In our culture, humility is something we admire, but not something to which we aspire (or, at least, we don’t act as if we do). We tweet out every mildly humorous or interesting thought we have, climb out of bed, get our hair and makeup looking perfect, take a selfie, and “Insta” out to everyone we know how we’re “just chillin’ on a Saturday:” look at us- the perfect life, the perfect husband or wife, the perfect look. As Chris Rock says, when we meet each other for the first time, we don’t really meet each other; we meet each other’s “personal representative”, or image manager. Honestly, I struggle sometimes writing this blog every week, as if I have anything worth reading- it seems like kind of a narcissistic exercise. Humility is not our strong suit.
But, it doesn’t come naturally to anyone. Never has. Since that day in the Garden when everything headed south for us, we have been completely self-focused, self-referenced, and self-centered. And, yet, humility is crucial. Reading John Dickson’s Humilitas last summer challenged me in a couple of areas with regard to this great virtue. First, humility is an amazingly generative virtue. G.K. Chesterton argued that pride is the engine of mediocrity—it fools us into believing that we have arrived, that we have nothing left to learn. Conversely, humility reminds us that we are not there yet, that there is so much more to learn, to which we must aspire. In this sense, it is perhaps the most preeminent virtue for the educational process. Sometimes, getting knocked down and, as Dickson says, “sitting in the dirt puckering up to the horrible” is where you learn skills you may not have learned elsewhere. They are places of growth.
It’s preeminent for another reason, as well. Humility is the answer to the new tolerance in our society, the failure of ethical imagination that strikes liberals and conservatives, Christians and non-Christians alike, that convinces them that you can only love those whose lives you approve of, and can only be friends with those people who agree with you. Humility reminds us, not to live as if our moral or spiritual convictions may not be true (because no one can really live that way), but to respect and care for those with whom we profoundly disagree. We maintain our convictions; however, humility allows us to NEVER see those convictions lead to feelings of superiority.
Humility is most important, however, because it is the one characteristic that is common to the men and women God uses. Not the ones He manipulates, like Nebuchadnezzar, Caiaphas, and Pharaoh, but those He loves, those after His heart, those through whom He does amazing things. Whether Paul, or David, or Ruth, or Moses, or the Marys, God uses those who are humble to change the world, and He uses them in proportion to their humility.
So, if humility is so important, how do we cultivate this virtue in our own lives, and cultivate it in our children? As I’ve been reflecting on it, several things come to mind:
Time in prayer. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in the Gospel of John. In Chapters 6, and again in 8, Jesus is teaching and speaking to the crowds, performing miraculous works among them. The fervor among the crowds as they recognize that they are in the midst of the Messiah becomes overwhelming, and twice they are at the point of forcibly taking Him to Jerusalem and making Him king. At those moments, the gospel says that Jesus fled into the wilderness to pray. It hit me for the first time that the seduction of people thinking you are “the man” is so intensely powerful that even Jesus was tempted by it. He fled so that He could go away and re-focus, to remember His mission, to humble Himself before the Lord: to remember that He was God’s servant, on mission for the Lord and not on His own agenda. If the King of Kings and Lord of Lords needed to do that, I definitely need to do so. I need time alone with my God, so that He can remind me who He is and who I am, and so that I can align my heart with His perfect will, thinking His thoughts and feeling what He feels.
Remember who you were. Although it’s not good to wallow in past sins, it is healthy from time to time to remember who we were without and before Christ. Life has a way of making that apparent, especially we you blow it, falling back into old habits or wrestling with that one nagging sin that never seems to go away. When I screw up in epic ways, which occurs with still-alarming frequency, it’s a great reminder of two things: first, I stand clean and loved before God not because I’m awesome, but because Christ bled and died for me, and second, that I live day to day, second to second, breath to breath by the glorious grace of Christ, and nothing else. It’s hard not to be humbled by that thought.
Be other focused. As C.S. Lewis said, true humility isn’t thinking more of yourself or less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. And, the only way I know of consciously thinking of myself less is by thinking of others more. What did I do today? Was someone’s need met? Was someone exhorted? Did someone grow in their walk with the Lord today because of something I did or said? Did someone feel valued and loved? Did someone hear God’s truth? Is the default condition of my life constantly pouring it out for others? It’s pretty hard to focus on myself when my focus is on others. And, it’s pretty hard to focus on anything other than myself when I’m not other-focused.
Dickson says that true greatness is marked by a thousand small courtesies. No one is capable of having and sustaining the interest in others necessary to extend those courtesies without humility. It’s supernatural in origin, and spectacular in effect.