Last night I attended the Falls Church online forum, “Beyond Racial Gridlock,” featuring Dr. George Yancey, a highly published Christian sociologist who teaches at Baylor University on the racial divisions in North American society. You can hear his talk and see the books he has written here: https://www.tfcanglican.org. Dr. Yancey grew up in a black family and experienced racism firsthand. He carefully articulated the strengths and weaknesses of the four prevailing secular ideologies often used to explain racial discrimination. In doing so, he was able to do what Thomas Aquinas did in the Summa Theologica: explain each position to its advocates’ satisfaction based on the evidence and then to explain one by one why each fails in comparison to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He pointed out that every secular ideology fails because (1) it finds someone else to blame for the problems, and (2) it assumes the possibility of human perfectibility (if only we can be educated—or “indoctrinated,” as the case may be).
I was not surprised when Dr. Yancey moved from sociology to theology and began preaching that the gift of Christianity is the accurate diagnosis of the human condition—that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). It is human depravity, not human perfectibility, that we must assume in every culture, every institution, and every human heart. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers rescue and hope for ruined hearts.
What challenged me, however, was his modest proposal: all Christians should actively listen to the pain of those who have experienced discrimination and even racism until we understand what we have heard. Dr. Yancey gave the example of his conversations with atheists in which he actively listened until he could repeat back to them the points they were making to their satisfaction, not thinking of the next point he could marshal in order to rebut their argument, not listening politely so that they would reciprocate and listen to him, but simply listening until he fully understood their position. Such listening didn’t require him to agree with the atheists. Certainly not. Instead, it enabled him to provide Gospel answers to the real questions they were asking.
And isn’t that what any Christian missionary must do to preach the Gospel effectively – understand the people to whom they have been sent, their longings, their objections, and their needs? So, Paul writes, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing…” (Phil. 2:5-6). In order to save humankind, Jesus descended into greatness. Instead of grasping his equality with God, he let it go. Despite his equality with God, he took on our flesh and blood with all its limitations, not reigning as King, President, or revolutionary leader but in the nature of a servant! “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death…” Paul wrote. It wasn’t just any death, mind you. Jesus became obedient to the most publicly shameful and excruciating death of his day, designed to terrify, crush, and intimidate, “death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).
The fundamental posture of Christ’s mission and ours is humility.
It matters not whether we are in North America, Northern Virginia, or North India, in the workplace, or at home with friends and family. Wherever Jesus sends us, we must go and do as he did. Like Jesus, in humility we leave behind the familiar and the comfortable. We come alongside people to whom God is sending us. We see persons through Jesus’ eyes, “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). With his compassion, we listen as he did, and when we have listened, both to God and the people before us, we touch them at their point of need with the good news of abundant life now and forever.
The truth is that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34). Last week, a friend and psychologist wrote me about the need for Christ-followers to stay focused on mission and not to let political differences divide us at a time like this. “We should never underestimate our own capacity to have the same shortcomings as the people we criticize,” he wrote me. “Pride causes us to assume that our own perceptions of reality are the same as God’s or at least closer to truth than the perception of others. A very large amount of humility is required to hold back the hubris of the fallen human ego.”
God entrusted his kingdom, his power, and his glory to Jesus without any limits. Do we want to be the kind of people whom God can trust now with his kingdom, his power, and his glory? Do we want to be the kind of people whom Christ will entrust with his transforming love to heal and restore the ruined hearts of all tribes and nations? Then, we must humble ourselves as Jesus did. To paraphrase Andrew Murray in his classic devotional on humility, just as water flows to the lowest places first, so will God’s grace and glory flow to the one who lies lower and emptier before Him.
But if we are true to Christ and his humility, we must also have the courage of Christ.
Jesus’ descent into greatness was not a quiet going into the dark. Every demotion he experienced was an act of courage. In every case, it was the courage to be absolutely obedient to God’s word, so that Jesus could say without any hesitation that his teaching and his actions were exactly what the Father told him to say and to do (John 12:49-50; 14:31). Can we say the same about ourselves as we are buffeted by the headlines and divisions around us? After we have listened so that we truly understand and feel the pain of the people around us, are we willing to share with them, as the Holy Spirit leads, what the Bible has to say about the human condition, both the depravity of the human heart and the possibility of its restoration by the healing grace of Jesus Christ? Are we resting in the courage of Christ that speaks God’s Word even when it means persecution or death? The author of Hebrews describes what this courage looks like as we stand our ground in Christ and his word:
“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great context in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” Heb. 10:32-34
It may seem odd to talk about humility and courage in the same sentence. Such a combination makes no sense in our secular culture. How do you exercise courage without pride or humility without surrendering to injustice? The reality is that humility and courage are two sides of the same life, the life of Jesus Christ. And it is in being filled by that life and following him that we can find both the humility and the courage we need for the mission he has entrusted to us.