This is one of the core concepts of the Spiritual life.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Mt 23:12)
I’ve spent seven years in Christian higher education, getting two degrees which have bathed me in the teachings of ministry and the Church.
I do not believe I’ve ever been taught or shown or even encouraged to humble myself.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
I have spent thirty years in the Church, from my first week of life to now, I have participated at every level, in every kind of ministry.
I’ve been taught how to exalt myself. I’ve been taught how to be a leader. I’ve been shown that the way to ecclesial success is to show oneself gifted above the rest, to be more insightful, to be more energetic, to be more happy, to be more strong, to be more faithful, to be more capable. I’ve been taught how to communicate in a way that impresses, how to craft a portfolio that shows how much I can do. I’ve seen the fruits of exalting, and seen how people are eager to exalt those who exalt themselves.
I’ve never been shown how to humble myself, and have been shown that those who are humbled have little place within the Body of Christ, except as targets of ministry from the exalted. One is taught to overcome humility with strength and fortitude, one is taught how to make weaknesses disappear in a veneer of spirituality and methodology.
No one teaches how to be humble. No one shows how we are to humble ourselves.
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:11)
Thank God I am not like the other people, those wretched sinners who ruin our country and foul the Church with their doubt. Thank God I can gather with others like me, and so keep myself from that kind of evil. That is what I am taught to say.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That is what my heart says.
What is humility anyhow in our era? That’s the question. For in a way we in the Church have learned to exalt forms of humility, so that the ways to honor are the ways which used to lead to humility. Go across the world to a god forsaken place, and find honor and glory at home. Move downtown to live with the poor and destitute, and get a speaking gig at a conference. Move away, live in a cave, absorbing the fruits of a nature filled life. It is the REI romance many dream about.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Be a sad sack and God will love you for it. Give it all up and you will find heavenly peace. But what does this mean in our era if the traditional paths of humility are now points of honor?
What does it mean to humble yourself? What does that look like?
That’s worth an Ignatian exercise. Imagine this. Humble yourself. What does that look like? Where would you live? How would you eat? What could you do that would make your friends embarrassed about your situation? These aren’t the classic answers of times past that find a peculiar honor. Rather these answers are those paths which truly are humbling in our era.
No one teaches this because real humility is shameful, embarrassing, and entirely counterintuitive.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
Humility involves letting go. It involves releasing what we think we are owed because of our talents, gifts, efforts, and work.
Some people are humbled, and learn these lessons in ways they would have never chosen. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
But, they have to wait for heaven because humility is not considered a boon. Those who cannot exalt themselves can find no favor, for God is a god of blessing and those who are not blessed must not know God. Thus, we must have the exalted be our leaders and show us the path. It is the succesful businessmen who know God, it is the skillful preacher who sees the real light. It is the one with so much on their plate that they cannot make time in any day of the week for rest who are able to best expound the nature of God to those who are so incomplete as to find themselves lost in the sea of frustrations.
That’s what we are taught, and so the call to humble ourselves becomes anathema, for it catches us between a calling to heaven and a calling to the Church.
And so being willing to brave the fierce rejection of humility becomes rare, and finding oneself being humbled becomes a time of despair. Those who are called the most, lose heart as they are humbled in a time which values only exalting.
So, what does humility look like? I suspect it looks somewhat different for each person, with only that core feeling of utter incompleteness always the same. Humility is the realization that I have nothing in this world, nothing for this world, and the world despises my place. That is our calling in this spiritual life, both to do and to respect those who are in humble situations. In this we see the work of the Spirit.
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”
This may be among the hardest spiritual lessons to learn. For it goes against the world, and in a real way goes against the patterns of the Church. But it is the way of the Spirit, “foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.”
May those who are humbled and those who humble themselves persevere. May I continue to persevere. This is my calling and my prayer this morning.