WHEN SOMETHING IS NOTHING
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Some people, probably most people, and maybe all people have to learn how to be humble the hard way, and that is the humpty dumpty way of having a great fall. This was the case with Max Eastman. A film was being made on the life of Christ, and he happened to meet the well known woman photographer working on that film, who was Alice Baughton. Shortly after this meeting he received a note asking if he would consent to pose with Walter Hampden, the man playing the role of Christ, in one of the miracle scenes. He was so proud of getting such an offer after just a casual meeting, that he could not help but brag. A thing like that couldn't just happen, he must have something on the ball. He said to his mother who was visiting at the time, "See what it is to be a beauty. I just knock them cold at the first sight." When he returned from the studio, however, his glow had turned to gloom. "What did you pose for?" Was the eager question of the family. Meekly he replied, "The corpse of Lazarus."
Lazarus was certainly not an unimportant role to play, even as a corpse, but it hardly justified his boast of superior beauty. Had he not opened his mouth, there could only be merit in getting any part at all, but he did, and proved the saying true, "An ounce of vanity spoils a hundred weight of merit." He thought too highly of himself. He was like the man whose wife said to him as they left the party, "Has anyone ever told you how marvelous you are?" "No, I don't believe they have," he said. "Well then," she continued, "Where in the world did you ever get the idea?"
The idea comes natural, for the one thing most all people have in common is their loyal love of themselves. E. W. Howe said, "When a man tries himself, the verdict is usually in his favor." Subconsciously, if not consciously, all men tend to make themselves the center of the universe. Each of us is, to a lesser or greater degree, an I specialist. I read of a printing company that had to postpone the publication of a Bishop's autobiography because they ran out of capital I's. Pope wrote in his essay on man-
Ask for what end the heavenly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use, -Pride answers,-Tis for mine;
For me kind nature wakes her genial power,
Suckles each herb, and spreads out every flower;
Seas role to waft me, suns to light me rise;
My foot stool earth, my canopy the skies.
There is a touch of truth even in this self-centeredness, for man alone was made by God with the capacity to appreciate and enjoy the order and beauty of His creation, and man was given dominion over creation. But man fell, like Satan, because of pride, and is now, as Pascal put it, both the glory and the scum of the universe. He still has some basis for pride, but so much more for humility and shame. Abraham Lincoln's favorite hymn by William Knox put it this way-
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
Man is in a strange predicament, caught between his own dignity and depravity; his own worth, and his wickedness. The result is another great paradox of life. Man's self-love is both an evil and a good. It is both an essential for a happy life in God's will, and the main cause for most evil that is out of God's will. Paul in this great chapter on paradoxes deals with both sides of pride.
In verse 3, he deals with that kind of pride which makes a man think himself to be something when he is nothing. In verse 4, he deals with that kind of pride which is an honest recognition of one's worth before God. The border line between these two is so close, and so poorly defined, that one can every easily slip over into exhibiting evil pride when he thinks he is being rightfully humble. This makes pride a very dangerous area that Satan takes advantage of. Ruskin said, "In general pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes!" This is true of sin as well.
The Old Testament says so much about the evil and folly of pride we cannot even begin to cover it. The New Testament is sufficient to establish it as one of the worse evils of the human heart. Jesus lists it as one of the major evils that proceed from the heart in Mark 7:22. Paul lists it among the dominating depravities of the pagan world in Rom. 1:30. He also lists it as one of the characteristics of men in the last days. He writes in II Tim. 3:2, "For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy." Both Peter and James write that,
"God resisteth the proud but gives grace to the humble." Christians are urged to avoid pride, and all her ugly sisters like conceit, arrogance, and haughtiness. Paul says in Rom. 12:16, "Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited."
Pride among Christian is the greatest cause for lack of harmony, and in our text Paul says, the brother or sister in Christ who is proud, and thinks they are something when they are nothing, deceives themselves. They do not fool anyone else, but they are themselves blind to the fact that they are the problem, and are being dupes of the devil to hinder the work of Christ. Paul says, something can become nothing, or somebody can become nobody. Something becomes nothing when it fails to fulfill the purpose for which it exists. For example, you have all had an experience like this. Suppose my son and I were walking along the road, and he picks up a broken piece of metal, and asks me what it is. I look at it, and see that it is from a machine of some kind, and is no longer able to serve the function for which it was made, like a burned out fuse for example. I therefore, say to him, "It is nothing, throw it away." Now we both know it is something, for it exists, or he wouldn't have asked the question, but by calling it nothing I meant it is worthless in fulfilling its purpose, and so has no value whatever.
Jesus said, "When salt loses it power to be salty it is good for nothing." It is still something, but as far as usefulness goes, it is nothing. Something is nothing when it can no longer function for the purpose of which it exists. You've all heard of the two boys who were bragging, and the one son said, "My father is a doctor, I can be sick for nothing." The other one responded, "Well, my father is a minister, and I can be good for nothing." Paul is saying, that it is literally possible for a Christian to be good for nothing. If a Christian thinks he is too good to help another Christian lift their burden, he has allowed pride to render him useless in fulfilling the law of Christ, and so at that point he is nothing. He is still something, or there would be no point of warning him of his danger, but he is salt without flavor, and if he does not lose his sinful pride, he will lose his usefulness as a Christian.
