“The Humbled Mind”
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.)
July 8, 2012
A matter of the mind
We come this morning to the final sermon in our series on humility. As you have heard by now, I’m trying to write a book this summer on humility. It’s harder than I thought it would be. I have thought about this subject for a long time, and part of the reason I wanted to write the book is that I believe living in America is like inserting a PICC line directly into your brain with a constant drip of anti-humility drugs.
So here’s the problem. When you start writing about the arrogance you see around you, you begin to sound…well, arrogant. In writing I find I can shift from a plea for humility to whining and accusing in a heartbeat. I don’t want people to read my book and think, “Boy, he sure told off all those arrogant American SOBs.” I don’t want readers to begin to feel defensive or to argue with my facts or premises.
What I want the book to sound like is more like this: “Join me on a journey toward humility. I battle with my own arrogance every day, and I see how it forms a barrier between God and me and between me and others. Let’s work on it together.”
Here’s the number one lesson I have learned while writing. Humility is much more about how you think than what you say or what you do. If I try to sound more humble or look more humble without a change of mind, it will be like my putting on a t-shirt that says “US Olympian.” Everybody will know it’s just a coverup.
To be humble, you have to retrain your thoughts, let God’s Spirit change you from the inside. In Philippians 2 Paul says, “Your attitude (mind, thoughts, understanding) should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” The chapter titles in my book are simple phrases that express a humble mind: “Help me understand,” “I can wait,” “I could be wrong,” etc. Humility is a matter of the mind.
Job seems like an appropriate story to wind up this series of sermons. You probably know the story of Job, but let me review it for you briefly. At the beginning of the book, we meet a man who has it all – the faith of Billy Graham, the integrity of Mother Teresa, the wealth of Bill Gates, the health of Michael Phelps, and the family of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Satan appears before God to accuse Job of having faith and integrity only because of his wealth, his family, and his health. The Accuser (that’s what the name “Satan” means) gains permission from God to strip Job of his possessions, his children, and his physical well-being. Satan’s purpose is to expose Job as a fraud. God allows the suffering to showcase Job as the real thing. (This is not the only place in the Bible where Satan and God cooperate on a test.) As a result, Job’s possessions are all stolen or destroyed, his children all die when a tornado ravages the house where they were partying, and Job himself becomes covered with painful boils from head to toe.
Job’s wife reacts in the way Satan had said Job himself would respond. She is bitter and angry, and tells Job to “curse God and die.” Job, on the other hand, asks, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” All of that happens in chapters 1-2.
Three friends enter the story, insisting that Job has done something to deserve these disasters. Job swears he has not. The friends become increasingly frustrated at Job’s arrogant self-defense, while he becomes angry at them for their false accusations. This cycle continues and intensifies for 30 chapters until Job finally demands an audience with God to vindicate himself. “I have some questions for God!” he declares.
At that point a fourth friend enters the story and gets a little closer to wisdom. Then we read four chapters of God’s response to Job. You would think God would show a little empathy for Job’s suffering, or at least commend Job for hanging in there and for his prior track record. God does no such thing.
Instead God says to Job, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2-3). The questions start don’t let up for four chapters. “Where were you when I created everything, Job?” “Do you tell the sun when to rise?” “Did you put the constellations in the sky?” “Do mountain goats and eagles do what you tell them to do?” “Can you tame an elephant or train a crocodile?” Who do you think you are?
In chapter 42 Job illustrates two such phrases that a humbled mind finds natural: “I don’t know” and “I sinned.” Remember, it’s not what you say, it’s how you think. You can’t fake what Job says in these verses if your heart is jammed in proud gear.
Let’s read again what Job says in vv. 2-3 –
I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3)
I have a lot of practice saying, “I don’t know.” Here are three questions I’ve been asked just in the last seven days.
To all of them I say, “I don’t know.” These are all questions that on some level Christians have been debating for hundreds if not thousands of years. You can find a lot of very confident answers without looking hard, but I wish they would have the spirit of “I don’t know” even if they go on to suggest an answer.
Job’s question may be the oldest and most difficult mystery of faith, especially given the fact that the book of Job may be the oldest in the Bible. “Why do good people suffer?” What’s the best answer? “I don’t know.” Remember, it’s not whether you say the words out loud. Humility is often unspoken, an attitude of the heart.
Humble minds are comfortable with “I don’t know.” What’s remarkable to me about Job’s story is that he never, as far as we know, finds out about the conversation between Satan and God that led to all this. If God were going to speak to him, you would think God would say, “Job, let me tell you what Satan said about you. But I stood up for you and I knew you wouldn’t curse me and die, as your wife said.” God says no such thing, and the book of Job ends without Job receiving a satisfying answer to why he went through all this. The book of Job ends with “I don’t know.”
But how does that help? It helps because when I think I do know I put myself in the place of God. Look again at what Job says in verse 2. There’s something he does know. “I know,” he says, “that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” What Job knows is that God is in charge, and that’s enough for him.
What I need most is not answers to my questions. It’s not solutions to my problems. What I need most is God.
David expresses this same lesson in Psalm 63. This is a song David writes when he, too, has fallen from the top of the human heap. The psalm’s title says that David writes this in “the desert of Judah.” I’ve been there. It’s no place you want to stay very long. David had been there early in his life when he was on the run from Saul. But in this psalm David identifies himself as “king” (v. 11), so we know this was the second time David found himself on the run for his life. His son Absalom had usurped the throne and chased David out of Jerusalem. Imagine that! Your own son wants you dead so he can take your place.
