Posts tagged ‘Thomas Jefferson’

A Little Lesson in Humility

TableHumility is hard.  If you don’t believe me, just consider whether you became reflexively defensive the last time someone questioned one of your beliefs, decisions, or values.  Consider whether you asked yourself, without anxiousness or annoyance, “What can I learn from this person?  How can I love them rather than seeking to justify myself before them?”  More often than not, we are far quicker to defend ourselves than we are to humble ourselves.  We are far quicker to protect our pride than we are to sacrifice our egos.

Jesus was never proud.  Instead, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)!  Indeed, one of my favorite lessons from Jesus in humility comes in when He is invited to a party at the home of a prominent Pharisee.  When Jesus notices that, at dinner, the party guests are all clamoring to grab the best seats at the table, He says:

When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 14:8-11)

Jesus uses a dinner table to illustrate just how deeply pride has sunk its roots into the human heart.  Even at the dinner table, we’ll position ourselves closest to those we perceive as most important so others will perceive us as more important.

Author Michelle Fields tells an interesting story about the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.  In Great Britain, the country from which President Jefferson emigrated, formal dinners were always hosted around rectangular tables.  But as president, Jefferson always insisted on hosting his dinners around round tables.  Fields explains his logic:

He didn’t like the rectangular tables used at royal functions, which would seat guests according to their rank and status. Jef­ferson figured that, at a round table, no one could sit at the head and no one could mistake him for a king. He believed that “when brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office.”[1]

President Jefferson did not want people clamoring for places of pride around the dinner table.  So he rounded his tables.

Part of the reason pride is so cunning is that it’s not just those who clamor for a high seat at the table who can fall prey to pride, it’s even those who willingly take a low seat at the table in an act of self-debasement who can struggle with pride.  Why?  Because both of an arrogant view of one’s self that takes a high seat and a pitiable view of one’s self that takes a low seat are focused on the self.  They are both fundamentally narcissistic, which is the very definition of what it means to be proud.

Humility is focused not on the self, but on God and on others.  As C.S. Lewis explains it, “Humility…turns [a] man’s attention away from self to [God], and to the man’s neighbours.”[2] Thus, humility is interested neither in a position of honor at a table nor in a position of debasement at a table because it is too concerned with everyone else around the table.  Humility doesn’t care where it sits as long as it can serve others.

What rectangle tables do you have in your life that need to be rounded?  Where do you clamor for a seat, whether that seat be high or low, at your job, in your church, in your home, or in your self-perception?  Rather than worrying about which seat should be your seat, humility invites you to look at people in other seats – and love them.

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[1] Michelle Fields, “A Country Steeped in Humility,” National Review (6.21.2016).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2007), 224.

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August 8, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Let Freedom Ring…Temperately

Beyonce and Jay Z 1It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wrote, “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”[1]  Of course, Rousseau’s conception of freedom was one where man was free from all restraints, most especially moral and social restraints. Rousseau argued that man’s ideal state is one where he is not reliant on morals or on others.  Reliance on morals and others rather than self-reliance, Rousseau opined, threatens man’s very survival and existence.

Rousseau wrote his words concerning man’s freedom in 1762.  We’ve been trying to decide whether or not he was right ever since.

Case in point:  Beyoncé’s performance at the Grammy’s.  Anand Giridharadas of the New York Times, in an article on her Grammy appearance, characterized Beyoncé like this:  “God-fearing girl from Texas, scantily clad and sexualized vixen, mononymous superstar and feminist icon, the wife who took Jay-Z’s last name, Carter.”[2]  What an interesting combination of characteristics.  She’s a sexualized vixen and a God-fearing girl.  And both were on display in her Grammy performance.  On the one hand, Beyoncé sang a truly blush-worthy and downright raunchy song in an outfit that defied common decency.  On the other hand, she performed with her husband, Jay-Z, as together they extolled the pleasures of sex within marriage.  Extolling the pleasures of sex within marriage is solidly Christian.  Grinding in front of 28.5 million viewers is crass voyeurism.  Marital intimacy is solidly moral and, I would point out, biblically commanded (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:5).  Dropping your bedroom onto a national stage is a Rousseauian dream.

The apostle Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Rousseau’s freedom was a freedom to sin.  Paul’s freedom was a freedom from sin:  “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).  Rousseau abhorred the notion that man would rely on others.  Paul called Christians to be people on which others could happily rely.

Thomas Jefferson once noted, “It would be a miracle were [people] to stop precisely at temperate liberty.”[3]  Jefferson feared that, left to their own devices, people would all too easily and quickly lapse into “unbounded licentiousness,” running headlong for the unbridled freedom of Rousseau rather than toward the virtuous liberty of Paul.  And this is, sadly, what has happened.

But not completely.

There are still some who understand that true freedom is not so much about the moral bounds you can break, but about the responsibility you can take.  There are still some who understand that freedom is not so much about the selfish hedonism in which you can engage, but about the loving service you can offer.  That’s true freedom.  That’s real freedom.  And, by God’s grace, we can still carry forth in that freedom.  We must carry forth in that freedom.

Anything else is just “a yoke of slavery.”


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Christopher Betts, trans. (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1994), 45

[2] Anand Giridharadas, “Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Sultry Dance Makes a Case for Marriage,” New York Times (2.3.2014).

[3] Esther Franklin, Thomas Jefferson: Inquiry History for Daring Delvers (Esther Franklin, 2012).

February 10, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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