True Greatness

Want to Be Great?

by Eric Kreye

Do you like riddles? Here's one for you:

If you think you have it, you probably don't.
If you have it, you probably won't know it.

You can find a clue in a parable Jesus told one day.

A Pharisee goes to the Temple to pray. Drawing apart from all others, he stands and prays in loud words, "Thank You, God, that I'm not like all these other sinners, who do such horrible things--take money dishonestly, treat people unjustly, and sleep with other men's wives. And I'm certainly not like this publican who squeezes money from Your people for himself and the hated Romans. I fast two times a week and always make sure I give You a tenth of all I get."

But the tax collector, standing back in a corner so he would not be noticed, prayed also. He knew that he had nothing in his life to commend him to God. His fellow Jews hated him. He hated himself, and felt he could not expect any pity from God. Why should God care about him? In utter despair he cried, "God, I know I'm a great sinner; have mercy on me!"

Then Jesus said to His hearers, "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).

On one occasion when Jesus went to eat at the house of a prominent Pharisee, He noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table. And He spoke the words found in Luke 14:

"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 man 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 your fellow guests.

"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (See verses 8-11.)

Evidently, with God the way up is always down!

I once read of a wealthy man who invited a number of honored guests to a special dinner. He placed his own chair at the head of the table. Of course, everybody wanted to sit as close to him as possible. The host perceived what was taking place, and after all the guests were seated, he took his place at the opposite end of the table!

By now you have undoubtedly guessed the answer to our opening riddle. We're talking about humility. If you think you have it, you probably don't. If you have it, you probably won't know it.

As the first king of Israel, Saul--tall and handsome--was chosen. Notice his initial response when the prophet Samuel revealed God's plan to him. Said Saul, "I'm from the smallest tribe, the tribe of Benjamin, and my family is one of the least in that tribe. Why did God choose me?" And when the prophet called the nation of Israel together to anoint the new king, the self-effacing young man hid himself.

With time, however, position and power went to Saul's head and crowded out humility.

And God couldn't use him anymore.

Uzziah was 16 when he became king, and he reigned for 52 years. The Bible records that "he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord," and God blessed him abundantly (2 Chronicles 26:4).

It would have been wonderful if the story ended there. But read verses 15 and 16: "His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful, his pride led to his downfall."

And God could not use him anymore.

By contrast consider Moses. When he was a young man, he was told that God had plans for him to set Israel free from Egyptian bondage. God had picked the right man, Moses thought, and went about proving it! But when such actions led him to flee for his life, he realized he wasn't so great after all!

By the time God came to him again, after he'd spent 40 years in the wilderness tending sheep, Moses had learned his lesson--perhaps even too well: "I think You picked the wrong man," he said to the Lord. Scripture subsequently refers to him as the meekest man on earth (see Numbers 12:3).

Then God could really use him!

"When pride comes," said the wise man, "then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom" (Proverbs 11:2).

In today's thinking, by contrast, we are urged to look out for number one. Climb the ladder no matter whom you may step on to do it. Make all the money you can so you can gain position and greater influence--and have power to control! Drive yourself to be number one.

Have you ever watched chickens scratching around in the yard? You will notice that they have established a definite pecking order. One chicken is the boss, number one. And all the others fall into line.

Does that happen with people? Unfortunately, it does--with children as well as adults. There seems to be something in our disposition that leads us to esteem ourselves, to seek the highest place, to put self first.

But God has a higher standard than that. Romans 12:3 says: "For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given." And in verse 10 Paul says: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves."

Someone once said that in God's kingdom, the principle of preference and supremacy has no place, and the only true greatness is the greatness of humility!

A small religious college needed money. The buildings were shabby, the staff underpaid.

One day a stranger appeared on campus. Finding a man in overalls painting the wall of a building, he asked him where he might find the president. The painter pointed to a house on the campus and said he was sure the president would be there at noon.

At noon the visitor went to the house and knocked on the door. To his surprise he found the "painter," the man he had talked to a little earlier, now nicely dressed. The visitor accepted the invitation to have lunch with the painter-president, and asked several questions over lunch about the needs of the college.

Two days later a letter arrived with a check for $50,000. The visitor had been impressed by the humble attitude of this painter-president. And that had made the difference.

The spirit of genuine humility must be important to God. He wants pride to be removed from the lives of His people. God's message to us today is the same as to Israel in ancient times: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Nebuchadnezzar in his heyday wielded authority over the whole then-known world. Every nation bowed to him. One day, walking on the roof of the royal palace, looking over the great city of Babylon with its beautiful buildings and gardens, he let it all go to his head: "Is not this great Babylon which I have built . . . by my mighty power?" (Daniel 4:30).

Scripture says that while the words were still in his mouth, he heard the terrible divine sentence: "You are sentenced to lose your kingdom and your sanity. You will be driven from human society and will dwell with the animals in the field. Grass will be your food."

And the divine sentence came to pass. For seven years he lived like an animal. His hair grew as long as eagles' feathers, and his fingernails were like birds' claws. (See verses 28-33.)

Finally his reason returned, and he turned to the God of heaven. Restored to his throne, he made his confession: "I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right, and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble" (verse 37).

Then God could use him.

The apostle Paul was a gifted itinerant preacher, a bold evangelist, a courageous crusader--truly blessed by God. Could it be that the devil was constantly trying to tempt him with the sin of pride?

Yes! And Paul, so honest about himself, admits as much: "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me" (2 Corinthians 12:7).

And God used him mightily.

What kind of person was Jesus? He was humble, approachable, and, as Scripture says, "no respecter of persons." In heaven He enjoyed the adoration and worship of the heavenly host, and yet He laid aside His glory and humbled Himself to come to our earth as Redeemer and Savior, a model for us in humility. When His disciples argued about who was to be the greatest, Jesus took a towel, knelt before them, and washed their feet, just as a servant would.

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus," the apostle says to us. "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place" (Philippians 2:5-9). He is our example.

Humility--if you think you have it, you probably don't. If you have it, you probably won't know it! Let's each pray for it. For with it God can truly use us mightily.

And that would be true greatness!


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