In his letter to his friends in Corinth Paul says a very powerful thing that can easily pass almost unnoticed. “What have you got that you have not been given?” 1 Corinthians 4:7. And if this is the case, then what have you got to boast about, and what have you got that entitles you to feel superior to your fellow Christians or others around you.
In Corinth there was a lot of competition. Some were saying ‘we are of Paul’, – maybe adding ‘he’s a brilliant evangelist, such a great preacher, so clever, sees miracles, breaks new ground – that’s my man’. Others said something like ‘no, we are better, we are of Apollos and you know what an excellent teacher he is, he knows the old testament like the back of his hand, I feel really safe with him’. Then others could chime in with ‘Well we are of Peter, (Cephas) he’s the best, none of that complex head stuff, just practical action and full of faith – after all he travelled with Jesus and he walked on water, I’m with him’. Then of course there was the ultra spiritual group looking down their noses at all the others, ‘we are the one and only church of Jesus Christ itself – none of this human leaders stuff’. (or words to that effect!) Read all about it in I Corinthians chapters 1 – 4.
Of course none of that happens today among us Christians, does it?! Have we never looked down on the some Anglicans, perhaps saying something like “they are too wedded to their liturgy”, or never looked askance at some noisy charismatics “all feelings and no substance”, or maybe sidelined some evangelicals “as being too narrow minded in their interpretation of the bible”? Or have we never felt superior to an evangelist “who fills his church but seems to see them fall out of the back door for lack of teaching and pastoral care” or perhaps have we under-rated some nuns caring for the poor and homeless in Jesus name, saying “but is their theology of salvation sound?” I think that if we are honest many of us, like the Corinthians, have had a thought at some moment in time that suggests that we are in some way better than our fellow christians.
I would like to suggest that “What have you got that you have not been given?” is a big one. Of course it applies to the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians, for example the gift of prophecy. They are all gifts, you haven’t earned them, so frequently thank God for them, and that will really help you not to get proud and boastful about them. You didn’t earn them or deserve them. Consider the many other gifts mentioned in the other parts of the New Testament, the ability to preach and teach, the ability to believe God for money and be generous in a way others don’t seem to, the ability to serve, to pastor, to exercise compassion, to administer, to encourage. Romans 12: 6-8. How about Martha’s gift to make splendid meals for Jesus? John 12.2. They are all gifts. Whether its thanking God that I was able to lead worship, play in the band, prophecy, preach, pray for a sick person, share a word of knowledge, cook a great meal for someone who needed it, bless a lonely person, give generously, organize and administer something good, and much, much more, let’s do it.
Let’s get into the (good) habit of thanking God for all these gifts regularly. And let’s get intentionally noticing the gifts He has given others, (including those who are different from me, or indeed in different churches or streams), and start thanking God for them. Then I believe we are likely to find the easy road to comparison, pride, superiority and division getting less and less appealing. It may sound trite, but the practice of the attitude of gratitude is likely to increase the altitude I fly at, above the quick sands of human pride and separation.
We live in a lovely place. When people come here they often love it. On occasions they have said “You deserve it” Well I’m not so sure about that. I think it is a marvelous gift from our very kind heavenly Father. Thank God for your house, your friends, your partner, your income, your job, your health. So much of what we ‘have’ are gifts from God, not mine by right or entitlement. Let’s not just say grace before a meal but for loads of other things in our daily life, which many people take for granted. Years ago I worked for a while in Africa during a time of significant ‘western’ food shortage. Bread and butter were rare beasts for a prolonged period! That does something for your pleasure and gratitude for so called ‘basic normal food’ when it reappears.
But I think it gets still bigger. Who gave me the ability to pass the eleven plus when the majority in my class didn’t pass? Who gave me the ability to learn to be a doctor? Am I superior to the lovely women, some from other countries on low wages, who cleaned my hospital room and cooked our meals while I marched around the hospital importantly in my white coat? Who gave me those gifts, because gifts they were. So where is pride, boasting and superiority? Time for more thanksgiving. Who gave you the gift to be able to paint beautifully, to mend the plumbing, to work in wood, to build a house. to make a gorgeous meal, to create and develop a beautiful home for your family, to play that musical instrument like you do, to do sport with the skill you innately have. You may have developed and grown it, I hope you have, but who gave you that gift? Thank you God.
By way of a postscript, you may remember there was one man who seemed to thank God in Luke 18 verse 9 on. Was this good? No. Jesus is clear he wasn’t thanking God for all God’s goodness and gifts, the opposite, he was glorifying in his own goodness, and his own superiority. I would like to suggest to you that heartfelt, genuine, frequent thanking God for all his gifts “from the sublime to the ridiculous”, from the most spiritual to the most practical, down to earth, daily and ‘trivial’ may be one of the happiest, most wholesome and the non-groveling ways to true Godly humility.