Is Greatness Worth It?

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From my latest article at WorldMag.com:

Greatness comes at a price. In his book Outliers: Stories of Success, Malcolm Gladwell posed the idea that it costs 10,000 hours of practice to be truly great at something. He mentions Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples, as well as Michael Jordan. Others who fall into that same category are stars, past and present, like Ted Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Peyton Manning, and Tiger Woods. Every sport has athletes known for their obsessive work habits and dedication to mastering their craft, and the same is true of most prolific authors, actors, movie directors, musicians, designers, and even pastors.

But what did it really cost? Every hour given to practice is an hour debited elsewhere. Family, relationships, personal spiritual life, mental and physical health, rest, and service to the church or community all pay taxes to “greatness.”

Think of your own life and the things in which you would like to excel: work, a creative endeavor, fitness. To do them it is necessary to not do something else, and often that something else truly matters, eternally matters. Faith, family, church, and community are all parts of life we often do not think of “mastering” but are foundational in a fulfilled Christian life. Yet these are the things we set aside to become great in some other area. Is it worth the cost?

. . .

Read the full post HERE.

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Lead Like Coach Wooden

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From my most recent article at WorldMag.com:

John Wooden is the greatest coach in American history. I don’t mean the greatest basketball coach, I mean the greatest coach of anything. His UCLA Bruins won 10 NCAA men’s basketball championships, ran off an 88-game winning streak, and finished four seasons undefeated. But Coach Wooden, who died in 2010 at age 99, wouldn’t have said winning was his greatest accomplishment. He focused on preparation to succeed while developing young men’s character, academics, and athletics. The wins happened because he was so remarkable at doing those things.

What set Wooden apart as a coach was his methodology. It was remarkable for its complete lack of anything remarkable. He didn’t seek to out-strategize or out-scheme anyone. He simply taught his players to be the best at the basics, even so basic as to how they put on their socks while insisting that they always be punctual. He pushed them in practice to the point that games felt like a deceleration, but he made practices fun, too, a privilege for his players. By emphasizing the fundamentals, Wooden’s teams were better prepared than their opponents, always, because they never had to think about or decide anything—they simply executed.

The glue that held all those fundamentals together was Coach Wooden’s character. He was a man of committed and substantive faith in God. Even as a fiercely competitive man, Wooden exemplified and taught respect.

. . .

Bits of Wooden’s wisdom now hang in the offices of CEOs and coaches across the country: “Be quick, but never hurry,” “Little things make big things happen,” “Discipline yourself and others won’t need to,” “Failure is never fatal; failure to change can and might be,” and so many more. We read these and see that they apply to work, church, family, parenting, and so much more. But so few of us actually resemble the calm, sharp, determined, faithful persona of John Wooden. Somewhere along the way we got sidetracked.

. . .

Read the full post HERE.

Is Your Hard Work Displeasing To God? It Just Might Be…

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Is hard work unspiritual? Let’s ask it another way: can you depend on God and at the same time work hard towards a goal? And what about hard work’s fraternal twin, planning? Is it unspiritual to have a ten year growth plan for your church or your business? Consider what James 4 says:

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

There’s both a warning and a command here. The warning is simple: when you say, “Tomorrow I will go to New York and sell all my stocks and make a profit,” you have no idea what tomorrow may actually hold. It’s a form of boastful arrogance. But notice the command. It’s not, “So stop planning New York business trips.” Instead it’s a command about how you talk and how you think about your plans. Even such seemingly mundane, worldly things as business trips must be done in awareness of the sovereignty of God. If the Lord wills, you will do such and such.

So back to our original questions. Is it unspiritual, a sign of a lack of dependence on God and an arrogant, boastful heart, to plan and work hard to do business or make a profit? James gives us a conditional answer: not necessarily. What matters is how you plan, how you do your hard work. Let me suggest two ways to both work hard and work humbly.

In all your hard work, remember God is your Creator. Hard working, ambitious people like to confront challenges, analyze them, and overcome them by effort. That’s not a bad thing,– the apostle Paul was all for hard work (see 1 Cor. 15:10 and Col. 1:29)! And it’s especially a good thing when the goal of your hard work is something godly: a job that provides for your family, a nourishing sermon for your church, a business product that meets your customer’s needs. But remember this: successful hard work requires a set of favorable conditions over which you have no control. Here’s what I mean.

Can you guarantee you’ll sleep tonight? How about tomorrow night, and the next? How much will you accomplish this week if insomnia strikes night after night? Three, four, five sleepless nights will completely change your productivity – and you can’t guarantee sound sleep.

