Becoming a Real Person

“Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11

Humility is a slippery topic. To claim you have it is a pretty sure proof you don’t. Often we’re not even aware of our need for it. In many circles humility sounds weak, though no one would say that out loud.

Jesus was a keen observer of humanity, and at a banquet one time he noticed how people scrambled for the chief seats not realizing how petty and small they had become, how “unreal” they were.. These little displays of ego inflation amused him, so He told a parable about how humiliating it would be for a guest to be told by the host “you have to move.”

Life has a way of humbling us. Something will come along and remind you, that the seat is not really yours. Sports fans in the readership will recognize the name of Jimmy Valvano, whose greatest claim to fame was coaching North Carolina State to the national championship game in 1983. He was an incredibly intense man, possessed with winning.

His first coaching job was with Johns Hopkins University. On a bus ride home from a game in Gettysburg, Valvano was exuberant over his team’s victory and a 3-0 start. His players called him to the back of the bus. “Why is winning so important to you? We’ve never seen anything like it. You’re irrational.” He answered, “because the final score defines you. You lose, ergo, you’re a loser. You win, ergo, you’re a winner.”

“No,” the players insisted. “The participation is what matters, the constancy of effort, trying your very best, regardless of whether you win or lose–that’s what defines you.” Valvano was unconvinced. He held on tightly to the notion that winning basketball games was the most important thing he could possibly do. That was what defined him. That was his identity. That was his security. That was his “chief seat.” But it was not why he was created.

About 1990 Valvano began to battle cancer that would eventually take his life. He had plenty of time to reflect on what he held on to so tightly. Looking back over his life he recalled a rampage in his office at home after a 39-36 loss to Virginia in 1982, lamps busted, chairs overturned, papers and books thrown about. He recalled charging through a locker room door so hard that it knocked out the team doctor. He recalled the pregame talk of his life and the coaching jewel of his career when his North Carolina Wolfpack beat Houston one of the best college basketball teams in history to win the national championship. He recalled two dozen Christmases when his wife had to buy every gift and decorate every tree. That’s the life he had when he pursued the chief seat of winning basketball games.

What changed him? It took waking up three or four times a night, his tee shirt soaked in sweat, his teeth rattling from the fever chills of chemotherapy and the terror of seeing himself in his dreams die again and again, that’s what it took to get him to realize, “They were right. The kids at Johns Hopkins were right. It’s the effort, not the result. It’s trying. God what a great human being I could have been if I’d had that awareness back then! . . . Do you know, that 39-36 loss to Virginia was 10 years ago, but I could never let go of that game until I got sick. Now, it doesn’t bother me at all.” [from Sports Illustrated ca. 1993]

Some day you will find out that the seat was not yours, never was, and never will be. You’re not popular enough. The house does not provide the status you thought it would. Someone is still above you in your field of work, etc. etc. Hopefully you will find out that that seat was not worth the effort anyway.

The puzzling answer from Jesus is “the first shall be last and the last first.” We find our lives in God, loving Him, and being of use to one another. It’s not complex.

The really good news is we don’t have to contract cancer to learn about what’s really important in life. God will teach us that the first will be last and the last first. One day He will offer us a place at His table, a place so much more exalted than anything we can get on our own.

Just stop the scrambling, and you become a real person. At that point, you will find peace.


Dr. Terry Ellis
April 12, 2015