October 23rd, 2011

Success is humility’s greatest enemy.

Daniel 4:19-27

October 23, 2011

Pride and humility

We come today to the fourth and final of the stories that connect a Jewish man named Daniel to a Babylonian king named Nebuchadnezzar.  We’re not done with Daniel yet – there are more stories about Daniel’s relationship to other kings. 

Daniel 4 has a familiar ring to it.  Nebuchadnezzar encounters God through Daniel.  He tries at first to maintain at least the appearance of his self-sufficiency and control, but he is forced to relinquish claim to both.  This chapter ends with Nebuchadnezzar saying of God, “Those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (37).

If there’s a topic I would like to think more about, a virtue I would like to pursue with greater passion, a theme I’d like to preach and write about it, it’s humility.

The problem, you may immediately realize, is this:  how do you write or speak humbly about humility?   Humility is the shy virtue, Tim Keller says.

But the other problem is this:  how do you not make humility a central theme of preaching and writing?

Humility is central from one end of the Bible to the other.  Jesus summarized God’s law with two very simple commands – love God and love your neighbor.  You can’t do either one without humility.  Humility is critical to every aspect of the life of faith.  Without humility, you can’t get through your trials, you won’t survive your successes, you don’t confess your sins, you have no reason to pray, you won’t be a learner, you’ll become stingy with your giving, you will always have to be right, your marriage won’t survive, your kids will grow up in a dysfunctional home, and you can’t go to heaven.  Jesus said that.

The other reason humility has to be preached is that my job is to confront the particular ways our culture is out of sync with God’s truth.  Our national religion, at least part of it, is pride. 

I’ve coined a term for our shared values:  Americism.  Americism isn’t good or bad – it’s just a description of who we are.  Rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, black, white, Asian or Latino – Americans have certain values in common – freedom, autonomy, capitalism, self-esteem, rights, success, and prosperity.  Think about it:  every one of those words is a variation on being proud of who we are and what we do. 

I’m not arguing against capitalism or rights or success.  I am an Americist.  I participate in and benefit from our system.  But it’s easy to forget or ignore how much our American values depend on pride and feed pride, and how that pride undermines the fundamental biblical virtue of humility.

Lest you should think I’m talking about you, I’m not.  Well, I am…but I’m talking about us.  I see this just as much in myself as in anyone else.  The greatest danger of preaching or writing about pride is that I’ll be dismissed as a hypocrite, and deserve it!

Pride is so much easier to see in the other guy.  Like Nebuchadnezzar.

We have more information about Nebuchadnezzar than almost any other person before the time of Christ.  He’s mentioned 90 times in the Bible, more than any other king.  Archaeologists have also found hundreds of other writings related to him – contracts, descriptions, references to him by other historians.  He was a great military general as crown prince.  His building programs were legendary; one of his breakthroughs was baking bricks in kilns instead of in the sun, making them more durable.  His bricks were stamped with his name and titles.  He ruled for more than forty years, and was a towering figure of his world in the sixth century before Christ.  He was anything but humble.

Dream fulfilled

Daniel 4 comes to us in the form of a letter from the Babylonian king.  Apparently there has been a long gap of time between Daniel 3 and 4, perhaps twenty or thirty years.  Daniel may be 40-something; Nebuchadnezzar perhaps two decades his senior.  They have apparently had a mostly positive relationship since Nebuchadnezzar came close to cutting Daniel to pieces with the other wise men in chapter two, and cremating Daniel’s friends in chapter three.

For his part, Nebuchadnezzar has accomplished his goals in life.  He has secured and expanded his kingdom.  He has built his palaces and his legendary walls and hanging garden.  (Nebuchadnezzar is credited with building two of the seven wonders of the ancient world.)  He is “contented and prosperous” (4), admiring what he has accomplished and built as a credit to his power and glory (30).  He likes what he sees as he looks back and looks around.

In the first three chapters of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s conclusion about God doesn’t come until the end.  In chapter four, it’s both at the beginning and the end.  That’s so unusual that the Aramaic Bible puts verses 1-3 with chapter three. 

I suppose it could go either way, but it makes sense to me that Nebuchadnezzar would issue this proclamation giving you the end of the story first because he wants you to know he has survived what he’s getting ready to tell you.  So he begins by writing “to the peoples, nations, and men of every language, who live in all the world” (1).  He’s going to give you what we might call his “testimony” or his “faith journey” – what the “Most High God” has done for him.  “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders!  His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation” (3).  Now he’s ready for his story.