Or think about a relatively insignificant area like training for a race. I recently spent eight months getting ready for a race. One day during a trail run I slipped and almost twisted my ankle. I caught myself and wasn’t injured, but I realized in that moment that one loose rock could have derailed all my training plans. The blogs that sell you e-book training plans never mention that!

We could multiply the examples. The list of things that A) we have no control over, and that B) can completely change our plans and hard work is limitless. What does all this point to? We are not our own creators. We didn’t cause our hearts to begin beating, and we can’t keep them beating. We are not in control. But God is. He keeps us, cares for us, sustains us, watches over our going out and our coming in (Psa. 121). That’s what it means to say “It is he who made us, and we are his” (Psa. 100:3). From the tiniest loose rock to the most grievous health challenges, God is in control. If he allows hardship, it will be for a good purpose. But our lives are in his hands, not our own. So plan and work hard towards your plan. But remember as you do that God is your Creator.

In all your hard work, remember God is your Redeemer. This is the antidote for those moments when you’re tempted to survey your accomplishments and think what a valuable Christian you have been for God. Good thing he picked you! Sadly, if we’re honest, at some point we’ll all have thoughts like that. When you do, ask yourself this: if the blood of Christ didn’t cover your parenting, your sermon, your business achievement – would it stand up to the scrutiny of the infallible Judge? Could you stand before the throne of Almighty God and say, “This is free from sin, error, or defect – search away!” Even asking the question reveals how ludicrous a suggestion it is – but asking will deflate the balloon of pride like nothing else will. Don’t stop working hard because your works are tainted by sin. That would mean stopping all parenting, all ministry, all business! But don’t stand boastfully on your accomplishments, either. Remember, God is your Redeemer – and if your good works aren’t redeemed, they’re worse than worthless.

Remember God is your Creator. Remember God is your Redeemer. And then do what he’s called you to do. That’s the road to dependent, spiritual hard work.

Photo by LaurPhil

If God Knows Our Every Need, Why Does He Tell Us To Pray?

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Most of us don’t like to humble ourselves. At least I don’t like to. And prayer is an act of humility. Prayer is an act of weakness. When we pray we admit?to God that we desperately need help. That we’re?weak and needy and not in control of all things. That?we are not self-sufficient.

But God is attracted to this act of humility. So in one Peter 5:6-7 he tells us:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

We humble ourselves “under the?mighty hand of God.” ?In other words prayer acknowledges that God is sovereign and controls all things. We bow before his sovereignty. We acknowledge?that God rules but his mighty hand and we can’t control a single thing in and of ourselves.

Prayer waits for “the proper time” for God to lift us up. ?Waiting for God is humbling?for again,?we acknowledge that we can’t change anything and must wait for God to. ?We must patiently wait for the One who knows the end from the beginning, the infinitely wise one, who knows the absolute perfect time to come riding in to rescue us or supply our need. ?He knows the perfect?time to answer our prayers. Our?affliction won’t last one second?longer than he determines.

God?tells us to cast all our anxieties on him. Why must we tell God our cares?when he already knows them? Because?asking is an act of humility, and since God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5), prayer puts us in the position to receive grace. ?God so longs to pour out his grace on us he tells us?the best way to receive it!

God tells us?to cast or anxieties on him?”because he cares for you.” When we pray it’s important to?remind ourselves that God, the creator of the galaxies, the sustainer of heaven and earth, is deeply concerned?for us?-?individually. I used to think God was so busy running the universe he didn’t have time for my?”petty” needs.?But I found out that God loves and cares deeply about his children individually. ?He knows us by name. ?He knows every hair on our heads. ?So pray because God cares about you?and?your anxieties and needs. ?If he feeds?the sparrows of the field and the ravens that cry out, how much more will he hear the cries of?his precious blood-bought children?

Don’t be proud. Don’t?try to tough it out and get through life on your own. Humble under the hand of?the Almighty who is tenderhearted, sympathetic and generous, and waiting?to pour out grace. Cast your anxieties on him and he will?lift you up at the proper time.

The Antidote To Selfish Ambition

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Our culture tends to be?self-focused and self-absorbed.

We say things like ?You have to look out for number one. Because if you don?t look out for number one, no one else will.? TV commercials constantly tell us what we need to make us happy. TV psychiatrists tell us we should?love ourselves more and be?sure to?bolster our self-esteem. But when Jesus comes into our lives and rescues us from our sins, he begins to reorient our whole mindset about everything in life, including?our tendency to be self-focused. ?So he tells us in Php 2:3-4:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Selfish ambition and conceit (pride) tries to get more of this world for itself,?tries to advance itself over others, always?wants more. More admiration, more power, more possessions. But contrary to what the world says,?selfish ambition won?t fulfill us, but is really the enemy of joy.

