David Mathis: How Low Can You Go?
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David MathisDavid Mathis is executive editor of desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and adjunct professor for Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. He is a husband and father of four and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. Most recently, he is author of The Christmas We Didn’t Expect for Advent 2020.
Humbled by the hard? When we’re low, author David Mathis believes there’s a response even more important than why?
David Mathis: How Low Can You Go?
Ann: Do you think you’re humble?
Dave: Do I think I’m humble?
Dave: Part of me thinks, “It doesn’t matter what I think. [Laughter] It matters what you think.”
Ann: I didn’t want to start dating you—
Dave: I mean, if I think I’m humble—and you think I’m not—then, I’m not.
Ann: —I didn’t want to start dating you because I thought you were incredibly conceited, back when I was 19. I’m not sure if you were or not, but you acted very conceited; but now, I would say you are humble.
Dave: Well, I know my pride in that—in those days—was insecurity; it was all a big cover-up. But God has worked in my life, and in our life, and in our marriage. Probably a lot of it is, how we’ve struggled in our marriage, has humbled me. I thought it would be easy.
Ann: Me too.
Dave: I thought I’d be amazing. [Laughter] I found out I really sort of wasn’t.
Ann: It makes us see how much we need God.
Ann: There is a humbling in that, as we bow before Him, to say, “We can’t do it apart from You.”
Dave: And this whole topic of humility is a very interesting topic to sort of dive into. We’ve got David Mathis back in the studio today. He wrote a book called Humbled, as a pastor, as the executive director of Desiring God Ministries.
I’ll tell you—of all the things to write about—this is an interesting topic. Our conversation really went to some deep places that I think will impact us, not just in our walk with God, but in our families and in our marriages.
Dave: Well, David, we’re back, talking about my favorite topic—
Dave: No, I’m kidding. [Laughter] It’s not something you initially think, “I’m going to talk about humility.” I don’t even think it is probably something you decide, “I’m going to write a book called Humbled.”
Dave: I didn’t even ask you previously, “Why?—of all things to write about. Were you humbled in your life? Did somebody tell you to write it? I mean, why did you decide, ‘This is what I want to write about’?”
David: Part of my calling in work at Desiring God is writing regularly. Most of the thoughts for those various articles or sermons that I preach come from daily Bible reading. Over the years, I noticed this pattern of this “humble yourself” language. I thought, “I’ll go study that. I bet I can write a nice little/short thousand-word article that will help people know how to humble themselves.”
It was a humbling lesson to look at those texts and to see that the pursuit of Christian humility is not something we just do in our own way at our own time. God, first and foremost, begins the humbling; He first humbles us.
Then, the question comes—as it does to Pharaoh in Exodus 10, and as it does to the kings in 2 Chronicles, and as it does from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels, and from the apostles to the church—“Will you humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand?”
- So God, first, acts in His perfect timing/in His timeframe.
- Then, the question comes to us, having been humbled: “Will I humble myself? Will I receive God’s work, painful as it is? Will I find the beauty in it?—in that He is making me more of what He means for me to be, for my joy, in humbling me.”
Dave: So yes, that/you’ve got to explain what that would look like; because we talked yesterday about you said, “We don’t really start the humbling process; God does.”
David: That’s right.
Dave: You just restated that. So when God does that/when there is a humbling thing going on in our life—and it could be many different facets of how that is—how do we respond?—because that is hard. Part of me wants to stiff-neck-up and fight against it rather than: “I don’t know how to respond.”
“How do I respond when I’m being humbled?”
David: That’s right. That is, for us, the natural human reaction and sinful reaction—
Dave: So I’m normal!
David: —to God’s humbling work. That’s right. [Laughter]
We talked about/you joked at the beginning of: “Oh, humility: we’d love to talk about that.” We have a love/hate relationship with it.
David: We have this instinctive sense of: “Yes, I probably don’t just coast, or glide, or walk into humility. It probably happens with bumps in the road; it probably happens with pains.”
