Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: self-righteousness

Self-chosen humility

Peter Toews was the Elder, or bishop, of the portion of the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites who emigrated from Ukraine to Manitoba in the 1870’s. (Kleine Gemeinde means little church, a means of distinguishing themselves from the large Mennonite church among whom they lived.) Another portion of the Kleine Gemeinde, led by Elder Abram Friesen, settled around Janzen, Nebraska. Yet a third group, led by Elder Jacob Wiebe, whose wife was Peter Toews’ sister, settled around Hillsboro, Kansas.

Evidently there were some differences in how these groups viewed Christian faith. Peter Toews experienced the new birth while still living in Ukraine and before his ordination. By all accounts he endeavoured to teach and lead his congregation according to his spiritual convictions. But the Kleine Gemeinde had never seen the new birth as being a necessary qualification for baptism and membership in the church. They believed that the important thing was to live a devout and holy life according to the rules that they believed were taught in the Bible.

By 1880 Peter Toews was ready to admit that many, perhaps the majority, of the members of his congregation were not Christians. Some of the other ministers and members felt as he did and they began to search for a solution. That search led Peter Toews to take a trip to Kansas in the summer of 1881 to visit John Holdeman and the congregations of his church in central Kansas. While there, he also visited his brother-in-law Jacob Wiebe. It appears the two were united in believing the lack of a requirement of the new birth for church membership was a fatal flaw in the Kleine Gemeinde, but did not agree on a solution.

Upon returning home, Peter Toews resigned as elder of the Kleine Gemeinde and wrote a letter outlining his reasons. He wrote “We are not baptized into one body, but are torn and divided, some walking in self-chosen humility, and worshipping of angels (of whom we should not be beguiled, lest we lose our reward).” “I fear to build with members of torn and divided groups which are not baptized into one body, the Church of Christ–to build a kingdom to which only a few of us belong. We all profess that we are baptized into the body of Christ, even though many are merely walking in voluntary humility.”

The upshot was that John Holdeman and Mark Seiler came to Manitoba the following winter, upon the invitation of Peter Toews and some of the other Kleine Gemeinde ministers. Over the course of several months of preaching in various communities of Southeastern Manitoba, about one third of the members of the Kleine Gemeinde were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, becoming the first members of that church in Western Canada. Many had not been born again prior to the evangelistic services of that winter. The remaining members of the Kleine Gemeinde asked elder Abram Friesen to help them ordain a new elder to replace Peter Toews, who was one of those baptized by John Holdeman.

It seems that Peter Toews felt that “self-chosen humility” was a major weakness of the Kleine Gemeinde. What is wrong with trying to be humble? There are numerous warnings against pride and a haughty spirit in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Doesn’t the Bible tell us to humble ourselves? James says: Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up, (James 4:10). Peter writes: Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, (1 Peter 5:6).

Let’s consider those verses. James is not telling us to become humble in our own eyes, but in the eyes of God. That isn’t necessarily the same thing. Peter does not say that we should take ourselves in hand to make ourselves humble, but allow God to take us in hand, which is quite different.

A few verses earlier in the fourth chapter of James, he writes “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” (Verses 6 and 7). I believe this is the key to genuine humility. It is not something that we can do ourselves, but is the fruit of submission to God.

Why can’t we make ourselves humble? Maybe you are not like me, but I’m afraid that if I would believe that the Bible is telling me to make myself humble, I would very soon believe that I was doing a much better job of it that you were. That is the snare of voluntary or self-chosen humility. I believe Peter Toews hit the nail on the head.

There is an oft misunderstood verse in the Old Testament. Isaiah 64:6 says: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” I’m not sure why the translators chose the word rags, it really should be filthy garments. What the prophet is saying is that when we try to establish our own righteousness, even our own humility, we are sewing a garment that in our own eyes is spotlessly, dazzlingly white. But when God looks at it he sees that it is saturated with our sweat, the evidence of our own work. It is filthy and it stinks to high heaven.

What is a Biblical ethic of work and wealth?

There are Christians who revere voluntary poverty, seeing it as a means of escaping from the materialism of the world and of not abusing the resources of the earth.

Other Christians revere work and consider the benefits that flow from it to be good stewardship and evidence of the blessing of God.

Those in each group see themselves as being more righteous than those in the other group.

