Humility and How I Achieved It … ???

Many have pointed out that humility is the essential virtue that we cannot “work on.” Think about the fictitious book, Humility and How I Achieved It. It’s a joke, right? If you’re writing a book about how you achieved humility, how much humility do you really have? Humility by definition does not focus on its own presence or quality. This is what Paul had in mind as he wrote his Philippian friends about how to live together:

“… complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 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 made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Because humility is a supremely Christlike virtue, we often find in the Christian community the oxymoronic attempt to act humble. The reason is clear; we wish to acquire the respect that comes with being perceived in the Christian community as a Christlike or humble person, while at the same time enjoying a very hefty prestige based on this “humility.” How odd. This is especially present among long-time, well-churched Christians. It is a spiritual malady of the “mature.”

How should we respond then? Since we can’t “cultivate” humility like we would certain other virtues, is there any hope for us to actually grow in it? Good News: There Is! Christlike humility is attempting to spring up within us all the time.  It is growing through the only means possible in a pride-saturated world—humiliation. Interestingly, our culture treats the idea of humility as a virtue and the concept of humiliation as a vice, even though they come from the same root. Nobody in western society, tutored as we are in the gospel of self-esteem, embraces humiliation in any form. We are nagged relentlessly to “stand up for ourselves,” “demand respect,” “fulfill our potential,” and “get our best lives now.”

Humiliation is the acquisition of genuine humility through the most honest means available. It need not be public humiliation, or even very severe for that matter, but it is the piercing, conscious awareness of specific failure coupled with a sense of needing and receiving grace from the Lord. It is one of the essential ingredients in what the Bible calls repentance, the first step into eternal life. But it’s not just the first step, is it? Do we not learn to walk in this humble repentance always? Is this not walking in the Spirit? (Gal.5:25-26).

Let me suggest that true humility is actually growing in us when the Lord arranges for us to be sinned against, slighted, ignored, embarrassed, or in some way hurt by others. At moments like these, when angry self-righteousness so naturally erupts, we might ask ourselves the same question God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be so angry?” What would our reaction be if we really didn’t care about our reputation or prestige and only cared about the truth, the needs of others, or the will of the Lord in the situation? In other words, what would it be like if we thought like Jesus on the subject at hand?

I have heard Christians seriously teach that, “It’s a sin to allow anybody to sin against you,” which would mean of course that our Lord is the worst sinner of all time (!). Do we have to let others sin against us in every case? Of course not. Justice is also a virtue. But as Christians we have the right and the power to let others hurt us unjustly without retaliating. And the exercise of doing just that is the one way we can cooperate with the growth of humility in our hearts. How else could our Lord teach and demonstrate his famous instruction to turn the other cheek (Take a moment to look up the following verses: Matt.5:38-42; Romans 12:14-21; 1 Peter 2:19-25). Jesus saved the world by doing precisely what he instructs us to do in strategic situations—let pain and humiliation happen to us. The result in us is a true selflessness, a relief from the burden of appearing perfect, of living up to the unbearable weight of our own reputation for maturity. Under the grace of the Lord, we will sense the love, joy and peace—the relief—that comes from simply loving and being loved by the Lord himself (See 1 Cor.13).

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Topiary

Frankly, I’m tired of books about the church. With some exceptions, they are impatient critiques. And for a working pastor, though they have some salient points, as a steady diet they become deeply wearying. The church is never “missional” enough, “radical” enough, “spiritually disciplined” enough, “relevant” enough, “creedal” enough, “Reformed” enough, “doing justice enough,” or “growing” enough. But none of this is news to any experienced pastor who is trying to nourish the Lord’s sheep, most of whom are just surviving amid cancer, divorce, bankruptcy and temptation. I have discovered that an obsession with the failures of the church instead of the victory of Christ will not help the church in the ways some sociologists imagine. Plus, it’s depressing and unbiblical.

All this critique tempts pastors to try to shape the church to appear more like what they think the latest emphasis is, and be anxious when their church is not impressive in these ways. This shaping has to do with pleasing often imaginary pastoral peers, the authors of the books that line the shelves. But the church is not our project, or at least not primarily ours. It is Christ’s church. He trims it for fruit, not for looks.

Topiary is the science and art of trimming bushes or trees to look like various “non-bush” things—like Mickey Mouse for instance. You see a lot of it at Disney Land. It takes considerable skill and is quite impressive when done right. The problem with topiary is that the actual fruit of the bush or tree is an obstacle to the beautification project. When I worked as a grounds keeper I remember spraying giant olive trees so they would not bear olives because the olives were messy. I think much pastoral literature coerces us into being grounds keepers instead of farmers.

One thing I have learned is that, though I must keep learning even from critiques, the church is not Disney Land. It is a working farm, with all the mess and inefficiency that a working farm experiences. Pastoring is not marketing, manufacturing, or topiary. It is not glamorous or flattering. Farming is hard, seasonal, long-term, humble work with lots of set-backs, dependent on many forces outside our control (weather, God’s providence), and focused on fruit, not impressiveness. There is virtue in patience, as every farmer knows (James 5:7).

 

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick