The Colossal Vision

G. K. Chesterton, in his defense of humility, concludes this way:

Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are—of immeasurable stature.

That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other.

Between one stake of a paling and another there are new and terrible landscapes; here a desert, with nothing but one misshapen rock; here a miraculous forest, of which all the trees flower above the head with the hues of sunset; here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante would not have dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small.

Meanwhile, the sage whose faith is in magnitude and ambition is, like a giant, becoming larger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smaller and smaller. World after world falls from him into insignificance; the whole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to him as is the life of the infusoria [minute aquatic creatures] to a man without a microscope. He rises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and forget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them. But the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are—the gigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey of strange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the wreck of temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars—all this colossal vision shall perish with the last of the humble.

The Unwasted Life

Francis A. Schaeffer was born 100 years ago today (Jan. 30, 1912). He died in 1984. In 1974 he wrote this in his book No Little People:

As I see it, the Christian life must be comprised of three concentric circles, each of which must be kept in its proper place.

In the outer circle must be the correct theological position, true biblical orthodoxy and the purity of the visible church. This is first, but if that is all there is, it is just one more seedbed for spiritual pride.

In the second circle must be good intellectual training and comprehension of our own generation. But having only this leads to intellectualism and again provides a seedbed for pride.

In the inner circle must be the humble heart — the love of God, the devotional attitude toward God. There must be the daily practice of the reality of the God whom we know is there.

These three circles must be properly established, emphasized and related to each other. At the center must be kept a living relationship to the God we know exists. When each of these three circles is established in its proper place, there will be tongues of fire and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, at the end of my life, when I look back over my work since I have been a Christian, I will see that I have not wasted my life.

Counting Others More Significant

Jeremiah Burroughs (c. 1600–1646) was an outstanding Puritan preacher and writer. He wrote the following in his book Excellency of a Gracious Spirit, a quote that made its way inside a very good new biography on the man by Phillip Simpson, A Life of Gospel Peace (RHB, 2011):

Rejoice in the good of others, though it eclipses your light, though it makes your parts, your abilities, and your excellencies dimmer in the eyes of others. Were it not for the eminence of some above you, your parts perhaps would shine more brightly and be of high esteem. Yet to rejoice in this from the heart, to bless God from the soul for His gifts and graces in others, that His name may be glorified more by others than I can glorify it myself; to be able to truly say, ‘Though I can do little, yet blessed be God there are some who can do more for God than I, and in this I do and will rejoice’—this is indeed to be able to do much more than others. This shows a great eminence of spirit.

Augustine on Pride

Augustine defined pride as the creature’s refusal to submit to God. Pride was present at the fall of Satan when he sought to escape God’s authority just as pride was present in the fall of Adam and Eve who sought to escape God’s authority by becoming self-gods (Gen 3:5). Pride is an attempted escape from God — and that’s futile. “For the dominion of the Almighty cannot be eluded; and he who will not piously submit himself to things as they are, proudly feigns, and mocks himself with a state of things that does not exist” (City of God, 11.13). God is, thereby making it impossible to live separate from His presence or authority. Thus Satan is forever caught in the vortex of self-mockery, living only for himself and yet forever unable to escape God’s authority and sovereign influence. Therefore, Augustine says, the life of pride is a life of self-destructive fakery, an entrapment to a false and self-created matrix of twisted un-reality. “To exist in himself, that is, to be his own satisfaction after abandoning God, is not quite to become a nonentity, but approximate to that” (ibid 14.13.1). Pride turns a man inward to find his purpose, it makes him feed on himself in the search for satisfaction, pride folds the soul over onto itself, shrivels it, causes the soul to fade and then to nearly disappear like Tolkien’s Nazgûl. The life of pride is a living lie and entrapment to self-mockery. Oh dear God help us! “Who can unravel that twisted and tangled knottiness? It is foul. I hate to reflect on it. I hate to look on it. But thee do I long for” (Confessions 3.8.16). Our only solution is to be found by fixing our eyes on the humble One and by washing in the divine blood that flows from God’s self-humbling (Trinity, 4.2.4).

Humble Ambition?

I admit, it is hard to put the words humble and ambition together. Don’t these terms seem so polar, so different, even contradictory?

If you read from Church history, you will notice that rarely is a distinction made between holy ambition and selfish ambition. Usually the term ambition is simply flattened out and used synonymously for sinful pride.

Yet humble ambition is a legitimate phrase in the wisdom of God, which is made evident in Dave Harvey’s recent book Rescuing Ambition (a book I highly recommend). And just yesterday, while finishing up some random reading that piled up on my desk and needed to be processed before I travel to Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised to find the theme of humble ambition emerge in the old article by DTS professor William D. Lawrence, “Distinctives of Christian Leadership,” published in BibSac 144 (1987). The following section, which is a little lengthy but worth posting (and reading) in full, comes from pages 323-25. Here Dr. Lawrence provides us with a biblical example of how selfish ambition is molded into humble ambition in Jesus’ interaction with his disciples in Mark 10. Read it for yourself here (bold is mine):

Few characteristics generate more reaction among Christians than ambition. This is because many people think of ambition as a self-centered seeking for more power and authority. There is no place for this attitude in any kind of leadership, least of all in Christian leadership.

But ambition is a desirable attribute when understood and exercised properly, though many miss the proper perspective of ambition and equate all expressions of it with ego and arrogance. Ambition is essential in a leader for it provides the drive and the desire necessary to carry the burdens and responsibilities of leadership; ambition is the fuel of leadership. There is no problem with ambition in itself; the problem with ambition lies in its aim, not in its strength and its presence, as Mark 10:35–45 makes clear.