Taking that as a warning and a starting point in seeking God’s will for our material affairs, here are some points that come to my mind:

  1. Self-righteousness is abhorrent to God
  2. We need to do honest work to provide for our needs and the needs of our family.
  3. We should be content; there is no need to envy those who have more than we do.
  4. We need to have enough to give to the work of God and to help those who do not have enough.
  5. If we don’t have time for family, worship, prayer and reading the Bible and other Christian literature, we are probably too busy with material pursuits.
  6. If we are ashamed to ask for advice or help, we are too proud.
  7. Recreational shopping wastes not just money but valuable time that could be spent with family and friends.
  8.  Maybe we don’t need to travel as often, or as far, as we would like to.
  9. It’s not healthy to never leave home; visiting in other communities gives us new insights.
  10. God is interested in every aspect of our life.

What do you think? Suggested changes or additions are welcome.

Winsomeness

More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal described what he hoped to achieve with his writing this way:

People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of  reverence and respect. Then show that it is winsome, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.
-Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées

I have often read this passage, given mental assent to it, desired that the things I write could be winsome and attractive. Yet it dawns on me now how far I fall short of achieving that goal.

I don’t do New Year resolutions. I tried years ago. They were largely futile attempts to make me feel better about myself with minimal effort. I took comfort in having noble aspirations, then promptly forgot them. Real change is only possible by taking an honest look at the not so noble part of my character.

Pascal used the word aimable in French. The above English version translates aimable by winsome in one place and attractive in the other. Apologetics, giving an answer for the hope that lieth within me, is only effective if it makes that hope winsome and attractive.

Giving an answer that carries the slightest whiff of self-righteousness or arrogance renders that answer unattractive.  Truth is important, right doctrine is necessary, yet if truth and right doctrine seem repugnant to the reader, I am an abject failure.

Effective apologetics then must be the putting Christian faith into words that bring out the winsomeness of the faith. As a writer, I need to get myself out of the way and think of how to present different aspects of the faith in Jesus Christ to the reader, who probably looks at life in quite a different way than I do. It is not my job to prove him wrong; it is not my job to prove myself an authority to be trusted. It is my job to show that Jesus Christ is worthy of our trust.

© Bob Goodnough, January 03, 2020

The voice of God

How does God speak to you? Do you know His voice? Jesus said that his sheep would know his voice and would not follow the voice of a stranger. Are all the people who call themselves Christians listening to the same voice?

Sometimes God speaks to a person through circumstances or dreams in such a clear and striking way that it is unmistakable who is speaking. But God does not want to always have to use such dramatic means to get our attention. Elihu told Job that “God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not” (Job 33:17). Elihu went on to describe how God speaks to us in dreams, but his words are equally applicable to the way God speaks to us in our waking hours. His voice comes to us in our mind in such a soft, gentle way that we can easily ignore it or push it aside.

Elijah knew God’s voice. When he heard all the noise and tumult outside the cave where he had taken refuge on Mount Horeb, he knew that was not God’s way of talking to him. But when he heard a soft murmur he recognized it as the voice of God and then he began to pay attention. If only we could be as alert to God’s voice and tune out all the distractions.

Many years ago, my wife and I were searching for a church home where we could worship God in spirit and in truth with fellow believers, and it had to be in a location where I could find work. After several disappointments when we tried to figure things out on our own, a thought came to me to move to a place several thousand miles away. We had never been there, did not know anyone there — it wasn’t at all clear to me why we should move there or how it would work. But it was the only direction we had and I went. Things fell into place one after another and that move was a tremendous blessing to all three of us.

God speaks to us often, are we hearing? My wife speaks to me with a pointed reproof and my immediate reaction is one of indignation at her unjust accusation. My feelings begin to boil, then a quiet thought comes to my mind, “She is right, you know.” That voice goes on to point out things beyond what my wife has said. That too is a life-changing experience. Perhaps no one else sees what has happened, but I know God has spoken to me and set me free.

Often that voice comes to me when I am contemplating the problems of someone else. As I analyze his attitude or conduct, I can clearly see where he has gone wrong. Then the thought comes into my mind, “That’s your problem, too.” God is not necessarily telling me that I am wrong in what I see in the other person, but He is telling me that I am no better and that I had better first see about removing the beam from my own eye.

As Elihu was telling Job how God spoke to mankiind, he included this thought: “Then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, that he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man” (Job 33:16-17).

“Hide pride from man” — God needs to do that continually, I have such a tendency toward self-righteousness. When a thought comes into my mind and points out the subtle ways in which I have once again begum to think myself better than others, I know that voice. That is God speaking.

They’ll know we are Christians by our ______

I was walking through the upper shopping level of Midtown Plaza on Wednesday and noticed an elderly Sikh couple standing at the top of an escalator. The man made a few false starts, then grasped the moving handrail and stepped firmly on to the joint between two treads. He almost lost his balance as the front tread dropped away from under his feet, but found his footing and rode safely down. His wife watched, then put her foot forward and quickly pulled it back. She was almost blocking access to the escalator as she repeated this manoeuvre several times. None of those waiting seemed impatient, all tried in some way to be helpful. Finally a man stepped on in front of her and motioned her to follow. He kept an eye on her all the way down to see that she didn’t lose her balance, then went his way. I was touched by the patience and kindness shown by busy people to this old couple who were obviously new to this part of the world.

