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Kill Pride Before It Kills You

Marshall Segal / May 2, 2017

At some point today, someone will probably compliment or praise something you do or say. If not today, it will happen tomorrow, or sometime next week. How will you respond? How do you typically respond?

How we respond to praise from others, especially over time, reveals how highly we really think of ourselves. I’m not talking about every specific email or conversation or social-media update, but about the trends in our emails and conversations and social media. Is our default reaction — our gut heart-level response — to give God credit and glory for our gifts and achievements at work, at home, and in ministry? Or, are we more likely to privately savor that moment for ourselves, to turn the praise over and over slowly in our minds, like a piece of caramel in our mouths?

Every compliment or commendation we receive comes charged with potential for worship. When we quietly, even politely, enjoy affirmation or praise without even thinking to acknowledge God, we’re not only missing an opportunity to worship him (and to call others to worship him), but also robbing God of the glory he deserves for every gift we receive and everything we achieve.

Dying for Praise

Do you know how the apostle James, brother of John, died?

James was one of the very first disciples, one of Jesus’s closest friends, and he was the first apostle to be killed for his faith. Known as “Sons of Thunder,” James and his brother were fishermen before Jesus called them into the ministry. He watched Jesus raise a 12-year-old girl from the dead (Luke 8:51). He stood with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28). He went with Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane the night Jesus was betrayed (Luke 22:39).

And then King Herod had him killed with the sword simply to entertain angry Jews (Acts 12:1–2).

Herod hated the apostles, but mainly he seemed to simply love himself. He killed James, and then, “when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:3). He couldn’t murder Peter that day because of the Jewish Passover celebration. But he planned to execute him publicly within the week (Acts 12:4).

An angel came and rescued Peter from captivity (bound with chains, a soldier sleeping on each side, and two more guards by the door). When Herod came the next day to kill Peter, and realized he was gone, he killed the sentries instead (Acts 12:19). Murder. Attempted murder. And more murders.

Living for Praise

What does that have to do with how you receive praise? In the next verse, Herod turns his anger against the people in Tyre and Sidon, so they plead for peace and mercy. “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them” (Acts 12:21). The people shouted, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22). He killed for praise. He dressed for praise. He performed for praise. And he received his reward.

Luke writes, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23)

God did not strike Herod down when he murdered James, or when he imprisoned Peter in order to murder him, or when he executed the innocent prison sentries. No, God’s final hammer fell when Herod took pleasure in being exalted by people — when he plagiarized the power and authority of God, presenting himself as wise in his own wisdom, as strong in his own strength, as great in his own greatness.

Living for Christ

Two chapters later in Acts, the apostle Paul gets a similar treatment. After he healed a crippled man in Jesus’s name, “When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’” (Acts 14:11). How does Paul respond to their praise? “We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).

Instead of soaking up the attention and basking in the glory, Paul and Barnabas grieved over it (Acts 14:14). And they used their new platform to rehearse all that God had done (Acts 14:15–17). Whenever people are under the impression that we have done something impressive, we have a golden opportunity to teach them we never do anything impressive or meaningful in our own wisdom or strength or ability. We can say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

How to Receive Praise

True humility does not refuse affirmation. It refuses to keep it for ourselves. Paul’s letters are full of warm affirmation:

  • To the Romans: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8).
  • To the Philippians: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel” (Philippians 1:3–5).
  • To the Thessalonians: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2–3).

Paul loves to praise the grace at work in other believers, often getting very personal and specific (Romans 16:3; Philippians 2:19–23; Philippians 2:25–30; and more). But he’s always praising grace in people, not people apart from grace. And he’s always pushing the praise through the person to God.

When someone affirms something you have done — at home, at work, in ministry — you don’t need to rebuke them for not mentioning God. God means for the joy we have in others’ gifts to spill over into the joy of acknowledging and affirming those gifts — just not the kind of acknowledging and affirming that ends with us. Receive the praise with grace and humility, and then joyfully give the praise away to God. Find a fresh way to say that you and your work are a product of grace.

Don’t try to make your admirer feel bad for giving you credit. Affirm his kindness, give him the satisfaction of receiving his praise, and help him see, with you, just how much God deserves the glory for all your skill and effort and success — and for theirs.

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