Statues are coming down…is there a message for us?

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
in the markets she raises her voice;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out . . .
Proverbs 1:20-21

by Bill Mowry (alongsider.com)

The noise in our streets is deafening. Daily it seems that another stature or monument is toppled. I have mixed feelings about this. No one likes public destruction. However, the protests pose an uncomfortable question, “What are we honoring through a monument?” In some cases, the statues honored individuals who promoted and supported slavery and segregation. How do we look back in history and evaluate leaders we once admired?

As citizens of a different kingdom — God’s kingdom — we have to ask, “What’s the wisdom that’s crying out from the streets as we see these statues fall?” I think there’s a figurative lesson for church leaders in these protests. The lesson is this: what can topple a leaders’ ministry and influence?

In the past three-five years, the evangelical church has seen the demise of three prominent leaders. As I post this blog, I’ve learned of a fourth. These men were popular authors, pastored large churches, and spawned organizations and networks around their teaching and influence. All were toppled from their pedestals of influence. There were a variety of causes but the outcome was the same. They have fallen, their influence is minimized, and their followers are clutching for straws of explanation.

When pondering the fall of these spiritual leaders, and the civil leaders portrayed in monuments, I’ve asked myself, “How did these men come to embrace positions and practices that, given the light of day, appear to be unjust, unbiblical, and harmful to others?” I then turned the light on myself, “What could cause my life and ministry to topple and fall?”

I think demise starts with deception. We are a people who are easily deceived. There are nearly forty references to deception in the New Testament. From the deception in the garden (2 Corinthians 11:3), to the allure of misbeliefs (Colossians 2:4), to identifying the deceiver (Revelation 12:19), we are a people easily deceived.

Deception has a variety of meanings. Deception means giving a false impression, deception beguiles, causes one to wander, or seeks to lure as a bait or a snare. Deception is not an excuse but a reality. I’m still responsible for actions that I’ve been seduced to commit. There is always a point to turn back from falling into deceptions’ trap.

How is deception played out today? The “streets” are revealing the deception of racism, the assumption that one race is superior to another. As I’ve researched racism in the evangelical church, I’m shocked by the number of pastors and theologians over the centuries who defended slavery and segregation from the Scriptures1. Looking back from the vantage point of 2020, we have to ask, “How could anyone come to a biblical conclusion that justifies enslaving or segregating another human being by skin color?” Such is the nature of deception.

Sometimes we allow societal norms — “the world” — to uncritically “squeeze us into its mold” (Romans 12:2 JBP). Deception plays out on a macro or societal level with issues like racism, progress, or wealth accumulation. Deception seduces us on a personal level through status, lust, or pride. How do we navigate our ways through these challenges? I believe God checks deception with a radical solution — a call to humility (Philippians 2:3,4) with His son as the exemplar (Philippians 2:8) .

Agrarian philosopher and author Wendell Berry connects the word “humility” to the Greek word “hubris.” For the Greeks, hubris meant that we stretch our limits beyond what is reasonable. We assume that we can do more than we’re capable of or should do. We think that we can hide our hidden faults or sins. The rules are for others not for me. In other words, we’re deceived. “Hubris was the cause of what the Greeks understood as ‘tragedy,” writes Berry. Tragedy follows hubris which flows from deception.

Humility is opposed to hubris because with humility, we start with an honest assessment of who and where we are. Let me draw again from Wendell Berry’s agrarian wisdom.

According to Berry, a wise farmer “consults the genius of the place.” In other words, we “should make the farming fit the farm.” A farmer’s success rests upon an understanding of local soils and landscape; an understanding that presents both possibilities and impossibilities. We don’t grow bananas in Maine or rice in Arizona. We humbly know our limitations and opportunities.

Pastor and author Eugene Peterson ties humility to “humus, the rich garden dirt out of which we have been fashioned.” Humility, Peterson writes, means “keeping close to the ground.” The Apostle Paul describes living “close to the ground” in Romans 12:3:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according the measure of faith that God has assigned.

The “sober judgement” of humility rests in “the measure of faith that God has assigned.” In other words, we have each been measured some faith. In this context, I believe Paul is addressing the nature of spiritual gifts (consider Romans 12:4-6), gifts sovereignly given by God (1 Corinthians 12:11). The gifts or charismata is something given to a person by God which the person could not have acquired or deserved. I cannot boast of my gifts or how God is using them because I did not acquire them by my effort or the goodness of my life. They are free gifts, assigned by God.

C.S. Lewis describes humility as “self-forgetfulness.” I think the Apostle Paul would concur. He exhorts us to use our gifts with “zeal” and “cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8). We forget ourselves — our ambitions, image, or fears — and lose ourselves in serving God and others. What does this look like in real life?

Humility drove its truth into my life when attending a disciplemaking conference in Singapore. A Singaporean pastor wonderfully pictured humility when describing how his staff team relates to one another: “We want to live as leaders who have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, and nothing to hide.” This is a group of leaders who are living close to the ground. This is the counter to hubris. This is the way to defeat deception.

Humble leaders steer away from self and ministry deception by asking some simple questions:

  1. What am I trying to prove?
  2. What am I trying to gain?
  3. What am I trying to hide?

Humble leaders invite friends into their lives to ask these questions. Who is asking you these questions? Who is asking your local pastor or ministry leader these questions? These three questions help us stay close to the ground, thinking and living with sober judgement, reveling in God’s wonderful grace. This is how we beat deception and avoid tragedy.

The “streets” are teaching us to be on guard lest the next monument to fall is the monument of our lives and leadership. Deception must be fought daily with the virtue of humility. Let’s be men and women who lead “close to the ground,” thinking soberly while zealously and gladly using our God-given gifts. Without humility, we can surrender to deception, become guilty of hubris, and face the tragedy of a fallen life.

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