As?believers in Jesus, we need to remember that we have all the riches of God in Christ. We have the encouragement, comfort, sympathy and affection?of Jesus! We have the fellowship, comfort, guidance and counsel of the Holy Spirit. We don?t need to get ahead of others or get more than them. We don?t need to be admired more than others; we have Christ to encourage us. We don?t need to be loved more than others; we have the comfort of Christ?s love. ?So God says out of our fullness here’s what we should do:

in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

This doesn?t mean that everyone else is more significant than us, but that we should COUNT or CONSIDER them to be so. Think of them as more significant than ourselves. ?When we go to church or our fellowship group, we should think, These brothers and sisters of mine are SIGNIFICANT – they are important to God. I?m not going just for myself but for THEM. ?This mindset leads us to do what verse 4 says:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

This doesn?t say don?t look to your own interests?or that?your interests are unimportant. ?It says ?Let each of you look NOT ONLY to his own interests, BUT ALSO to the interests of others.? All of us have concerns. All of us go through tough times. All of us have prayer requests. So our mindset should be – I?m not just focused on me and my interests. I want to focus on others as well. I want to be concerned for them ALSO.

D.A. Carson says, “It is also very practical to make a habit of thinking and speaking of the interests of others rather than boring people by constantly dwelling on our own interests?

In other words TAKE AN INTEREST IN PEOPLE. Find out about them. When you first meet someone you don?t start with What?s your biggest struggle? You get to know them. You find out about where they work or what their major is. You might ask about their families or maybe about hobbies they enjoy. You may say, Mark I hate making small talk. But in church it?s not simply small talk. Eventually they may open up about a problem they?re having or a spiritual struggle that you can encourage them about. ?Romans 12:15 says:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Our Christian life is a shared life. We live this life with others. We?re not isolated individuals. We?re all part of Christ?s body. So what happens to you affects me. When you?re blessed, I?m blessed. When you suffer, I suffer. When I stub my toe, my whole body goes into action to comfort my toe. My arms send my hands down and my eyes direct them to the aching toe. My fingers grab my toe and massage it as my mouth cries, ?Ow, ow, ow!?

You may say, Mark, I feel like no one cares for my soul. If that?s the case, I feel really bad for you. My advice would be – and I know this might be really challenging for some of you – but my advice would be for YOU to begin to try to care for the souls of others. Ask others how they are doing. Ask how you can pray for them. Because in MT 7:12 Jesus said:

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Do you want others to take an interest in you? Then take an interest in them. Do you want others to be compassionate to you? Then be compassionate toward them.

We can all be tempted to think about our church or fellowship group at times, ?What am I getting out of this?? But our gatherings are not ONLY for what we personally get out of it, but they are for what we can do for others.

So I encourage you today to meditate on and thank Jesus for the riches you’ve received in him?and look for ways to take an interest in others.

The Fickle Pursuit of Fame

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Fame is a fickle thing. It comes to many who do not seek it and is an unwelcome guest. It avoids many who do seek it leaving them in vain pursuit. When it is found by those who seek it is unsatisfactory and often destructive. After being destructive for period it often abandons them, leaving them in a worse state than they were before it arrived.

And the oddest thing about fame is that the people who manage it best are those who act is if they don?t have it.

Fame creates a riddle that is unsolvable. When one doesn?t have any he wants some, but as soon as he has some he needs more. Once more is found he wants none, but neither can he bear the thought of giving up what he has.

It all makes one wonder why anyone would seek fame?

And yet we do. The desire to be famous burns hot. And if we can?t be famous we want to know famous. That?s why People Magazine ?and E! TV are so popular (it?s certainly not because of the creative and artistic value). We brag about seeing actress X at the airport or athlete Y at the grocery store. It?s as if the knowledge of fame or proximity to it rubs a little magic fairy famous dust off onto us so we can feel famousy for a moment.

But what is about Fame that so captivates and nearly stupefies society? Once upon a time it was because of what athletes, actors, musicians, politicians, or authors accomplished, their actions. But now? The aim isn?t to do what they do. Fame is the goal itself. If you need proof just take a gander at so called ?reality TV stars? on shows like or the Jackass movies. (As an aside, what does it mean to be a reality? star? You?re more real? You live a realer life?)

People want fame because people want to matter even what makes them famous matters nothing at all. The thought goes like this: ?If someone knows who I am I gain significance, so the more people that know me the more significant I am.? Even if you?re known for a 72 day marriage, public drunkenness, stupid stunts, or a sex tape.

