all. No Christian can avoid this danger. Those in higher places are more conspicuous in their danger, but Paul urges this truth on every believer not to think of himself more highly than he ought. We can never climb too high in Christ likeness, nor can we ever think too highly of Christ, but we can think too highly of ourselves. Paul says do not do it, for this is a kind of conformity to the world that can hurt you and your testimony seriously.
A contemporary example of this is the experience of J. B. Phillips who became famous for the Phillips Translation of the New Testament, plus a number of other books. As a parish priest in London he began to translate the Bible for youth who would no longer read the KJV. This was in 1941. C. S. Lewis saw part of his translation and was impressed. He wrote to him saying, "It is like seeing an old picture which has been cleaned." He urged him to do more of the New Testament. He did, and the response was amazing. He became world famous, and was asked to preach and lecture everywhere. His life was suddenly one of travel and honor. His books were sold all over the world. He wrote, "And all the while something was going on which I did not see until it was too late. Satan was mounting his most devastating attack on me. He was building an image of J. B. Phillips that was not Jack Phillips at all. I was no longer an ordinary human being; I was in danger of becoming the super-Christian!"
He began to think of himself more highly than he ought, and the result was that he fell. He lost his gift of writing, and he entered the experience of the dark night of the soul in which there is a deep sense of the absence of God. Fortunately he was able to come to an honest view of himself, and God began to use him again.
Pride is an ever present danger, and C. S. Lewis points out that it is based on a comparison of ourselves with others. If we would compare ourselves with Christ and His best followers, we would be humbled, but we tend to delight to comparing ourselves with those who are inferior. Pride does not take pleasure in having something, but only in having more of it than others. People are not proud of being rich, but of being richer than others. They are proud, not of being clever or good looking, but of being more clever or better looking than others. If all others became equal to them, there would be nothing to be proud about.
That is why Paul goes on to stress that we are all members of the body of Christ, and that we all have our function and differing gifts by the grace of God. In other words, there is no basis for pride in being superior to others anymore than the eye has a basis for being proud because it can see better than all other organs of the body. That is the function and gift God gave it, and any gift we have is given by God, and we are not to be proud, but to thank God and use it. Avoid every allowing yourself to think of yourself as the origin of any good gift or quality. These are gifts of grace for which to be grateful, and not proud. Now let's look at the positive, and see just how we are to think, and how high we can go in self-esteem.
Paul says we are to think with sober judgment, or in absolute honesty. To be honest with the facts is to be humble. Sober thinking is just having sound and sane evaluation of yourself. It means you do not exaggerate nor depreciate yourself, for both of these are not being honest. Many Christians misunderstand humility, and think it is self-depreciation. This is not so, for it is basically just plain honesty. It is being an Apostle Paul with the highest authority a man can have from God, plus the highest revelation, and yet confessing that he sees through a glass darkly, and that he has not yet arrived. It takes a big man to write like that. A small and proud man feels he has to present an image of absolute perfection, but it doesn't work, for everyone can see his flaws. The man with a sober and honest view of himself can face the facts of both his gifts and his limitations.
Listen to Charles Spurgeon, that prince of preachers and one of the greatest Bible expounders of all time. It takes profound humility for a man of caliber to write like this. "I confess that sometimes I come across a text that does not at the first blush agree with other teachings of Scripture which I have received, and this startles me for the moment. But one thing is settled in my heart, namely, that I will follow the Scripture wherever it leads me, and that I will renounce the most cherished opinion rather than shape a text or alter a syllable of the inspired Book. It is not mine to make God's Word consistent, but to believe that it is so. When a text stands in the middle of the road I drive no further. The Romans had a god they called Terminus, who was the god of landmarks. Holy Scripture is my sacred landmark, and I hear a voice which threatens me with a curse if I remove it. Sometimes I say to myself, 'I did not think to find this truth to be just so, but as it is so, I must bow. It is rather awkward for my theory, but I must alter my system, for the Scripture cannot be broken.' Let God be true, but every man a liar."
A man with such an attitude as that cannot help but be used of God, for he is flexible and every open to the leading of the Spirit. Spurgeon was sober and honest in his judgment. He knew he was a great Bible scholar and preacher, but he also knew he was only one member of the total body of Christ, and that other members of the body had other gifts which could open up God's Word and give new light to him. Sober judgment of self is based on one's keeping ever in mind that he is only one member of a vast body, and that no one member can fulfill the function of all the members. All Christians can gain something from every other Christian, and that is why broad Christian fellowship is so essential to a healthy church and Christian life.
Note that Paul says our sober judgment is to be according to the measure of faith which God has given us. Paul is clearly teaching us that not all Christians have been given equal faith, or equal function in the body. Some Christians must have superior gifts to others, just as some organs of the body must be more vital than others. If we are leaders, or if we have a gift that is very helpful to the body, we can legitimately recognize this, and think of ourselves on that level. In other words, we can go just as high in our thoughts of self-esteem as the facts will allow, but always in gratitude rather than pride.
