VIRTUES: Living Where You Are (Humility, Part One) by Gary L. Thomas
Embracing the Virtues of Christ
From: The Glorious Pursuit
Saints agree they are sinners; only sinners think they are saints.
The truth is this – pride must die in you, or nothing of Heaven can live in you.
“So how’d your morning work go?” My wife, Lisa, asked me.
“I lost a good bit of it. My computer crashed.”
She looked at me with astonishment. “I can’t believe you’re taking it so well.”
I shrugged. “I’ve written by hand and I’ve written on computers. Over the long run, computers have saved me a lot of time. I can’t complain if they take a little time back now and then.”
“But your attitude,” Lisa sad. “I think I’d be furious.”
As Lisa left the room, I thought, She’s right. I do have a really good attitude. I like that. Instead of ranting and raving, I just accept it and move on. That’s good. That’s mature. That’s how Christ would respond.
Later that same day, my kids didn’t do what they were supposed to do. Lisa became…upset. A little later, I forgot to do something I was supposed to do. Lisa became upset again.
I began to judge her. I have this great attitude, I told myself, but Lisa’s is awful. Why can’t she roll with the punches like I do?
Being the one with the mature attitude, I felt it was my duty to lecture her on how rotten hers had become.
Later that evening, God zeroes in on my pride. I saw how I had let Lisa’s compliment go to my head. As soon as pride was conceived, I became a judge. In the morning, I might have had a Christlike attitude; by the evening, I’d become a Pharisee.
Pride is that potent, that destructive, that abusive, and that offensive. Relationally, there are few things so obnoxious as self-righteousness. Spiritually, there are few things so injurious or even lethal as pride.
The irony is, the more we experience the character of Christ, the more natural reason we’ll have to become prideful. John Climacus warns us to “rebuff the vanity that follows obedience.” If we’re not careful, spiritual growth can sabotage itself. Maybe that’s why you cannot read far in the Christian classics without having people testify to the absolute necessity and foundation of humility.
John Calvin calls humility the “root” of our spiritual life. If we lack this root, he insists, we lack the vibrancy of the Christian life as God intends it. “Is it any wonder that the Christian life is so often feeble and fruitless, when the very root of the Christ-life is neglected, is unknown? Is it any wonder that the joy of salvation is so little felt, when that in which Christ found it and brings it is so little sought? We must seek a humility which will rest in nothing less than the end and death of self.”
In all of our discipleship, we teach prayer, we teach Bible study, and we teach evangelism. These are necessary disciplines. But without the interior foundation of humility, they can’t possibly support our spiritual house. To experience the life of Christ, we need the inner discipline of humility. If you’ve attempted to build a spiritual life from the outside in, bypassing humility, you probably feel tired, disillusioned, frustrated, or jut plain lifeless. The solution isn’t to neglect the outer disciplines, it’s to begin practicing the inner disciplines as well, beginning with Christ’s foundational attitude of humility.
If the Christian classics agree that humility is the most important starting point for the Christian life, why do we so neglect the interior life? Why are most of us taught how to do everything except cultivate this most important inner virtue?
Perhaps it’s because the inner disciplines and virtues are so difficult to teach and model. I can check off a completed Bible study, record my minutes in prayer, or write down the names of the people with whom I share my faith. But how do I check off the attainment of humility?
I can’t. The truth is this: We don’t become humble as much as we learn to practice humility. The virtues aren’t a state of being as much as they are inner disciplines after which we aspire. We enter into the virtues by degrees, and perhaps nowhere is this as true as it is with the virtue of humility.
Teaching and modeling the outer disciplines without the inner disciplines inevitably creates gifted but empty and proud Christians. Let’s begin to recapture the ancient and fundamental discipline of humility by examining how scripture and the Christian classics define it.
Have you ever met a Christian who seems to do everything right, who always knows the right things to say, who has admirable levels of discipline, but who just seems to lack the spirit of Christ? Maybe you couldn’t put your finger on it, but you sensed that while everything was right on the outside, something profoundly important was missing on the inside. Most often, this “something” is the spirit of Christ – humility. The most carefully groomed outer life can’t completely mask the ugliness of pride that lurks within.
From a spiritual perspective, humility is entering into the life of Christ through a radical God-dependence. It’s an inner orientation of actively receiving from God and acknowledging our need. The humble Christian is the Christian who takes literally Christ’s words: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Andrew Murray nails humility exactly when he calls it “the displacement of self by the enthronement of God.”
Calvin goes so far as to voice his agreement with Augustine that humility is not evidenced simply when “a man, aware that he has some virtues, abstains from pride and arrogance; but when man feels that he has no refuge except in humility.”
What do Calvin and Augustine mean, that a Christian can find absolutely no refuge except in humility? They mean that the Christian has shifted from a human-centered faith to a God-centered faith; that the root, fruit, and maintenance of his walk is dependent on God’s work. God’s favor, and God’s strength. He not only knows this, he acknowledges this and lives by this in a practical way.
