This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Romans 12:1-8
Sermon prepared by Rev. Vicki Cok, Waterloo, Ontario, and Dr. Christopher Braley, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I urge you, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Having opened this section of his letter to the Romans with those verses, Paul goes on to explain something of what it means to have one's mind transformed away from the pattern of the world, and the first and main thing that he says is "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment."
If that's not contrary to the thought pattern of this world, then I don't know what is. Our culture sees low self-esteem as the great evil, the cause of all sorts of problems. Our culture says that the important thing is that we feel good about ourselves. Most psychologists and clinical social workers see high self-esteem as the foundation of mental health and a cure for depression. But here Paul warns us about the opposite. He says that we must not have too high an opinion of ourselves.
Paul says the church does not need a bunch of people with high self-esteem. The church needs people who look at themselves with sober judgment and see themselves as they really are. Or, more to the point, the church needs people who spend a whole lot less time looking at themselves , and a whole lot more of our time looking at Christ.
Maybe that's an odd way to begin a sermon on a passage about spiritual gifts, which is what this actually is. Maybe you expected us to spend our time looking carefully at ourselves in order to figure out who we are and what our gifts are and what our place is in the church, but since Paul starts out doing exactly the opposite, we should too. Given the culture that we live in, a little challenge to the doctrine of self-esteem is probably a necessary corrective for Christians who gladly sing "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound," but then choke on the next line, "that saved a wretch like me," without stopping to realize that there's nothing all that amazing about grace unless we see that we are wretches. All of us.
Now, we need to hear a caveat here. Sadly, there was a time when Calvinists spouted lots of "worm theology," insisting that we're all worse than worthless. Some of us in this room might have grown up hearing a gospel so focused on our wretchedness and worminess that to hear me say yes, we are all wretches, might take you back to a horrible and wounded place that you've worked hard to escape.
So before we go any further I need to say – I cannot say clearly enough – that this is NOT the point that we are trying to make today. It's true that not a single one of us deserves what Christ has done for us. But being undeserving is not the same thing as being worthless. We have great worth in the eyes of God who loves us deeply.
Our worth is immovable, unshakable, unconditional, rock solid because our worth comes from being created in the image of God and being loved by him.
In contrast to that, any sense of worth that is based on the modern cultural doctrine of self-esteem is subject to all the toxicity of a fallen world and is about as solid as a cobweb
This whole issue of self-esteem is tightly wrapped in with the issue of spiritual gifts because the gifts themselves sometimes make us think too highly of ourselves either because we have more of a particular gift than another person, or because we think that some of the more visible gifts are more important than other gifts. Even worse than that, it's possible for us to begin to think that we somehow earned or deserved our gifts, completely losing sight of the basic truth that spiritual gifts are gifts. They are not earned. They are not deserved. They are not some kind of evidence of spiritual maturity. They are not a barometer of our worth.
Writing about gifts in a different letter, his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says: Now if the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body, it would not cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body."
One commentator writing about this passage said that when he first read that, he thought that the foot and the ear did not think of themselves highly enough, but then realized that this is not what Paul is saying at all. The "foot" does not say, "Because I am a foot, I am not a part of the body." He says, "Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body." The "foot" does not think too little of himself; he thinks too much of himself.
He thinks that being a "hand" is more important than being a "foot." So if he can't be a "hand," the "foot" refuses to function as a part of the body at all. The "foot" thinks he deserves better than the gift he has been given. There is no offering of the body as a living sacrifice here; there is only pride and self-seeking ambition. The "foot" doesn't need more self-esteem. The foot needs more humility and gratitude. The "foot" needs to "die" to himself and to worldly ambitions and to live, instead, for the body of Christ.
This commentator is on to something true. The world is wrong. Self-esteem is not an appropriate goal for Christians.
This whole idea that Christians should not think too highly of themselves is so counter-cultural, and the theological implications are so enormous, that it's an important project to explore the theology of self-esteem. We can call it a theology, because it's crept into the church and colored our view of God and of ourselves in relation to God. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, and formerly of the Reformed Church in America, made a career of preaching that the root cause of human sin is that people have too low a view of themselves. He even rewrites the words to old hymns so that his audiences can sing themselves into states of better self-esteem.