There is that love/hate relationship with it in the sense of: “I don’t want to be humbled. I don’t want to experience the pain of being humbled. However, I do want to experience the joy of knowing God for who He really is; I want to be who God has called me to be.” If you are a Christian, you have this desire: “I want to be who God wants me to be. I want to know Him; I want to know my Creator—as the great joy of all of life/as the meaning of my restless longings as a human—to know God Himself in the person of Jesus.”
Let’s not minimize the pain, or the discomfort, or the shame, or the chaos of what happens in these moments in life that we all experience when God humbles us; but also, let’s not stay and wallow in the humbling moment. But let’s look to heaven and see: “Alright; what’s God doing in this? Is there pride in me that is being chastened? Or is He just reminding me”—maybe, this humbling was not prompted by my sin, and God is not revealing particular sin in me—“but what He is revealing is that He is God, and I am not; and I’m happy about that.”
For me, as a creature, I will be happier/far happier when I stop pretending or thinking, subconsciously, that I’m god/that I’m the boss of my own life. There is far more happiness for you, as the creature that you are, in acknowledging and welcoming His God-ness. It is often the times in our lives—that are most painful, the most inconvenient, most humbling—where we’re startled, afresh, to that reality.
Dave: You know, I joked yesterday about throwing an interception—and that is a joke—but there was a moment—and our listeners know this well, we wrote about in our book, Vertical Marriage—when I think our marriage is great. Year ten anniversary date, I’m convinced: “I’m a great husband. She loves me; it’s amazing.” Our kids: we have two of our three sons were born.
All I know is that the night that Ann said, as we are on our way home on our ten-year anniversary date, that she had lost her feelings for me: it was one of the most humbling moments of my life. I wouldn’t have said I was arrogant and proud, but there was a sense of pride. In that moment, God got my attention; so much so, that I ended up on my knees, realizing, “I can’t be the husband she longs for and that I want to be, or the dad I am trying to be, without the strength of God in my life.”
It was a very humbling moment that I know changed our marriage; but it actually probably, more significantly, changed me: “I’m not God. He’s God, and I’m not.” But I would often live like, “I’ve got this thing. I’ve got this under control; we’re good.” In that moment, it was like, “Oh my goodness!”
What Ann would say about that moment is: “That moment—the way Dave responded—changed him and us.” It was that I could have responded, like: “What do you mean you lost your feelings for me?! I’m a good man; I’m a good husband. Start loving me”; or “Oh, my goodness! I need to repent,” which is where we went.
Talk through what a man would do or a woman would do when you get to that humbling moment, and you have an opportunity to respond. How do we respond to become the man/the woman God wants us to become?
David: I think, in those moments—I mean, they catch us off guard—I think/it sounds like Ann caught you off guard.
Dave: Oh, completely!
David: And to see, in that moment, it wasn’t only Ann catching you off guard; but it was God. That’s not to minimize how startlingly painful—
David: —those moments can be.
David: I dedicated this book to my wife—because so many of my humbling moments in the last 15 years—she has been God’s instrument. She loves authenticity—if she sees something/and she sees a pattern in me—she is willing to say it, and not just stuff it, and pointing out my need for God’s ongoing grace in my limits, as a man and as a Christian.
That’s a beautiful thing about marriage; in that, we get that kind of proximity to each other that, if we’ll be honest with each other and appropriately gracious, it is an amazing opportunity for God to humble us. Again, that doesn’t happen at our initiative. [Laughter]
David: God seems to bring those most humbling—of exposures, or rebukes, or kind words of constructive feedback—at times we don’t expect. When I think things are at their best is when she very kindly lets me know they are not. [Laughter] So as I share with fellow men, they’ll ask, “How is your marriage? How are things going with Megan?” Often, I say, “Let me tell you what I think.” [Laughter]
Dave: Exactly; it may not be anywhere near reality: “This is what I think is going on...”
