Our culture worships celebrities and superheroes. But in the kingdom of God, we are called to pursue humility.
I want to thank my Dad and Mom...," he began, smiling while trying to choke back the tears that were trickling down his face.
Ché Ahn, my "son in the faith," was standing before the congregation that Sunday morning more than 20 years ago, about to be ordained. While he was honoring his parents, I couldn't help feeling a little fatherly pride over the man I had spent years mentoring, and with whom I shared a wonderful friendship.
"I'm grateful to my family members...," he continued. Just the day before, I had officiated at his wedding.
"I also want to honor the men who have poured their lives into mine." He began listing the godly people--none nearly as close to him as I was--while throwing in remnants of stories and describing their unique contributions to his life.
Sitting on the front row, my thoughts began to drift. I wonder what he'll say when he gets to me? Sniffling a little and straightening my posture in my chair, I readied myself for the "big" moment when Ché would single me out as the spiritual father who had brought him to this hallowed place.
Ché concluded naming the various people, and the applause subsided. Then he stepped back from the microphone and said quietly, "There is one more man I want to honor today." His eyes scanned the hundreds present as I gathered my thoughts.
"I thank God for his role in the plan of God for my life." I cleared my throat, preparing to share a few words.
"Lastly, I...I...want to honor...Charles Schmitt [a wonderful Bible teacher whose teaching had influenced Ché]. Please stand." The crowd broke into applause as I sat there, stunned.
God had pulled a fast one on me!
As I concluded my clapping and made my way alongside the other leaders to lay hands on Ché in prayer, I did my best to conceal my sadness in being forgotten.
How could he overlook me? I thought. After all the years, all the time. No one had given to him as I had.
An hour later I drove home feeling physically spent and emotionally hurt. As the inevitable "Why?" circulated in my mind, I sensed the fingertip of God on my spirit. "I let this happen on purpose, My son," He said, "to reveal what was in your heart."
My good Shepherd was going bottom line, and He was right. I was exposed. God made me aware of my carnal desires for recognition and honor by allowing me to be overlooked.
Subduing my flesh, I eventually repented and let God know I was ashamed and truly sorry for my pride.
Today Ché remains my close friend as he leads the Harvest International Ministries (HIM) network of churches and serves as director for The Call, an international prayer movement. We both laugh now at the oversight, but I'm thankful for what happened. The lesson from God was loud and clear: He wants the people who serve Him to be men and women of humility.
God Doesn't Need Superheroes
The greatest danger lurking ahead of any pioneer is overconfidence. When you trust in your own abilities and seek recognition, you set yourself up for a fall. To be a pioneer of the spiritual sort, you must recognize how human you really are.
If you ever struggle with superhero tendencies, you are in good company. The apostle Paul struggled with pride, and as a result, God gave him a thorn in his flesh (see 2 Cor. 12:7-9).
The power for you to minister as a pioneer comes not from honed skills or extensive Bible knowledge (though both are important). The power comes from your acknowledgement of your inabilities and God's abilities. God's power is made perfect in weakness, and His grace is released in your life when you deflect all honor from you to Him.
Throughout Scripture God makes it clear that He will not share His glory with another (see Is. 42:8; Ps. 115:1). When you withhold the glory that is due God, you will find Him opposing you.
The apostle Peter wrote: "All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.' Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time" (1 Pet. 5:56, NIV).
God isn't neutral or passive about proud people. He opposes them. The Greek word for "oppose" in this passage, antitasso, is a military term that literally means "to rage in battle against."
When you seek glory for yourself, when you take the credit for any success, you risk having God battle against you. And the one person you don't want resisting you is almighty God!
On the other hand, God gives grace to the humble. Pride places God against you; humility places God on your side and unleashes the powers of heaven on your behalf.
And notice, Peter doesn't write, "You are clothed with humility." He writes, "Clothe yourselves with humility." Humility is something God won't do for you. It's not a fruit of the Spirit that is a result of the Spirit's work.
Humility is an act of your will. That's why Peter writes further, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time" (1 Pet. 5:6).
God isn't opposed to exalting you. In fact, He wants to--but He must be the One doing the exalting! Exalt yourself, and God will humble you. But humble yourself, and God will exalt you--according to His time line.
When you don't choose to be humble, it is easy to become uptight and believe that if you don't speak up for yourself, no one else will commend you. You may have the noblest reasons for drawing attention to yourself, but all of them are rooted in pride. Don't worry about being promoted. Be faithful in the little things, and God will make you a ruler over much (see Matt. 25:23).
When you promote yourself, you circumvent God's time line and process for promotion. Perhaps He wants to work on a few more character issues before moving you on--issues that will make the difference between being an effective leader and an ineffective leader.
Self-promotion is the pursuit of quantity over quality because it seeks quick results without having to prove itself first. It also places people in the position of trying to do God's work in the flesh, which requires much more effort than doing God's work by the power of the Spirit.
The Faceless Generation
As God revives and restores His church, He is building the ranks of His troops with men and women of character. In humility they will march forward, unconcerned about drawing attention to themselves or building their own kingdoms.