Look at what he does with "Rise Up, O Men of God," which he re-named "Rise Up, Great Men of God:" The original final verse reads,
"Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where his feet have trod.
As brothers of the son of man,
rise up, oh men of God!"
Schuller's version, heard on a television broadcast, goes like this:
"Lift high the cross of Christ
above the crowded earth,
that men and women everywhere
may know their own SELF-WORTH!"
So you see a problem here?
Paul certainly would. Paul would turn over in his grave. And so Paul says here in Romans 12 verse 3 that before we can even begin to have a serious conversation about spiritual gifts, we need to get a grip on the reality of who we are and who God is. We need to know and to accept that there is only one being in existence who should have self-esteem — and it's not any of us. And there is only one being in existence whom we should esteem – and it is God.
This whole topic treads a thin line between theology and psychology, and preachers are generally better off staying away from psychology, so this sermon was written with the help of a Christian psychologist who, surprisingly, agrees with Paul, and who says that the doctrine of self-esteem is not just wrong; from a spiritual perspective it's suicidal. Spiritually deadly. Bankrupt. He says parents need to stop making it our goal to build self-esteem into our children. Teachers need to stop assigning inflated grades in order to protect students' self-esteem. Social workers and psychologists need to offer clients something more worthy than this subtle idolatry disguised as niceness.
The doctrine of self-esteem, he says , is nothing but an invitation to pathological narcissism, which is an obsession with self. And when it's used in the Church, the doctrine of self-esteem can be the fast-track to idolatry because it tries to usurp God's position as the center of all things and God's glory as the chief end of man.
If you've ever taken a psychology course, you might remember that there are two sides to the coin of narcissism—one is the grandiose side; the other is the masochistic side. The grandiose side of narcissism involves a preoccupation with an inflated sense of one's own goodness and importance. Grandiose narcissism says, "Look at me! See how wonderful I am? See how many spiritual gifts I have!"
The flip side of grandiose narcissism is masochistic narcissism. This kind of narcissism involves an inordinate preoccupation with real or imagined personal flaws and inadequacies. Masochistic narcissism says, "Look at me! See how pathetic I am? I didn't get any of the good gifts! I hardly got any gifts at all."
In both cases, the problem is not the quality or quantity or the distribution of spiritual gifts. The problem is the preoccupation with self. Ironically, although it's widely recognized that preoccupation with self is problematic, the solution that psychology and social work and even the church often propose for low self-esteem, which is essentially masochistic narcissism, is to do things to raise self-esteem through self-affirmation or through receiving affirmation from others. In essence, the goal is to turn the masochistic narcissist into a grandiose narcissist. No longer preoccupied with her flaws or lack of what she considers the ‘better' gifts, the grandiose narcissist is preoccupied with her goodness and the impressiveness of her many gifts.
This hardly solves the problem, since preoccupation with self IS the problem.
Another problem with the world's preoccupation with self-esteem is that it tends to distort the dynamics of love, and a proper understanding of love is crucial to a proper understanding of the role of spiritual gifts. Peter introduces his passage about spiritual gifts by saying, "Above all, love each other deeply." (I Peter 1:22) Paul ends his most famous gifts passage in 1 Corinthians 12 by saying, "if I exercise spiritual gifts without love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."
In a self-esteem driven world, one expresses love for others by making much of them—admiring them, affirming them, praising them. But that is not how God shows love. God does not love us by making much of us, but by giving himself to us—sacrificing himself for us—at infinite cost to himself. The self-esteeming heart is trained to look for affirmation from others to confirm its worth, but God knows that this is not satisfying, it's not even possible, and so in love, God does whatever is necessary to free us from self so that we can find joy, delight and pleasure in relationship with God, freeing us from our pre-occupation with self and our bondage to self-esteem.