David: “I’ll be honest with you about what I think; and then, I’ll check in, again, with her and find out what is really going on.” Because I have found, over the years—and this is very humbling—that her sense of where we are at is typically better than mine. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, I actually—after than ten-year anniversary moment—and our marriage wasn’t healed in one prayer, but it started a healing process—but as we would go out on dates after that, I regularly—and I still do this 30-some years later—I will say to her, “Hey, honey, on a scale of 1-10, how are we?” because I think we’re a 9.5/10. She usually has a lower number, and she is more accurate. That is humbling, but I also know that’s going to help us get to where we need to go.
One of the things you write about is the role of prayer, the Word, fasting, in this self-humbling journey that we go on. Help us understand those aspects of how God uses those to help us become the humble person He has called us to be.
David: So you might think: “Oh, these biblical texts are emphasizing that God takes the initiative/God does it first—His humbling hand descends—you just/we’re sitting around, waiting for God to humble us; and then, there is opportunity to ‘humble ourselves.’” Well, it’s more complicated than that.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave Wilson and David Mathis on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear more of their conversation in just a minute; but first, David’s book is called Humbled: Welcoming the Uncomfortable Work of God. We’ll send you a copy as our thanks when you give today at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call with your donation at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
I just wanted to pause here and say, “Thank you,” to everyone who gave during the month of May and had their donations matched. We don’t have a total just yet of what was given; but gifts are still pouring in, and we are deeply grateful for your support. Thank you so much.
Alright, when it comes to humility, God is in control. So I guess we just sit around and wait for God to make us humble; right? Well, no—not exactly—let’s listen to more with David Mathis.
David: It is true and important to see that God acts, first, in our humbling; and we begin to see these startling, unexpected, surprising, painful moments in life as times to humble ourselves before Him. But there are many things, biblically—some specific things—that we can make patterns of in our life so that our soul is ready—our soul is habituated to God and His God-ness—so that we are more likely, more ready, more eager even, to humble ourselves when those unexpected humbling circumstances come.
Again and again, one connection between God humbling His people and what His people do, so to speak, is how we receive His Word. Josiah finds God’s Word, and sees the people have not been keeping up with the feasts, and goes to the [prophetess] Huldah. She says, “Because you humbled yourself and obeyed My Word,”—you heard God’s Word and you obeyed—“you repented for yourself and for the nation, King Josiah, by humbling yourself and putting on sackcloth. You have done well. God’s going to give you grace and spare you and help your kingship.”
The response of God’s people to His Word is something very much tied to humbling ourselves. One way that we might seek to humble ourselves, on a daily basis, to be ready for these moments to come is: “Are we putting ourselves under God’s Word?” “Do we want to hear His Word on a daily basis and be ready to obey it?” “Are we habituating our souls to receiving His Word, even when it is uncomfortable?” If you read your Bible, and it is always pleasant and comfortable, what are you reading?! [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; yes.
David: If we have a book from God Almighty, do we not expect that it is regularly going to rough us up, and have us scratching our heads, and trying to receive some uncomfortable things from God? So daily putting ourselves under His Word begins to work a pattern of self-humbling in our souls.
Dave: Yes, and if you don’t, it’s really the opposite—
David: You’re right; that’s right.
Dave: —because, as I hear you say that, I was like, “Man, if I have, right in my hands, literally, a written Word of God—or digitally in my hands through my phone or a device—the Word of God, written by the God of the universe, and I don’t take time to submit/to say, ‘I’m going to read this,’ it just means I don’t need it. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m good; I can manage life on my own.’”
It’s like, “No, no, no; a self-humbling heart would be: ‘Man, I can’t do it.
David: That’s right.
Dave: “‘I need the wisdom of God; I need the truth of God. I’m going to submit myself under the authority of His Word, right here, right now. This is going to be a habit so that I can be the man/the woman God has called me to be.’” So that’s the Word.
