We, The Unprofitable Servants
We live in a world where merit means an awful lot. Sometimes there are prejudices and preferences that are based more in narrow-mindedness, but most often merit is what moves people forward toward their goals. Yet when we talk about the New Testament, we realize that our ultimate goal is not achievable by means of meriting it, since a single sin is enough to derail forever the possibility of deserving salvation. Instead, we are instructed to seek out salvation by grace through faith and to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, precisely because our sinfulness prevents a purely merit-based positive judgment.
Whether that understanding is clear or clouded, it remains that many of us are occasionally or often overwhelmed by the need to display our merit, fish for compliments and bask in our own glow rather than Christ's. By doing so, we prove how little merit we possess and that we are unprofitable, arrogant servants.
When we talk about arrogance, conceit, boastfulness and bragging, we are really just talking about symptoms of pride. As much as we talk about national pride, pride in a job well done, and being too proud to accept charity, we have to remember that even that kind of socially acceptable pride can cause us to violate God's will in its name.
"Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord" (Proverbs 16:5) for "Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18). Pride, even when it seems reasonable and harmless, has the potential to put us at odds with Christ in valuing some concept or allegiance more than him.
The sources of pride are many, but a few prominent examples should suffice to illustrate the point:
It is behavior unbecoming when we exalt ourselves for any of these reasons. We become the unfortunate embodiment of the people Jesus rebuked in his ministry.
Consider the Pharisee of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:9-12. He exalted himself, not only by calling God's attention to his good deeds, but also by denigrating another. Some folks can only feel positively about themselves if they are dragging others down, and some even alert God to their inferiority by arrogantly claiming superiority and sometimes the source of our pride is our religiousness itself!
Then there are the hypocrites who sounded a trumpet before giving alms (Matthew 6:1-4). We may excuse our pride when it seems so logical or rooted in a good deed, but Christ refers to that as hypocrisy. In effect, we are spending down our heavenly treasure to get a human pat on the back that fades as quickly as it falls.
Who can forget the apostolic sons of Zebedee who asked to be elevated above their peers to the side of Christ (Mark 10:35-40)? By asking for the position, they proved they were not prepared for it yet. Self-exaltation has a price tag attached that few see until they are in spiritual debt because of it.
When tempted to draw attention to your greatness by sounding the trumpet of braggadocio, remember that to Christ, your arrogance sounds like a clanging cymbal solo (1 Corinthians 13:1-4). Love neither puffs itself up nor parades itself; boasting and conceit are not rooted in love of God or others, but in love for self. No verse in the New Testament commands love for self; it is assumed and acknowledged, but never commanded. By loving God and others more selflessly and competently, love for self will be natural and productive, rather than self-serving and arrogant.
This kind of bragging and self-exaltation is as divisive to people who love one another as gossip and backbiting (Galatians 5:22-26). It is a passion of the heart this is carnal and earthly and one we are to crucify, preventing it from being resurrected. Conceit provokes all our targets into envy, luring them into temptation and sin so that our egos might be stroked by the spectacle.
If you can reach a point in your discipleship in which you are doing good anonymously and enjoying your blessings with discretion, you will have matured to a point that few ever know but don't get a big head about it!
Drawing from the Proverbs (25:6-7), Jesus instructed his disciples to forgo self-exaltation as misguided and shortsighted (Luke 14:7-11). Peter tells us to be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble whom he will exalt in due time (1 Peter 5:5-7). James adds that if you humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, he will lift you up (4:10). Calling attention to one's blessings and talents by bragging or ostentatious displays is hardly humbling oneself; neither is denigrating others in order to perch upon their inferior carcasses.
An arrogant attitude is simply not walking worthy of Christ's example. People who live every second of their lives under grace, as faithful Christians do, have absolutely no margin for arrogance, even if it is rooted in religious superiority (Luke 17:3-10). Sin has humiliated us and in that humble position, we crawled to Christ and begged for mercy and received it; shall we now leap to our feet and lord it over those who are still as lost as we were so recently and so tremendously? Even with a million pious deeds constructed upon a foundation of faith in Christ and obedience to the gospel, we have no logical reason to boast in anything.
When the New Testament was written, the problem of arrogance often existed in the Jewish converts to Christ who exalted in their heritage over the Gentiles, yet Christ had to die precisely because of their inability to keep the law God gave them through Moses (Romans 3:27-30). Boasting is excluded, not by a meritorious, graceless law like that of Moses, but by a graceful, merciful law of faith like the one in which we labor. When tempted to brag or deem yourself superior to others, envision yourself in the hopeless gutter of sin and then shut up. Our only boast should be about the glory of Christ who rescued us from there (Galatians 6:14-15, cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30).
Take care that your self-estimation does not become based on carnal accomplishments or arrogant due to the blessings God gave you, not to destroy you, but to bless others (Proverbs 26:12). If you are truly good, others will notice naturally and be more impressed if you are humble and helpful (Proverbs 27:1-2).
In reality, we are all unprofitable servants, so long as we are only capable of doing what is our duty to do. Some of us are arrogant about that arrangement, when we should be grateful it provides enough grace for the times we fall short. Understand that conceit is a stumbling block and souls are at stake.