Perhaps most alarming is what the theology of self-esteem does to the cross. We know that in the cross of Jesus Christ, God accomplished two staggering goals in one astonishing act. In the same act, God demonstrated both his scandalous mercy and his amazing grace to undeserving sinners AND he poured out the fullness of righteous and divine wrath on his Son, who himself bore the pain and the cost all of our sins. The sweetest mercy and the most searing wrath were expressed in the same mighty work. The cross is all about the glory of God and about his doing all that was necessary to enable his children to enjoy that glory forever.
But the self-esteem gospel says something very different. It says that Jesus died for me because I'm not really so bad and I deserved his ultimate sacrifice. The self-esteem gospel makes the cross all about me. It distorts and bends and twists the cross into the form or a flattering mirror that affirms my delusional self-esteem.
Advocates of the self-esteem gospel should really change the lyrics of "Amazing Grace" to, "Appropriate love, how sweet the sound, that affirmed a gem like me! I once was confused, but now I'm found in a sea of self-esteem."
That's the pattern of the world, and Paul says that we must not conform to it. We must be transformed. We must not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. We must think of ourselves with sober judgment, and we certainly need to do this when we think about our spiritual gifts because it's only when we're free from the obsession with establishing our own importance that we can realistically identify our gifts and abilities and understand where we fit in to Christ's body.
Here in Romans 12, Paul names 7 gifts. He gives a different list in Corinthians. Peter gave a different list in 1 Peter 4. No passage gives a comprehensive list of spiritual gifts. It's never Paul or Peter's point to give an inventory. It's enough to know from both Peter and Paul that there are two basic flavours of gifts – gifts of speaking and gifts of service. Neither is more valuable or more important than the other.
An elder, for example, needs more of the speaking gifts. A deacon needs more of the serving gifts. But elders are not superior to deacons. One does not start as a deacon and get promoted to elder when one is older or wiser.
The gifts listed here are just examples of spiritual gifts. The point is that every member of the body has such gifts. And that means both that everybody has a place in the body of Christ, and that everybody has a responsibility to the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts are given for the health of the body, for the ministries of the body, and for the glory of God.
Having established that gifts are not given to us based on our own merit and that gifts are supposed to direct glory to God, not to any of us, Paul goes on to point out two great dangers in the exercise of spiritual gifts. The first is not exercising them. That's why he needs to tell the exhorter to exhort and the teacher to teach. That seems like an odd thing to say, but the truth is that it needs saying. For one thing, it's not unusual for a foot to walk around wishing it were a hand, trying to do something that it's not gifted to do because that other thing seems more glamorous or important.
In addition to that, sometimes we don't use our gifts because our natural tendency is to be self-centered and self-serving instead of self-sacrificing. When our service doesn't seem to be successful or when we're not getting anything out of it, our natural, human tendency is to resign. Like Elijah and Jonah, we want to turn in our badge and give up. But Paul urges us to stick with it.
Paul says if your gift is to serve or to show mercy or to prophecy, then that's what you need to be doing. If you've been given a gift, use it. Use it for the building up of the church, use it for the ministry of the church, and use it for the glory of God.
The second danger in the exercise of spiritual gifts is that we exercise them in ways inconsistent with grace of God. That we exercise them for personal glory instead of for the sake of the community. That we exercise them without love. That we use our "giftedness" as an excuse to demand our own way, or that we use our lack of a gift as an excuse to avoid work that needs to be shared by the whole body, walking away when we spill coffee on the floor of the fellowship hall, expecting someone with the gift of service to clean up after us, or passing the offering plate to someone with the gift of giving.
Both dangers would be eliminated if we thought of ourselves with sober judgment, rather than thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. If we remembered that spiritual gifts are given for the sake of the community, not for the individual.
Paul uses the picture of a body both here and in 1 Corinthians, and it's hard to think of a better, more up-to-date metaphor for the church. Bricks in a wall? No! Bricks are too similar to each other, and people all have different gifts. A car maybe? Where some of us would be spark plugs and some would be pistons or wheels or the CD player? No, that doesn't work either – since the car would run just fine without the CD player. But the church NEEDS every part, every gift, which means the church needs you, and your gift. Which means there is a place for you in the church. There is a place for you in this church. Because, as Paul goes on to say in Romans 12, in Christ we form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Paul and Peter tell us that we all have personal God-given resources, talents, gifts. When we give our lives as living sacrifices, our personal abilities can be accentuated and empowered by the Spirit, and we may receive new spiritual abilities to use for the ministry of the body and the glory of God.
