“Humility is the quiet virtue.” – Everett Worthington
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
Always out of reach
For the humble and arrogant alike
And less learning to master a bike
Rather—more walking than standing
But not just anywhere
And yet still not certain you’re in the right
Taking the path
Only to be surprised by heaven.
There are few virtues quite as celebrated and yet still mysterious as humility. Even the most morally dense know enough to not claim it, and no one knows exactly how to get it. While we are willing to describe “what” it is and can even recognize “who” has it, the “how” feels aloof. Humility is the virtue central to combating pride, the most dastardly of the vices, and yet it can feel like a jack-in-the-box that only pops up periodically in the cranked out lives of surprising people.
A Distorted Comparison
One of the tactics seen to be safe by many is a total abasing of oneself. We can take up Paul’s sentiments and cry, “I am the worst of sinners!! I mean the worst!” Of course, we cry it loud enough so that all can hear, making a reverse hierarchy as to who can make the worst of themselves the loudest.
The thoughtful Christian who has seen through this distorted comparison strategy may then counter with the richness of our Imago Dei. We are beautiful because of whose image we bear, and yet we are also broken in our sins and cycles of destruction, where the Holy Spirit is continually at work to bring about our liberation.
This retort is usually followed by the charge to “not think less of yourself, but think of yourself less.” While in the moment we aren’t sure if that comes from C.S. Lewis or Rick Warren, it smacks of enough mysticism or pietism that we hold it as truth.
Humility is not never thinking of yourself
Herein lies what I think is the most common view of humility today that also presents a significant issue rarely raised. While we are certainly not to be self-consumed, placing our needs as the central and driving goal of our lives, we can ignore our needs and subconsciously become frustrated, angry, and bitter when others don’t meet those needs. We get confused why the good life Jesus promises does not meet us in this life, and it comes partly as a result of taking an axiom too far. For humility is not never thinking of yourself.
A framework for humility that ignores the self, unwilling to be honest about what we need under the shroud of sacrifice, can’t help but focus on the self. It’s like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant. You thought about it, didn’t you? How can you not? The question I raise is what if rather than trying to ignore it, we attended to it?
To be clear, this is not a push for self-care. This runs deeper than mending and renewal. This is also not a push for a strong self-esteem. Rather, this is a call for creating space for God to attend to the needs that are bubbling up in your soul. They may manifest in temptations of lust or warm your face in fits of rage. They may turn our stomach in knots with anxieties. Or frankly, come with expressions of pity and, dare I say it, pride. Instead of just asking for forgiveness, which can be code for these unwanted expressions to just go away, dissect these longings in extended times of self-attending, inviting God to meet you in the quiet recesses of our desires.
We are designed to be loved, to know love, and out of the overflow of receiving love to then give love. If we don’t attend to our needs, we will never attend to others’ needs without that attending ultimately being a long detour directed back to us. You could imagine it as an extended inversion that laboriously pushed through others for your own sake.
God Ministers through Prayer
When I look at Jesus, who interestingly enough, thought about himself a lot and even had the audacity to call himself humble (Matthew 11:30), he took significant time attending to his own needs. Often we couch this “away time” as prayer, which is how the gospel writers speak of it, but even there we misunderstand partly because we, today, believe prayer to be mostly about speaking to someone rather than receiving what we need from someone.
This is not how prayer is exclusively presented within Scripture. The psalms are rife with examples where God ministers to longing saints in their prayers. So it should not surprise us that in prayer Jesus took time daily and even extended time receiving what he needed to hear about who he was.
It is no accident that before Jesus began his ministry he needed to hear from God the Father, “This is my Son in whom I’m well pleased.” May we not so emphasize the deity of Jesus that we run the risk of ancient heresy in ignoring Jesus’ humanity, which came with the whole host of human needs.
When the daily barrage of messages that said Jesus was something other than who God said he was, he didn’t just think of someone else. He thought of himself the way God did and in prayer allowed God to speak into him truthfully. In other words, he thought of himself regularly, and allowed the Father to focus his words on him regularly in ways that were true and good.
If Jesus had this need, how much more do you and I? If Jesus did not avoid thinking of himself, how can we expect to do so? It shouldn’t surprise us that the more we downplay Jesus’ humanity the more willing we are to ignore our own.
Humility is not altogether silent
I believe Worthington is right in that humility is the quiet virtue. It doesn’t draw attention, but don’t take it too far. Humility is not altogether silent. It doesn’t ignore attending deeply to the needs of one’s own soul. Humility pays attention to the self, quietly (and sometimes quite passionately) asking for God to meet us in our needs, rather than demanding others fulfill them in subtle and not so subtle ways.
So at this moment, take time to attend. Take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. How are you listening to what’s going on within you? How are you thinking about what makes up your internal world? How are you inviting God to attend to your needs to be loved, accepted, and even disciplined? Do you see this practice as crucial to humility? If not, your heart will always cry for attention.