“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court,” said the apostle Paul. How many of us could say the same thing? We usually think it’s a very large thing to be judged by others. And we often make ourselves miserable because of what others think of us. This sermon is all about the sin of pride and how our “puffed up” egos can be healed.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-13
To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3 file.
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
A couple of weeks ago, in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles set a new major league record, which had previously stood for 123 years. In 1882, there was a National League team from Worcester, Massachusetts, called the Worcester Ruby Legs—I’m not making this up. And the Ruby Legs played another National League team from Troy, New York, called the Trojans. On September 28, 1882, these two National League teams played in Massachusetts before a crowd of six fans.
This game between the Ruby Legs and the Trojans set the all-time low attendance record in the major leagues, a record that stood until a couple of weeks ago, when the Orioles played the White Sox before a home crowd in Baltimore of… zero fans.
This was on purpose, of course. City officials were concerned about public safety in the wake of the riot, so they closed the game to the public—and instead just broadcast it on TV and radio.
But think about that: What would it be like to be a major league baseball player and play a real game in front of completely empty stands? With no live audience, no cheering fans, no applause, very little noise to speak of. How much does the audience affect your performance? How much does the cheering crowd motivate you to do a good job—if you’re playing at home? How much does the crowd cheering against you cause you to mess up—if you’re playing away?
And the answer to those questions is, “A lot.” I mean, good grief, you may have heard that the Falcons got penalized last year because even 70,000 cheering fans at the Georgia Dome weren’t making enough noise, so they had to pump in some more crowd noise through the speakers! Other people’s cheering and booing, approval and disapproval, encouragement and discouragement, love and hatred—have a profound impact on professional athletes—and people in general!
And I believe it’s because of our pride, or what we more often call in our day—our ego.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that pride, by its very nature, is a uniquely competitive kind of sin: “We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not,” he said. “They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud. The pleasure of being above the rest.”
How strong do you feel the temptation to put yourself “above the rest”?
For this very reason, I was so surprised and impressed by actress Natalie Portman, who made news last week for admitting to a reporter that she lost something. Maybe you’re like me: Do you get upset when you lose your car keys, or your wallet, or one of your many remote controls? Do you get upset when you lose your smartphone? Now imagine losing something really important, something irreplaceable—like, you know, an Academy Award. That’s what the actress said she lost. “I think it’s in the safe or something. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it in a while,” she said.
Can you imagine? If I were an actor, and I won the Oscar for “Best Actor,” I would know exactly where my award was… at all times. It would be prominently displayed, if not on the mantle of my fireplace, then in trophy case that I built especially to house such an award! Right? I mean, aside from maybe a Nobel Prize—maybe—our culture bestows no higher honor on someone than that little gold man named Oscar! You know you’ve arrived if you’ve won an Oscar. Why? Because by winning one, you join a very elite and exclusive club. It’s not simply that you have one; it’s that you have one and nearly everyone else in your profession doesn’t.
This award places you above all these others. This award proves your worth. This award proves your value. You know you’re special because you possess this!
So it’s remarkable that Portman—who was born in Israel and is Jewish—recognized the temptation. She told the interviewer: “I was reading the story of Abraham to my child and talking about, like, not worshipping false idols. And this is literally like gold men. This is literally worshipping gold idols—if you worship it. That’s why it’s not displayed on the wall. It’s a false idol.”
It’s a false idol. And our “false idols” do something for us, which we believe we desperately need. They feed our ego—or as Paul puts it in verse 6: they make us “puffed up.” With pride.
This Greek word is related to the word “bellows,” like the bellows of an accordion—you inflate it, puff it up with air, and deflate it. Our pride, our ego is like that.
But the same Greek word was also used in the practice of medicine in Paul’s day to describe what happens when a bodily organ—such as our intestines—become distended, or swollen, or puffed up. I don’t mean to be gross, but, you know, we often talk about “fat Elvis” in the seventies, before he died. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t just that he was fat from overeating; he had a medical condition—brought on in part by his drug abuse—which caused his intestines to swell. Doctors in Paul’s day would have used this same Greek word to describe that painful, swollen condition.
Our ego, in other words, can easily become infected, diseased. And so it does.
Here’s an example of what I mean… Until this very moment, as I’m talking about it, I haven’t given a single thought to my left elbow. I did not wake up this morning thinking, “Wow! My left elbow is just awesome. Look how well it works. I can bend my arm like this without any trouble whatsoever.” I rarely ever think about my left elbow—except occasionally when I hit my funny bone. Otherwise it does not draw any attention to itself.
On the other hand, I woke up this morning, put my feet on the floor, and immediately thought about my left heel.
Why? Because in my left foot, the plantar fascia—which is the bundle of tissue that connects my heel to my toes—is inflamed. It’s an injury from running. And it hurts. And when I take my first few steps in the in morning, or when I stand after a long period of inactivity, I move around like Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son, if you remember that show!
I’ve been to my doctor. I got a cortisone shot. I’ve done a few things to make it a little better. But the point is, I think about my heel because it won’t stop hurting.
Our ego is like that: it won’t stop hurting. Our ego constantly calls attention to itself—and says, “Something is wrong with me; pay attention to me; don’t ignore me.”
And when does our ego do this? Every single time we get our feelings hurt! That’s what our “feelings” are: our pride, our ego!
Our feelings get hurt because, like professional athletes, we long for the cheers, the applause, the praise, the recognition of others. We need their approval. We need their love. We need them to think we’re wonderful. We need them to think we’re important. And when, through their words and actions, they don’t give us what we think we need, well… it hurts.
