Andrew Delbanco, a humanities professor at Columbia University, was doing research on Alcoholics Anonymous. One Saturday morning, in a church basement in New York City, he was listening to a “crisply dressed young man” talk about his problems. In the telling of his story the young man was absolutely faultless: all his problems and mistakes were because of others. “His every gesture gave the impression of grievously wounded pride,” Delbanco noted. While the young man was speaking, an African-American man in his forties, dressed with dreadlocks and dark sunglasses, whispered into Delbanco’s ear, “I used to feel that way too, before I achieved low self-esteem.” God’s goal for everyone reading Romans 1.18-3.20 is to achieve low self-esteem.
What is low self-esteem? Is it beating yourself up, self-hatred, self-punishment, feeling inferior, or thinking lowly of yourself? Is it others beating you up, judging, accusing, condemning, or rejecting you? The book of Romans defines low self-esteem as humility, a bold confidence without pride, and the freedom of self-forgetfulness without inferiority.
Why do religious people find it so difficult to achieve low self-esteem? “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (verse 29). Notice that the need for praise is assumed. We were made for praise. We were made to hear praise, feel praise, take praise into the core of our being to make us alive. The reason it’s so difficult for a religious person to achieve humility is not that he or she craves praise, it’s because they depend on, live for, or build their lives around the praise of others rather than the praise of God. The religious (those in Rom 2.1-29) seek salvation just as passionately as the irreligious (those in Rom 1.18-32). In fact they have the same salvation strategy: salvation-by-creation rather than salvation-by-Creator (Rom 1.21-25).
The shocking truth in verse 29 is that no one can achieve low self-esteem on his own; it is a work of God’s Spirit. Humility is a gracious work of the Spirit of God in our hearts… the work of a true circumcision.
Circumcision was a visible symbol in the Old Testament of being in a covenant relationship with God. It visualizes two spiritual realities: blessing and curse. As Paul records in Colossians 2.11, Jesus is the true circumcision. In His life, Jesus lived a perfect, righteous, human life in order to secure the blessing of God… the praise of God for those who didn’t live a perfect and righteous life. In His death, Jesus was cut off from the land of the living in order to absorb the curse of God, the cosmic cutting off from God for sin in the place of those who deserve to be cut off. The Holy Spirit changes our hearts by freely giving to us the life and death of the Son, thereby circumcising our hearts.
Because of the circumcision of Christ, God sees the Christian with praise. Therefore, there is no need to build our lives around the praise of others or even self-praise. Experiencing praise from God in the circumcision of Christ is what functionally enables us to achieve low self-esteem, the harvest of humility. Achieve low self-esteem.