By Paul E. Miller, Crosswalk.com
There’s a running joke in Christian circles that the answer to every Sunday school question is “Jesus.” In a similar way, “pride” has become the reflexive Evangelical Christian answer to why we sin. Of course, pride is a master sin, but it has a hidden twin—self-will.
The Stubborn Will
From the very beginning, Adam and Eve’s pride is intertwined with self-will. They decide on their own without talking to God that Satan is right, they will be “like God” (Gen 3:5). Self-will, not pride, dominates Israel’s forty years of wandering. They loved the food they had in Egypt, so they demand (self-will) to return. Pride is mentioned only in Deuteronomy 8:17–9:4, and even then, Moses anticipates a future sin.
Look at how self-will dominates our lives: Every parent knows that the first sin to emerge in a child is not pride but self-will. Similarly, the last sin we see in an older person with a fading life is generally self-will.
If self-will is so pervasive, how do we overcome it? The antidote to self-will is surrender. Obedience to the Father is the most outstanding feature of Jesus’s life, which he expressed in childlike dependence. Unlike our first parents, Jesus does nothing on his own. (John 5:19 ff)
In the wilderness, Satan entices Jesus to act on his own: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). In other words, “Since you are God, use your divine power to protect yourself from the consequences of your humanity. Be like the Greek gods, who don’t get dirty.” Here Satan invites Jesus to use divine power for self. But unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus relinquishes that right so he can be fully human; he doesn’t grasp at the privileges of divinity.
Scripture’s emphasis on the will emerges beautifully in the apostle Paul’s hymn to the incarnation, Philippians 2:6-7:
"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."
Jesus’ will to obey his Father drives him “to the point of death, even death on a cross (v8).” His determination to be fully human, to not use his divinity to protect himself from the consequences of his humanity, climaxes at the cross, when people taunt him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matt. 27:42). Of course, we can’t do this in our own strength—only by the Spirit of Jesus based on the work of Jesus can we obey.
Choosing to Obey
How do we heed the still, small voice of the Spirit when self-will’s cries are ringing in our ears? How do we choose to obey? I suggest three simple steps:
First, see that the normal Christian life re-enacts Jesus’s descent of love. I call this downward path that Paul traces in Philippians 2:5-7, the J-Curve. Like the letter “J”, Jesus’s life goes down into death and then up into resurrection and exaltation. As we saw, the “trigger” for this movement downward in love is Jesus’s surrender of his will, of his not grasping at the privileges of his divinity. As his followers, we are on the same path. As Jesus faces the cost of love, he knows where he is. He’s not adrift; he’s in his Father’s story of which the last word is not death, but resurrection. The story ends well!
Second, receive the suffering. Take the cup. Decide to own it as a gift from your Father (Phil. 1:29). This might seem odd, because suffering comes to us against our will. Jesus helps us here. He told his disciples: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. (John 10:17b–18a)
As the soldiers are coming to take him away, Jesus takes the cup, saying, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42b). So even though others willfully bring suffering into his life, Jesus surrenders his will. If all of life is orchestrated by our Father, then we can receive what the Father brings.
Finally, ask the Spirit of Christ to give you the mind of Christ. The Spirit makes Christ present. Prayer is our principal and first move when we discover ourselves in an unwanted J-Curve. All asking, at one level or another, is a request for a real-time resurrection—for the Spirit to work in us, our situation, or others’ lives to bring life and hope out of death. Of course, we don’t control the timing or nature of the resurrection, but that’s what we are asking, and that’s what our Father, by the Spirit brings.
Yes, pride is a problem, but it is not the only problem. The problem is the reluctance of a willful heart to yield to the work of love. Like Jesus, we set our face for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51, 53). Only as we gain the mind of Christ does our self-will break. That’s when Jesus’s beauty is displayed in and through us.
Paul E. Miller (MDiv, Biblical Seminary) is executive director of seeJesus, a global discipleship ministry that he founded in 1999, and best-selling author of A Praying Life, A Loving Life, and Love Walked Among Us. He teaches many seminars and has written over a dozen interactive Bible studies. His newest book is J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life.
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