In view of the season and the inseparable influence of holidays in culture, New Years has a particular quality that is very unique in celebration; it is a holiday in which our culture willingly embraces self-reflection and individual scrutiny on account of both past triumphs and failures alike. It is during this time of reflection in which we decide how to adjust and prepare ourselves for the supposed hope and the frightful mysteries that the future holds.
Whether it happens during New Year’s or not, people typically process self-assessment in three different ways: we rationally evaluate our successes and our failures over the past year and then aim to make further strides, we ignore our successes, while we become overwhelmed with our failure; or lastly, we ignore the entire idea of confronting our past and seeking betterment altogether. In any case, I believe that there is an underlying aim in our celebration that reveals some of the deepest desires and struggles of the soul. It is because of these struggles that we are prompted to respond in these different ways. The life and words of Jesus Christ are of paramount importance in this matter; not only in helping us to understand these desires and struggles, but also in helping us find fulfillment and peace for the internal struggles that lie within the human heart. In all of our toil and strife to do and be better, it is very rare that we ask ourselves the question of why we toil and strive in the first place.
People are observant and inquisitive by nature as well as full of mystery. Most people, including myself, have a difficult time answering the question, “Who am I?” Often, in an effort to not only answer this question, but rather, to determine the answer ourselves, we observe qualities in others that we find appealing, profitable, or even glorifying and in so doing, we begin our strife towards “excellence”.
This idea of excellence is very paradoxical in nature in that it is something that remains concrete at the forefront of our concern while yet remaining illusively subjective to each person. Every person has some idea of what an “excellent life” looks like for them, and these ideas are different for each person. If someone were asked the question of how they would like to be remembered after they’ve died, I’d be willing to bet that, whatever their answer is, they wouldn’t consider it to be less than admirable; even in the humblest of answers. Their answer may be that they want to be remembered as humble, or proud, or loving, or famous, or just hard working. This seems well enough, but the questions still remain: Why do we want to be any of these things, and why do we try so hard to become what we would like to see ourselves as? Why do we want to be “excellent?” Why do we even conceive the idea of it? Most importantly, what do we view as being ultimately excellent? The last question is where I’ll start because I believe that, when it is answered, the others will follow in suit.
Our ideas of excellence can pose many problems in our lives. Throughout history we see men and women who are well remembered for leading excellent lives. Men and women like Oskar Schindler, Saint Augustine, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa are the pride of historic man; our heroes that inspire us still today. These are what we consider to be great men and women that have reached the peak of excellence; the record holders and the proof of man’s limits. We strive to be like great men and women like these by looking back on their lives well lived, but the truth of the matter is that most of our so-called heroes never gave their greatness a second thought. Those that sought greatness, self-glory, or national glory are, in fact, typically remembered as the tyrants and dictators of our race. These are Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Himmlers; those that pursued “excellence” while leaving a path of death and destruction behind them. Adolf Hitler’s prime drive behind the Holocaust was his obsession with cleanliness and purity as being of ultimate excellence. His heightened view of purity is what led his aim to cleanse the world of the Jewish people and other groups he viewed as unclean. He made promises of a thousand year Reich, and within only eleven years he had created a self-sustaining, efficient way to kill six million Jews; this is not to mention the countless men and women who died in an effort to stop Hitler’s reign. Men like these are the record holders and the proof of man’s limits as well. Hitler’s promises of excellence and his strife towards greatness will always be remembered, and will always be a haunting specter inseparable to pursuits those who seek excellence for their own sake.
So, what then? Is a strife to simply lose weight, make better use of your money, or to be a kinder person synonymous with becoming a power-hungry maniac? Of course not, but what should be asked is, “why?” For what reason do we strive towards these things? Is it because we seek to be the Martin Luther King Jr.s, and Mother Teresas of our generation; to be better for the world because we know it to be right, or is it to be better so that we can gain the attention of those around us in order to have our own glory, and satisfy our own desires for the world? What we can learn simply from history is that those who strove to better themselves without seeking to being glorified are those that attain the respect of humanity as well as their sole desire to better the world for others. History has proven her tyrants and her heroes again and again, and Glory has chosen her side.
The Lord Jesus speaks of this quality of greatness that is found in our heroes frequently. It is simply called humility. In the book of Matthew, Jesus elaborates on this truth in saying, “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12 NASB) In this, we see that these words are true, but if we truly seek to be exalted for its own sake, we can never be humble. The desire for glory and humility vanquish one another; one cannot exist in our hearts while the other does as well. If we try to use humility as a means to gain attention for ourselves, or to inflict our judgement and will on others, then we will find that our aim to seize humility is as vain as clenching the air; we are left with neither humility nor the satisfaction of our desires. Our heroes don’t consider humility as something to be utilized; neither did Jesus. If they ever considered it at all, they considered it to be our vitality; to be air in the lungs rather than the fist. C.S Lewis has a famous quote concerning humility in his book Mere Christianity. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, its thinking of yourself less.” What should be elaborated on is that humility is simply a characteristic of being lost in something greater than yourself; to be focused on and dedicated to something that is greater than your personal preferences. So, what do we lose ourselves in? If we have an idea of perfection and ultimate excellence, then what is it? What is really worth devoting our lives to? What is our purpose?
Jesus Christ speaks into these questions throughout the Scriptures. “For whosoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:25-26 NASB) These words are directly correlated to the cries of the human heart for direction, perfection, worth, purpose, and even glory. “Why do you call me good, no one is good except God alone.” (Luke 18:19 NASB) If we have an idea of perfection, what in this world is perfect? What is truly and ultimately good, and would we welcome it if we saw it?
The fact of the matter is that the weight of our direction, our perfection, our worth, our purpose, and our glory is the very root of our unhappiness and our dissatisfaction in our pursuit of them. The fact that they remain to be ours is why we pursue betterment for betterment’s sake, and excellence for excellence’s sake, and glory for glory’s sake, and yet, come out with a fist full of air. It is only when we recognize that we can neither attain nor rid ourselves of these things, that we realize we need someone who can, and that is the Almighty God of the Scriptures who bought us with the blood of His son so that we could be lost in His Glory. This is how we know who we are. This is when we become sons and daughters of the Eternal God. In this we realize that our direction is His calling for us, that our perfection is His work in us, our worth is the life-blood of the Living God, our purpose is His mission to live and die for those He loves, and our glory is swallowed up in humility in the face of His Glory and His selfless love for us. We are truly, and ultimately humbled and satisfied when we are found before the throne of the truly, and ultimately excellent God of the universe. This is what we as children of God are ever to strive towards. This is breathing. This is truly living. Does this guide your resolutions?
“… I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
-Philippians 3:8-9 NASB
Josh Britt is the youth minister at Pleasant Home Baptist Church. He is currently a senior at William Carey University and is an apologist for the Christian faith.