Prophetic leader Paul Cain refers to this mass of people as a "nameless, faceless generation." They are consumed solely with the glory of God and care not what accolades or awards are bestowed upon them.
Michael Brown often exhorts students and faculty at the FIRE School of Ministry by saying: "Don't forget why God brought us here. He is taking somebodies and turning them into nobodies for the glory of God!" The greatest aspiration you could ever have is to be a nobody for God.
"God works best with nothing," Mother Teresa once said. And that is God's nature--working best with nothing. Genesis 1:1 begins with these famous words, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." God created the world out of nothing and then called it good (see Gen. 1:10).
When Jesus came to earth, He followed the same pattern. Read closely Paul's description of the incarnation of Jesus: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves...Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!
"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:311).
How does Paul describe Jesus' actions when He came to earth to save people from their sins?
He made Himself nothing.
He took the form of a servant.
He humbled Himself.
He became obedient to death on a cross.
And how did God the Father respond to Jesus' ultimate acts of humility?
He exalted Jesus, giving Him the name that is above all names.
He promised that all people will eventually bow their knees to Jesus and confess that Jesus is Lord.
Most interesting of all is how Paul prefaces this weighty passage of Scripture: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5).
Of course, you aren't God, and God will not someday have creation bow at your feet and declare that you are Lord. However, as you make yourself nothing, taking the form of a servant, humbling yourself and becoming obedient to death, God will exalt you. He will use you because you have become clay in the hands of the Master Potter.
Looking back over his 80 years of life, Billy Graham wrote in his magnificent autobiography, Just As I Am: "Most of all, if anything has been accomplished through my life, it has been solely God's doing, not mine, and He--not I--must get the credit." Billy Graham was a 20th century pioneer for the gospel who models what the heart of a 21st century pioneer should be like.
When the focus of your life is on yourself, you become fearful of man. You want to please people, and you seek their approval. But when the focus of your life is on God, you can venture wherever He calls you to go.
This is an area that God had to resolve in my life before releasing me into the next season of my ministry. For years I made little concessions and compromises to stay in the good graces of certain leaders and to avoid forfeiting privilege, promotion, provision or personal speaking opportunities.
By yielding to a fear of man I became enslaved to the pursuit of being recognized in ministry. My futile attempts to achieve approval and acceptance of certain people drove me even further away from the path God called me to follow.
This carnal, destructive pattern that had developed imperceptibly over many years had to be exposed and dismantled. What I needed was a deathblow to my sinful nature. So God brought me back to the place of being nothing, where I could choose to take on the form of a servant, humble myself and, most painfully, become obedient to death, nailing that self to the cross.
Finally, I could start over. But this time I was performing for an audience of one, God Himself. The result was a new dimension of freedom from bondage to man that I had never known before.
I enjoyed the new security that comes from pleasing the one who already loves and accepts me. I was free to set out again as a pioneer. I could say with Paul: "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10).
Seemingly overnight, I jumped from overseeing a network of churches to planting a small church in the basement of my modest home. Straying from the "proven" methods of church planting I was accustomed with, I chose to establish a church birthed in the fires of revival.
But I must admit that my new beginning was quite humbling, even humiliating. While attending a men's conference in Florida I was approached by a leader of a large church with attendance in excess of 5,000. He began our conversation by asking, "So how large is your church in Atlanta?"
Ouch! Hearts are tested in moments like those! And what matters most to God is faithfulness before fruitfulness.
Get Your Heart Checked
Everyone should see a doctor at least once a year for a checkup. I think that same advice is good for Christians. At least once a year we should visit the Great Physician for a thorough examination of our spiritual condition.
Below are some penetrating questions that I hope you will ask yourself to help determine the state of your heart and your motivation for serving God.
1. Do I promote myself? Is it all about me and my ministry, or do I leave promotion to God while I go about the work He brings to me? (See Prov. 27:2; 25:6-7; Ps. 75:6.)
2. Do I compete with others? Or am I secure in God wherever He places me, content to glorify only Him while He providentially works out His plan for my life? (See Jer. 45:5; Gal. 5:26; 1 Tim. 6:6.)
3. Do I act out of a pure heart? Am I intent on pleasing God, or do my actions proceed from selfish ambition that only pleases me? (See James 3:16; Prov. 21:2; Phil. 2:3.)
Periodically it is wise to ask yourself: Why am I doing what I'm doing? Who am I doing this for?
A dear friend of mine has a glowing résumé. At times in her life she has worked with political luminaries such as senators John Glenn and Barry Goldwater. At other times she has labored alongside Christian leaders such as Kenneth Copeland and Marilyn Hickey.
But currently she is following the call of God on her life by caring for her 84-year-old father. Yet Bessie is as aglow with the Spirit washing her father's feet as she is when she is in the limelight.
The reason? Her identity comes from her heavenly Father, not from how well she performs or from being recognized. She is simply serving in a different type of ministry during this season of her life. What would you do if you were in Bessie's shoes?
Don't be a somebody. Be a nobody through whom God builds His church and launches this generation into the final push that ushers in the return of Jesus Christ.
Larry Tomczak is the senior pastor of Christ the King Church in Atlanta. He is the author of six books, including Divine Appointments (Destiny Image).