To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

My Photo
Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Monday, January 10, 2005

Never Be Conceited

Romans 12:14-21
Preached Sunday morning, January 9, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Chapter 12 is the beginning of the exhortation section of Romans. Paul opens this section not by commanding the Romans on his authority as an apostle, but by urging them “by the mercies of God.” Paul is still exhorting in verses 14-21—not ordering Christians to behave in certain ways, but urging them toward a Christian lifestyle, “not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The section we’re looking at today may appear to be dealing with all kinds of different issues, in no particular order. What, for example, does rejoicing have to do with vengeance?

But there is a unifying theme here, and we see it summarized in a couple of places. Back in Rom. 12:9 Paul urges the Romans to “Let love be genuine.” Then, in verse 16, he exhorts them, “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.” These two exhortations, along with everything else in chapter 12, say something important about a believer’s life. In short, we see what transformation looks like in the mind and actions of a Christian. Christians, first of all, should not think too highly of ourselves (12:3), nor be conceited (12:16). I’m afraid that’s easier said than done. Let’s look, first of all, at a few of the many forms conceit can take, and then move on to a picture of real Christian love and discipleship.

First, the negative side—the many faces of conceit. Conceit is an exaggerated opinion of one’s self. Its most basic form is selfishness, the feeling that I’m all that really matters. Selfishness is the way of the world—the way that every one of the thousands of advertisements we see and hear every day are pulling us, telling us each to consider himself the center of the universe. Let’s say we move a little bit beyond selfishness and find a group to identify with. Well then, we can still be conceited in our clique, our little thing. Both of these, selfishness and cliquishness, lead to cold-heartedness, the sense that others outside our group simply don’t matter. Conceit can also take the form of judgmentalism, particularly in the church. All these forms of conceit are simply contrary to Christian discipleship, because all involve thinking higher of ourselves than we ought.

That’s a theme in all these exhortations in chapter 12: don’t think too highly of yourself. Don’t be conceited—not among members of the church (12:3-8), and not among those outside (12:9-21). When we think about how radical this teaching really is, we can see why Paul begins this section with exhortations to sacrifice and non-conformity to the world. So much of life, after all, is about exalting the self—with the encouragement of the world around us. As voters we are part of a system in which candidates spend months trying to exalt themselves at the expense of their opponents. In sports we watch athletes celebrate their victories. In hunting for a job we try to exalt ourselves, to look like the best candidate for a position. Exalting the self is deeply ingrained in our culture and our souls, and as long as we keep our ambition within certain bounds, society encourages and rewards us for it. That’s why the idea of Christians not exalting ourselves is so unnatural.

By trying to show ourselves better than those around us, we deny a fundamental truth that underlies the whole gospel message. That truth is that every one of us, from the welfare mother on crack to the elder in the church, are really, truly equal before God. How are we equal? Not in talents or gifts; we saw that in Rom. 12:3-8. We’re not equal in strength or in good works or even in opportunities for any of these things. Quite simply, we are all equal in sin, in falling short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). That’s significant to remember because acknowledging our sin is a foundation of Christian discipleship. Recognizing our sinfulness is not only the first step in salvation before God, it is the first step in godly relations with each other—even with our enemies.

When it comes to enemies, those who have done us wrong, Paul tells us not to avenge ourselves. Personal vengeance is not the job of any Christian. By making ourselves judge, jury and prosecutor, we’re putting ourselves over others. Back in Lev.19:18 God told the people of Israel not to take personal vengeance against one of their own, but rather the “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirmed this teaching (Mt. 22:39.

As hard as it is to put love of enemies into practice, it’s a huge relief to us as much as we can. Have you ever tried plotting vengeance on anyone? I have, and it wore me out. I’m not talking about waiting for someone with a knife or anything so obviously evil. I’m talking about a subtler kind of vengeance: the idea of “setting the record straight” by telling someone who has hurt us how the situation really stands. This kind of vengeance is easy to rationalize because we’re getting our revenge not with fists or guns but with the truth. One problem is that, like all kinds of revenge, it usually doesn’t work. Taking revenge with words usually results in more harsh words, more hurt feelings, and the cycle starts all over again.

No, revenge is God’s work, and he’s doing a much better job at it than we ever could. Our job is much simpler. Our role is, first, to simply trust God that he is taking care of justice. Second, we are called to bless our enemies and not curse them (Rom. 12:14). And here’s something worth noting: This is not some theoretical, from-a-distance blessing (“I hope that so-and-so is blessed!”). No, we are called to feed our enemies if they’re hungry, to give them something to drink if they’re thirsty (12:20). Now, if you’re like me, you’re inclined to do this sort of thing like Sonny Corleone did in The Godfather: be hospitable to our enemy while we’re waiting for just the right time to let him have it. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here. Christians are exhorted—really and truly, in action—to bless our enemies. That’s not complicated. Of course, it’s not easy, either.