David: That’s right. And if—and our souls don’t stay neutral—it’s not like, if we stay away from submitting ourselves to God’s Word, then they stay where they are—no; they get harder.
David: Your heart, on a daily basis, is getting harder or softer to the truth and to God Himself.
Dave: Yes; and we say—in FamilyLife at our Weekend to Remember®—the same thing happens in your marriage. If you are not intentional, you’re going to drift away. Oneness requires work toward bringing one another together. You’re going to drift away—your heart is going to drift away, personally; your soul is going to drift away in your marriage—so the same thing in our own souls.
David: That’s good.
I mean, one other thing to add there about how we receive God’s Word is sitting under faithful preaching.
David: When we come on Sunday morning, let’s hope—I hope, listeners—that you are in a church, where the pastor is faithfully preaching the Bible.
Dave: Yes; yes.
David: We are to hear those words as from God Himself, as the pastor faithfully represents them. We should be putting ourselves under God’s Word in faithful preaching.
We are not mainly there to have this dialogue in our head’s about: “He said that this way, and I would respond this way…” There are other times in the week to be more constructively critical. I would encourage you: “Come under the preaching of God’s Word to hear from God Himself,”—I know, through an imperfect messenger; but—“We are habituating our souls to God’s humbling work in our lives as we sit under faithful preaching, gladly, and seek to be shaped by it.”
Dave: What’s the role of prayer?
David: Exactly; that’s where I want to go next.
Dave: I’d love to hear you talk about fasting.
David: Let’s talk about how fasting accompanies prayer. Prayer, we might say, is the quintessentially humbling act. You mentioned earlier about dad being on his knees, with the family, before God. I mean, in prayer, we say to God: “I can’t do it. I’m coming to You in prayer because I need help.”
- Prayer is an acknowledgement of our creature-liness: it’s an acknowledgement of our limits; it can be an acknowledgement of our sin; it’s an acknowledgement of our inability in some sense.
- Then, you have the normal, everyday prayers and our regular acknowledgement of our inability and our need for God’s help.
- Then, at times, we pray more desperate prayers. Just reflecting recently on
Acts 12: they put James to death/John’s brother. They get Peter; Herod has
got Peter now. He is thinking about putting Peter to death, too; because the
Jews seemed happy that they put James to death.
The church came to God, it says, in earnest prayer. This is especially humbling: “God, we can’t do this. Herod took Peter! We can’t do this; we are coming in earnest prayer.” This is humbling/self-humbling. As you know, God miraculously answered that and freed Peter from prison and answered the request of the urgent prayer.
One gift God has given us, to accompany earnest prayer, is fasting. Fasting is not an everyday measure because, if you don’t eat, you die; right? [Laughter] God doesn’t mean for us to fast all the time. Fasting is an extraordinary measure; it’s a special measure.
Now, for many today, it’s a forgotten tool; but I think, as we read our Bibles, we remember how God’s people have used this special tool at times in the past. There is this story in the Old Testament about King Ahab—one of the worst—proverbial for wickedness, King Ahab.
Dave: Oh, yes.
David: He has Naboth killed; seizes his vineyard at the counsel of his wife Jezebel. Then comes in the prophet Elijah—here he comes; here comes Elijah—and Elijah calls him out. Wonder upon wonder! King Ahab humbles himself—this doesn’t mean that Ahab was a great king—he was one of the worst.
David: But he had a moment of self-humbling, and he fasted; he put on sackcloth. God said—you know what?—this is how ready our God is to see and bless our humbling—is that even, when someone so wicked as Ahab, humbles himself, in this instance with fasting, God saw it, blessed it, and delayed the judgment that was coming. The judgment still came, but He delayed it because of this act of King Ahab.
So fasting is also a gift we have from God in those moments of special desperation or particularly earnest prayer. Fasting accompanies particularly earnest prayer, and God has given us that tool in the Christian life. It’s quintessential act of self-humbling.