If God has given me the gift of teaching so that I can hold interest and impart truth to others, I am not to deny that I am able to do so, but to recognize that I can, and then do it well to the best of my ability. If you have the faith to launch out for Christ in any area, you should think yourself capable to do it. Aspire to climb to the full height of your God given ability. Do not go higher, however, for that is to think of yourself higher than you ought, and that is not a sober an honest judgment of the facts. Do not think yourself capable of doing what it is not your gift to do. Accept your limitations, and do what you can. Do not be an eye complaining because it cannot hear or smell, or an ear complaining that it cannot see. Each is to do what they are made to do.
Paul knew he was uniquely chosen of God, and he could say, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ." Paul had authority direct from God, and could say that he was not one bit less than the greatest of the Apostles. But Paul also said, "I am the least of the Apostles and not worthy to be called an Apostle." This paradox gives us an insight into how we are to think of ourselves as Christians. When Paul said he was the least and unworthy, he was looking at himself alone, but when he exalted his authority and example, he spoke as one looking at himself according to the measure of his faith, or in other words, according to what he was by God's grace.
An honest look at ourselves will lead to humility. An honest look at what we are in Christ will lead to a sanctified self-esteem in which we praise God for what we are in Him. We are children of God, and our life is hid with Christ and God. We are a chosen race, and a nation of kings and priests, and every Christian should have a high sense of self-esteem, but without the pride of thinking he is what he is by his own merit. How high can we go? As high as the facts and our faith will allow, and this enables the Christian to have a high sense of self-esteem as well as a sense of humility, for all that he is, is by the grace of Christ.
The approach of Paul seems to be just the opposite of what is popular in our day. It is the day of self-assertiveness and possibility thinking. Self-exaltation is in, and the book stores are full of books to build your self-image by telling you that you are more than you are. Your problem is that you think of yourself more lowly than you ought. If you could think of yourself even 10% more highly than you do now, you could double your potential. All of us have a great reservoir of potential we haven't even tapped. Is this all a bunch of bunk to get you to buy books? Not at all. This philosophy of life is packed with truth, and every Christian will be more of a Christian if he heeded it.
These authors are striving for the same goal as that of Paul. The rest of this chapter deals with all the marvelous effects that the ideal Christian life can produce. This is a history changing chapter packed with the power of Christlike living. This is the same as the goals set by contemporary authors. The only difference is Paul has brakes on his van to victory. Many get so enthused about our potential for growth that they forget entirely about our potential for evil and pride. They leave out a crucial element for success. Their van looks as neat and sleek as Paul's, and their van will move down the road just as fast, and climb hills equally steep, but Paul has a piece of equipment that spells the difference between success and failure, and that is brakes.
In other words, Paul's success formula includes pencils with erasers. He has a back up plan that takes into consideration that sin and failure are still a real part of the Christian journey. Paul knows the trip to heaven is not like an elevator ride with a continuous upward movement. It is more like a roller coaster with ups and downs, twists and turns, and so he adds to all his positive counsel this negative caution, "Don't think of yourself more highly than you ought." The self-exaltation books tend to forget the reality of negative side, and this leads self-confidence to become pride. The Christian with a renewed mind will always be humble, for he knows that without Christ he can do nothing.
Modern studies reveal that your self-image is not a mere reflection of who you are, but it is the determiner of who you are. You are what you think you are. The mind then is the key to your life. How you think about yourself will determine the life you live. This is not small matter then, but the very foundation of life. Daniel Steere describes it like this: Your mind is like a computer, it stores up all kinds of facts, experiences, feelings and emotions, but it also plays back what it is programmed to play back. Your self-image is that program. If you tell your mind your average or below average you lock your mind into that program, and that is what you get. Your mind has great capacity like a computer, but if you program it to work third grade math, that is what you'll get, and its vast capacity will be unused.
If you think you fail at everything, and that you do not relate to others well, especially the opposite sex, you have programmed yourself to behave on that level. You are what you think you are. This is no mere theory. I see it in the lives of others, and in my own life. Myself image is either my greatest friend, or my greatest foe. The whole idea of Paul is that by the renewing of the mind we can be re-programmed so as to be more than we have been. With the mind of Christ seeing all of our potential as a child of God, we can get out of the program of our past, and out of the program produced by our environment that locked us into the level of mediocre and inadequate. Paul assumes that every Christian can go on to become an ideal member of the body of Christ functioning on the level of excellence. In other words, the computer has the capacity for excellence, and so all that is needed is the proper programming.
Henry L. Mencken, the noted author, once received a letter from a woman in a state prison. She was on death row awaiting execution. She wrote to say that she read his book, In Defense Of Women. Then she added this sad sentence: "If I had only known how smart I was, I would not be here now." She programmed herself to be nothing, and that is what she got. This is the tragedy of a lost world of people. They are made in the image of God, but they are fallen and programmed for folly rather than faith; for sin rather than salvation; for crime rather than Christ. The Gospel is the good news that they can be reprogrammed and become what God wants them to be. How high an we go? We can all go as high as God says we can if we program our minds based on the value that He places on us.