Usually, it’s a good think to think of others before you think of yourself. In fact, it’s always good to think of other’s needs before your own. We’re to consider each other as more significant than ourselves, looking to their interest before our own. This is a huge part of how Christians are to love each other, how we’re to be Jesus to one another.
But today I want to talk about an instance when it’s wrong—sinful, even—to think about someone else before you think of yourself. After several stabs at this post, the best way to do this seems to be by sharing a bit of autobiography.
A not-so-hypothetical situation.
It was Sunday morning at church, and a visiting pastor was speaking from Ephesians 4 about how our leaders are gifts to our church, admonishing us to be unified, reminding us what—or rather who—unifies us as a church, and calling us to grow up into the image of Christ. I sat there in my pew, brimming with enthusiasm. I had a running list of people who I thought needed to hear that sermon, who needed to hear it and then heed it. I’m not the type to call out an amen in the service, but I wanted to that morning… until I realized I was deciding how everyone else had to change because of the truth we were told that day except for me. I wasn’t thinking about how I needed to learn and grow; I was thinking about everyone else who needed to learn and grow, calling them out in my head.
It was a strange, disorienting, somewhat sickening moment.
In December 2016, I was reading The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, and that was the first time I was made aware that this sort of thinking was a problem… and that I had this problem (The Screwtape Letters can do that to a person). It ebbed in and out of my mind for months as I caught myself thinking about how the truth being preached and taught to me could be applied in the lives of all these sinners around me. Goodness knows I’m painfully aware of their sin and problems and am so wise as to know how they need to go about growing up, and I sure hope they are actually listening to this sermon because they really need to get their lives in order.
But here’s the deal.
Sermons on Sunday mornings, daily quiet time with God, convicting books on the Christian life—these are rarely the time to be assessing the sin of others.
The Holy Spirit puts me in church on Sunday for me to hear the message and learn from it, not so I can steam about how so-and-so had better be awake to hear this because I think I know so much about so-and-so’s heart and life.
My quiet time with God is my quiet time with God where he and I set up a battle plan for my life and my sin issues, not where I pick out pieces of what I’m learning and wish my sister or friend or whoever knew it so that they could stop being such a difficult person for me to deal with.
The Holy Spirit is with me while I read that book on the Christian life to convict me, not so that I can convict others.
These are all situations where I should come first in my mind, but so often I don’t. There is something sickly satisfying in looking down on someone else from the safety of my mind, from the high vantage point my self-love so readily gives me. But my mind isn’t safe from God’s eyes, and my high ground is just an illusion I’ve made for myself.
The source of this mindset.
It all boils down to pride. This is thinking much of myself and hardly anything of those around me.
There is a time and place for coming alongside a brother or sister in Christ and exhorting them with the power of the Holy Spirit, but the only power of the Holy Spirit that has to do with pride is the power that the Holy Spirit uses to expose and then cut down pride. There is no upside or strength in pride, only sin and self, and in the process of sanctification, both of those must go.
A holy heart.
How can I learn to look first at myself before turning my eyes to the lives of others? Humility and love. Humility and love. Humility and love. Humility and love.
Humility is for looking at myself first. I have sin issues. So do you. So does everyone else. But the sin issues that need to occupy my mind are my own, not anyone else’s. When I feel the tug to look at the sinners around me—whether it be in church or during my devotions or reading a book on the Christian life or anywhere else—I will stop and pray.
I will pray to the holy God to whom I should have no right to lift up my voice. I’ll ask for help from the Holy Spirit whose presence I should have no access to. I will look to Jesus, who has given my what is his, and I’ll remember that grace has nothing to do with deserve.
Pride has a hard time standing before the brilliant holiness of God, and I think that might be part of humility in a nutshell. It’s not about looking at others or yourself or comparison at all. It’s looking at God, truly looking at him, and remembering why you can.
Love is for when I do see legitimate sin in someone else’s life. Love, 1 Corinthians 13 love, is not blind, but it is true. 1 Corinthians 13 love gives the correct heartset for confronting a brother or sister in sin. It is devoid of pride and the sick urge to rejoice in the faults of others and tear them down or feel superior.
Instead of thinking anything about self, love immediately moves toward the best interest of the beloved, even if it involves painful confrontation. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
I wrote this because I know I’m not the only one with this sin, and so if you’d like to read the Scripture behind this post, here’s a list of some of the influential passages: Jeremiah 17:9-10, Proverbs 16:18, Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:31, John 8:1-8, Romans 2:1-11, 1 Corinthians 13, Philippians 2:3-10, and James 4:12.
Who has read The Screwtape Letters? Did anyone else get major speck vs. plank vibes from this post (if you did, it was probably because Matthew 7:1-5 was hugely influential)? Which is harder for you—humility or love? Speaking of humility, what do you think it is (I ask because opinions seem to vary)?
P.S. – this is a messy subject, and there were several things I didn’t clarify because it was getting to be a monster huge post. What clarifications/follow-up posts would you like to see?