Even Christians fall into this trap, and in Christianity the fame bug bites with an even weirder kind of venom. People seek fame through doing good ? preaching, writing, giving, serving. But when the fame becomes the motive and not the good that points to God, we know our Christianity is upside down.

Fame, at its best, is a bi-product of doing things that truly matter. It is something that is received, not sought after. We are not wise or good enough to rightly handle fame, and that?s why the best famous people are those who spurn it. For those of us who are not famous we should simply focus on the good and let God get the fame. And by all means, avoid all reality TV.

Always Apologize First

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On occasion a particularly young and/or na?ve person asks me for advice about being a husband or a dad. (No one seasoned or wise bothers.) Since I got married young and had kids young I have ?experience?, I guess. By ?experience?, of course, I mean scars and bruises from stumbling into obstacles created by my own idiocy and arrogance.

When the question is put to me ?what piece of advice would you give to a new husband/dad? I want to leave minds blown and mouths agape. I want to utter a witticism that would make Solomon jealous and Confucius plagiarize. Instead, all I have ever been able to come up with is this: ?Always apologize first.?

Somewhere along the way I was given this piece of advice ? or pieces of advice that added up to it. It?s so simple but time and again has proven itself to be the piece of advice I needed. It falls under the grand banner of ?A soft answer turns away wrath? and enforces both humility and self-examination. Apologizing first is the bucket of water which douses the flames threatening to burn bridges between wife and husband or father and children.

To apologize first requires a person to genuinely reflect on his role in any conflict. I can?t remember many occasions when I was totally innocent in a conflict with my wife or children. Even if they?ve wronged me I nearly always contribute to the conflict with self-righteousness, pride, or just generally being a jerk in return. I always earn the right to apologize (and, be honest, so do you). If I am always intent on apologizing first I will dig through my heart to find that word or attitude that caused hurt or conflict. I will figure out what debt I owe to my wife or my daughters and go settle accounts with them

Apologizing first encourages the other person to apologize. By walking back their way you shortened the distance they have to come to make their own apology whenever they are ready. It?s much easier to say ?I?m sorry too? than it is to simply say ?I?m sorry.? Do the hard part so that it?s easier for others to follow in kind.

Apologizing is a beautiful example for your children (and spouse). I know too many people who can?t remember their parents ever admitting wrong doing or apologizing for anything. To apologize to my girls for losing my temper or being inattentive to them is a significant example for them and necessary deflater for me. It does much to create a culture of humility and forgiveness in our home so that when wrongs happen they don?t fester. It builds trust because they learns it?s safe to say ??I?m sorry? because forgiveness follows. Most importantly, apologizing first helps me explain how far from perfect I am and my own need to be forgiven by God for my sins.

I write this to share something that has helped me enormously. I hate being wrong, so apologizing is something loathsome to me. I?d rather explain, defend, and justify. Of course that just means apologies are something I need to offer all the more. It is a struggle every time to set aside my own ego and admit my fault and ask forgiveness. Maybe that?s why someone offered me this advice ? they saw my own need. Maybe you are humbler than I am, but for those who aren?t give it a try. Apologize first. It will do wonders for your relationships and heart.

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The Thing That Will Bring You The Most Freedom Today

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What?s the most freeing thing you could possible do today?

That question could conjure up all sorts of associations in your mind. You might think of freedom from something: oppression, fear, anxiety, challenging relationships, or difficult circumstances. You might think of freedom to something: to do what you want, live as you want to live, go where you want to go. Since ?freedom? is such a broad concept, I?ll narrow the question down even more:

What frees you to be who you?re meant to be ? today?

The answer to that question might surprise you. It certainly flies in the face of most contemporary conversations about things like self-actualization or advice like ?be true to yourself.? The single most freeing thing you can do today, or any day, is this: admit your dependence on God.

Dependence. Not a word we often associate with achieving our potential! But if God is who God proclaims himself to be, and if we are who he says we are, then dependence is a necessary concept. Listen to how the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck described this idea over a century ago:

What makes human beings religious beings and drives them toward religion is the realization that they are related to God in a way that specifically differs from all their other relationships. This relationship is so deep and tender, so rich and many-dimensional, that it can only with difficulty be expressed in a single concept. But certainly the concept of dependence deserves primary consideration and is best qualified for this purpose.

Pause. Does this sound like bad news to you ? or, at the very least, not a ?freeing? bit of advice? Keep listening. As Bavinck goes on to say,

We are absolutely dependent in such a manner that the denial of this dependence never makes us free, while the acknowledgement of it never reduces us to the status of a slave. On the contrary: in the conscious and voluntary acceptance of this dependence, we human beings arrive at our greatest freedom. We become human to the degree that we are children of God. (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, p.267; emphasis added.)

