Pride is a dangerous sin. It’s one of the seven deadly sins. So when you are a notable person who gets noticed and approached by strangers in restaurants and in airports, how do you stay humble? This was a question asked of Pastor John at the 2010 Desiring God National Conference. To raise the stakes, Pastor John had been presented with a festschrift, a large book published in his honor as a surprise gift. It is titled, For the Fame of God’s Name. In the context of a panel discussion at the conference, here’s how Pastor John answered the question of how to stay humble when God is blessing your ministry:
Oh my. Probably the first thing to say is that God is in charge of keeping his people humble, not us. The Bible does say, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6), but as in almost all other things, “Command what you will and give what you command.” So you may, I think, expect that God will deal roughly with you if he has to in order to remind you that you are not God and that you are desperately in need of him. And perhaps it is no accident that I received this book of essays in the middle of a leave of absence taken because of pain. Is that an accident that it worked out that way? They have been working on it for three years. And there are issues in my family, in my wider family, and my soul that are such that I wanted to step back and look at all of them and work on all of them. That wasn’t my idea to do this. It was things that come up.
I felt as I sat there, “These folks don’t know me well enough,” and they don’t. “They don’t know what goes on in our living room and bedroom and kitchen.” But you know, your wife knows, and your children know. And you feel a sense of disjunction between public praise and private imperfections. And that is God’s doing. And he forms that. Then there are these natural limitations that people closest around me know that I have. And I don’t know why God has been pleased to release influence through me the way he has when I look at the limitations. I can’t read faster than I can talk. Everybody thinks I am a scholar. I am not a scholar. So I feel like they are going to wake up and say, “What did we just do you know to give you this book?”
I have learned to navigate my limitations and just do the few things I can do as well as I can. And I am always thinking about what I can’t do. I just wake up in the morning and think about what I can’t do. So God, I think, fits us with weaknesses. He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. He leads us in his providence, yes, even in and out of sin. And he does what he has to do to break us. So that is the first principle. God is in charge of keeping us humble and he will. He loves us so much that if you are a child and you are not yet disciplined, you may be a bastard (Hebrews 12:7–8). Those are strong words. If you haven’t been spanked hard enough to come to blood, then maybe you are not even a child. That is the way he works.
The second thing I would say — and I will just leave it at two — let’s say it big and let’s say it focused: We leaders here believe in a certain vision of God’s sovereign grace. There is not a thing in you or me that inclined God to choose you for himself. Nothing. There is not a thing in you that inclined God to cause you to be born again. Nothing. There is not a thing in you that secures your eternal destiny. Nothing. It is totally free. This is our theology. Unconditional election, unconditional regeneration, unconditional propitiation, conditional justification, faith. And that is a gift.
Our theology is meant to flatten us. “Not many of you were wise, not many of you were high born.” Why? “So that no one would boast in the presence of God. But him who boasts,” finish it. That is weak. Because not all of you are there. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord, that no flesh might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31). Salvation is designed in a way as to cut the legs out from under all human boasting. It is designed that way. That is what this conference is about. That is what the new Calvinism is about. It is about smashing human pride and giving glory to God.
Now I said that is the big picture, but the narrow picture is Christ crucified. The most important event in human history is the death of the Son of God. What is the meaning of the death of the Son of God? It means I am unspeakably lost. It took that much to save me. Anybody that lives near the cross isn’t going to put his thumbs in his armpits and strut. He’s not going to brag about his stuff — not going to talk a lot about his achievements. He is just looking at that incredible horror and saying, “That is how corrupt I am.”
And the cross has another message and it is good news. That is how much I am loved. And it is free. The biggest challenge theologically and experientially for us is to feel loved unworthily. We get up in the morning thrilled to be alive and thrilled to know God totally undeserving of it. That is the challenge, because I am wired to want to feel thrilled, because I got a book or had a conference or gave a message — the confident clawing at my ego to find my meaning and my significance in other people’s reckoning of what I have done. So these guys are setting me up terribly, right?
But, like David said, you deal with it. So you are watching me just process this thing. So those three things. God is going to do it whether you want him to or not. He is just going to flatten you. Your marriage may shatter totally or already did, right? Or your kids are going to just go whacko on you. Or you are going to get cancer or you are going to lose your job. He will do whatever he has to do just to flatten you so that you are desperate before him.
And then, secondly, he is going to work through a conference like this and books here and there and movements to get you a theology with him so massively at the center it would never occur to you to put yourself there.
And then he is going to take you to the cross over and over and over again and remind you how unsavable you are apart from that horrific crucifixion and how much you are amazingly loved.