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On Self-Deprecation and the Christian Church

posted by Susan Dominikovich on , , ,

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Last year we had a visiting speaker* at our church who also had a session with some of us on the topic of leadership.  He is a very good speaker and we enjoyed a discussion time afterwards.  He used a model of good leadership from the corporate world but explained that it was still relevant for the church.  Sadly, I have a condition called nappy brain;  I cannot remember his source, nor the details of his points except he gave us five things to incorporate into our leadership style. One of those things was self-deprecation.  That one stuck with me because it unsettled me.  I wasn't convinced.  And I've been working it through ever since.

Self-deprecation is defined by thefreedictionary.com as "tending to undervalue oneself and one's abilities."  Or, in dictionary.com as "belittling or undervaluing oneself; excessively modest."  In the context of the talk that day, we were encouraged to be able to have a laugh at ourselves and put ourselves down publicly, as the definitions suggest.

I agree that we must have the ability to laugh at ourselves.  But I am sure that God does not want us to belittle or undervalue ourselves or our abilities.  Perhaps the speaker that day meant we should only self-deprecate on our weaknesses, the things we know we are not good at and be able to laugh at ourselves about it.  Unfortunately however, I have seen self-deprecation used liberally outside of that context, used instead to belittle a person's own gifts and God-given abilities.  Some might argue that by self-deprecating, we don't actually think so little of ourselves, but we say certain things to make it look like we're not raising ourselves up too much.  I disagree that we should incorporate self-deprecation into our leadership style and devalue ourselves.  It rings false to me.  I'm certain that God doesn't want us to ring false about anything.  

Let me give you an example of how my thought process has developed on the issue of self-deprecation.  I had the opportunity to play the keyboard at our church for the first time several months ago.  It occurred the same day our church was hosting a community event.  Numbers in the congregation were decimated.   I played that day on purpose.  I was self-conscious of playing publicly for the first time.  I wasn't worried about how I would play, just the fact that by the very nature of it being my debut, I was drawing attention to myself which I did not want.  The fewer eyes on me the better.  But also, a lot of time and effort and hard work had gone into the preparation.  The timing was right and I could not ignore God's promptings any longer.

It occurred to me at the time, I had the perfect opportunity to self-deprecate.  The joke would have been, "well, everyone else is setting up for the Fun day, so you're stuck with me...hope I don't hurt your ears too much."  I would have received a few laughs, some sympathy and probably some positive encouragement afterwards.  You may wonder what would be the harm in that?  A great deal of harm actually.  But I didn't say it.  I didn't believe it.

First of all, while I was certain I would make mistakes, I also knew I would play well.  I knew I wasn't going to hurt anyone's ears.  To even hint at that possibility, even in jest, would have been to lie.  There is no pride in that.  Just an honest assessment of my gifting and potential.  I was in a place in my life where God was choosing to use me musically.  

Second, I knew I was playing on that day in that church according to God's plan.  He had brought me to that place to play at that time.  I didn't feel I had the right to make light of the importance of His plan when everything in me knew He was asking me to step up and be obedient.

Third, God has given me a gift which is to play the piano.  He has asked me to use the gift, and in fact all my gifts, for His glory.  Who am I to treat His gift so glibly?  I felt I would be dishonouring God to down-play His plan and His gifting in me. 

Which brings me to the fourth and final point, and the harm I see in self-deprecation: to self-deprecate would have been to draw attention to myself instead of to God.  In fact, it's the SELF part of SELF-deprecate which troubles me so much.  

So I did not self-deprecate.  Neither did I try to raise myself up.  I said nothing at all.  I used my gift in obedience and I played.  In doing so, I know that I brought glory to God.  There was very little of me in it.  It was God and God's gift in me.  I am very sure of that.

Isn't the Christian life about dying to self in the first place?  Jesus says in Matthew 16:24-25,  "whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it."  Also in John 3:30  we are told, "He must become greater, I must become less."  Finally, the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."  Where is self in these statements?  Self is crucified.  Christ is in me.

There is nothing self-deprecating in Jesus Christ.

I know others have taken this self-deprecation thing on board.  I hear a lot of it everywhere and it is an ingrained part of New Zealand culture.  Perhaps that is why this speaker* thought it should be an important part of church leadership, because it is so culturally expected.  But I do not think the church should always be culturally acceptable.  Quite often, the church needs to be culturally UNacceptable.  And every time I hear someone self-deprecate in the church my heart drops and my spirit does somersaults.  It just seems so wrong.

I want to say to the person...don't you know who made you?  Do you think He wants you to put yourself and your gifts down, even in jest like that?  Do you really think He wants you to treat His creation so glibly?  And don't you know how much attention you are drawing to yourself when you do it?  Don't you see what's wrong with that?  Don't you know it should be about Jesus?  Always Jesus?

But I don't say it.  I don't say any of these things.  I just smile and laugh along with everyone else, perhaps with a slight shake of my head.  Because up to now, I have lacked the courage to speak about my conviction.

A friend gave us a little book to read the other day and I'm so thankful because it has finally brought all these thoughts together and shows why we should not as Christians and especially as leaders in the church, self-deprecate. 

Rather, we should learn to self-forget.

The book is called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness** by Timothy Keller.  Find it.  Read it.  It will only take half an hour.  His theology is simple and absolutely right.

