Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Greatest Love of All

Pride is a terrible thing.

I give full credit to translators of the Bible and don’t assume for a second that I know better than the least of them. But I have noticed that if translators come to their job with a predisposition to see a particular thing in a passage, as in every area of life, that’s what is seen.

No knock on them for it. There are enough translators and enough English translations of the Bible to pull us back to where we should be. No translation difference I’ve ever come across is so radical as to completely reverse a meaning or utterly transform the message of the word of God. We always have numerous other translations to compare to any imperfect attempt to convey meaning.

I do wonder about Romans 12:3 though.

It reads:

“For through the authority graciously given to me I warn every individual among you not to value himself unduly, but to cultivate sobriety of judgment in accordance with the amount of faith which God has allotted to each one.”

(Weymouth New Testament)

I chose Weymouth’s attempt at translation here because he seems to anticipate where I’m going with this when he renders the Greek as “not to value himself unduly”. Other translations, with a fair amount of consistency, opt for “not to think of himself more highly” or something similar.

But Weymouth seems to me to be closest to Paul’s intended meaning for this reason: the word translated “more highly” here is huperphroneo. There is exactly one occurrence in scripture, so we have nothing else with which to compare it and nothing by which to check the translation.

The Translation Issue

The word huperphroneo is a compound made up, unsurprisingly, of huper and phroneo. The prefix huper possesses a number of possible meanings, one or two of them along the lines of “more than” or “over” or “above”, but it is most frequently translated in the New Testament as “for”, “toward” or “on behalf of”. The suffix phroneo is more obvious, being universally understood as having to do with thinking, the mind or the affections.

I’m not going to differ radically from the major Bible translations here, but I’d like to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Paul is NOT simply warning the Roman believers to refrain from being “proud” or “vain” — to refrain from thinking “too highly” of themselves — as we have it in the KJV and many other respectable translations. I think he’s warning them not be over-occupied with themselves, whatever form that over-occupation may take.

The Contextual Issue

My limited understanding of how to read an English/Greek dictionary is not the only reason for this. There is also the issue of context. The apostle Paul contrasts thinking “too highly” of oneself, not with pride’s natural opposite, humility, but with something else entirely. He says that instead of being “proud” (if that’s what the Greek means), we ought to exercise “sober judgment” about ourselves.

In other words, if I may paraphrase, I think he may be saying, “Don’t waste a lot of time thinking about yourselves. Instead, think soberly about yourselves. Try to see yourselves the way the Lord sees you.”

Not Thinking Ordinately

I’d be curious to hear from a Greek scholar or two on the subject, though whether I’m right or wrong, nothing massive turns on it. I’m just curious.

But we have names for states of mind nowadays that people really didn’t give a whole lot of thought to in the first century AD. Or CE. Or whatever they want to call it now. And I wonder if these forms of wrong thinking about self, along with the more easily-recognized pride, are also on Paul’s mind:

1/ Vanity or Pride

This form of self-obsession we recognize and rightly deprecate as wrong. Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. If that’s all Paul wants to say, he could quote the Old Testament, as he frequently does.

But other forms of self-occupation are less obvious:

2/ Self-Loathing

What is the relative incidence of self-loathing, compared to pride? I wonder if self-hatred has become even more common than narcissism. I don’t know.

What I don’t see in the modern self-hater is any genuine resemblance to the “poor in spirit” whom the Lord referred to as “blessed”. The virtue of humility is not in thinking bad things of yourself constantly; it is in thinking so little about yourself that you have that much more thinking time to devote to others and to God.

But while he or she may be much more obviously miserable than the average narcissist, the person who spends their entire life contemplating how far short they fall of where they want to be is in exactly the same place, if not with respect to how well they function in society, at least insofar as the kingdom of heaven is concerned. He or she is over-occupied with self. He or she is not thinking with sober judgment. He or she chooses to view themselves through the lens of the world rather than in the light of scripture.

Self-hatred has no place in the life of a believer for whom Christ died.

3/ Self-Esteem

The world thinks it has a solution to the problem of self-loathing, and that is self-esteem. Let’s teach it to all the grade schoolers and that will certainly solve the problem.

Except … Whitney Houston. I know she didn’t write her massive hit The Greatest Love of All. The poor woman just sang the thing, so let’s not give her too hard a time. But it perfectly articulates the thinking of those who believe greater self-esteem is the solution. If you could just see all the “beauty you possess inside”, you’d be okay.

But if they’re right, why is it that “sense of pride” doesn’t seem to make it easier?

We don’t need more self-esteem. If Paul is correct, we need to think of ourselves with sober judgment.

4/ Solipsism

Solipsism is a lovely little technical term used to refer to the sort of person we all know; the person that lives in a universe, not of which he or she is the center, but of which he or she is the sole occupant. The solipsist may not appear obviously vain, and yet somehow everything is always about them.

The solipsist turns up at a funeral and trumps the horrible story the grieving parents have to tell with something personal and even more horrific. When a hug and a “Can I do anything?” would be perfectly fine. You or I put ourselves in the shoes of others and hopefully empathize. The solipsist squeezes everyone else into his own shoes because there are no other shoes.

And a solipsist is just as over-occupied with self as a proud or self-loathing individual. Again, he or she lacks sober judgment.

The Balance

Paul says we ought to “cultivate sober judgment” with respect to ourselves. And he’s right. If I depend on feeling lovable or even being lovable in order to be loved, I’m in big trouble.

The Greatest Love of All happened a couple of millennia back.

We need to view ourselves in the light of the cross.

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