Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 23, 2020
Romans 12:1-8 Commentary
“We have a cognitive bias to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us.” So begins a provocative, insightful article published on April 26, 2004 on the Scientific American.com website.
The article refers to national surveys that suggest that most business people believe they are more moral than other business people. Psychologists who study moral intuition also think they are more moral than other psychologists.
In one College Entrance Exam Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, less than 1 percent rated themselves below average in their “ability to get along with others.” What’s more, 60 percent of those surveyed placed themselves in the top 10 percent.
In a study of Stanford University students, respondents rated themselves higher than their peers on personal qualities such as friendliness and selfishness. Surveyors then warned them about the “better than average bias” that suggests that we recognize biases in others more quickly than we recognize them in ourselves.
Yet even after that warning, 63% of the subjects still claimed that their initial evaluations were objective. In fact, 13% of them even claimed to be too modest in their initial assessment of themselves.
Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer found similar results when surveying people about reasons for their belief in God. Most pointed to intellectual reasons such as the world’s good design and complexity for their faith in God. However, they also attributed others’ reasons for belief in God to emotional reasons such as that it’s comforting and that it gives meaning.
Such surveys suggest that people naturally tend to see ourselves more positively than others see us. They may also at least imply that we tend to see ourselves more positively than God, in some ways, does.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul says, “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought” (3). He understands that our thinking plays a role in our faithful response to God’s grace. After all, in the Greek, the apostle repeats the verb “to think” four times in this Lesson.
God has transformed our minds so that they’re able to recognize and follow God’s will. However, God also expects God’s adopted children to also use our renewed minds to evaluate our identity and gifts, as well as ourselves. So we need to know who we are. Christians need an accurate, balanced and realistic self-image.
So Romans 12’s proclaimers might ask ourselves how we think about ourselves. We all know people who have extreme views of themselves. Scientists admit, however, that it’s very difficult to objectively determine exactly what kinds of self-esteem people have.
Numbers of people seem to have improperly low self-images. Some even appear to try to mask those feelings of inferiority with claims of superiority. Others seem to feel inherently superior to most of the people around them.
Against all of this, Paul reminds us to avoid both too high an estimate of ourselves and, he might have added, too low an estimate. Instead, Jesus’ followers want to develop what he calls “sober judgment.”
Such sober judgment does not rest on others’ judgment of us. It rests, instead, on God’s view of God’s people. Those who think of ourselves with “sober judgment” learn to look at people, including ourselves, as God looks at us.
Experts offer all sorts of suggestions on how to develop a proper self-esteem. Paul, however, calls us to develop such a “sober judgment” of ourselves by contemplating our faith and our gifts.
We must, first, he says, evaluate “the measure of faith God has given” us. Now some think this phrase refers to the varying amounts of faith God gives to various Christians. They suggest that since God gives more faith to some (translation: themselves) than to others, gifted people must remain humble.
It may be more likely, however, that “measure of faith” refers to the faith that God graciously gives to all of God’s adopted sons and daughters. That “measure” that Christians have, then, is simply God’s gift of faith that receives God grace.
Understanding that only God’s grace that we receive with this “measure of faith” saves us provides a wonderful remedy for improper self-esteem. God’s adopted children don’t think too highly of ourselves when we remember that we aren’t good enough to save ourselves.
Christians also maintain a proper view of ourselves when we remember that we aren’t even saved by the quality of our faith. Any faith that we have is, after all, only and always a gift from God.
On the other hand, we don’t think too poorly of ourselves either when we remember that God graciously gave us this gift of faith. God, after all, didn’t just love God’s people deeply enough to send God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, to live, die and rise for us. God also graciously gave us the “measure of faith” by which we receive Christ’s work on our behalf.
So it would seem that a good way to think “soberly” of ourselves is to remember that we’re both naturally unlovely and graciously loved by God. Jesus’ followers consider the paradox that we’re both naturally faithless and gifted with faith by God.
However, if God’s gracious gift of faith is the first standard by which we evaluate ourselves, the second is God’s gifts to God’s beloved people. To help Jesus’ adopted siblings see that, Paul draws an analogy between the human body and the Christian community.
