We like virtues. We really do. Well, maybe we like them in theory, but not always in practice. Who could rail against love, joy, peace, kindness and goodness? These attributes are nearly universally valued by people.
But when I say valued, I mean I value it when other people do these things. I am not always so interested in doing them myself. I do get rather outraged when people do not treat me the way I want to be treated.
There are virtues in the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22,23) that are not so widely lauded. Most people have a grudging acceptance of patience but more often have a punchline that implies that it is impossible. Faithfulness reminds us too much of how much divorce we engage in. That is really uncomfortable, better not mention it. Gentleness really sounds like weakness. We’ve all known gentle people: they cry a lot when they are bullied at school.
And no one will ever stitch self-control on a pillow. Self-control implies that I can be held responsible for the porn I look at or the video games I am playing or the laziness I so deeply want to indulge. It implies I can do things I don’t want to do. That is downright unAmerican.
But the virtue with the worst reputation is not one of the Fruits of the Spirit. It is maligned when it is discussed, misrepresented when it is described, and we complain viciously when other people don’t possess it.
That’s right, it is humility.
Humility is terribly misunderstood in our day. I think most people would describe it as the lack of pride. No one would tolerate love being described as the lack of hate or joy being the lack of sadness, but poor humility is always described by its opposite. We just know we don’t like arrogant people.
But then we run into semantic troubles. We talk about pride in our work and pride in our country. We take pride in our family and pride in our possessions. We talk about jobs as if they can allow a man some pride. With all of these uses of the word pride, it is difficult to define humility as the opposite of them. When we say pride, we mean many different things.
So humility really needs to be described on it own terms.
Often, when we think of a humble person, we think of a things like the old English term of being in a humble estate. That means poor. This is misleading. I have known many arrogant poor people and arrogant wealth people. Humility and pride are states of the heart, not dollar amounts in a bank.
So what is humility? One of the most helpful descriptions of a humble person came from C. S. Lewis.
To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Humility is the self-forgetfulness we experience when we look at the stars on a clear night. Some describe it as the conviction that we are small, but I think it is more like the conviction that God is more interesting and delightful than I am. It’s not that I’m boring, it’s that he is fascinating.
Humility treats others well because it has compassion for their pain (treating it like I treat my own) and delights in their good (again, treating it like it was my good). Humility does not feel entitled to being served and, quite the opposite, delights in serving. Humility loves to see joy in others eyes and loves to serve them to see that joy.
Humility is not overly concerned with its reputation. This is one of the great lies of our society, that a humble person feels badly about themselves. A humble person is not thinking of themselves much at all. They have a delightful focus on the world around them which is not distracted by the constant posturing for appearances.
Humble people loves kids. They love the sincerity and delight that children possess. Far from being too wise and polished for children, humble people don’t mind getting on the ground and being silly with them. Because of that self-forgetfulness they experience, humble people don’t have to keep up appearances and neither do children.
Humble people love Jesus. They see him and are awestruck. They delight in the fact that he humbled himself more than anyone else ever could.
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. Phil 2:6-7
Do you see it? Do you see how amazing it is that he was not stuck on being thought of (counted) equal with God. He chose to serve us. Why would he do this?
…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Heb 12:2
He did it for joy. He humbled himself for the joy he would experience later. He humbled himself because humility and joy are very nearly the same thing.
If you’re like me, you are no doubt feeling quite guilty right now. You are looking into your soul and seeing the stunning amount of naval-gazing you do and then realize the you are currently naval-gazing. Crap! What can we do?
I recently heard a wonderful lecture by James McDonald (see a wonderful excerpt here) where he made a fascinating insight into humility. He noted that the bible does not command you even once to be humble. Rather, it always tells us to “humble yourselves.” His argument is that humility is much more action oriented. It is the choice to clean up that mess you don’t have to, to serve someone for the joy of serving. Far from the ivory tower solution of considering my own humility, he says to over and over again that “humility is not a feel thing, it is a do thing.”
You want to be humble. Go change a kids diaper. Do you want to broadcast your stunning deed on Facebook? That is your pride trying to rob you of the much deeper joys of humility. God knows you did it. He encourages you to show off to him that you did it (Matthew 6:4-6). By implication, he wants you to love that your Dad is proud of you and delighted by your good deed. He wants you to be so pleased that he is pleased, so delighted in his delight.
He wants your joy. He wants your humility. What I never knew before is that these are nearly the same thing.
Humility is not only the foundation under joy, it is the foundation under love. You will notice that love has the strange components of loving actions and loving feelings. If you only describe love as an action or a feeling, it becomes either useless (just a feeling) or martyrdom (just an action). It must be both.
And that is where humility comes in. We must harness the joy of a delightful world full of image-bearers of God to pry the claws of stupid pride out of our souls. We are then free to joyfully look outside of ourselves and drink deeply of a joyful and sweet God and his lovely creation. The joy of humility is the fuel we use to love and sacrifice and serve. Under all that good is a humble heart that just doesn’t find itself all that interesting.
So do the humble thing. Go to God with your stupid pride and naval-gazing. Tell him about it. Then accept that he really does love you and really does forgive you because he really is that good. It takes humility to trust him, but isn’t that what this is all about.
Once you accept that he is trustworthy, then real joy is yours. Drink deeply of all the joys outside yourself. Drink from the deepest wells of joy which are scripture and prayer. Love the lesser joys too like nature, great books, people, great stories (movies too!). Stare deeply into things you love and forget yourself in them. Then make that joy complete by thanking God for them and then telling people about them.
Don’t buy into the lie that humility is miserable. Humility is joy, real joy.
Photo is is from Waiting for the Word and is used with permission