Starting at verse 4, this sounds familiar.  Nebuchadnezzar has a troubling dream, like he did back in chapter 2.  He calls in his wise men to interpret the dream, and they can’t do it.  So he calls in Daniel, calling him by the Babylonian name he had given him decades earlier, and giving credit to “the spirit of the holy gods” (9) in Daniel.  Nebuchadnezzar is a polytheist, so he’s OK adding Daniel’s god to his many.

Unlike chapter two, he demands of neither Daniel or his other wise men that they tell him the dream.  He relates it.  He saw a huge tree whose top branches touched the sky, whose branches were wide enough to shade all the creatures, whose leaves were beautiful, and whose fruit was enough to feed the world (11-13).   Then a voice from heaven called for the tree to be cut at the base, stripped of its branches, leaves, and fruit.  Nothing would be left except a stump with a metal strap around it.

Here the image changes, as often happens with weird dreams, and the tree in the dream becomes a creature living under the dew with the wild animals for seven years (15-16).  The voice announces this is a settled “verdict” to show the tree/creature that God is sovereign over all kingdoms (17).

One of my questions at this point is why the king didn’t know what the dream meant, and why his so-called wise men couldn’t interpret it either.  I think I could figure that one.  My best guess is that everyone knew what it meant, but they didn’t want to say.  “Hey, let’s see if Daniel has enough guts to tell him.”

The interpretation comes in the part of the chapter we read for you (19-27).  Daniel is “greatly perplexed” and his thoughts “terrified him” (19).  Again, we’re dealing with the most powerful and successful monarch the world has known to that point.  It looks like Daniel doesn’t want to tell the truth either, but the king makes it safe for him (19).  He really wants to know.  Daniel seems fond enough of Nebuchadnezzar that he doesn’t want to admit what he knows.  “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries” (19).

“O king,” he says, “you are the tree” (21).  You are “great and strong” (22), providing shelter and provision over the whole earth.  But you’re going to be driven away from people to live with the animals, eating their food and living out doors (25).  This will happen for seven years, until you realize the Most High, not you, is sovereign.  If there’s good news, it’s that the stump and roots will remain, and you will be restored.  End of dream and interpretation.

But it’s not the end of Daniel’s message.  He has some “advice” for Nebuchadnezzar:  “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed.  It may be then that your prosperity will continue” (27).  Daniel’s message is consistent with that of other prophets.  The king’s judgment is conditional.  He has a chance to be restored.

Apparently, though, Nebuchadnezzar did not heed Daniel’s advice.  A year later, he walked on the roof of his palace admiring his architectural achievements and pondering his power and majesty (30).  He heard that voice again, and the dream was fulfilled.  He was driven away from people, ate grass like cattle, and was drenched with drew.  Some additional details are listed – “his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (33). 

But seven years later, he was restored, and praised the Most High.  He became greater than ever, and gave credit for his success where it was due – the “the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.  And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (37).

Lessons on humility

There’s so much to learn and so much to say about the shy virtue.  There are risks in pursuing humility.  It’s a bit frustrating, for one thing, because in a sense humility is an unachievable goal.  Americism hates unachievable goals.  There’s no better example than humility.  As soon as you say, “I’ve attained humility,” that’s evidence you haven’t.

Still, there are always lessons to be learned about humility.  This chapter gives us some good ones.

Humility thinks about self less.  C. S. Lewis said, “Humility it not thinking less of yourself.  It is thinking of yourself less.”  Notice how often Nebuchadnezzar used the first personal pronoun in this chapter.  “I, Nebuchadnezzar,” is his constant refrain.  Even at the end of the chapter when he praises God, it’s still “I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven” (34) and “I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the king of heaven” (37).

You wonder if even after episode 4, Nebuchadnezzar gets it.  It’s almost as if the King of heaven should be grateful that someone as important as Nebuchadnezzar should praise him.

Humility, as Lewis says, is not downplaying who you are or what you can do.  It’s just listening for ways, often subtle, that you convey the world revolves around you – or should, like demanding your own way, taking credit for what you’ve done, dispensing unwanted advice to those you look down on.  All I have is a gift.  I don’t have to flaunt it, don’t have to talk about it, just have to know where it comes from and seek how to use it for him.

