Condescending: Seriously Bad & Gloriously Good

Baby feet in cloth

Ooh. That sounded condescending, I confessed seconds after using the phrase, “So cute.” The topic? Christmas decor.

What does condescending mean? asked the 13 year-old son.

Like you’re God’s gift to the people you’re with. I paused, As if they’re beneath you and you’re so great to get on their level and give them the time of day.

Oh, he said.

I didn’t tell him the Latin part.  

Condescending Is Seriously Bad

I can be condescending. The bad way—the smug, snooty, Seriously?! way. The, How could you not know that? way. I don’t say it. But sometimes I think it. And thinking it even once is too often for a child of God.

But I begin to think how good it is of me to “go low” and help someone “up.” Even with “so cute” Christmas decor. That thought betrays my pride. For humility is not thinking less of yourself, Lewis said, it’s thinking of yourself less. Jesus said, Don’t let your left hand know.

Bad condescending is bad not only because it’s proud, but because it lacks sympathy. I condescend the bad way when I feel like the people I’m “gracing” with my insight or presence should know better or know more or fear less and trust more.

I’m not alone in that mire. Even the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon confided,

There are distresses to which God’s people are subject with which their fellow Christians can have but little sympathy. Some Christians whom I have tried at times to comfort, have had fears so silly that I have felt more inclined to laugh at them than to console them.

I must have more sympathy to condescend the good way. Because there is a good way.

Aunt Merriam says to condescend means 1: to assume an air of superiority, 2: to descend to a less formal or dignified level; to waive the privileges of rank. Number one is bad. Number two is the good.

Now here’s that Latin part. Condescendere comes from the Latin words con- which means ‘with’ or ‘together’ + descendere which means to ‘descend’ or ‘come down.’

A question for us: When we descend to be with another, is it with love and sympathy or pride and superiority?

Condescending Is Gloriously Good

The God way is the good way. Philippians 2, verses 6 and 7 explains the “good” condescension so beautifully,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 

Do you see it? Almighty God condescends to us, not by reminding us of our smallness and neediness, but rather by stooping down to make us great. The All Wise God who does great things beyond our understanding speaks to the creature in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, the Word made flesh. The Holy God in whom there is no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Have you ever sung that old hymn “Come, Christians, Join To Sing,” by C.H. Bateman? Here’s the second verse:

Come, lift your hearts on high,
Alleluia! Amen!
let praises fill the sky;
Alleluia! Amen!
he is our Guide and Friend;
to us he’ll condescend;
his love shall never end.
Alleluia! Amen!

Did you see it again? God’s condescending love is worthy of our praise. God’s is gloriously good condescension; his condescension is free from pride and full of sympathy. Spurgeon—and I— know that even when we are unsympathetic and condescend in the bad way, our God in not like us. Thank God he is not like us.

Now our God is so tender and gentle that He even condescends to deal with our silly fears…His gentleness shows itself in His being afflicted in our afflictions and entering into our sorrows, and putting Himself side by side with us in the battle of spiritual life.

C.H. Spurgeon, Divine Gentleness ackknowledged

Condescension like that makes me want to worship Christ the newborn King. Oh yes our God condescends.

And not just to the whole wide world, but to sinful, needy you and sinful, needy me.

God Condescends

Fourteen years ago last month, I made a once in a lifetime announcement. With Jim’s family gathered around to say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, I asked if I could recite a Psalm.

It was Psalm 13, a condescension Psalm.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He settles the barren woman in her home
    as a joyful mother of children.


The Lord who is enthroned on high nevertheless stooped to look down upon me. He was mindful of my humble estate. After ten years of barrenness, he remembered me. He came down with me and lifted me from the heap.

The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianiy

But our Lord condescends in everyday ways too. Today he gave me peace in conflict and strength to forgive again. Then he allowed a cancelled session which gave me time to finish a report. In big and small ways, God stoops down.

But He did it biggest at Christmas.

Christmas Is About Condescension

I think C.S. Lewis saw it that way. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body, he wrote. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

That condescending conversation in the van last night brought this song to mind in the morning. You might like it.

Who but God would send his Son
To condescend and make himself the likes of a mere mortal man

For in the end, condescend is one of the sweetest, most Christmasy words I know. It’s why we stretch Advent out. Because in the incarnation, God did way more than just come down and give us a hand. More than just step out of his castle for an evening of revelry with his serfs at Ye Olde Pub. Oh, no. Infinitely more.

He became one of us. He took on our weakness, sympathized with our weakness and bore our sin. The Creator became a creature. Like us becoming slugs but far more shocking. Who would condescend like this?

All glory be to Christ. Who but God.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

Psalm 113:7

The Best Advice Mom Gave

He can crush me, exalt me, or do anything else He chooses. He simply asks me to have absolute faith in Him and His goodness. Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world.