Humility is the disposition that makes us available to be blessed by God. The psalms seem obsessed with God’s eagerness to reach out to the humble: God saves the humble, (Psalm 18:27); guides the humble, (Psalm 25:9); sustains the humble, (Psalm 147:6); and even crowns the humble, (Psalm 149:4). Notice that everything flows from God to the humble servant.
Pride seeks to reverse this. Pride is self-reliance and self-dependence. Arrogance seeks to obligate God instead of receive from him.
In college, I asked a nonbeliever to come with me to a John Fisher concert. In the seventies and early eighties, John’s thoughtful and informed lyrics made him one of my favorite contemporary Christian musicians. I was confident that John would present the gospel in a mature way. He did. John gave a particularly challenging invitation after singing a song about being a beggar telling other beggars where he found bread.
I eagerly awaited my friend’s response but was immediately disappointed.
“I’m not a beggar,” he insisted. “When I come to God, I’m going to come bringing him something, not asking for his help.”
This pride kept him from entering the spiritual life. The same pride keeps many of us from growing in the spiritual life. Some of us think that after we receive God’s salvation, then everything is up to us. This self-dependence cuts off our “spiritual oxygen.” We’re virtually paralyzed until we learn to breathe the fresh air of God’s empowerment, grace, and assistance.
We’ve been talking about what humility looks like between us and God, but humility toward our neighbor is just as important. Paul tells us to “show true humility toward all men.” What does this humility look like?
At the heart of “social” humility is self-forgetfulness. So often, we live as if the primary calling of the world and everyone around us is to make us happy, healthy, comfortable, and affluent. If anyone or anything dares to get in the way of this ultimate aim, we erupt into anger, resentment, and bitterness. Who cares if our waiter is having a bad day; we want our dinner!
A friend of mine from seminary faced this dilemma. He was cramming for an ethics final when he got a knock on the door. His inebriated neighbor needed to be taken to detox. His initial thought was, I can’t spend two hours taking some drunk to detox; I have to study for my social ethics class! When he realized the irony of what he was thinking, he put on his coat, picked up his car keys, and placed another person first.
The world doesn’t revolve around any one of us, and the demand that it should do so creates nothing but frustration. There’s no good time to have a family crisis; it’s never convenient to get a flat tire. The inner discipline of humility acts like a filter, saving us from the tyranny of grossly unrealistic expectations that everyone and everything should bend our way.
Self-forgetfulness also means we are liberated to serve others at God’s direction, rather than trying to impress them. The ultimate picture of this is Jesus, washing the feet of his disciples.
The lust to be served, honored, and noticed is nothing less than the lust to be treated like God. This monumental arrogance never can be satisfied; we will never become God. That’s why pride always leaves the aftertaste of frustration. Humility, on the other hand, can never be disappointed; if you want to serve someone, you can always find someone to serve – and in doing so, you’ll experience the joy and fulfillment of Christ.
Which life would you rather have? One in which your expectations will never be met and which leaves behind frustration and despair, or one that ushers in the very presence of Christ? Do you sense the churning of frustrated pride in your life? Do you need the inner discipline of humility?
It is important to be very clear in what we mean when we use the word “humility.” Some well-meaning but misguided Christians have tried artificially to manufacture the humble spirit and ended up creating a new form of pride.
“John” was one of the most frustrating Christians I’ve ever worked with. He was passionately committed to following the Lord, but his conscience tyrannized him. He became obsessed with how sinful he was, and he couldn’t pray for ten minutes without falling into despair about his spiritual bankruptcy.
The irony is, contrary to popular opinion, John wasn’t humble. Merely thinking ill of ourselves is not a healthy spiritual exercise. As Kreeft points out, “Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.”
John’s obsession with his own weaknesses meant that he was still the center of his own attention. He focused on his sinfulness instead of his strength, but from a Christian perspective, any obsession with the self still is considered pride.
Other Christians think that humility means denying what we know to be true with falsely self-deprecating statements: “I’m not really a good businessman; my success is mostly due to luck”; “Actually, I’m a very poor student, even though I get straight As.” Being humble doesn’t mean pretending we don’t have gifts; Jesus never pretended that he wasn’t the Son of God.
Instead of leading us into denial, humility leads us into using our gifts to serve rather than to impress. It changes the inner reality and attitude with which we view the talents that God has given us. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, so he started to wash the disciples’ feet.
When people try to prove themselves by their gifts instead of serving people with their gifts, they shrink their lives. They become incapable of taking equal enjoyment and delight in the accomplishments of others. They don’t want to be a good or faithful singer, pastor, preacher, parent, entrepreneur, or Christian, they want to be the best. So they cringe when others do well. Life becomes a competition. Humility is the inner attitude and discipline that sets us free from this self-obsessed bias.
In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape explains, “God wants the Christian, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents – or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible.”
