By Audrey Stallsmith
This time of year we talk a lot about Christ's humble birth, but we seem to have some major misconceptions about humility. Before I point those out, some of you readers will doubtless want to remind me that humility is not really the strong point of us writers! It takes a certain amount of chutzpah, after all, to believe that a significant number of other people are going to be interested in what we have to say.
But, in my defense, I will point out that many of us creative types are quite accustomed to "humble living," when it is defined in terms of physical poverty. The writers or artists who make millions are, unfortunately, few and far between.
Some of us must take menial jobs to support our creating "habit"--not to mention having to rely on the kindness of family and friends if we happen to encounter a financial emergency. So, although we may be vain, we don't really have the option of being proud. Pride, as Christianity sees it, is the refusal to be dependent.
Vanity, on the other hand, as G. K. Chesterton opines in one of his columns, "seems to me rather a fine thing. Vanity is a desire for praise. . .means thinking somebody's praise. . .more important than yourself. But pride. . .is thinking yourself more important than anything that can praise or blame you." Unfortunately, although quick to condemn vanity, our society tends to think of "pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps pride (i.e. "independence") as a good thing.
Self-sufficiency may be the American ideal but it is also, as Philip Yancey writes in Open Windows, "the most fatal sin because it pulls us, as if by a magnet, from God. . ." Dorothy Sayers agrees, noting, in Dante, the Divine Comedy, that "pride is the head and root of all sin, both original and actual. . .making self, instead of God, the center about which the will and desire revolve."
We all think we know what humility means. We tend to associate it with self-conscious types who--out of modesty--decline to display their talents or contribute their input to a discussion. But, since I was once that painfully shy, I can attest such reticence usually springs from reluctance to make a fool of oneself. And that is simply another form of pride! Perhaps Fulton Sheen is right in Life Is Worth Living, when he observes testily that "The inferiority complex is really a superiority complex."
Such self-protective pride is also selfish. As Chesterton points out in one of his columns, "It is no more admirable to have valuable suggestions to make and not put them into circulation than it is to have valuable coin of the realm and keep it stuffed in a greasy old stocking."
He adds, elsewhere, that "the humble man will be always talkative; for he is interested in his subject. . .But the proud man will be generally silent, for he is not interested in his subject but in himself." (I think we can assume that Chesterton was, himself, pretty chatty!)
In The Christian Secret of a Happy Life, Hannah Whithall Smith also "made the discovery. . .that shyness is simply thinking about oneself, and that to forget oneself was a certain cure." And the fastest way to forget yourself is to lose yourself in admiration for something or somebody else. In Christ, we have the ultimate Subject for worship. Why, then, when He has done so much for all of us, do so many avoid thinking about Him at all?
Frederick Buechner explains quite tellingly. "To have somebody else give his life for us would be almost more than we would choose to bear. Given the choice, we would not have let him do it, not for his sake but for our own sakes. Because we have our pride, after all. We do not want something for nothing. It threatens our self-esteem, our self-reliance. And because if another man dies so that I can live, it imposes a terrible burden on my life. I cannot live any longer just for myself. As though in some sense he lives through me now."
"We have our pride." That's what it always comes back to. But, fortunately, most of us who have become Christians did so after getting a very lowering look at ourselves. In one searing flash we knew that, if we had to count on our own righteousness to save us, we were forever doomed. That's when we stretched up our muddy hands for help.
"He who does not really feel himself lost," Jose Ortega writes, "is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality." It is not, as is often claimed, we Christians who refuse to face facts!
Knowing the depths of our own depravity, we still can't comprehend why a holy God would love us enough to die for us. But, by doing so, He illustrated once and for all how much he thought we were worth. That in itself should put paid to our constant need to prove something to ourselves. It can even rid us of the--less fatal but still restless--vanity that craves acceptance from others. If the King loves us, why do we need other people's approbation?
Truly humble people, because they no longer vie for acclaim, may look as if they're self-confident enough that they don't need it. Humility is so successful, as Chesterton comments in Heretics, that it often looks like pride. In fact, as Thomas Kelly observes in A Testament of Devotion, "There is something about deepest humility which makes men bold. For utter obedience is self-forgetful obedience."
Why, despite all this, are many still holding out against love? And why do even we Christians tend to keep something back? In The Becomers, Keith Miller concludes "we want to be helped and loved by God but we fear that he will absorb us or we will lose our identity and 'control' if we get too close to him." In other words, like Beauty in the fairy tale, we fear we will be eaten by the power to which we have submitted ourselves.
But, like her, we may be pleasantly surprised to discover the riches of surrender! In The New Being, Paul Tillich notes that Jesus, when dealing with those who needed his help, "did not keep them, as a good helper should never do. He gave them back to themselves as new creatures, healed and whole."
We can only "find ourselves" in God, after all. For, as the One who created us, He is the only one who can show our true selves to us. He is also, as Rebecca Manley Pippert asserts in Out of the Saltshaker, "the only one in the universe who can control us without destroying us. . .He controls us in the right way: by being who he is without compromise and by insisting we become all that we were meant to be."
Christ also gives us back each other. Every since the fall, we've tended to think of other people as competition. We also feel compelled to put on a show of strength in front of them. But, in With God on Your Side, Doug Manning notes, "I can stop worrying about how they see me and begin to notice them. . .I no longer must compete with them for my position." I can even start admitting that I'm as human as they are, that I need their help. "Detachment from self," Fulton Sheen agrees in Life Is Worth Living, "is always the condition of attachment to others."
Jesus is supposed to be our example of how humility lives and acts. "Humble" isn't the first word that pops into our minds when we see him excoriating Pharisees or kicking over the moneychangers' tables in the temple. But He didn't do those things just to be throwing His weight around.
As E. B. Phillips asserts in God Our Contemporary, "Jesus was no verbal sentimentalist. The attitude of Christians needn't always be that of the meek acceptance and patient smile. Constructive love is flexible in the face of human complexities of character. Christ needed to use violent methods to crack the armor of complacency."
But He also allowed Himself to be killed by and for the petty men who had so infuriated Him. That was His Father's will and Jesus was, from beginning to end, "about His Father's business." So should we be.