A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Taking Ourselves Too Seriously
May 30, 2013
I have a small collection of family photos going back a few generations. It appears that until my parents’ generation, my ancestors did not know how to smile. Or if they did, they never let on in front of the camera. I’m sure they were people who knew real joy, but judging from photos alone, you’d never know it.
Let’s be honest – our spiritual forebears from early Reformation generations were hardly known for their mirth. Life and faith were far too weighty to permit frivolity. The poster-child for this apparent personal austerity is our beloved father in faith John Calvin. I was privileged to visit the Museum of the Reformation in Geneva some years ago, and in one exhibit we sat through a slide show that contained the full catalog of known pictures of Calvin; midway through, the interpreter paused to give us a long look at what she said was the only known picture of Calvin smiling. It is a side profile of him depicted with lips slightly parted, as though he is getting ready to say something, and there is a small sliver of teeth exposed. No upturned mouth edges, no cracking around the eyes, but they call it a “smile.” It’s the best we have. Yet Calvin thought himself quite the generous and kindly sort, to the point of even taking to task his beloved hero Augustine for tending to be too harsh with discipline. I take this “happy Calvin” to be the inspiration for the John Calvin bobblehead perched on my study shelf.
Calvin teaches that our basic human problem is that we take ourselves far, far too seriously. The more seriously we take ourselves, he contends, the less seriously we regard God. The core manifestation of our fallen sinfulness is an inversion by which we esteem ourselves too highly and proportionately discount God’s sovereign majesty. Only by a gracious work of God’s regenerating Spirit can we see and own honestly our sinfulness, and truly honor the greatness of God’s glory.
Calvin’s own personal conversion testimony is that “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame” (Introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms). He experienced salvation as deliverance from the childish human propensity to insist on the rightness of our own way.
This conviction that we cannot begin to grasp God’s grandeur until we acknowledge our own sinfulness distinctively shaped Calvin’s order for public worship. Before we can esteem and praise God rightly, he insisted, we must lay ourselves low to confess our sinfulness. Thus the very first item in his Sunday liturgy was an extended corporate confession of sin. Worshipers began the service on their knees in penitence, and only afterward rose to their feet in praise. Today we begin instead with a celebration of God’s praise, and only then confess our sin (alas, some congregations drop the corporate confession of sin altogether). Calvin would protest this vigorously! But we remonstrate that we don’t want to begin worship by making people feel badly, do we? It’s hard enough to get to them to church as it is! Calvin insists that we need to be purged of our self-importance if we are ever to worship God’s majesty truly.
One primary way we feed our predilection to think too highly of ourselves is by putting others down. In speaking ill of my sister or brother, I position myself as better than they. We often mask this by speaking in generalities rather than specifics, by casting aspersion on groups rather than on individuals. But there is no real difference between tearing down a particular person and tearing down a group; indeed, in demeaning a whole group we are expressing even greater haughtiness, declaring our disdain for everyone from a particular race, school, denomination, religion, or party. All too easily we dismiss Paul’s appeal, “In humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) This is the mind of Christ, according to Paul – not just to think the best of each other, but to consider each other better than ourselves.
When I engage in talk that puts down individuals or groups of people, I arrogate to myself a position of superiority – superior integrity, superior knowledge, superior judgment, and so on. In discounting the integrity of others, I become self-righteous and thereby diminish my own need for a Savior. To diminish others is thus, ultimately, to diminish the importance of Jesus.
There is good reason we enjoy being around folk who can laugh at themselves. When I engage in self-deprecation, I’m letting you know that I don’t think myself superior. You feel more highly valued when I get off my high horse of self-importance, and well you should! These two graces walk hand in hand – the grace of laughing at ourselves, and the grace of building up others. May those graces abound among us.
To God alone be the glory!
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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