Think of church council trying to find people to replace retiring council members and realizing that they have a problem on their hands. The candidates were saying no right and left and the council thought that maybe people needed a little reminder that gifts are given for the ministry of the church.
But then they started asking those who had declined nominations to tell them why, and they found that nobody was saying no to council because they don't want to use their gifts. Most people said no because they were so busy using their gifts that if they accepted a position on council, it would mean abandoning a different ministry position somewhere else.
This raises all kinds of questions. As a congregation do we have too many positions to fill? Are we trying to do more than a church our size can do? Where should we focus our efforts? Where is God leading us? Are we focusing too much energy on the gifts that build up our own church body and not valuing the gifts that many of us in this room are using to do the ministry of Christ outside of the church?
These are important questions for any church to wrestle with as it tries to move forward as a church, being the body of Christ, doing the work of the Lord. And as we wrestle, the church needs to listen to Paul tell us that using our gifts sacrificially is true worship. That each gift is needed, and so there's a place for everyone and a need for everyone to contribute. That gifts are given for community ministry, not for individual glory. That gifts are given, not earned.
And so as we look to the future and consider the ministries of this church, we must do so with sober judgment, not thinking too highly of ourselves, focusing our attention on God, and trusting God to provide what's needed to do his work. We all have different gifts, different functions, different roles to play. But there is a place in Christ's body for each one of us.
May we honestly asses the gifts that God has given to each one of us, and may we humbly consider the possibility that God is directing us to change some things about the way that we exercise our gifts. But then let us focus our attention not on ourselves, but on Jesus Christ, on what He has done for us and on what he is calling us to do for him, so that his church may be built up, his work done on earth, and his name may be glorified.
Order of Worship
GATHERING FOR WORSHIP
Call to Worship
The psalmist David said, "I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord'" (Psalm 122:1). The Israelites sang their way to Jerusalem to worship God at the temple. Take a moment now to greet those around you, as a reminder that we worship God as his Body, a community of believers. Then let us, too, sing in celebration as we gather before God, who has called us here this morning.
Song of Praise
Psalter Hymnal #237, "We Praise You, O God"
God our Father, the risen Christ His Son, and the Holy Spirit our Comforter are here with us, blessing us as we worship and strengthening us for the days ahead. May God's grace, mercy, and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE
We are called to present ourselves to the Lord as living sacrifices, holy and please to God (Romans 12:1). When we come into God's majestic presence, however, we are reminded that we are not always holy, not always pleasing to him. Let us confess our sin before him, that we may find mercy and new life. The psalmist says, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!" (Ps 133:1).
We confess, gracious God, that we do not always embrace our neighbour. Forgive us, and help us to love.
Peter says, "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms" (1 Peter 4:10).
We confess that we do not always use the gifts you have given us very well.
Forgive us, and help us to be sacrificial in sharing our time and talents.
Help us to know what our gifts are.
Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
We confess, Triune God, that we sometimes keep our burdens to ourselves.
Forgive us, and help us to bring to you everything that we are, in all our frailty and imperfections. Help us to rely on you daily for strength and peace.
People of God, the good news of the gospel is this: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. With the prophet Jeremiah, we rejoice: "The Lord's loving concern never fails. His great love is new every morning. The Lord is good to those who put their hope in him" (Lamentations 3:22-25).
Song of Thanksgiving: Psalter Hymnal #632, "To God Be the Glory"
THE PROCLAMATION OF THE WORD
Scripture Reading: Romans 12:1-8
RESPONSE OF GRATITUDE
Psalter Hymnal #291, "May the Mind of Christ, My Saviour"
Response: Psalter Hymnal #528, "Lord Speak to me that I May Speak"
Benediction with Threefold Amen