“Each of us has one body with many members,” he writes in verse 4, “and these members do not all have the same function…” God has created most of people with things like eyes and ears, noses and kneecaps. Though they don’t have the same functions, each is important for the well-being of our whole persons.
In a similar way, writes Paul, each of God’s adopted sons and daughters has unique functions and places within the body that is the Church of Jesus Christ. “In Christ,” after all, “we who are many form one body” (5). Yet each of Jesus’ followers is also necessary to the well being that is the Church. “Each member,” in fact, “belongs to all the others.”
So Jesus’ followers don’t think too highly of ourselves when we remember that we’re not independent entities. We deeply depend on each other in the Church. After all, Christians, who may be kinds of eyes or noses, can’t function in Christ’s church all by ourselves. We need the ears and elbows that are other members of Christ’s church.
At the same time, we don’t think too poorly of ourselves when we remember how much Christ’s church needs us. After all, while Jesus’ followers may not be independent entities, we’re also not useless appendages. The people who are, for instance, the church’s “feet and fingers” need Christians who are its “eyes and ears.”
So within the church, you and I desperately need and depend on each other. What’s more, the diverse gifts and personalities God has given God’s children enrich and enhance our Christian fellowship and bring glory to God.
Further, as we think of the gifts and talents we have, an accurate self-esteem grows out of our awareness that God gave them to us in the first place. While God’s adopted children may have worked to develop and cultivate our talents, they are, first of all, a gift from God.
Those gifts, of course, take different shapes. They include the “prophesying” that is speaking for God under God’s inspiration. God has gifted some of God’s people with the ability to speak about God’s word as well as the world in which we live.
Some Christians think of the other gifts Paul lists in Romans 12 as “ordinary.” The apostle, however, makes no such distinction. He simply insists that just as God gifts some for prophesying, God also gifts others for serving and teaching. Others God gifts with abilities like encouraging, giving to the needs of others, leading and showing mercy.
God gives all of these gifts not to make Jesus’ followers proud of ourselves, but to build up God’s church and bless our neighbors. God uses these talents to bring glory to himself and spread God’s gospel throughout the world.
Some Christians seem to focus on supernatural spiritual gifts like tongues, prophesying, healing and doing miracles. Here, however, Paul actually seems to spotlight practical and even mundane gifts. He insists that God, after all, brings honor to himself and builds up God’s church and kingdom through the wide variety of talents God lavishly showers on God’s people.
Christ’s Church often ordains Jesus’ followers for specialized ministries such as parish ministry and missionary work. Yet even as we commission people like worship coordinators and deacons for such service, we also remember that God has gifted each one of God’s dearly beloved people.
So while we thank God for those who, for example, use God’s gifts to teach people on Sundays and repair our churches’ leaky faucets, we remember that we aren’t all teachers or plumbers. While we thank God for the encouragement God has provided us through many of God’s adopted children, not all Christians have special gifts for, for example, encouragement. While we thank God for the great generosity of some entire churches, God hasn’t gifted all of us with extraordinary resources.
Yet God has gifted each one of God’s adopted sons and daughters with some gift or talent. That’s why though it seems rather pedestrian to some, some churches make discovering and using those gifts as one of their main goals.
After all, if some Christians aren’t using the gifts God has given us, the Church and churches become like a body without a vital organ. Those bodies may function without, for instance, an eye that is an accompanist or an ear that is an elder. They won’t, however, function as well as they might. The Church won’t bring the entire honor to God it could if less than all of its members know and humbly use the gifts God has given us.
In a March 28, 2010 article entitled “On Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect,” Scott Dalrymple writes, “One has only to go into a prison, or at least a prison of the kind in which I used to work, to see the most revoltingly high self-esteem among a group of people (the young thugs) who had brought nothing but misery to those around them, largely because they conceived of themselves as so important that they could do no wrong …
“With the coyness of someone revealing a bizarre sexual taste, my patients would often say to me, ‘Doctor, I think I’m suffering from low self-esteem.’ This, they believed, was at the root of their problem, whatever it was, for there is hardly any undesirable behavior or experience that has not been attributed, in the press and on the air, in books and in private conversations, to low self-esteem, from eating too much to mass murder … Self-esteem, it appears, is like money or health: you can’t have too much of it.”
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