Are we nothing?

A few of weeks ago, a brother gave a prayer at church, and in the middle of the prayer, he said, “Father, we are nothing”. As soon as I heard this, the first thing that popped into my mind was, “Does the bible really say that?”. I reflected on it a bit, and realized that I have heard this or similar statements before from different people in different churches at different times. The idea that ‘we are nothing’ is something that has been perpetuated in churches for a long time. Persons say it out of a sense of piety, humility or self-deprecation. Others say it because they believe the bible teaches it. Either way, I find it to be counter-productive to faith and confidence of mind. The question I want to ask is whether the bible actually says it. So, let’s dive in and find out.

Can I find a verse?

The first thing I thought of doing was to see if I could find a verse that says ‘we are nothing’. This was surprisingly easy to find, as the word “nothing” appears only 27 times in the New Testament. I was able to find one verse that seems at first glance to say ‘we are nothing’. This verse is Galatians 6:3:

Galatians 6:1-5
1. Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

2. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

3. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.

4. But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.

5. For every man shall bear his own burden.

If you take verse 3 by itself without looking at the surrounding verses and context, it is easy to stake a claim that ‘we are nothing’. I often find that when persons make these ascetic statements that focus on emphasizing self-deprecation as a godly attribute, it is almost always done in a comparison with God, as if us being something greater than nothing takes away something from almighty God. Isn’t this a strange way of thinking? How does God benefit from us thinking that we are nothing? Do we even understand what it means to say ‘we are nothing’? Doesn’t John 3:16-17 explain to us that God sent his only begotten son in the world to save us and not condemn us? So, if we are nothing, then God sent his son for nothing? Why would God sent his son to save nothing? Does that makes sense?

We could even ask the reciprocal question: If we are not nothing, then does that take away something from God? Does being greater than nothing mean that God is less than God somehow? Does any of this makes sense? Is this really how God wants us to think about ourselves and about him in relation to us? Even before we were believers God loved us and Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). And now being believers we are considered the sons (heirs) of God (Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:5-7). So, is it right to say we are nothing? But, then I did find a scripture that says, ‘if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself’. So, how can we understand this scripture? Does it even apply?

Does it apply?

The truth is that this verse is not said in isolation. It is not a proverb. It is not a lone statement. The intended meaning will become clear as we look at the context, and even examine the Greek word for ‘nothing’. First, looking at the surrounding verses, we will see that the apostle Paul is talking about how to treat a fellow believer who was “overtaken in a fault”. He was talking about how to deal with a person who gave into some temptation that has affected their life. The first thing the apostle tells us is to “restore” that person in the “spirit of meekness”. The Greek idea behind the word ‘restore’ is to mend or to complete. ‘Meekness’ gives the idea of gentleness and humility. And Paul further instructs us to “consider thyself, lest thou also be tempted”. Clearly, he is telling us to help to make that person whole again in a gentle, empathetic manner where we understand that what happened to that person could also happen to us. This is not being prideful nor self-deprecating, but showing love and concern for others without any form of hypocrisy. In verse 2, he tells us to carry one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ, which I believe is to “love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). It is right after this statement that Paul says “For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself”. Before I go any further, I want to have a look at that verse in Greek, and break it down:

TR Greek Transliterated English meaning
εἰ ei if
γὰρ gar for
δοκεῖ dokei think; or suppose; or to be of opinion
τις tis any[one]
εἶναί einai to be
τι ti any[one]
μηδὲν meden none; or no [one]; or nothing
ὤν on being (present participle of ‘is’)
ἑαυτόν heautou himself; or herself; or itself
φρεναπατᾷ phrenapata he deceives

Looking at the Greek, and considering the previous verses, I don’t believe this verse is meant to be taken in isolation. I think it is linked with the first verse where it says, “considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted”. The Greek word for “considering” is skopōn, and it has the meaning of “to look at, observe, contemplate. to mark”. However, if you think of yourself to already be unable to give into a temptation, then you are deceiving yourself. You are thinking of yourself to be something when you are nothing, that is, not that something. Essentially, verse 3 is a complement to verse 1, and keeps us from thinking that we are better than others.

In contrast, the apostle teaches us that instead of having an exaggerated opinion of ourselves when compared to others who made mistakes, we should instead prove our own actions [or ‘work’]. Let your actions do the talking. He further expresses that when we prove our own actions, we will be able to boast [or rejoice] in ourself and not in another. In other words, we won’t need to compare ourself to other’s mistakes. Instead, we bear our own burden. Or, we handle our own business, and take responsibility for ourselves.

How I understand it is that we ought to take responsibility for our own actions. We ought not to think we are better than others because they have done something that we haven’t, and if and when that happens, we ought to help the other person bear their burden, with a spirit of gentleness and empathy, understanding that given a different circumstance than could have been us. It is a very sobering message for all of us. It is not one of self-deprecation and thinking that we are nothing, but rather realizing that we should not think we are better than others when we are not any better.

Self-deprecation is fake

Many people, especially religous people, tend to love the idea of self-deprecation or self-denial. It is present in every religion on earth, including Christianity. Many Christians love to quote Jesus when he said, “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). They think that this statement gives them free reign to advocate expressions of self-denial, self-deprecation, self-abasement, and self-imposed suffering. Therefore, they feel justified in interpreting Galatians 6:3 as declaring in absolute terms that ‘we are nothing’. The only problem with this is that there are numerous verse throughout the New Testament that say we are not nothing. We are way more than nothing. We are not sinners, but new creations in Christ. We are sons (and daughters) of God, joint-heirs with Christ. when Jesus said to “let him deny himself”, he was talking about our will versus God’s will. In the case of Peter, he did not want Jesus to die. Jesus was supposed to die for our sins, but Peter did not see that as the goal. He had to deny his own viewpoint of Jesus for God’s viewpoint. Just in the same way, God’s viewpoint is not that we are nothing. Even the Psalmist ask God the question, What is man that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4). I think that instead of viewing ourself from human eyes in relation to God, we should instead view ourselves from God’s eyes in relation to his will for us.

Believe it or not, constantly thinking about ourselves as nothing really belittles God and his will for us. It is more rooted in a reaction to human pride, such that if we think of ourselves as nothing we can somehow please God. This is why I say it is fake. Instead we should rejoice in what God says about us. We should understand who we are as Christians, who are in Christ Jesus, who walk in the Spirit. We are children of God. We are heirs and joint-heirs with Christ Jesus, and we are more than conquerors through Christ. I could even draw the analogy of the prodigal son who returned to his father thinking that he should be considered a servant, and the father restored him to his rightful place as his son. If he insisted on being a servant instead, would this not have been an insult to his father? Surely, it would have. So, let’s rejoice in God by declaring that we are who he says we are. We were redeemed by the blood of Christ, and were made sons of God through his Spirit. We are way more than nothing in Christ.

References:

  1. Lexicon :: Strong’s G3367 – mēdeis – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g3367/kjv/tr/0-1/
  2. Lexicon :: Strong’s G4648 – skopeō – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g4648/kjv/tr/0-1/
  3. A Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Third Edition. BDAG. Page 647. Revised and Edited by Frederick William Danker.
  4. A Greek-English Lexicon – Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott. Page 926.

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