“Down, Lower Down”
Robert M. Thompson, Pastor
Corinth Reformed Church
150 Sixteenth Avenue NW
Hickory, North Carolina 28601
(© 2012 by Robert M. Thompson. Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 2011 by New York International Bible Society.)
Being humbled is not the same as being humble.
2 Chronicles 7:11-22
May 13, 2012
It’s been three weeks since we began these sermons on humility, and I asked you for some of your questions. One of those questions is whether you can be proud of your children. After last weekend, I tell you, yes!
Today is Mother’s Day, but last Saturday should have been. Phil’s mother and I along with our daughters joined about 5,000 family members and friends to honor more than 700 Master’s and Ph.D. graduates of the University of South Florida. Of all those students, our son had the privilege of speaking to his fellow graduates.
Phil was humbled by this opportunity. He spoke of the irony that he should address the crowd. He had been humbled the first time he made a presentation in his field of physical oceanography at a major conference when he froze in front of the audience. This time Phil spoke confidently and articulately about how graduate school transforms a person from a knowledge receiver to a transmitter. My favorite part was his repeated challenge to keep growing: “Continue to consume knowledge, but also produce it. Continue to receive direction, but also give it. Continue to acknowledge and even seek out your own perceived limitations, but also find capability beyond them.”
I was proud of his humility. So was his Mom. The pride you feel in your children is not inconsistent with humility. Merriam-Webster describes this kind of pride as “delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship.” Paul used pride in this positive sense as he spoke about the generosity of the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8:24). As Paul did, we say, “I’m proud of you” both to encourage and motivate.
Moms, it’s OK during a sermon series on humility to be proud of your children. Linda certainly is, and so am I. Unless, of course, you’re thinking, “My kid is better than your kid.” That would be sinful pride.
The reason I told you that story, however, is to make the point that both prosperity and adversity will humble you. Phil was humbled by the honor of being chosen to speak to that large crowd at a momentous occasion. He had previously been humbled by an awkward moment. Both success and failure will humble you.
That is one of the lessons of 2 Chronicles 7.
Prosperity is humbling. Before we get to the part of 2 Chronicles 7 we read today as our sermon text, we need some context. This chapter is set at the highest point of Israel’s 3000-year history. Their borders extend further than at any other point. Their borders are secure. Economically, they are more prosperous than before or since. Solomon has used his wealth to build an ornate palace for himself, and to construct the temple of Yahweh his father David could only dream of. Spiritually speaking, the people are focused on loyalty to their God, with their king setting the example.
The temple was the most glorious architectural achievement any Israelite had ever seen. Watching its progress over seven years must have been to residents of Jerusalem what New Yorkers now feel as the World Trade Center rises again. This temple was seen as a great symbol of Israel’s prosperity, determination, and achievement. More importantly, it was seen as the great symbol of Yahweh’s favor. God himself has filled this temple with his own glory, according to 2 Chronicles 7:1. The first part of 2 Chronicles 7 describes a two week party in Jerusalem with huge crowds bowing down in worship and singing their praise and thanks to God.
Solomon’s own prayer of dedication is one the finest prayers recorded in all the Bible – including worship, awe, confession, and a prayer that God would always hear his people when they turned to him from this temple. Solomon includes this humble admission: “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (6:18)
Tens of thousands of cattle and sheep were sacrificed at the temple dedication – both for worship and as a kind of barbecue for the crowd. This was a multi-sensory experience with the smells of burning sacrifices mingled with the sights of fire from heaven, the sounds of praise, and the taste of fresh beef and lamb. It was humbling to be part of this gathering.
I say again: prosperity is humbling. Think about the moments of your life when good times humbled you. A marriage proposal – offered or accepted. The birth of a child. An unexpected raise or promotion. A new house. An honor or a reward. A celebration given in your honor. At these moments we are humbled because our first response is, “I don’t deserve this.”
But here’s the problem with humility that comes from prosperity. It has a very short half-life. Thoughts quickly turn from “I can’t believe how blessed I am” to “Look what I’ve done.” Humble awareness of God’s favor fades and a pride takes its place, in the form of self-confidence and false security.
Shortly after this grand celebration of success, Yahweh appeared personally to Solomon (7:11). That was humbling as well. God tells Solomon he has heard the prayer of dedication and his plea that God would respond in times of adversity and forgive his people if they have turned from him. Yahweh then names the same potential afflictions Solomon had named – drought, locusts, and plague (13). Further, God warns Solomon that if he and his people serve other gods and forsake Yahweh’s law, the temple will be rejected and the people will be uprooted from their homeland (19-22).
In other words, God says, “If you become too proud to need me and serve me, I will humble you.” This was no idle threat. In fact, this particular chronicler is actually rewriting the historical account in 1 Kings from the vantage point of several hundred years later. This had happened. Solomon himself had fallen spiritually by marrying hundreds of foreign women to preserve his political alliances. They had turned his own heart after other gods. The kingdom split during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, who had little of his father’s political or spiritual wisdom. A few hundred years later, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, who looted and burned the glorious temple and uprooted God’s people from their land, taking them into captivity. Talk about being humbled! The chronicler has dramatic historical evidence.
If prosperity is humbling, adversity is more so. Cancer will humble you. Job loss will humble you. Divorce will humble you. Bankruptcy will humble you. The death of a loved one will humble you; the closer the loved one the greater the humility. Conflict will humble you. Failure will humble you.