This passage shows ambition at its worst and its best. In James, John, and the other disciples, all of whom sought the highest position for themselves, ambition is seen as self-centered, competitive, assertive, thoughtless, arrogant, proud, and blind (Mark 10:35–39, 41). Their ambitious request was foolish because they did not know what was involved in it. They spoke in ignorance. Nothing could be uglier than the attitudes found here.

But nothing could be more surprising than Christ’s response to these attitudes; He did not attack them for being ambitious, nor did He reject them for having drive and desire. Instead He redefined ambition and turned it into service for others without taking away any of its drive for achievement.

Ambition is transformed into a humility directed toward serving others rather than a proud serving of self. Ambition is redefined from self-service to self-sacrifice (Mark 10:43–45), and included in this is instruction in how to be first. It is accomplished through the holy ambition of slavery in accord with the model of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He demonstrated ambition at its best as the One who willingly sacrificed Himself for the sake of others.

Christian ambition, then, is the burning, even driving, desire to make a name for Christ, not self, which results in a constructive rather than destructive impact. In contrast to Christian ambition is the ambition of James 3:14, the selfish ambition that is earthly, fleshly, and devilish. There is no place for such ambition in spiritual leadership, but there must be a place for proper ambition in Christian leadership or there will be no leadership. The key to determining whether the ambition being expressed is Christian or not lies in the answer to the question raised by Fred Smith when he states, “We must ask, What is my purpose? Am I satisfying my ego through this ministry or sacrificing my ego to it?”

Christian ambition must be understood as the redirection of aim, not the denial of desire. Proper ambition is not the loss of ego (this will never happen until the believer at death or the rapture is ultimately separated from the flesh), but ego redirected according to God’s purpose. Biblical ambition is not the lack of ego (again this will only occur when the believer is separated from the flesh through physical death or the rapture), but ego under the control of God’s Spirit. Proper ambition is not the love of ego, but ego redeemed and used as God’s redeeming force. Though “ego” is a negative concept, Paul’s distinction in Romans 7:18 must be remembered: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” Only the flesh part of “me” is negative; there is a positive side about “me” (Christ living in me, Gal 2:20), which is the product of the grace of God.

There is no place for the self-seeking ambition of those who reach for positions of honor on the right and the left of the Savior in Christian leadership. But there is no Christian leadership without the self-sacrificing ambition of those who follow the Savior in reaching for the redemption of others at great cost to themselves.

The fact that there can be no leadership without ambition is obvious from the Lord’s choice of disciples. He chose only men who had the raw material of ambition and rivalry because no other kind of men could accomplish His task. But He refined that raw ambition and rivalry into holy ambition and humility.

Christian leadership must be marked by ambition: redeemed, redirected, self-sacrificing ambition, but ambition nonetheless. Without it, no leadership will occur.

Young, Restless, Reformed, and Humbled

It’s too easy to get puffed up, and not puffed up in a post-Thanksgiving way, but in a doctrinal way as those who pride themselves in the doctrines of grace (ie Calvinists, aka young restless reformed rascals). Those of us that believe in total depravity tend to forget that this doctrine paints a dark portrait of ourselves. And those of us that pray to the Sovereign God of the universe and who orchestrated all of history, tend to get distracted easily in our prayers by passing butterflies of whimsical thoughts.

We Calvinists have much to be humbled about.

John Newton (1725–1807) was no stranger to controversy, but he didn’t stir it up either. In fact Newton served as a peacemaker in the Calvinist vs Arminian debates of his time. This excerpt from one of his letters is worthy of a careful read.

Dear Sir,

To be enabled to form a clear, consistent, and comprehensive judgment of the truths revealed in the Scripture, is a great privilege; but they who possess it are exposed to the temptation of thinking too highly of themselves, and too meanly of others, especially of those who not only refuse to adopt their sentiments, but venture to oppose them.

We see few controversial writings, however excellent in other respects, but are tinctured with this spirit of self-superiority; and they who are not called to this service, if they are attentive to what passes in their hearts, may feel it working within them, upon a thousand occasions; though, so far as it prevails, it brings forcibly home to ourselves the charge of ignorance and inconsistence, which we are so ready to fix upon our opponents.

I know nothing, as a means, more likely to correct this evil, than a serious consideration of the amazing difference between our acquired judgment, and our actual experience; or, in other words, how little influence our knowledge and judgment have upon our own conduct. This may confirm to us the truth and propriety of the Apostle’s observation, “If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” [1 Cor. 8:2].

Not that we are bound to be insensible that the Lord has taught us what we were once ignorant of; nor is it possible that we should be so; but because, if we estimate our knowledge by its effects, and value it no farther than it is experimental and operative, we shall find it so faint and feeble as hardly to deserve the name. …

John Newton had the gift of deflating the heads that knowledge puffed up.

So how can young restless reformed rascal (like me) find humility? It’s a two-step process. First, look at the depth of your theological convictions. Thank God for that–it’s a gift. Second, compare those convictions with the shallow daily decisions that are made totally uninfluenced by them. And if that doesn’t work, look at how easily you are tempted to fear, to anxiety, to anger, and to idolatry, and then ask if those responses jibe with the God of Calvin’s Institutes.

May God grant us fresh eyes to see the chasm that separates our reformed convictions and our daily practices. This will work humility into our orthodoxy.