I think the reason so many people have taken this self-deprecation thing on board is because it makes the person sound humble.  So the idea is, you can be a confident and able leader, but if you can also self-deprecate, you will appear humble and people will more willingly follow you.  Well in this tall poppy culture it means they won't try to tear you down because you've already done it to yourself.  Self-deprecation may be culturally fashionable.  But is it right?

The key word in the above paragraph is "appear."

God isn't concerned with appearances.  He's concerned with the heart.  He's very much concerned with us becoming transformed so we are more Christ-like.  

Unfortunately, self-deprecation is false humility.  You're saying one thing to your audience in order to appear a certain way, but inside, if you're honest, you're actually saying, "yeah but I know I'm really very good at that thing I do because God has gifted me to do it.  That's why I'm here."  Keller writes about what he calls, "gospel-humility" and explains that "the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself; it is thinking of myself less." (32)  To self-forget is not to self-deprecate; it is to forget self entirely.  Keller also makes a reference to C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:  "if we were to meet a truly humble person, Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble.  They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person)." (31-32) 

Keller says that we need to know the freedom of self-forgetfulness.  He references 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7 and shows how Paul has achieved this transformed sense of self through the gospel.  Keller says that Paul "has reached a place where his ego draws no more attention to itself than any other part of his body.  He has reached the place where he is not thinking about himself anymore.  When he does something wrong or something good, he does not connect it to himself any more."  (31) 

Most importantly, Keller explains how we, like Paul can get to that place of self-forgetfulness, where there is no longer any awareness of self.  We need to remember the trial is over. Yes we are born into sin, but Jesus Christ has paid the penalty for that sin.  We "already have the ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable." (37)  Jesus went on trial for us so that we didn't have to:  "It was an unjust trial in a kangaroo court--but He did not complain.  Like the lamb before the shearers, He was silent.  He was struck, beaten, put to death.  Why?  As our substitute.  He took the condemnation we deserve; He faced the trial that should be ours so that we do not have to face any more trials."  (42) Also, because "He loves me and He accepts me, I do not have to do things just to build up my resume.  I do not have to do things to make me look good.  I can do things for the joy of doing them.  I can help people to help people -- not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up the emptiness." (40)

There is no emptiness to fill up because we have Christ in us and are abiding in Him.

Please note, I am not saying there is never a place for self-deprecation.  There are things we are not good at or gifted at and we should not pretend otherwise.  There are times when it is entirely appropriate to self-deprecate, but it still must come from a sincere and honest heart and not as a fall-back in the church.  For example, recently Paul has had the opportunity to take Sam's basketball team while his coach was away.  Both times Paul took the team, they won.  All other games, they have lost.  It's a bit of a joke, but the joking stopped when the kids actually started high-fiving Paul and telling him how awesome he is, etc.  Paul nipped that in the bud immediately.  He made sure they knew the win had nothing to do with him and that their coach, their actual awesome hard-working, ground-preparing coach was the one who deserved all accolades.  Paul credits God with their wins first, and Coach second.  Then the players and their hard work last.  To himself he gives no credit even though he is an awesome coach in another field (cross-country).  He'll take the credit there but still recognises he would be nothing as a coach without Jesus Christ.  But he refused to take any credit on the basketball court.  Did he have something to do with their wins?  Of course he did.  But was it right for him to self-deprecate and take the attention off himself?  Absolutely.

And I am also not saying that I have got this self-forgetfulness thing worked out in my own life.  I can honestly say, I am far from it.  Yes, I just self-deprecated.  But I know it to be true and I readily accept the journey God is taking me on to get there.  And as much as I dislike self-deprecation, I do know how hard it is to resist the temptation to fall back on it, even in terms of our giftings.  Just yesterday one of my readers commented on my talent as a writer.  My immediate reaction was to self-deprecate and if I had, she probably would have written again and said, "no no, you're really good!" and so on.  So I stopped myself and laughed instead.  Then I thanked her graciously.  Am I a great writer?  I honestly don't know.  But I know I have a gift and that God has asked me to use my gift.  That's as far as I should allow my thinking to go.  And so obediently, I write.

Of course there will also be times when we hear the call of God and like Moses, our genuine response is "Who am I?"  That is not self-deprecation.  That is self-realisation.  It is the point at which we realise "we are but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27) and cannot imagine stepping into the role God desires for us.  Again, we need to forget ourselves and accept the reality that no, we cannot do it; but Jesus can and will do it in us.

And let us not forget, we don't need to self-deprecate to build someone else up.  I can be a great piano player or worship leader or writer.  Someone else can be too and I can tell them that.  They may even be better than me but that doesn't need to take away from my giftings and from what God chooses for me to do.  Paul and Coach are both great coaches.  What a great team they make if neither lets self (ego) get in the way. And of course we all are good at different things because God gives us each our special gifts.  Gifts that He chooses to give us, so that we might glorify His name with them.  

It has nothing at all to do with self.

*  The speaker who came to our church is a godly man with a prophetic gift, used by God to preach, teach, encourage and prophecy. I have no issues with his heart or intentions, and in fact, I would say I saw gospel-humility in him that day.  I just wonder if he has fully thought through the model he gave us for the church and its repercussions.  I would welcome the opportunity to dialogue further with him and anyone else on this subject.

**  Keller's book is full of insight and wisdom with regards to self-loving and self-hating in the pursuit of self-forgetfulness and is well worth devouring.  I have only touched on the briefest of points which relate to my topic which is self-deprecation.

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