“For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think” (Rom. 12:3).
Romans 12 is a hinge chapter in Paul’s letter. In the first 11 chapters, he has taken his audience through the depths of despair because of the universal nature of sin, through the incredible good news of having peace with God through Christ, and then into the depths of what it means to be more than a conqueror through Him who loves us. So when Paul comes to chapter 12, he turns the page into the more practical portion of his letter.
While the first 11 chapters are full of indicative truth about the world, the God who rules over it all, and the gospel by which we and all creation can be made right, chapter 12 begins with imperatives. In other words, chapter 12 begins the mighty “therefore” of the gospel reality. So Paul is going to tell his audience how to rightly respond, in light of these great mercies of God, and his first point of action involves the way we see each other and our spiritual gifts in the church. To that end, he says that we should “not think of himself more highly than he should think.” Other versions translate Paul’s admonishment to be that we should have a “sober estimation” of ourselves.
What does that mean?
Maybe most simply, it means we think neither too highly nor too lowly of ourselves.
This, of course, makes sense in the context of spiritual gifts, which is what Paul’s point is in the passage. So we think soberly about ourselves when we realize that our contribution to the church is important. No one can rightly think they have nothing to bring to the table in the church. In fact, to do so is to dishonor and disregard the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But neither should any one person think of themselves as the single lynchpin that keeps the church actually functioning and honoring the Lord. Either way of thinking is faulty. And while I know there are those among us who tend toward the first error – thinking too little of ourselves – I think there are far more of us who fall into the second category. We think way too much of ourselves.
Because we do, we take ourselves very seriously. Very seriously.
And to expand the principle, we take ourselves seriously in our relationships, in our marriages, in our friendships, and everywhere else we go. It comes out in our inability to admit when we are wrong, to laugh at ourselves when we make a mistake, and to put an undue amount of pressure on every situation to have just the right appearance. All of this, when we would, I believe, do well to speak to our souls in this way:
You who are spiritual, stop taking yourself so seriously.
What does our spiritual maturity have to do with how seriously we take ourselves? It is that growing spiritually comes through time and time again meeting with an eternal God. And each time we do, we are forced to reckon with our own frailty, weakness, and laughable smallness in light of Him. Take just one example:
Here is God, who does not slumber or sleep. In fact, in His lack of slumber, He watches over us day and night (Ps. 121:3-4). And yet here we are, so creaturely that we must every 10 or 12 hours fall into a bed with our mouths hanging open. We are, in this sense, ridiculous in our weakness.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for some kind of social irresponsibility or laughing our way through every day life, but I am saying that in faith, we can acknowledge that the fate of the known world does not rest on our next move. Furthermore, there are far fewer people thinking about our next move than we would like to think. So because we know that God is the God who makes the sun rise and fall, the rain come down in its season, and changes the human heart, we are actually free in faith to acknowledge who He is by loosening our grip on our carefully crafted personas a bit.
What a thing it is to be a Christian – to live in the freedom of the children of God, trusting ourselves to a loving Father instead of manufacturing our way through life.