Church of England Diocese of St.Albans St. Peter Bushey Heath

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans 12: 16, part)

If you are ever stuck for something to pray for, either for yourself or for another, then the answer might be to pray for a realistic awareness of character and ability. It would be a particularly good thing when praying for a God-child or another young person. As we grow up we inevitably develop a degree of self-awareness. The things we are good at generally become obvious through our successes. The things we are not so good at are also obvious whether we choose to acknowledge the fact or not – and we often don’t – pretending that we are better than we are or even as good as we would like to be. That path leads to disappointment. It is a blessing when we have parents, friends or teachers to guide us, but there is no guarantee that we will heed advice. We may instead prefer to live by our own estimations.

These matters have an obvious effect on our spiritual lives which are an essential aspect of our true selves. Very few ‘spiritual giants’ attain any proficiency in prayer and the Christian life without a deep and realistic understanding of themselves. Through honest observation and appraisal those who grow in the spiritual life have a clearer understanding than most of their strengths and weaknesses and how these things affect their relationship with God. They recognise with thanksgiving those things that they are good at without becoming swollen with pride. They also recognise their weaknesses and instead of trying to pretend that they are not there or trying to hide them in some way, they face them honestly and, as far as it is possible, try to do something about them. This may either be a determination to change or a humble acceptance that this is how God meant me to be. Either way the approach is an honest one.

Our own reflections might legitimately be encouraged by today’s epistle. The text deals primarily with the relationships we have with other people and encourages harmonious living. At that level it is a passage worthy of a studious application, but behind it lies the need for an honest understanding of the self and a sound relationship with God which is based on his grace. The present chapter begins with these words from the Apostle:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12: 1-2)

St. Paul goes on to say:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Romans 12: 3)

Although he is writing about the high moral standards which are expected of the Christian, he is not just offering a lecture on ‘values’ – a few do’s and don’ts to oil the wheels of society – he is establishing the basis on which Christian moral standards are framed. In other words the foundation is found in our offering of our own selves to God as a fitting response to his grace. In other words we begin by responding to what God has done for us in Jesus and then act accordingly. And as v.3 makes clear, sober thinking is an essential aspect of that response.

So back to our text: Be not wise in your own conceits. If we are to accept St. Paul’s wisdom and work to avoid this particular pitfall, what exactly is it? Modern usage can be confusing because the word ‘conceit’ is often used to mean ‘self-conceit’. ‘Conceit’ is a neutral word referring to thoughts and ideas – ‘conceptions’. What the Apostle is urging his readers to do is to think clearly and honestly, and above all to come to the same mind as their fellow Christians so that the world will see a picture of unity and peace, not least because Christians are called to be one in Christ Jesus.

In the spiritual life our ‘conceits’ become ‘self-conceits’ when we begin to rely upon our own understanding, omitting a proper understanding of God and his purposes. The beginning is always with God and, for the Christian, God as the Holy Trinity. This idea, which is the fruit of revelation in scripture, defines who we are as the people of God. Therefore as we examine our spiritual lives we are not just trying to ascertain whether we have an allegiance to ‘God’, but to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A proper Trinitarian understanding should bring to an end any vague or abstract thinking about the divine. When you examine your spiritual life ask yourself what part Jesus has to play in it. Is he your example and your guide in the spiritual life? Do you see clearly the role played by the Word who was in the beginning with God, by the one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God in word and deed, and by the one who died upon the cross and rose again? Do you also see clearly the role played in your life by the Holy Spirit? Is he your companion and inspiration in the many and varied tasks that you have to do? And then, does your connection with the Son and the Spirit lead you to a deeper understanding of the Father so that your life is orientated towards the divine?

Those are big questions and they can only be faced with an honest understanding of ourselves. Those who think they have already arrived at a good relationship with God will come unstuck very quickly if the claim does not have a sound basis in reality. Those who are ‘wise in their own conceits’ may come to recognise God, but they will go that far and no further. It is only in a spirit of humility that the life of prayer and faith can develop. Only with an honest understanding of self can we take our proper place within the life of the Church, fitting in effectively into the Body of Christ, knowing who we are and where we stand; treating others as we would have them treat us. In other words good ‘conceits’ lead to a good understanding of God and of other people. ‘Self-conceit’ will ultimately lead to disappointment.

Father Andrew Burton SSC

24th January 2021

Image by Milan Popovic on Unsplash