We may have to force ourselves to do it. I remember the evening of September 11, 2001. The members of the Highland View congregation gathered to pray about the highjackings and mass murders of that morning. We all took turns praying for our country, for the victims, for their families, for relief workers. One brother made a point of praying for the terrorists who had done the awful, evil deeds that day. There was no doubt as he spoke the prayer that his heart was not overflowing with love for those men—he, along with most of us there, I suspect, was praying out of obedience, not affection. Blessing our enemies takes work. We have to force ourselves to do it and, through prayer, hope that the words of our minds and mouths some day take seat in our hearts.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that we aren’t called to renounce vengeance completely. Paul goes on to say that God has ordained human government to administer justice (Rom. 13). The exhortation in chapter 12 is talking about personal vengeance, not justice. We can still look forward to justice being done, but we have to trust God to bring it about, either through human government or in other ways God chooses.

When we bless our enemy, we “reap burning coals” on his head. Let’s be clear about this. It doesn’t mean we’re trying to make the fires of damnation hotter for that person. It means that by giving up our claim to vengeance we’re showing the love of Christ that may brings the enemy to repentance. We’re trying to overcome evil with good, not finding a backhand way to do the person evil (12:21). Jesus clarified what we’re about here in Lk. 6:35 when he told us to “Love your enemies.” Again, it’s simply a matter of giving up our claim to vengeance and trusting God to take care of it.

That idea of giving up our claim to vengeance has another name: forgiveness. Like blessing our enemies, forgiveness often begins as intention, not emotion. Only through prayer and perseverance can that intention seep down into our hearts so that we forgive in spirit and in truth. Blessing, forgiving our enemies is hard to do. As someone has once said, we may think of forgiveness as something sweet and soft that makes things better, like “spraying perfume” [1] How untrue. Forgiveness is hard, particularly in the world we live in. It’s a “dog-eat-dog” world, not “dog-forgive-dog” [2]. Yet we are exhorted to, somehow, forgive and bless those who hurt us.

Being able to do that depends on not being conceited. In his exhortations, Paul shows us what that lack of conceit looks like. For one thing, we are to live sympathetically with those around us: to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (12:15). That is, of course, good advice for getting along with other people. What makes it really unusual here (and uniquely Christian) is that Paul makes this appeal right in the middle of the section on dealing with enemies. Weeping with our enemies? That’s a challenge.

Here’s another challenge: associating with the lowly (12:16). Now right up front, let’s be honest with ourselves. Few, if any, of us here are lowly. We may feel low, and socially we may be low on the totem pole, but we’re not really lowly in a biblical sense. Relatively few Americans are, in fact. Who comes closest? The poorest among us, the homeless, the dirty and bad smelling. Now if we take God’s Word seriously, we may in fact associate with these people on occasion—give them money or even spend time helping them. We may even do this without bragging to everyone about it; we may simply mention it to one or two friends and pat ourselves on the back. But if we’re doing that—reaching down to “rescue” someone in their poverty, do you know what we’re really doing? Thinking more highly of ourselves. After all, we’re the ones reaching down from on high to help the lowly. When we do that, no matter how good our actions themselves are, our attitude makes us conceited.

We’re not called to associate with the poor and lowly as their rescuers or benefactors. We’re called to associate with the poorest as equals: equally sinful, equally in need of a savior, equally loved by God. When we can approach every human being in that way, there’s no room in our lives for conceit.

We’re called to live peaceably with one another (12:16). This kind of peace is a whole lot more than simply smiling and saying hello as we pass. It’s learning to see others as basically the same as we are—even when they dress differently, speak differently, smell different. Can we really do that—live peaceably with everyone, without hedging? It’s very easy not to be at peace with someone and justify our own part by saying, “Well, as far as it depends on me, we’re at peace. It’s his fault we’re not!” Like forgiveness and blessing, peace is not always something that just happens. It sometimes takes hard, painful work. It sometimes means forgiving others for sins we find particularly distasteful ourselves. For others in the church, it means working arm-in-arm with them toward both of us being transformed into the image of Christ.

When you consider what all it involves, this transformation business isn’t so easy, is it? Bless our enemies, forgive them, laugh and weep with them. Associate with poor, uneducated, bad smelling folk. Live in harmony even if it means giving up our conceit to do it. Hard, all of it hard. That’s why Paul began this chapter of Romans, I think, with exhortations to sacrifice and non-conformity to the world. None of these qualities of Christian discipleship are the way the world goes about things. Discipleship is a whole lot more than being a good citizen or even a good person.

Bless our enemies? What about the insurgents in Iraq? What about al-Qaeda terrorists? Associate with the lowly? How can we do that when they ask for money every time we see them? It’s not easy. It’s not easy.

But there are blessings in it. If God asks much from us, he promises much more. Being transformed into Christ’s image is the way we grow into God’s mind with the assurance of doing his will (Rom. 12:2). Loving our enemies without expecting to be loved in return will bring us a great reward from God, and we will be called children of the Most High (Lk. 6:35). That’s a load of blessings.

And let’s remember one other thing. We’re not commanded to do these things—we’re urged, by the mercies of God. In other words, God encourages us to choose the right way ourselves. Well? What will it be?

1. Philip Yancey, “Forgiveness: It Just Ain’t Fair,” online broadcast transcript at
2. Ibid.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley


Post a Comment

<< Home