That humility will take different forms. Being humbled caused us to feel out of control, and no one likes to feel out of control. We go through rather predictable stages of grief over our loss – shock, denial, blame, and guilt. All of those stages are humbling.
But here’s the surprise. Just like humility after prosperity, humility occasioned by adversity also has a short half-life. We quickly seek to regain control. The unemployed tries to find a job as quickly as possible with comparable pay to the one lost. The divorced person jumps into a new relationship – increasingly even before the divorce is final. The one who has experienced failure seeks to regain control by finding someplace to succeed. We don’t like being out of control and, frankly, we don’t like being humbled. We want to regain our sense of assurance, our pride.
What’s wrong with that? It’s certainly natural. But if we haven’t stayed down long enough to learn true humility, we set ourselves up for another fall.
Prosperity can humble you. Adversity can humble you. But being humbled is not the same as being humble. Being humbled is situational, temporary, and fragile.
That brings us to one of the best known verses in the Old Testament: 2 Chronicles 7:14. I’ve mostly heard this text preached as a recipe for national revival. Let’s read it as a pattern for humility.
The title of my sermon today comes from Andrew Murray’s classic book on humility. Murray, a South African pastor and author from about a century ago, said the path to the higher life is “down, lower down.” He was speaking of Jesus’ call for us to think and act like a servant. “Seek not, ask not for exaltation; that is God’s work. Look to it that you abase and humble yourselves, and take no place before God or man but that of a servant; that is your work; let that be your one purpose and prayer” (27).
We don’t talk that way much any more. Even Murray said of humility, “How little this is preached. How little it is practised. How little the lack of it is felt or confessed…..How little the world has seen it. How little has it been seen, even in the inner circle of the church” (26).
How do you get lower down? In 2 Chronicles 7:14 God says to Solomon, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves….” (emphasis added). The life of faith is not about being humbled. It is about humbling yourself. God gives Solomon three ways he loves to see his people humble themselves: pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways.
You humble yourself when you pray. This is a humbling thing for me to say, but you can probably measure your humility by your prayer – how much you pray and how you pray. If you don’t feel the need or have the time to pray, it’s because of pride. When we don’t pray, we say, in effect, “I don’t need God. I’ve got this.”
Prayer is humbling yourself because almost all the time for almost all of us, it’s a one way conversation. You speak to Someone who is invisible who doesn’t talk back – not just once but time after time after time for a lifetime. You engage in a practice that seems ridiculous to non-believers – that you are heard by God when you voice out loud or even think in your head what’s on your mind. Prayer is humility because it is an act of faith.
All forms of prayer require humbling yourself. When you offer praise and worship, you humbly acknowledge the Creator’s wisdom and power. When you confess your sins, you humbly admit he has the right to make the rules and you’ve broken them. When you thank him, you express that all you are and have is his gift. When you pray for yourself or others, you are saying you need him to do what you cannot do for yourself.
You humble yourself when you seek his face. There’s a difference between seeking God’s favors and seeking God’s face. Remember, God is speaking to God about a time that will come when there will be drought, locusts, or plague. What would you pray for in those circumstances? You would pray for rain, for relief, for healing. God says in life’s most difficult moments, “Don’t just ask me to make your life easier. Seek me.” To seek God’s face is to seek intimacy with him, to spend time with him, to learn to know how God thinks, what matters to him, how we can please him. You humble yourself when who God is means more than prosperity or adversity.
You humble yourself when you turn from your wicked ways. We don’t use language like this anymore. We justify and rationalize our wicked ways – greed, abuse of alcohol and other addictions, sex outside marriage, anger, judgmentalism, disunity, condescension. We have a thousand different excuses – one for every “wicked way.” God says to humble yourself is to admit to a standard that is higher than feels right to you or at least feels like you’ve got a very good excuse for doing wrong. “Turn from your wicked ways,” God says. That’s how you humble yourself.
Here’s something I’ve discovered about humility. It’s a lot like the Arcade game “Whac-a-Mole,” which was invented in 1976. I know this is true because I learned it on Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia also described how the game works: “If the player does not strike a mole within a certain time or with enough force, it will eventually sink back into its hole with no score. Although gameplay starts out slow enough for most people to hit all of the moles that rise, it gradually increases in speed, with each mole spending less time above the hole and with more moles outside of their holes at the same time.”
As soon as you whack pride over here it taunts you there. When it disappears from view it isn’t gone; it’s just hiding. If you do whack it, it will come back like sweet ants in a Hickory spring. When they consume all that Terro they haven’t disappeared. They are regrouping. Like pride.
Humility is a constant battle. Why? Because pride is my default. Every time I am humbled or humble myself, I need to remember my sin nature will quickly pull me back to pride.
Pride is an addiction. One can never say, “I used to be proud,” just like one can never say, “I used to be an alcoholic.” Then why try? Because pride, just like any other addiction, will destroy you once you stop fighting it. Just like pornography, or alcohol, or gambling, or drugs, or overeating, it’s never an option to give up on battling pride. Keep whacking. Fight the devastating effect of pride every moment, every day.
Don’t wait to be humbled – by prosperity or adversity. Humble yourself. Pray. Seek God’s face. Turn from your wicked way.
God says that those who humble themselves are in for great blessing. “I will turn from heaven, and forgive their sin, and heal their land.” Amen.