Five Ways to Wage War on the Ego
“He must [by the very nature of things] increase, but I must decrease.” (John the Baptist)
One of the most clever things I’ve read in any fiction work is in The Screwtape Letters with the uncle advising the nephew to get his Christian to realize he’s being humble because then – voilà! – he’s automatically prideful. Countless Christians I’ve spoken to have picked up on this irony in joke form by declaring, as if they are the first to ever do so, “I’m so proud of my humility!”
I start with that because I fully confess that by sharing thoughts about how not to be prideful that when people put them into practice, they can absolutely be proud of their effort and ruin the whole thing. Humility and pride are so unique and tricky that way.
So no, I’m not trying to advocate ways to appear humble while you get a big head in your heart of hearts. But the Bible at various times and in various ways tells us to be humble. So I think a strategy is prudent. Here are five to consider:
1. Keep your good deeds private
I have spoken to this one before. Yet Facebook is such a constant assault on this, I find myself wanting to shout this from the rooftops. Making your good deeds known to others can be (and probably is) in direct violation of Jesus’ command to not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Yet on social media, we act like this isn’t an issue. We brag about something we accomplished, the likes and affirmations come pouring in and it all seems like a normal part of our culture.
Granted, I will not cast stones on this because I have learned, like others, how to creatively do it where it doesn’t look like bragging. Just post a picture of some great deed you are doing. People love pictures, right? Then you don’t have to brag with words. But people still know how great you are. Yes, I’ve been there.
Until we get to the place where we are secure enough in our identity as a servant of Christ who works for an audience of one, we will live in direct disobedience to Christ’s command to keep our good works private. Especially on social media. And myself included.
2. Overwhelm complaining with thanksgiving
Here is one I really struggle with. My wife and closest friends will confirm this. Everyone on Twitter is an idiot. Our extended Winter this year is just the worst. Chicago traffic turns me into an ogre of rage and criticism. Even the woman who leads the workout videos my wife does is not safe from my ire, even though she is a successful woman, in much better shape than me, and doesn’t deserve my insults.
It’s all an ugly manifestation of how proud I am. Because I’m either only thinking of myself or I’m putting myself above others. By contrast, outside of November, my attitude of thankfulness is anemic. Yet of the two things, only one is commanded as something we are to do in all circumstances.
Criticism is at times warranted in Christianity. And we all need to vent at times. I am not advocating to avoid it completely. I just think some of us could stand to have our comments and actions of thanksgiving outnumber our complaints and insults about 10 to 1, or some similar percentage. Maybe getting specific will help: Trying to open our day by thanking for ten straight minutes or by handwriting thank you notes often or by showing a person how thankful you are with a simple gesture. It will choke our pride at a very sensitive point.
3. Associate with people who know more than you
The Bible warns that knowledge puffs us up. This can be seen so clearly when people attend college or grad school or seminary, or even when they are educated in any way on any subject. If we are knowledgeable in some way and proud as a result, it makes sense to me that exposure to those who know more than we do will help keep us in a more sober and humble state of mind.
A few years ago I began studying textual criticism, the art-science of trying to scour through nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts and countless other sources to determine the original wording of the New Testament books. I have learned quite a bit about it. But I also belong to a Facebook page on the topic, where some of the world’s foremost experts post. And I have to admit: they can talk circles around me and some have written hundreds and hundreds of pages on it. And some of what they say in their books I do not understand.
It is similar with the languages and cultures around us. I have little doubt it is easy to get frustrated with how other people think and behave and what language they speak when it is different from ours because it annoys us. But God taught me a few years ago that exposure to and appreciation for what I don’t know keeps me from being proud of what I do. So when people speak Russian on the Chicago bus, by God’s grace I hope this reminder of how big the world is and how small my knowledge is will keep me humble.
4. Associate with people who have less than you
I have also written about this before, but Jesus once taught to throw parties for the crippled and blind instead of for your own family and friends. In that same chapter, Jesus talks about people making excuses as to why they cannot follow him and then concludes the chapter by saying that if anyone wants to follow him they have to forsake everything. What I take from that is that our richness in material possessions and relationship cause us to forget how badly we need God. And the antidote is to rub shoulders with people who do not have much in the way of material possessions and relationship.
Why? Because part of our social makeup as humans is to become like whoever we are closest to. This is why my dad always told me “You are who your friends are.” And so I think Jesus wants us to learn humility from those who live humbly by little to no choice in the matter.
5. Daily choose forgiveness over bitterness and vindication.
This one is crucial because it is a potent weapon against the “proud of your humility” threat. If you are forgiving because of how much Christ forgave you, as he taught in Matthew 18:21-35 and other places, then you are not confused by how bad a person you are. And yet you are not wallowing in your sinfulness but being proactive in trying to live out the grace that has been given.
Bitterness and vindication are the opposite. They take no account of how bad we as the victim are and do nothing productive or proactive in living out grace or mercy. Retaliating also manifests a spirit that trusts self over God, who vows that revenge only belongs to him.
To be clear, when a person is wronged in the worst ways, I will be careful (especially soon after the event) in counseling them on how and when to forgive. Yet, in reading stories like Joseph in Genesis and Corrie Ten Boom in more modern times, I think there is an authority in their words to teach that even those abused in the worst ways can forgive by the grace of the Christian God. And the worst act of injustice in human history – an innocent man being humiliated, tortured and killed for the very people who killed him – is the message and heart of this humble way of living.
So by trying to live out biblical forgiveness daily (which is indeed more a process than an event in my experience because I often think “I forgive that person” and then the memories come back one day and I have to do it again) I will disintegrate my ego. Because I can’t think on and react to God’s grace and be proud at the same time. And by forgiving because I’ve been forgiven, that is what I am doing.
What do you think? Comments are welcomed below.