Did you catch that? Denying your dependency never makes you free. Acknowledging your dependency never makes you a slave. On the contrary, dependence is what it means to be human ? because at heart, we were made to be God?s children.

So how does this work today? It boils down to this. You were not made to function like a wind-up toy. You and I were made to live in conscious and constant dependence on God. But living dependently doesn?t mean we give up our responsibilities, our hopes and aspirations, our ambition, our goals, or our daily job. It means we see all those as areas where God calls us to admit our need for him ? and by so doing, to find our true freedom.

The most freeing thing you can do today is to admit your need for God, even in the minutiae of your daily routine. Pray for help to finish those emails before clocking out. Ask for strength to clean up snotty noses and spilled cereal. Consciously lean into God through Jesus Christ in whatever lies before. Because this is what you were made for.

Photo by Kalyan Chakravarthy

Don’t Get Drunk on Power

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Power is intoxicating. This is just a fancy way of saying it makes us lose our heads. We gain power and we get stupid. It gets into our blood stream and affects our thinking and our actions.

Likely you don?t think you have power. Think again. If you are parent you are a concentrated force of power. Teachers, coaches, and managers all wield significant power. Anyone in a position of authority does, but so too does anyone who is respected or looked up to. The salesman who can talk a negotiation into his favor and the pretty lady who can get her way with a bat of the eye lashes are both powerful. If you are richer, smarter, or more disciplined than others you have power. Really, only infants and the desperately poor lack any sort of notable power.

As Ben Parker once said, ?With great power comes great responsibility.? He was right, but he missed something significant: with any power comes great temptation. As sinful people we constantly look to gain the approval of some at the expense of others. We look to climb over those we can to gain higher heights just to make ourselves feel better. We abuse the power we have.

We threaten our kids and yell at our kids to get them to obey. We intimidate and coerce those in our influence. We manipulate those we see as weaker. We treat people weaker than us in ways we would never dream of treating our equals. Basically we do things we wouldn?t ever do if we were in our right minds. Kind of like a drunk person.

We need to know our limits. How much power can we handle without getting tipsy? When over-do it, what kind of dumb choices are we prone to? It won?t be streaking, a regrettable tattoo, or bowing to the porcelain god with a wicked hangover. More likely it will mean someone is hurt badly. Power intoxication doesn?t leave cars wrapped around phone poles, but it will leave relationships in burning ruins.

We can?t always help what power we have, but we can handle it responsibly. We must know ourselves enough to know when to walk away or back down. Intoxication comes from abuse, from over-doing it. Know your limits. Be willing to say no thanks, even (especially) if it is just to yourself. The damage of power-drunkness is incalculable.

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Is Your Humility Real?

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Humility is a vital Christian virtue. Solomon, Peter, and James all agree: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34, 1 Pet. 5:5, James 4:6). While every single believer struggles against pride, the pursuit of humility is a key ingredient in maturity.

But humility can be misunderstood. There?s false humility, the ?Oh, it was nothing?? that we use to actually elicit more praise. But there?s also a kind of ?unreal? humility, a genuine but misguided attempt to pursue this virtue.

What does unreal humility look like? ?No one I?ve read helps me understand it better than C.S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters Lewis inverts his own thoughts on humility and puts them in the words of Screwtape, a senior demon writing to his prot?g? Wormwood with advice on how to tempt Wormwood?s Christian ?patient.? Listen to what Screwtape says about real and unreal humility:

By this virtue, as by all the others, our Enemy [God, in this context] wants to turn the man?s attention away from self to Him, and to the man?s neighbors?You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character?By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools?The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor?s talents ? or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.

?[God?s] whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man?s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, then that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instill either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy?s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.

Do you see how Lewis defines humility there? It?s not an exaggerated low opinion of one?s self, but self-forgetfulness coupled with awareness of others. Pride says, ?I am Somebody (with a capital ?S?) ? look at me!? Unreal humility says, ?I am nobody ? look away from me.? But real humility simply says, ?I am God?s ? look at these people I can love!?

In the end, humility is simply living in light of reality. God is God, and I am not. But as a person made in God?s image and redeemed by Christ, I am a part ?not an indispensable part, but a real part nonetheless ? of God?s purposes. I don?t need to sort out my ?own precise niche? in those purposes to throw myself into them with self-forgetting abandon. And that, Lewis says in another place, is exactly what real humility looks like:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ?humble? nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him?He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. (Mere Christianity, 108)

May the Lord give us real humility!

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