When it comes to a balanced belief on how we might be righteous before God, there have been many before us who have also wrestled within.
The struggle between the sinful old human nature and the new Christ-centred nature has been a fight that’s been raging ever since Christ walked the earth and shed light on the reality of the human conscience.
Jesus’ coming into the world, and our lives, did and does things in people, and in us, when one comes up against the holy perfection of God’s own Son. It’s what we in Australia call the tall poppy syndrome. This is when someone seems to be better than us, in some way or another, causing a need for others to chop them down; to bring them down a peg or two; to cut them down to size!
So, from where does the desire come to chop down the tall poppy? It comes from the deepest recesses of our old human nature. A person’s natural desire is to see themselves as the centre of their existence, to place themselves at the top of the pile, as number one. Put simply, the ego says there’s nothing greater than itself. “I am” the source of all things.
But then along comes someone or something which shows our ego to be less than our inflations imagine it to be. So we set to bring down the tall poppy. We see tall poppies only because of our pride. In others we see their pride and ours automatically wants to see if we can conquer it.
There are two ways this happens. Either, the ego seeks to be seen as better by doing better than its competition. Or, the ego knows it can’t do better so it goes about undermining its competition to discredit the perceived competitor of its height.
The end result is the ego can then rise into the dizzy heights of a self-inflated infatuation. All glory to the tallest poppy, to the one whose nature can pop its head up the highest.
But even when standing tall, the ego is worried. Why? Because it knows the truth of how it got its height. The ego knows the ugly reality is its seemingly glorified existence is built on its own darkness and the cut down dead bodies of pride around itself.
Therefore, pride is often found with anxiety, worry, and doubt. Pride and depression are the heights and valleys of the same scene; they’re the two sides of the same coin. Religious or spiritual depression comes as a result of the ego knowing it cannot legitimately climb to the starry heights it thinks it should.
Since world war two, western society has been obsessed with climbing the heights of popularity. Everyone wants to be the “tall poppy”. We amass objects and ideologies to bolster the ego and hide the darkness lurking within. But the end result of our religiously working to be, and have, the best, and hide the rest — is we’ve created the right climate for an ever increasing rate of medical or clinical depression.
Martin Luther was no saint when it came to pride. He was trapped in the same sinful tall poppy syndrome. So much so, Luther was a very depressed man and as a result died at an age we would consider young today. Born on the 10th of November 1483 and dying on the 18th of February 1546, Luther was just sixty-two years of age.
In his early years Luther with many other monks in the monastic life, sought to be one of the spiritual elite through the religious rigours of seeking to be righteous. He belonged to the Order of Augustine of Hippo. This monastic order focused on its adherents devoting themselves to a life of love towards God.
Back in the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo was led more and more to focus on God’s grace throughout his life, because he constantly struggled with his love for the flesh. He found no peace in his life by appeasing his insatiable appetite for sexual gratification and the finer things in life. And so centuries later an order came about where one might look to God and away from the lusts that lurk within.
Luther lived the Augustinian life, he sought to seek out his sin and confess it. If he could do this, then he would obtain the righteousness God required of him. However, the more he sought to examine himself, the more he sought to righteously do the right thing, the more he realised how far short he fell before a God who sought a righteousness which was perfect — indeed holy.
He soon learnt that the more he focused on sin the more he did it. One can only imagine the sin that dwelt in the hearts of young monks seeking pure lives under the vows of chastity. Even if they felt regret for what they did, and demonstrated it before God, as Luther did often by self-flagellation, scourging and whipping himself, it didn’t stop the reality that one was doing things out of a love for the self, the ego, and not out of a love for God and his will.
The monks of the day sought to be the tall poppies of the church but many of them spent much of their time in self-absorbed doldrums. In fact, so common was this experience amongst monks, they had a slang term for it – in cloaca, literally meaning “in the toilet”. So an absurd contradiction existed in their lives, and in Luther’s life too. Monks sought to appear spiritually beautiful, like poppies, but lived lives of horrendous doubt and harsh works.
Are you living in the same contradiction as Luther was with all the religious monks of his day? Is your life absurdly, consistently one lived in the toilet of spirituality? Then Jesus’ word is the word for you…
He says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31b–32 (ESV)
For Luther he delved into study of the word in a quest to find the truth. But rather than the truth being found in his diligent study and understanding of scripture, it led him to focus away from sin and what he thought to be a righteous action to yet again get God’s favour, and over time God’s word did something more profound, it gave him faith and it set him free.
You see when Luther sought to love in the most sincere and godly way, he knew, and couldn’t escape the knowledge, his being was motivated by a love for self and therefore tainted with sin. Luther came to realise that not only did humans bearing the old sinful nature “enjoy the gifts of God”, but sought to “use God” too.
Repentance, prayer, faith, everything we set out to do, can never be done well enough to allow any human to be completely blameless before God. These as works just don’t work. And over time Luther came to realise that trusting in the righteousness of Christ, that on allowing God to focus him on his Son, Jesus Christ, everything was done and was being done, and the Holy Spirit dwelt within being. The Holy Spirit is the agent of action within the shell of the believer’s sinfully prone existence.
Perhaps you are in a toilet of spirituality because of the righteous and religious poppies you’re seeking to grow, while focusing on the heights of other’s growing over the fence. Seeking to do better or to stop doing wrong only leads one deeper into the deception of pride — it appears to makes everyone else’s poppies stand taller, and our own seem shorter.
Like Luther, abide in God’s word. Uphold it, endure in it, dwell in it, and trust in it. Remaining in God’s word also requires sacrifice. One must sacrifice all righteousness and unrighteousness that’s motivated by what we do – your moralism and immoralism; your understanding and misunderstanding; and your emotionalism, that is good and bad feelings being a barometer for your faith.
In allowing yourself to endure in God’s word and letting God immerse you in his word, you will find that no longer will you have to focus on what to do and not to do, but you will know God’s will is being done in you and through you.
Instead of worrying about what God’s word means and what you think about it, God will give you understanding growing out of faith and grace. So simple yet so profound, a child will know it’s true but it will confound the wisest minds on earth.
And rather than beating yourself up mentally that you’re not feeling bad enough about your sinfulness and loving enough towards God, a love for Christ will ooze out of every pore of your being.
Instead of being the tall poppy growing on the failures within and without, let Christ grow you up into faith and love. His grace is sufficient for you, the faith the Spirit places in you can drown mountains of your sin in the sea, at baptism and at the cross. Through Jesus Christ the righteousness we gain gives us a desire to dwell with God in peace.
Standing, remaining, and enduring with this balanced belief, given and sustained by God in his word, is the truth given in his word. And like Luther and many others, it will set you free and your will be free indeed. Amen.