Dave: Yes; I’ve said, many times on here, that 36 years ago, I heard a dad talk about fasting for his children. My first-born CJ was born 36 years ago; and I said, “I’m going to take one day a week and fast for my kids.” At that time, I didn’t know what I would have; I ended up having three sons.
Thirty-six years later, I’m still doing it. I thought it would be a few months or maybe a year. Usually, it’s Fridays; but it doesn’t matter what day it. It is sundown from the night before to sundown the next day. I just don’t eat food; I just drink. I would never have thought of it as humbling, but it is.
David: That’s right.
Dave: It is a humble moment, to say, “I can’t raise these boys to be men of God; You can.
David: That’s right.
Dave: “I don’t have the power—I’m not going to live a perfect life in front of them to show them what it is—You can.”
I still do it; and all day long, as I’m getting hungry—
Dave: —and by mid-afternoon, hungrier and hungrier—I’m praying. I’m praying—and I remember praying for their wives when they were little boys—these girls, that I didn’t know their names, that they would be women of God. Standing there—as the pastor of their wedding/officiating that, and the dad—and looking at these women I’ve been praying for their entire lives, in some ways, was a humbling moment to go: “This didn’t happen by my hand. This beautiful moment is happening because God is a God who is in control and answers prayer.”
So yes, when you say that, I’m like: “Man, that is—the Word, submitting yourself to authority of the Word; taking prayer and fasting—I’d encourage a listener: maybe, you just had a baby boy or girl. Maybe, you start this week and say, ‘I’m going to do that. I’m going to jump in, one day a week.’”
Again, it’s not like a magic genie: “Okay, I do this. Poof! I’m going to get the kind of boy or daughter to be—
David: That’s right.
Dave: —“the man or woman of God someday.”
It’s a humbling, all-day experience to say, “All day long, I’m reminding myself You are God; I am not, and I can’t do this apart from You. I’m asking You to work in me and through me in a legacy that will impact the world with the gospel.” That was my prayer.
David: That’s so good.
Dave: And that’s what He does.
David: What a beautiful example.
David: If I could toss in one more pattern to put in our lives—in addition to a pattern of being under God’s Word; a pattern of prayer, particularly desperation accompanied with fasting—one other would be—people might not want to hear this—the local church: commitment—
Dave: We want to hear this!
David: —commitment to the local church; because one of the most humbling things you can do is commit to a particular local church—and all of its pains, all of its warts—people getting to know you; you getting to know people. One of the most humbling things you can do, as a Christian, is really be plugged in—not float in and out of the church,—
David: —as is convenient and comfortable; and as soon as things are conflicted or difficult, you run somewhere else.
I’m talking about committing to a local people, saying, “Be the church to me; I will be the church to you.” God is often pleased to do some of His most—at first, unwelcome; and then, in the long-term, welcome—humbling in our lives through our local churches.
Dave: Yes, some of the greatest humbling in my life have been with my men—the guys I do life with—them speaking grace but also speaking truth into my life. It’s been hard, but it’s been needed. It’s changed me as a man. That’s the local body; I met these guys through the local community/the church. You’re right—that’s a powerful moment of God, using people to humble us,—
David: That’s right.
Dave: —to make us who He wants us to be.
David: So many places in life, when things get tough, we are able to just drift elsewhere. We’ve got our cars; we’ve got other communities; we can just move on and move away from people. But when we commit to each other in the local church, we are saying: “When it is tough, I’m going to stick to it. I’m going to try to embrace God’s humbling—push through it, grow, learn, learn to love—and receive God’s humbling hand.”
Shelby: That’s Dave Wilson with David Mathis on FamilyLife Today. David’s book is called Humbled: Welcoming the Uncomfortable Work of God. You can get it at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Next week, Dave and Ann are going to be talking with Brad Griffin and Kara Powell about The 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager. We’ll also hear from Ron Deal about how to thrive in a blended family.
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