Success is humility’s greatest enemy.  Success, of course, is always relative.  That was Nebuchadnezzar’s problem.  In his time and place, he really didn’t have anyone he could compare himself to that was richer or more powerful.  Until he looked up, of course, from the dew-drenched fields.

Let me be personal.  When I compare myself to most pastors in my town or my denomination, I’m fairly successful.  At least in terms of statistics.  Over 18 years, this congregation has grown steadily, doubling in membership and almost quadrupling in attendance and offerings.  Thinking about that success can make me proud.  Sometimes it does.

Then I get my feet back on the ground.  I remember how little I have to do with that success.  It’s you, the staff and leadership of this congregation.  It’s my wife, as a partner both in life and ministry.  It’s the set of circumstances in which I started, the health I’ve been given, the gifts I’ve been given.  Lots of things could have gone wrong, but they didn’t.  Even with all that, I still realize I only feel like a big fish from time to time because I’m in a small pond.  Churches and pastors in larger cities make us look like goldfish in the Atlantic in terms of their influence and outreach.

That’s a good reminder when “success,” the way the world defines it (with numbers and impact, threatens my humility.  There’s always someone whose success makes mine look meager. And even the greatest “success” is temporary.  Mighty Nebuchadnezzar finally met an end not unlike Moamar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, or Adolf Hitler.  When I am most successful I must be most proactive about nurturing humility.

Humility’s evidence is action.  Notice what Daniel asked of Nebuchadnezzar in verse 27:  “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed.  It may be then that your prosperity will continue.”  That’s not all that complicated.  Daniel’s dream interpretation and the corrective course of action came a full year before Nebuchadenzzar’s humiliation.

His words are reminiscent of Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you – do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” 

Do the right thing, Daniel tells him.  That wasn’t part of the dream Daniel was interpreting.  That was Daniel’s personal and prophetic message to someone he had known for decades, someone he respected and cared for.  Probably as we speak, you’re thinking of some area in your life where you know the right thing to do, but you’re not doing it.  You’re thinking no one will know or no one will hold you accountable.  That’s pride, and it’ll getcha.

But look at what else Daniel says.  “Be kind to the oppressed.”  It’s a great way to express humility.  Nebuchadnezzar was the oppressor, and part of the problem with his boast of what he had built is that he had done it on the backs of slaves and vanquished foes, making himself both wealthy and famous because of what others had done – and then not giving them credit or reward.

Maybe you’re not the oppressor, and I’m aware there is a legitimate argument over how much government can and should intervene to solve every social problem.  But there’s no argument about this:  Humility breeds compassion, it breeds concern, it breeds generosity.  One good way to become more humble is to give away what you’ve accumulated, even to those who don’t “deserve” it.

In these difficult economic times, we tend to invent protective strategies that amount to hoarding.  There’s a difference between being prudent and simply trying to “build bigger barns” so that you’ll be better off than everyone else if conditions worsen.  I almost never hear people saying they want to save or invest more so that this country dips further they will have more resources to share with those in need.  That would display humility.

It’s never too late to be humble.   Nebuchadnezzar’s story reminds us that as long as you’re breathing, you can choose humility.  God gave Nebuchadnezzar warning. But even when he ignored the warning, he had the chance to start over after a seven-year humiliation. 

What impresses me about this story is Daniel’s role.  All these years, as Daniel had watched Nebuchadnezzar learn and then unlearn lessons of humility, Daniel hung in there with the king.  He actually seemed to like the guy.  Same with his successors in chapters five and six.  Daniel didn’t avoid powerful people or wealthy people.  He didn’t avoid proud people.  He built relationships with them; earned their trust.  He told them the truth, but he stayed in a strategic position where his friendship could be transformational when the opportunity came.

Who do you know that you consider to be a proud person?  Don’t write them off.  Love them.  Show them in your life the path of humility.  Amen.

One Response to The Shy Virtue »

  • inhisgrace says:

    Good words..I can be so proud that I take pride in my humility. I’ve heard one say you are humble when you don’t know you are. One thing that helps me is to remind myself that if anything good comes from me it’s from Gods grace,anything bad is from me alone.

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