My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers

Good 

It wasn’t teaching me to whip up apple pie in a flash, and always from scratch. Real butter for crust, and always topped with cream, fresh-whipped in a frost-covered bowl. But that know-how has come in handy.

It wasn’t showing a sulky furrowed-brow little lass that A smile is the prettiest thing a girl can wear. Surely, no one was more qualified to teach that than a girl nicknamed Mary Sunshine. Some friends call me Smiles.

It wasn’t explaining that A quality product doesn’t need cheap advertising. Mom gave that sage advice on Sunday in May when I chopped half my new blue jean skirt off and wore my new mini to church. Dad was pastor there.

Which brought about some better lessons.

Better

Like, Better to bend than to break. My mom lives like a willow. She bends with the wind and rolls with the punches. With mud on a fresh-mopped hardwood floor and with a thirteen year-old’s mini. I can’t bend half so low.

And as vital as it was to instruct me and rest of her honest-to-a-fault brood, If you can’t say anything kind, don’t say anything at all- this wasn’t the best. Though that wisdom from Mom has maintain the unity of the Spirit so many times.

Nor was it her steadfast prayer, her constant refrain, God, give me a pure heart. Which was, I think, as crucial for a preacher’s wife as for a farmer’s wife as for a teacher and mother and friend. I pray this now, too-for Mom and me.

As valuable as these lessons are, they’re not the best.

Best

The most precious advice mom gave is this: To have a friend, be one. Although she didn’t say just this way, I knew what she meant: Stop thinking of yourself, Abigail. Look around and love others. 

To an introspective, insecure ten-year old in a brand new school in a brand new town, her words hit home. She didn’t let me pine away the weekend, feeling left out and alone. Let’s have a hayride and invite your class. Be a friend, she said.

To a still introspective, somewhat more secure fourteen year-old in a brand new high school in a brand new town, her advice still struck a chord. Knowing nary a soul, before school even began, I marched in and and joined the low brass and met Tom and Chris and Pete and Sam.

Then, as a still introspective, and slightly lonely newlywed, I remembered what Mom said and a dinner group was forged with Shelly and Jay and Jen and Steve. Fifteen years and oodles of grace later, the group still gathers one Friday night each month.

When alone and unknown in a new church and alone and unknown in new job and more often now, well-known and let-down, Mom’s words to her introspective ten-year old, still echo through, her words about being a friend.

Plus these other two.

Three Musketeers Who Blow Self-Pity Away

To have a friend, be one is first. Then these two join forces with that advice. Together, they’re my Three Self-pity-busting Musketeers.

Don’t wait to be served, serve. Don’t wait for thanks, thank. To have a friend, be one.


Those three are all for one and one for all. And the one they’re for is healthy, happy, humble me. Because self-pity is the weak side of pride- wounded ego, not-getting-what-I-deserve- pride. And this self-pitying pride cannot abide humility.

It cannot abide the God-Man Christ, who took on the form of a servant. Self-pitying pride can’t believe he really said, It’s more blessed to give than receive. And that truly blessed is happy. And happy is what a giving, serving, befriending me is bound to be. 

So when Mom’s words come to me, by grace, I go. They come when I feel left out and I go invite a friend. They come when I start to feel unvalued and I go send a thank-you note. The woe-is-me monsters still come and want to throw me a pity party. But I’m learning to look outside of me and go. 
I don’t wait. I can’t. Because if I do, I know melancholic me will join that party. So I don’t wait for someone to comfort or reach out or thank me. I’m learning that when I want thanks, the best thing to do is give it. And when I want to be served, the best thing to do is serve. Because I know it’s more blessed to give than receive.

*   *   *   *   *
Four days ago, an introspective eight year-old burst in the front door and burst into tears. Between his massive  shoulder-shaking sobs, I gathered a blemish on his nose drew snickers from a big boy on the bus and that he missed recess because of late work and-horror of horrors- bicycle safety pre-empted gym class. 

The world conspired against Gabe Thursday.

Imagine my surprise when my wounded second-grade warrior entered the kitchen ten minutes later, hands full of comb and brush and spray and gel. And with “One pass to the barbar.”

Mom, I know you like me to do your hair. Can I fix it for you now? 

And so I was blessed by the best 40 minute “barbar” job a girl could ever get. And this regal treatment came from a son who was somehow learning that looking away from his pain to show others love is the best way to brush any terrible, horrible, no good, very-bad and lonely day away.

So thanks, Mom, for all your good advice. I’m still learning to live it. And by grace, the boys are, too.

Slowly and surely, we’re learning.

She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 

Proverbs 31:26

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 

Philippians 2:4-7