A Christian who cannot enter into the bearing of one another's burdens because of pride is not able to fulfill a basic purpose in the Christian life. He is about as valuable as a burned out fuse. Paul is simply spelling out in a practical way the teaching of I Cor. 13. He wrote there, that if he had the tongues of angels, and the gift of prophecy, and great knowledge and wisdom, and faith to remove mountains, and did not have love, he would be nothing. It is hard to believe that so much somethings can equal absolutely nothing, but this is what Paul clearly teaches. Without love a Christian can be nothing, in the sense that he would be useless for the cause of Christ. This is why pride is such a great danger to the believer, for it can render him useless. In Psa. 62:9 David says, "...men of high estate are a delusion, in the balances they go up; they are altogether lighter than a breath." Paul goes even further, and says they are not only lighter than air, they are nothing, but either way, the two testaments agree, pride can make a man weightless, and unable to exert even an ounce of weight on the scale for good.
The tragedy is that this is not just a hypothetical possibility, but is an actual reality. This was the case with the lukewarm majority in the church of Laodicea. In Rev. 3:17 Jesus says to these Christians who are neither hot nor cold, "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou are wretched, and miserable, and blind and naked." They thought they were something when they were nothing. They deceived themselves into thinking they needed nothing, but in reality, they needed everything. Paul gives another example of this deception of pride in I Tim. 6:3-4. "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, and knows nothing." Here is a man who thinks he is so wise he can go beyond the words of Christ. He thinks he knows something, but Paul says, what he knows is nothing.
Here is the paradox that runs all through the Bible. He who exalts himself shall be brought low. The Tower of Babel is the great symbol of human pride. When man seeks to climb to the sky, he ends groveling in the dirt. When he seeks to go to heaven by self-exaltation, he lands in hell. When he thinks himself to be something, he is nothing. This passage is extremely relevant to all of us. Obedience is vital to our very existence as useful Christians. Bearing one another's burdens is not just a suggestion, it is a demand-do it or else. Here is a law in the midst of grace. A Christian who is not fulfilling the law of Christ is not fulfilling the purpose for which he exists.
This can be hard, and especially when the burden is the result of sin. These are the worst, for it is easy to get your hands dirty, and even your soul, if you are not careful, as Paul warns. Paul knew some Christians would be hesitant on this matter, and would not want to risk spotting their lily white hands in pulling a fallen brother out of the pit. He made his bed, let him lie in it, would be their attitude. After all says the proud Christian, "I am something. I am a leader in the church. I have a reputation of respectability in the community. I can't get involved in helping some fool brother who has gotten himself in a mess. What will people think of me? They might think I approve of his sin, or that I help because I am guilty of the same. I just can't risk the association and spoil my reputation."
This proud man's case is clear, and his concern for his self-image is natural, but the Christian who wants to be used of God cannot afford to be natural, for the paradox is, his very caution is his greatest folly. In saving his reputation with men, he loses the favor of God. He remain something before men, but he becomes nothing before God. Paul wants us to see this folly, and never allow pride to keep us from our duty to bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. A Christian who cannot risk his reputation to rescue another Christian from the grasp of the enemy is as good as a partner of the enemy, and so of no value in the cause of Christ. Another paradoxical consequence of this is that when a Christian becomes nothing because of pride, and is lighter than air, and has no weight at all in the scale for good, he makes a heavy impact on the scale for evil. When the love of Christ is absent in a follower of Christ he becomes a useful tool in the hands of Satan.
Alexander Maclaren said, "Depend upon it, heresy has less power to arrest the progress of the church than the selfish lives of Christian professors." Nothing is so heavy, and such a drag on the church, as lighter than air Christians, whose pride makes them useless for good. These lighter than air Christians are paradoxically the heaviest burden the church has to bear. God forbid that we be among these spiritual naughts by being proud, loveless, and unconcerned about the burdens of others. Let us also be aware of the subtlety of pride. It is a two edged sword which cuts both ways. It hides on both sides of the narrow way, and we can fall into its snare in the very act of backing away.
For example, what is our attitude to those whom Paul calls nothing? What of the proud loveless brother? Does he not immediately become one of the fallen brothers who needs the help of the spirit-led believer in order to be restored. In other words, this something which has become nothing can also be restored back to something, and become useful again in the cause of Christ. His pride which kept him away from the pit lest he be stained, has plunged him into even a muckier pit yet, up to his neck. He has fallen lower than the brother he refused to help, but now he needs a hand, and if we refuse him because he is unworthy of our help, we are only copying his folly, and we will fall into the pit ourselves.
It is no advance on the Pharisee who said, "I thank God I am not as other men, even this Publican," to say, "I thank God I am not as other men, even this Pharisee." A Sunday School teacher after teaching the lesson of the proud Pharisee said, "Let's bow now and thank God we are not like this Pharisee." Pride is subtle, and it can get you coming or going. It is present everywhere, and at all times. One Puritan lamented that ridding ourselves of pride is like peeling an onion, for every skin taken off there is another beneath. The first step to victory over pride is to be aware that it is a clever foe, and the battle will never cease while we are in the flesh. Second, we must overcome evil with good. We must learn how to harness this inescapable characteristic of human life for good. We need to use this which can make us nothing before God, to make us something of which we can be proud, and which God can use for the purpose for which He made us. He made us to be something, and we cannot let pride lead us to be nothing.