2 Corinthians 10:12-18 & 13:5

The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching

January 24, 2016

We all have a considerable capacity for deceiving ourselves and viewing ourselves unrealistically … to our own advantage!

A recent research study from the University of Toronto and James Madison University verifies that we tend to give ourselves higher grades for character and conduct than we have reason to.  We exaggerate our virtue and good deeds; and either deny our faults and misdeeds, or excuse them with rationalizations.

For example, when we drive dangerously fast, we are prone either to justify it, say, by listing all the important duties heaped upon us (such as the crucial role we were assigned at the meeting to which we are rushing) or to blame our unsafe driving on others (such as the pokey driver behind whom we got stuck).

On the other hand, if someone else drives recklessly, we default to the simplest explanation: that driver is an inconsiderate, irresponsible jerk. Unfortunately, the smarter we are, the better we are at applying such a double standard while hiding our doing so from ourselves.

People have always had a built-in bias toward painting their self-image in the most favorable light, but these days that attitude is only growing stronger.  Sixty years ago, the Gallup Poll organization asked high school seniors, “Are you a very important person?”  Back then, only 12% said Yes.  When they asked the same question of high school seniors ten years ago, 80% said they were very important. In 2013 Time magazine asked Americans, “Are you in the top 1% of earners?”  Nineteen percent of us said we were in that top 1%.  Americans rank 25th in the developed world in math competency, but most of us describe ourselves as superior in math.  It would seem that our biggest math capability is our capability to overrate our math capability!

We are particularly adept at deceiving ourselves when it comes to our moral and spiritual qualities.  For example, while, according to a Zogby poll, most of us view “greed/materialism” as “the most urgent problem” in our culture, next to none of us sees any greed in our own lifestyle.  It is always a problem in other people.

The Bible urges us to regularly take a look at ourselves and check how much we are walking with God.  Paul – who was often, to his detriment, compared to other leaders and found wanting by the Corinthian Christians – implored them to turn their judging eyes on themselves, take stock of their own integrity and loyalty to Christ, and measure their faithfulness in following the One who ever leads His own into self-improvement and greater spiritual effectiveness.  Paul said in 13:5, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.  Test yourselves.”

First of all, doing that self-examination well involves both introspection and input from others. It requires our taking a long, hard look at ourselves in private because there are things about each of us that only we ourselves may know.  But it also requires our taking a stance of humble openness to the feedback of other people, in the awareness that we all have blind spots and may be oblivious to what is obvious to everyone else.  These two angles of examination are like the two wings on an airplane.   You don’t get anywhere without both of them.

To repeat, we need, on a regular basis, both to get alone with God and scrutinize our thinking, feeling, speaking and, most importantly, doing …  and to solicit honest constructive criticism from those we trust to be close to God and to care about us.

When wise shoppers go to buy themselves a new suit, they go with at least one other person to help them make a good choice.  For they realize that, even if they spend a lot of time twisting and turning in front of one of those three-sided mirrors, they can’t accurately see themselves as they actually look.  The wise therefore seek an external, objective perspective, and thus welcome input from others, whether that input confirms their own view of things or challenges it.

The true test of humility – and of authenticity in a commitment to pursue Christ-likeness – is whether we invite certain others to share their frank, outside appraisal of our Christian walk and then listen to it without selective hearing, angry defensiveness or prideful denial of dismaying revelations.  The test is whether we are grateful for helpful input even when it is painful.

Second, doing self-examination well involves repudiating the practice we see in the Corinthians and rejecting any evaluation of ourselves based on comparisons to others. For that will lead either to unjustified self-satisfaction – “I am as decent as the next guy” – or to unjustified self-loathing – “I’m nothing because I’m not Mother Teresa or Billy Graham”.

Appraisal by comparison fails to take into consideration the uniqueness of each person’s God-given assignment.  We are not faithful and pleasing to the Lord by virtue of how much we do for Him in comparison to what someone else does, but by how much we are doing what He gave us to do (and thus enabled us to do). We don’t need to save as many as Billy Graham, or serve as many as Mother Teresa, to be as faithful and pleasing to the Lord as they.  We just have to fulfill our assigned part in His great plan involving many (but with none doing it all).

Finally, doing self-examination well involves applying the right standard: the standard, not of our own subjective expectations, but of God’s objective word.  For we are prone either to make things too easy for ourselves or too hard, to think of ourselves better than we should or to pound on ourselves more than we should, depending on our temperament.

The Bible calls us to follow the example of Christ.  Given His perfection, that always leaves a lot of room for improvement – and no place for complacency.  Yet, the Bible also leaves no place for self-loathing.  For it assures us that God cherishes us without any improvement or increased effectiveness from us.  He already loves us with everything He’s got, and thus couldn’t love us any more than He does right now.  God just wants, for our blessing and the blessing of others, that we keep developing our character and elevating our conduct – in part through regular self-evaluation and on occasion gracious self-criticism.

This devoted pursuit of self-improvement runs counter to the values of our culture with its overblown concern for preserving feelings of high self-esteem.  (Even psychologists are now reporting, according to a recent New York Times article, fewer clients who come to them for help in dealing with themselves and changing themselves and more who come to them for help in dealing with others and learning how to change them.) Viewing ourselves as almost always the biggest problem in life we have to overcome is wisdom.  Embracing that wisdom may not feel good in the short-run, but in the long-run it makes us a lot happier – and more secure and serene.

So let us often take the measure of ourselves, that we might, with God’s grace, keep working on ourselves – and that we might by such steadfast effort experience the satisfaction of self-improvement and the fun of self-development!  For God both loves us just as we are and loves us too much to leave that way!  Let us pray.

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