One of the beautiful things about kids is the implied confidence they have. My own kids come trickling down the stairs every morning and almost always the first thing out of their mouths is, “What’s for breakfast?” That’s implied confidence. They assume that there is indeed something for breakfast, that their parents have had the foresight to actually make a plan and get it going. It’s not crossed their minds just yet that at some point the answer might be “nothing,” or that at some point they will have to answer that same question for themselves. They instead live in the bliss of confidence in their parents who (mostly) always have at least a box of cereal ready to go.
The progression of life, though, is that implied confidence wanes. We get burned in relationships, stuck on the side of the road by our cars, flip-flopped by politicians, and eventually we come to the realization that all our confidence is in vain. People, institutions, machines – they will all fail. And at the end of that progression, by God’s grace, we hopefully come to the greater realization that every battle really does belong to the Lord, that He alone provides our daily bread, and He is the only One in the universe who is strong enough to stand up under the weight of our faith.
Of course it doesn’t always happen that way. Even for the Christian, we can easily drift into ceasing to place our whole confidence in God and instead placing that weight onto other things. Most of the time, that weight falls to ourselves. The failures of all these other things should lead us to the unfailing Lord, but many times this vanity leads us to put our stock in ourselves instead. We place our confidence in the flesh instead of the Almighty. This confidence in the flesh is something Paul was well experienced with, and therefore warned us about:
Watch out for “dogs,” watch out for evil workers, watch out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, the ones who serve by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh—although I once also had confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless (Phil. 3:2-6).
In this passage, he began by describing a group of false teachers that plagued him throughout his ministry – those people who believed that Jesus was okay, but the real secret sauce of religion was combining a general belief in Jesus with our own ability to adhere to the law. Paul knew full well the vanity of such things, for he lived the first part of his life not only placing his confidence in himself, but having more reasons than most anyone else to do so. He was trusting in his own ability to make himself right before God, only to be quite literally knocked off his high horse in an encounter with Jesus.
If we are Christians, we would acknowledge that it is through faith alone in Christ alone that we become right with God. And yet the temptation to place our confidence in our flesh is still a really real thing. Ironically, this is especially acute for leaders who live under the weight of responsibility on a daily basis. Under that weight, it’s much easier to trust in your own blood, sweat, resolve, and intestinal fortitude to get things done than placing your full hope in the Lord. But because this confidence shifting is a drift, rather than an outright denial, it comes on us slowly over time until one day we wake up and realize that we, too, have fallen into the trap of pride, believing and trusting in our own effort. There are, though, signposts that can tell us we are beginning to move. There are markers that show us we are starting to veer off course.
Here are three statements that, if we find ourselves making them, should be a cue for us to repent and return to the gospel which tells us that we are actually worse than we imagine we could be:
1. It won’t happen to me
“Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall,” says Proverbs 16:18. And this is a statement of pride. We look at those around us – whether in the news or in our personal relationships – and see their struggled with whatever. Our first thought might be shock or concern for their family or dismay at how things have gotten to bad, but if the next thought that comes into our minds is as prideful as this, then we think very highly of ourselves indeed. Part of guarding against sin is recognizing that this could absolutely happen to us, because we are absolutely capable of such things apart from the grace of Jesus.
2. I’m too good for that
Somebody has to clean the toilet. It’s a good life principle, as true in the workplace as it is in the church as it is in the home. The problem is that no one really likes to clean the toilet. But there’s a difference between not liking something, and considering yourself above doing something. But this is how our minds and our hearts work. We pile up our degrees, our accomplishments, our compliments, our responsibilities – and then we sit on top of that pile looking down at those below us. Meanwhile, there is a toilet to be cleaned at the bottom. Paul put it like this: “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). If we have started to internally consider ourselves too good for this thing or that, then we are placing confidence in our flesh.
3. I can do it alone
Proverbs 27:6 tells us, “The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive.” We need each other. We need each other precisely because our flesh is not strong enough. So we need each other to tell us the truth and to help each other grow toward godliness. This mutual discipleship is God’s intent for His people, whereby we journey together on the road of maturity, reminding each other that we together must place our whole confidence in the Lord and Him alone. If we come to the point where either by our actions or inactions, we prove that we really do think we can live life alone, then that confidence is sorely misplaced.
Placing confidence in the flesh might end with counting yourself as righteous before God because of your conduct, but it doesn’t start there. It starts with little lies like these that we tell ourselves. The beauty of the gospel, though, is that we can freely acknowledge that placing confidence in the flesh is lunacy, for we know ourselves. We recognize how in need we truly are. And yet there is a Rock that never moves or changes which is more than strong enough to bear the weight of all our misplaced confidence. And He is ready to bear up under it.
Michael Kelley is the Director of Discipleship at Lifeway, and author of Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life