The news media had been carrying stories for several days about five young teens who had ventured out on a lake in northern Saskatchewan and disappeared. They had been found the previous day on an island, where they had broken into a wilderness resort for shelter and food. On Wednesday it was reported that there appeared to be a lot more damage to the resort lodge than would have been necessary for mere survival.

An hour after witnessing the scene at the Midtown, I was sipping a coffee in a Christian book store. Not far from me, two elderly couples were discussing the news of the lost teens and the damage to the lodge. “They ought to be horsewhipped!” one man said.

As Christians we endeavour to inculcate principles of good behaviour and respect for the property of others. This is as it should be. Does this then give us authority to judge others for every deviation from our standard? The contrast between the two scenes was stark: patient compassion on one hand and impatient condemnation on the other.

The man went on to explain himself. I didn’t hear nearly all of what he said, but it seemed that in his own eyes he was being completely fair and reasonable. But the news reports haven’t even revealed what kind of damage was done, and it’s not an established fact that these young people were responsible for all the damage. It could be that they broke into a liquor cabinet and had a wild party. But we don’t know that.

What would an unbeliever have concluded if he had been able to observe both scenes? That non-Christians are kind, caring and compassionate and Christians are not? That surely is not the impression we want to give.

“To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Hebrews 3:15).

“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:29). We should never take this to mean that we must be more self-righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.

The world turned upside down

The scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus with a woman who had been caught in adultery, reminded Him that the law required that such a person be stoned, and asked what He had to say. Jesus only answer was to stoop down and write on the ground. One by one the accusers left.

The story is familiar, but gives rise to the question of what Jesus wrote on the ground. Evidently it was not aimless doodling. There was a purpose to His action and it made the accusers feel that they were better off elsewhere. But why? That has been fodder for many an interesting discussion where various speculations were shared and we came no closer to understanding just what had taken place.

Several weeks ago I had coffee with an acquaintance who has given much time to studying Scripture and history. He mentioned that he had purchased a commentary on the New Testament written by a Jew. This commentator said that the scribes and Pharisees, being very well versed in Scripture, would have immediately associated Jesus’ actions with Jeremiah 17:13:

“O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.”

Now, I cannot say for certain that this was the case, but it is really the most plausible explanation that I have heard. The AV translation says “in the earth” in Jeremiah and “on the ground” in the Gospel of John. The Louis Segond French translation says “sur la terre” in both places.

The implication would be that the scribes and Pharisees, who were so well versed in the law, and so scrupulous and righteous in obeying the law, had their names written in the earth. Then, when Jesus told the sinful woman “neither do I condemn thee,” the inference was that her name was now written in heaven.

This is the world turned upside down; and that is what Jesus came to do. We need to be reminded often that Jesus did not come for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.

For without me ye can do nothing

O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).

Okay, if we don’t have it in us to conduct our lives in a way that will lead us to our ultimate destination of heaven, or even to live like a genuine child of God in the present, why do some Christians talk like they do have that ability?

I am thinking specifically of those who talk of self-discipline as though it was an essential quality of Christian life.  Funny that the Bible never speaks of such a thing.  Or maybe it’s not so funny.  What we are actually saying when we talk of self-discipline is that I can discipline my self by myself and my self takes the credit for it.  To which the apostle Paul says:

This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?  Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?  (Galatians 3:2-3)

If we live a consistent and orderly Christian life and then take credit to ourselves by claiming it is due to self-discipline, aren’t we contradicting the words of Jesus?

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5).

Remarkably, when we speak often of self-discipline, we are also apt to speak often of humility.  Are we perhaps mistaking the appearance of humility for the real thing?  The apostle Paul has a warning for those who would choose an appearance of humility over the real thing:

Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind (Colossians 2:18).

And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23).

This is Jesus’ recipe for finding direction for our lives: self-denial, not self-discipline; cross bearing, not self-righteousness.  This is also the recipe for genuine humility, when we admit that we do not have it in us to direct our steps on the right pathway and depend on our Saviour to guide us each step of the way.

Many of those who speak of self-discipline are simply using the wrong word; their lives do give evidence of self-denial and cross bearing.  Yet there may be a snare here for the unwary.  Simply by substituting a word we may find ourselves tempted to take a little credit to ourselves, rather than thanking our Lord each day for the gift of His grace that has guided us through another day.

%d bloggers like this: