When Jesus called us to follow him, he didn't give us a list of personal qualities we were to develop like Paul did later in his letters. Instead, Jesus told stories, and the stories he told made pretty clear what was expected of us. This parable is an example:
Two men went to the temple to pray. One was insufferably arrogant, assuming himself to be superior to ordinary people. The other stood afar off and humbly acknowledged his sinfulness. It's clear which of these two models Jesus called us to adopt.
But among the qualities Jesus thought appropriate for humans to possess was one which many Christians have a hard time with. And that one is humility.
You can sort of measure how well you're doing in matters like honesty and compassion and helpfulness. But how do you measure your humility? It's easy enough to tell when you're not being humble, but how do you know when you are being humble rather than just pretending to be? Is humility something you can focus on like that famous and fictitious book titled "Humility and How I Achieved It"?
Arrogance, the opposite of humility, can creep into our behavior in unsuspecting ways, like the CEO who prided himself on being a devout person and who would pray, "O Lord, use me, especially in an advisory capacity."
I think the problem we have with humility arises from our tendency to misunderstand it as self-denigration and that is not what Jesus meant or what God wants. Years ago I recall hearing a gospel song which said, "O to be nothing, nothing." No. We're not called to be nothing. We're called to be something, somebody for God. It's true what they say, "God don't make no junk," and we are not called to act as though we were. Humility is not self-effacement. God created us, and we do not honor God by depreciating God's creation. Our selfhood is important to God and so it should be important to ourselves. This is precisely why the second great commandment, the one following "You should love the Lord your God with everything you have," is "You should love your neighbor," not "instead of," but "as you love yourself."
I saw a cartoon once which showed a man standing in front of his mirror while shaving and saying, "If you're your own best friend, how come you don't like yourself any better than you do?" Behind the humor may be an element of truth that somewhere along the line he heard that he wasn't supposed to feel good about himself. Maybe he heard that in sermons that he misheard. Or maybe the sermons were mispreached. Maybe the church has so stressed human sinfulness without similarly stressing human godlikeness that one result is that some people have left the church in favor perhaps of a New Age religion that enabled them to feel better about themselves.
A Spanish philosopher has said, "Heaven is to love myself as much as God does."
So humility has been a problem for Christians because it's often been misunderstood. Perhaps one can be "over-humble" in ways God does not at all intend.
When I was a college chaplain, I used to counsel seniors who were about to launch into the job market that they had better be able to claim their good qualities and be able to give strong reasons why an employer should hire them. False modesty is not likely to get them a job. It's one thing to post a boasting poster about yourself to the world. It's something quite different to respond honestly to the question, "Why should we hire you?"
This is one of those points at which the thinking of female theologians has made an impact on our understanding. Back when almost all theologians were men, a dominant synonym for sin was "pride," thinking too highly of ourselves. When women theologians began to enter the scene, we found them putting the understanding of sin at a different place. The word they more commonly used for sin was "sloth," failing to be who we are. It arose from the general female experience in our society that women were limited to vocations thought to be appropriate for them, assumed to be less capable of deep and clear thinking and less powerful than men in ways that mattered. And some women bought into that false notion. That, in part, was their sin -- sloth -- a failure to claim their full responsibility to God and their right to live a full life.
Every so often, I see a sculpture or a painting that makes me cry. One painting that has had that impact on me is one called "The Presence in the Midst" by J. Dale Penrose. Perhaps you've seen it. It shows the interior of a great cathedral. Your attention is immediately drawn to the chancel area and the altar where bright candlelight illumines the priests serving Eucharist to members of the congregation. Then you notice at the bottom corner of the painting in the shadows is a figure of a person--you can't tell its gender--kneeling in contrition but apparently feeling unqualified to approach the altar and receive communion. And next to that humble figure in the shadows stands Jesus. If Jesus is to be found in that cathedral, it was not most importantly at the altar but at the side of a penitent sinner.
Why is Jesus found there? Well, one reason is that the penitent heart is more able to receive the presence of Christ than the arrogant one. But I think there's another reason as well, and that is that Jesus wanted that penitent person to understand that humility doesn't need humiliation. Penitence for behavior doesn't mean apology for living. That person needs to know that sinful behavior is not only a violation of God's will, it is a contradiction of that person's true nature and possibility. The power of God's forgiveness of confessed sin is the renewed power to be the child of God that one is and the possibility of demonstrating that truth in a person's new form of behavior.
The more I think about this the more I realize why Jesus is so important to me. And it isn't just his teachings, as important as they were, it's the whole manner of his life, the way he was with people, his unusually close relationship with God, so close that we refer to him as God's Son, his confidence and courage in his mission even up to and including his crucifixion, which he clearly would have preferred to avoid but which he accepted as the final dramatic evidence of God's redeeming love for us all, and, of course, the unfathomable mystery of the resurrection.
Without Jesus, the nature and will of God would be only in the form of precepts. In Jesus, God's nature and will come to life. Someone once said, speaking of the role of a national ambassador, "The best way to get an idea across is to wrap it up in a person." This is exactly what God did in sending Jesus. So the Sunday School child was right in saying, "Jesus is the best picture God ever had taken."
I can relate to a person much more readily than I can relate to an idea or a concept or even a teaching. It's because of Jesus that I can relate personally to God and know God to be one of compassion for me and hope in me. It's because of Jesus that I know God to love me to such a depth and so without condition that there is nothing I can do or say or think or feel or fail that will diminish God's love for me. God addresses you and everyone on earth in that way. Perhaps you can understand my zeal to get that word to everyone I can, for I believe there is nothing that everyone longs to know more certainly than that they are loved that way no matter what.
I don't know when or how I might come upon that fact if it weren't for Jesus whom I call Christ. I also call him "Savior" because he saved me from all sorts of mistruth, even about myself. I often experience Jesus standing by me as he did that penitent sinner in that painting, reassuring me that I am still within the orbit of God's unconditional love and that as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
So I call myself a Christian. To be called a Christian is not intended as a compliment. It's no cause for personal boasting; it's simply an identification of the one I seek to follow -- at considerable distance I'm afraid -- nevertheless, the one I seek to follow and emulate and serve, because I have found him to be the way to the surest truth and the fullest life.
Some people misunderstand the Christian Church to be a fellowship of do-gooders who think of themselves as a notch above everyone else. Now, I think most of us in the church know better than that, but maybe that's another way in which we have miscommunicated to the world. Charles Clayton Morrison left us with an outstanding description of the Church. He said:
The Christian Church is not a society of integrated personalities, nor of philosophers, nor of mystics nor even of good people. It's a society of broken personalities, of men and women with troubled minds, of people who know they're not good. The Christian Church is a society of sinners. It is the only society in the world in which membership is based upon the single qualification that the candidates shall be unworthy of membership.
That's a humbling definition of being a church member and appropriately so. It doesn't lead me to claim some lofty moral status nor does it relegate me to the dung heap of failure and worthlessness. It enables me to be quite honest about myself, both my failures and my capabilities.
The reason we speak of Jesus Christ as the "Incarnation" is that he embodies God in human flesh. But that isn't all he reveals. He reveals not only what we mean when we say "God," he also reveals what God means when God says "human being." Jesus was forever reminding us not to discount ourselves. At one point, you'll recall, in the wake of having done something remarkable, he told his disciples, "Greater things than these will you do."
Our calling, yours and mine, is to become that kind of human being, to become Christlike. That doesn't mean we would all become carbon copies or that all of us who sought to be like Jesus would be a fellowship of indistinguishable clones. It means that each of us would become the person Jesus would be if he had our personal history, our talents, our limitations, and our possibilities.
I think the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton identified the secret to humility when he said, "Humility is being precisely the person you actually are in the presence of God," which means that the secret of humility is not to focus on behaving in a certain way but to focus on the presence of God and yourself being in that presence always.
I am persuaded that if I behaved consistently in the awareness of being in the presence of God, I would be satisfactorily humble.
Will you pray with me?
Gracious and loving God, help us to see ourselves as you see us, not through the lens of shame or of discouragement, but with a grateful awareness that you created us, that we're all your children, endowed with great qualities and possibilities. Forgive us that we have so often fallen short of your expectations, but spare us from letting our humble awareness of that fact drive us to a self-rejection that does not honor you. Help us to be ourselves in your presence and in that presence to grow daily into the person you created us to be. In the name and in the power of Jesus Christ. Amen.