God knows I often struggle with this too! You would think that we pastors would be the happiest people on earth. After all, there aren’t many jobs in the world in which, when you finish your work, people literally line up to tell you how good you did! Right? Yet, every week, this happens to me and to other pastors. You guys line up and tell me how much you liked my sermon—even if you don’t mean it! But you say it because you’re nice! And I eat it up! I love the praise! I love the adoration! I love the approval! It’s not exactly an Academy Award in terms of recognition, but it’s not bad.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying praise from others for a job well done. But it can so easily turn into something harmful. “I need you to tell me I did a good job so I can feel good about myself.” And if, on those rare occasions when I don’t knock it out of the park and someone ventures a word of criticism—well, my feelings can get hurt.
It seems like such a small thing—getting your feelings hurt. Just like my plantar fasciitis is a small thing. But when it keeps happening—over and over—it’s a sign that we have a problem. And when it comes to our ego, we often have a serious spiritual problem. And I want to be cured of it, don’t you? I want this recurring pain to go away.
The good news is, in today’s scripture, Paul is offering us nothing less than a spiritual cortisone shot to heal us of our ego pain! Notice what he says of his critics at the church in Corinth in verse 3: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.” So far that sounds pretty good. We often say, “It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of me. It only matters what I think of myself. It doesn’t matter whether I live up to someone else’s standards; it only matters whether I live up to my own standards.” That sounds nice… That’s a sign of a healthy self-esteem, we say. But Paul doesn’t seem to care about self-esteem… because he goes on to say, “Not only do I not care what you think of me. I don’t even care what I think of me. It doesn’t matter.”
This should be absolutely shocking to us! We live in a culture that tells us that most of the problems we have are related to what? To low self-esteem. If only we didn’t have low self-esteem, then we wouldn’t… fill in the blank. Beat our wives, sell drugs, have affairs… do all these bad things. Oh, please! Research indicates that Americans today not only have the highest self-esteem in the world, and higher self-esteem than earlier generations of Americans, but it’s often an unjustified kind of self-esteem. For example, in a column in the New York Times a few years ago, David Brooks pointed out that American students don’t perform well in math compared to students from other countries. We’re downright mediocre. “But,” Brooks said, “Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.”
Or how about this: In the 1950s, only 12 percent of American high school students thought that they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, a full 80 percent of us thought that we were “very important people.”
The point is, contrary to commonly held beliefs, we don’t struggle with low self-esteem. That is not our problem.
The apostle Paul understands that this is not our problem! The problem isn’t low self-esteem or high self-esteem. It isn’t a matter of other people thinking highly of us, or our thinking highly of ourselves. As other people have said, humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. That’s what Paul is all about in this passage: thinking of himself less, and thinking our Lord Jesus Christ more. “The Lord Jesus,” Paul says, “is my only judge. Only his opinion of me matters.”
So the solution to our chronic, painful problem with ego is not to be puffed up but to be filled up… filled up with the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ! The solution is to be filled up with the Holy Spirit and not puffed up with ourselves. The solution, as John the Baptist said in John chapter 3, is to let Christ become greater, while we become less. The solution is to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and whatever we need we can be sure that he’ll supply.
But if that’s really true, are we willing to trust that it’s true?
Because if only we could, then we’d be like Paul—our “feelings,” our ego, would be bullet-proof. Not because we developed thick skin, or because we toughened ourselves up, or because we felt so superior to other people that their opinions didn’t matter… No! Our feelings would be bullet-proof because we would be so busy thinking of the Lord and what he wants from us, we would forget to even think of ourselves! Can you imagine being like that! That’s what I desperately want, don’t you?
Imagine telling yourself every time you start to get your feelings hurt, “This is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Because if I had a healthy ego, a healthy sense of pride, this would not be bothering me. Lord, please help me turn my attention away from me—and my wants, my needs—and back toward you—because if I were smart enough to know what I wanted, I would know I want you… Because if I were smart enough to know what I really needed, I would know I need you.”
I quoted C.S. Lewis earlier, who said that pride was “essentially competitive”: it’s always urging us to compare ourselves with others… and see how or whether we measure up. Paul gives us some profoundly good advice to prevent us from this kind of sinful comparing in verse 7: “What do you have,” he says, “that you did not receive?” And by that he means “receive from God.”
The other night, the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry won the NBA Most Valuable Player award, and Curry began his acceptance speech by saying, “First and foremost, I have to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for blessing me with the talents to play this game. I’m just his servant right now, and I can’t tell you how important my faith is to how I play the game or who I am. I’m just blessed. And I’m thankful for where I am.”
And that’s exactly the right attitude. What do you have that you did not receive? Nothing, Steph Curry says—even all my gifts for playing basketball come from the Lord. That’s a great attitude of humility we should emulate.
But not so fast… Some cynical person might object, “That’s easy for a star basketball player to say. He’s on top of the world right now. What about me? God didn’t bless me with these kinds of extraordinary gifts.” And that’s true. He didn’t. And he may never give you those kinds of gifts. But think about this: If it’s true, as Paul says, that “everything we have we have received from the Lord,” then it’s also true that the Lord is responsible for all the things we don’t have. We don’t have them for a reason. We have what we have because of the Lord, and we don’t have what we don’t have because of the Lord. And part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is learning to be O.K. with that.
Paul was. He says so in verses 11 to 13: “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”
Paul could have looked over his shoulder—at other disciples, at other Christian teachers and preachers and church leaders—and said, “Why do they have so much, and I have so little? Why do they have such a comfortable life, and I have such a hard one? Why do they have things so easy, while I suffer like this?” He didn’t do that. Why?
Because he knew that he had exactly what the Lord wanted him to have, no more, no less. The Lord’s in charge. The Lord knows what’s best. And the Lord gets to say what we have! And because he knew he had exactly what the Lord wanted him to have, that meant that he had enough, which meant that he had everything he needed.
Lord Jesus Christ, give us the faith to believe that as well. Amen.
 C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 103-4.