If I’m a humble parent, I can clap loudly, enthusiastically, and sincerely when my friend’s kid wins a scholarship, even if my child barely managed to graduate. If I’m a humble neighbor, I can genuinely rejoice when someone from my street is finally able to afford a five-acre lot, even if my back yard is the size of a postage stamp.
The humble life is a life in which deep joy and profound appreciation become a daily occurrence because the wellspring of that joy isn’t limited solely to our own personal good fortune. We can appreciate others without feeling diminished because they have skills we don’t; we can revel in the beauty of a landscape without feeling envious that we don’t own it; we can be fed by a well-preached sermon rather than fretting over the fact that we’re not behind the pulpit.
Selfless living is liberated living. It recaptures the present, enabling us to live for today without letting our thirst for more destroy our present enjoyment. Rather than lust for more money, more power, or more recognition, we can wait for God. Peter wrote, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” When we become content to live in the present, God has given us our lives back in a vivid way; we no longer destroy the present by looking for a better future or a more celebrated now. We are set free to live the life that God created uniquely for us.
Living Your Life
A few years ago, the commercials sang, “I want to be like Mike.” As playground kids danced to the jingle, Michael Jordan soared across a basketball court, flying into a brilliant leaping dunk. “I want to be like Mike,” the kids sang over and over.
The tragedy is that commercials like these are pushing our children into “vicarious” living. Rather than seeking their own destinies, they settle for living in the shadow of someone else. Millions of kids (including my own) wear shirts with athletes’ names on the back.
God has given each one of us a life that he has given to no one else. We have our own character, skills, and body. Humility helps us accept an honest assessment of who we are, while daydreams about being someone else or someone better do nothing but make us spiritually hungry. Humility leads us to personal fulfillment rather than to fantasy and denial.
You see, pride can lead us to reach higher than God enabled us to reach. And pride can sometimes lead us to set our sights lower than we should, simply because we’re afraid to try and possibly fail; that would be too much for our egos to take. The same humility that cuts through the buzz of blind ambition also cuts through the paralyzing fear of failure. Humility gives us unparalleled fulfillment in completing the task specifically ordained for us.
I have a good friend who, in college, would never have been labeled humble. If anything, he was seen as cocky and arrogant. But God called him to be an associate pastor, a position he filled for almost fifteen years, until his mid-thirties. I never would have imagined this man willingly working as the “number two” guy in a church for that long. I always thought he’d need to be the senior pastor, but he learned to practice humility and found great joy in the place where God called him to be.
Another college friend of mine was working as an associate pastor, something most of his friends expected. Then the church he was with encouraged him to plant a sister church in a neighboring community. He became a senior pastor, something that surprised us all. We couldn’t see him as the main leader of a church. He didn’t seem to have the disposition or drive. But in humility, my friend accepted that calling, and in humility, he’s living it out. He doesn’t pretend to have it all together. He knows there are areas where he needs help, but he also realizes it would be arrogant for anyone to try to be a pastor on his own. His sense of need makes him a much stronger pastor.
In my own life, humility helps preserve the integrity of my vocational life. I’m not an “A-list” writer or a household name. You probably didn’t buy this book because you had heard of me, but because the subject interested you. Accordingly, I often take side work as a “ghostwriter” (or unnamed coauthor) to pay the bills. I’ll interview someone and tell his story for him. During this process, some great lines will pop into my head in the process of writing. Inevitably, I’ll pause. I should save that line for one of my own books! I’ll think. That’s a good one!
But always God reminds me of my calling. He lets me know that the river of his kingdom needs to flow freely without every individual Christian building a dam with his name on it to let everyone know, “This work of God passed through me first!”
If everything good has been birthed in God, what does it matter whose hands it has passed through? We are simply the mail carriers, not the writers. Would your mail carrier stand outside your door and shout, “I just want you to know, I delivered this Christmas card! You wouldn’t have received it if I hadn’t been faithful to put it in your box”? Yet in Christian circles, too many of us cling tenaciously to each distinguishing mark of God’s grace and favor. We erect dams every ten inches so we can “control” what God has given to us.
We do this because we have finite minds that haven’t grasped the unlimited bounty of an infinite God. Am I to believe that God can only entrust me with so many “good lines”? Is God’s Spirit – which passionately desires to speak truth to God’s people – running out of powerful analogies?
When we slip from the foundation of a “giving life” to the cavern of a “notice-me life,” we live in a state of high frustration. Ambition grinds up people. To embrace humility is to be liberated from the insatiable search for self-significance.
Humility will become a passion for us when we realize that the more we put our own egos out of the way, the more the life and power and purpose of God can pass through us. When this happens, something glorious takes place: We get to experience the quality of eternal life without the taint of our own control and small ego demands.
Since humility is so important – the queen of the virtues – we need to give closer attention to it in the next chapter, to look at how we lay the foundation of Christlike living by practicing this inner discipline.
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