Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Right Thing to Do

My job involves the occasional visit to another office. I make a fair number of new acquaintances this way. Names on the system become real, flesh-and-blood co-workers with delightful qualities, quirks and the occasional less-appealing feature, depending on the individual and the sort of situation we have to deal with.

Generally speaking these are good experiences. It’s hard to relate to people you don’t directly interact with.

However, a few weeks back I met a woman whose chronic self-deprecation was operating on a whole new level. I had barely logged in before she started telling me how much smarter I was than her. Considering I had uttered maybe two sentences at that point, I didn’t take the compliment overly seriously. I took it even less seriously when, one after the other, she did the same thing with every person in the room. One co-worker was “funnier”, another was “better looking”, a third knew more about this or that subject, and yet another was “nicer”. She wasn’t just piling up the praise with a backhoe; she was taking every opportunity to knock herself into the resulting trench in the bargain.

Illegitimate Puffery and Questionable Self-Flagellation

Obviously most of the puffery was illegitimate. At bare minimum, the finer qualities of her co-workers remain to be demonstrated. Oddly, her self-abasement was equally questionable; once I had a chance to see her at work, I realized she was considerably more competent than she had been letting on. Perhaps this was her way of attempting to disarm potential competition, or head off criticism, or make herself more likable ... who knew? But I noticed that the frequency and eagerness with which this woman threw around unearned compliments quickly rendered her praises meaningless. It was obvious she had no capacity for self-evaluation and no ability to accurately assess the character or abilities of others. Either that or she was being deliberately misleading. You tell me.

I point this out because I’ve heard Christians do something similar, though maybe not so transparently. At best it’s false modesty; at worst it can be quite embarrassing. I’m sure it’s done with the best of intentions, attempting to comply with their current understanding of some New Testament command or other, but I have always found it rather off-putting.

More Significant

In any case, here’s one New Testament instruction about how we ought to treat others that shouldn’t be interpreted as encouragement to engage in either pointless flattery or disingenuous self-flagellation. To the Christians in Philippi, Paul writes:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
The Greek word Paul uses for “more significant than” does not mean “smarter than” or “holier than” or “more beloved by God”. This is the same word he uses in Romans when he speaks of higher powers. In that instance, he does not mean that these authority figures are especially dignified, gracious or wise. They are almost certainly not Christian. However, they have been granted a position by God that requires we esteem them differently than the man on the street. We may have to use words like “your honor” in their presence, even if they are not acting particularly honorably.

Peter says something similar when he speaks of the emperor as supreme (same Greek word again). Here again, there is no question of the emperor being a decent human being. That is beside the point. In fact, if church history is accurate, it was the emperor Nero to whom Peter submitted himself, and who eventually put the apostle to death.

An Act of Sanctified Human Will

Thus, when we speak of counting others “more significant” or “better than” ourselves, it helps to understand that we are talking about an act of the sanctified human will, not some sort of subjective evaluation of merit. We are assigning a place of honor to other believers based on the amazing reality that Christ died for them; and this whether or not we see any evidence they actually merit it on the basis of their current real-world performance. They may not have been worth a whole lot when Christ redeemed them, but because he lives in them and they in him, they sure are worth something to the Father today. They should definitely be worth something to me.

One more small point: we make this assessment of delegated worth (rather than intrinsic worth) in our own heads. There is no compelling need to verbalize it, and especially to verbalize it with the unctuous sanctimony of a teacher’s pet collecting brownie points. It is a personal evaluation, not a public announcement. Those rarely help anyone. Rather, what we need to do is quietly and humbly act for the benefit of others as if they are really as valuable as God declares them to be; to esteem others more highly than ourselves not to demonstrate our own Christ-likeness, but because it is simply the right thing to do.

I suspect we most need to apply this verse when we least feel like it.

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