My friend Linda tells the story of when she was a greeter at church one hot Sunday morning: A man walks in with disheveled hair, sweat stains blotching his long-sleeved white shirt, half tucked in. The other half waves loosely like a flag in the wind. She is put off. Inwardly, she begins to recoil in disgust. And yet, she smiles and welcomes him. He flashes a smile revealing his desperate need for dental work. The Holy Spirit nudges Linda. “Go talk to him.” Linda obeys and learns he rode his bicycle 12 miles one way just to get to church.
“I bet I wouldn’t pay John the Baptist no mind if we crossed paths.”
“Here I was judging him based on his appearance,” she says, “And he shows more commitment to be in church than most people I know. You know what else I thought? I bet I wouldn’t pay John the Baptist no mind if we crossed paths.”
“Based on his appearance?” I ask.
“Based on his appearance,” she confirms. “God really used this man to humble me.”
I commiserate with Linda. We all have our prejudices and misjudgments, our mistaken notions of superiority. We all, at one time or another, are the Pharisee in the parable, who utter our own versions of “God, I thank You that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:9-14).
What if we turned our notions all around and upside down to match the priorities of God’s kingdom? What if we became the pupils of those we initially, and quite wrongly, believed to be beneath us? For example, instead of imitating the rich man who—day in and day out, year after year—held contempt for Lazarus, the poor man sitting at his gate, what if we sat down with our Lazaruses to learn from them (Luke 16:19-31)? After all, Jesus tells us, “Many who are first will be last; and the last, first” (Matt. 19:30).
There’s a variety of reasons why we feel superior to others. Much of it has to do with blindness to our own sins and flaws. It’s easier and comforting to spot what is wrong in others; it is much harder and scarier to see it in ourselves. If we do see our own shortcomings, we downplay them. This leads to pride and an unteachable spirit. As Jesus says, we busy ourselves trying to remove a sliver from the eye of another when there is a log in our own (Matt. 7:1-5).
But the closer we come to Christ, the more we see ourselves for who we really are: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This self-knowledge, a gift from God, produces in us humility, not shame. It curbs not only the tendency to think more highly of ourselves then we ought but also any inclincation to think of ourselves and others as less than God does (Rom. 12:3).
Perhaps we feel superior because we are wealthier or higher up the corporate ladder than others and believe the devilish lie that all hardworking, God-honoring folks become wealthy. Maybe we confuse the corporate ladder for Jacob’s ladder. Or maybe, while we believe we are godlier because we possess virtues they do not, we fail to notice they also have virtues we do not. To root out this prideful tendency of believing we have nothing to learn from those we initially consider beneath us, it’s helpful to catch ourselves and rehearse truth the moment we begin to feel smug. To start, we could remind ourselves of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the rich man and Lazarus, and logs versus slivers in an eye.
Luke 2:52 says Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, but have we done the same? Are we willing to humble ourselves like our sinless Savior, who willingly put Himself in a position to learn from His imperfect parents and others? What would it look like to learn from those flung to the bottom rung of society, the church, or our “good” opinion?
The answer is simple but can be profoundly difficult: We have to be intentional. We need to make room for them at our tables, in our organizations, in our daily lives. The kind of fellowship where we embrace each other as equals has a way of collapsing the imagined distances between our backgrounds and circumstances. As we position ourselves to learn from those we underappreciate, we often find we are the ones with weaker faith and trust in God. And it is likely we are the ones who have much to learn from them. Once we begin practicing this posture, we will find God sends many messengers of grace our way—sweat stains and all. We simply need eyes to see.
Illustration by Marco Ventura