How would you pray if you were David? Most of us would pray, “God, help Absalom to see the error of his ways. Confuse those who are advising him. Help me get back on my feet. I don’t like it here in the desert; I want my palace back. God, fix this!”
Listen to what David prays:
“O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)
If you are in a dry or desperate place today, go home and make Psalm 63 your prayer. When we say “I don’t know” – in fact, “I don’t need to know, I just need God” – we are learning humility.
Job is not done. He says to God in vv. 4-6,
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
“Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)
Job’s relationship to God has moved from reputation to intimacy. As he moves closer, he becomes comfortable with saying, “I’m sorry.”
His closing words in the NIV are, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” I don’t know if that’s the best translation. “I despise myself” is literally, “I retract.” I take back what I said.
“I repent” is an interesting word. It’s the same word as “comfort” – it’s used in Job 2:11 when the three friends show up to “comfort” Job. So Job can be saying, “I’m now comforted in my dust and ashes.” But it can also mean “I’m sorry,” which is the “repent” idea. It’s not the 180o turn that repentance means in the New Testament. It’s just regret – “I’m sorry,” an apology to God.
Job had all along insisted on his innocence. Now he sees that he had become arrogant in his ash heap. It is just as easy to be arrogant in suffering and setback as it to be humble. When you blame, accuse, whine, you need to remember God wants you to be honest if that’s what you are feeling – but you don’t get a pass on sin because you are suffering. Also remember that you can be humbled without being humble. That had happened to Job. What he learned, as I heard one pastor say it this week, was that even though sin had not caused his suffering, in his suffering he had sinned. Now he was willing to shut up and stop trying to defend or explain or confront God.
You may know that in the epilogue to Job’s story his fortunes were restored. His possessions were doubled and God gave him ten new children. Unless he remarried, I’m still thinking his wife got the short end of the stick having to birth and nurse ten more kids. But that’s not the point of the story. My favorite part of the ending is that Job prayed for the forgiveness of his three arrogant friends. It shows that his humility before God had truly become a humility toward others. There’s no greater mark of horizontal humility than the willingness and ability to forgive.
The part of Job’s story that brings us to the cross, and thus to the communion table, is this part of his story. Job had thought everyone else was in the wrong – even God. He had to humble himself and say, “I’m sorry” to God. I retract every arrogant word I’ve spoken about what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to act. My suffering should have humbled me, but it made me proud in my own self-defense. God, I’m sorry.
We on this side of the cross hear the loving Father respond, “My child, I know. You’re now where you need to be. When you get to the place where you can release your own defensiveness and let go of all your possessions and even your family, when nothing matters to you except that you know I’m God and you’re not and my plans for you are good, you are where you need to be. It won’t matter to you whether I give you back your good life or not – but if I do, life will be so much sweeter because you’ve learned to let go of everything but me.”
This past Thursday, just prior to sitting down to write my sermon, I had a conversation with Chris O’Connor. Chris, I’m sure, would not compare his pre-humbled status to Job, nor would he say that his suffering has matched Job’s. That’s not the point of the book of Job. Nobody’s story lines up exactly. In fact, Job’s story is, I believe, deliberately an extreme from high to low so that you and I can say, “If Job started that high and wound up that low, I can probably apply something of his humbled mind to my own story.”
That’s what Chris’ story sounded like to me. He began by telling me about his teen years. He ran away from home at age 12, was emancipated from his parents at age 13, and was hooked on heroin at age 14. When caught, he spent three years in prison, treated like an adult criminal because of his emancipation. He said during those years as a underage “adult,” he learned he always had to have a plan – in fact, a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C.
Chris married his best friend Christy in his early twenties, probably the smartest thing he did as a young man. They were blessed with two beautiful daughters, Lauren and Rachel. Later Chris gave his life fully to a relationship to Jesus Christ. Through the years he’s been involved in various ways in the motorcycle industry – racing, building, fixing, selling – until finally he realized his dream of owning his own Harley Davidson dealership here in Hickory about a decade ago.
But the dream came to a close earlier this year, when Chris decided to sell the dealership. At that point, he had no options on the table that didn’t involve relocating out of Hickory. There were sleepless nights and anxious days because the insecurities of his adolescence came rushing back into his mind. He didn’t have a Plan A, B, or C of what he would do next. His best friend Christy kept reminding him just to wait on God’s plan and God’s timing.
And finally, he did. He just chose to let go, like a trapeze artist flying through the air. On the other end he was caught, and landed safely in a place where his job was secure and he can rest again. Chris told me this series of sermons from his pastors have taught him to be humble and put his trust in the Lord.
His high wasn’t as high as Job’s, and his low wasn’t as low. But he learned the same lessons. Some of you need to learn those same lessons. Your knuckles are white from the grip you’re trying to wrap around a relationship or a job or some other security blanket that’s not really what you need. What you need is the humility that trusts.
Humility lives in the mind. Humility thinks, “I don’t know,” and I don’t need to know the big picture, because I do know who God is, and that I can trust him. Humility thinks, “I’m sorry,” because being defensive or going on the attack against others – even if they’re arrogant – is not my job. I just confess my own sins and lay them at the foot of the cross. Amen.
 PICC is an acronym for “peripherally inserted central catheter,” used to drip nourishment, antibiotics, chemotherapy, or other substances directly into the vein.
 See, for example, David’s census of fighting men described as from Yahweh in 2 Samuel 24:1 and from Satan in 1 Chronicles 21:1. Matthew 4:1 also says that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”