Conceit’s Ugly Children

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This morning while reading in Galatians 5, I was impressed with verse 26, which says, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (NIV). This passage shows us something very true about human nature that most of us would like to deny. Provoking and envying are rooted in our image of ourselves and others.

This is easier to show with envy so I will start there. When you have something beneficial, whether a physical object or a beneficial arrangement, others may envy your good fortune.  While it is acceptable to be inspired by another’s success, to be driven to envy is not. Envy, as the negative side of desire, is born of believing you deserve the desired object (or blessing) as much as or more than the other person. Envy grows from viewing one’s self as of equal or greater status than another and seeing the success of another as an attack on that belief. Seeing one’s equality is not bad. We are all equal in God’s eyes, but when you believe the success of another actually makes you less equal then envy grows and we act to reestablish equality. Feeling you are greater than another is not bad when it is expressed as “this person can do something, but I can do it better.” If this is true, then believing it is not conceited—we are supposed to believe the truth. Conceit causes us to see the other person as less deserving than ourselves. We then see their success as a personal injustice. This causes us to envy them.

The other result of conceit is provoking. When we see our own happiness as more important than that of another we often provoke that person. We attack and pick at them because it is their role to make us happy as a part of the universe of which we are the center. We’ve all seen bullies picking on other children. This can happen when the bully himself feels vulnerable and seeks to mask his weakness by demonstrating and attacking another’s weakness. Of course this springs from an idea within the bully that he and his feelings are important enough to reduce the other person to being a tool. The attacker assumes a right to use the other person, regardless of the other person’s feelings.  Another reason people might provoke one another is the belief that the other person exists for their entertainment and that their ability to attack the other gives them a right to attack them. Either of these is an example of what Kant would have seen as using someone else as a means to an end, rather than seeing them as an end in themselves. I have no right to reduce you to a tool for my own purposes. It is conceit that inspires this behavior.

Another reason we provoke is because we believe the other person needs our guidance to live and act properly. We see ourselves as the other person’s personal conduit to the Holy Spirit. While I might love you enough to provoke you to righteousness and to seek your own best as a servant of God, this does not give me the right to provoke you to do what I want or what I believe you must do. There is a difference between seeing myself as your encourager to act and your guide to action. When we get conceited, we often believe our own understanding of the Word is special and that of others is suspect. Because of this, we provoke them to follow us rather than encouraging them to follow God. This too is conceit in action.

Each of us was created for God’s purposes. We have been created to serve him. Even though he has given us individual gifts and talents, no combination of such makes one superior to another or more deserving in God’s sight. So, when another receives a blessing it’s between the recipient and God. If you do not receive such, rather than blaming those who did receive by attacking them or envying them, look at yourself—your own decisions, your own devotion—to see if there is a reason blessings are withheld from you. More often than not, you will find you have received exactly what you deserved or have not received because you did not deserve. If honest, we understand that what we received from God was far more than we deserved. When you understand the world this way there is little room for provocation or envy among God’s people.

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