The apostle Paul has just been beheaded in Rome and he finds himself at the gate to Heaven. Now Peter is still alive at this point so I am not sure who greets him there at the gate. Maybe it was Stephen, in which case it was a pretty awkward conversation there.
“Oh, hey Stephen. Um, sorry about that whole stoning thing. Could you let me in?”
But after Paul makes it past the gate, he is ushered into the throne room of God. So there he is: Paul. The greatest Christian missionary. The apostle to the gentiles. The author of Romans. A martyr and a saint.
What do you think God said to him when he saw Paul standing there? Surely, if anyone in the history of the world heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” it would be Paul. But I don’t think that’s what he heard. And here’s why…
There are basically two kinds of sinful pride. We are pretty familiar with the first kind of pride. This is your run of the mill, earthly pride. This kind of pride looks like competitiveness, arrogance, and vanity when it comes to work, social status, money, even family. That kind of pride is fairly easy to spot.
But there is another kind of pride and it is harder to see. Because this kind of pride hides itself as piety, devotion, and discipleship. This is spiritual pride. Have you ever compared your spirituality to someone else’s? Have you found yourself expecting God to do something for you because you have been faithful? Do you get impatient and frustrated when you aren’t growing spiritually as fast as you would like? Is it important to you that people see you as a “spiritual person”? Those are all signs of spiritual pride. You can trade the accumulation of earthly goods for the accumulation of spiritual goods – but it’s still pride. It may look better and be more socially acceptable but it still misses the point.
And this kind of pride is a difficult thing to shake. Because how do you possibly get rid of it? You can’t pray, or read scripture, or go to church more – that just gives you more to be proud of. Spiritual pride, if you are aware of it, can feel like a catch-22. Like pouring water on a grease fire – the closer you are to God and the more spiritual you feel, the worse it gets.
Which is why we need to think about what God says to Paul when he gets to heaven.
Jesus tells this wonderfully helpful parable in Luke:
“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Luke 17:7-10
I’d like to think that Paul heard this when he got to heaven: “What do you want? A pat on the back?” Paul simply did what he supposed to do. Nothing more, nothing less. And that is really what we are called to do. Becoming a saint doesn’t mean becoming a super-Christian – it means becoming what you were always supposed to be. It’s not really anything special. Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Good, you’ve finally reached the status quo. Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Congratulations, can you also tie your shoes and feed yourself?
Humility means knowing the truth about yourself in relation to God and others. And for those of us who struggle with spiritual pride, we need to know that we are not special. We are just doing our job. We are not exceeding expectations, we are simply meeting them. This is the cure for pride.