Almighty and everlasting God...Make us love what you command.
- from this Sunday's opening collect (prayer)
Jesus says in our gospel this Sunday that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. The passage tells us that he said these words to some people who "trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt." Perhaps Jesus told his story about the tax collector and the Pharisee to bring these people down a peg. But more likely, he told them the story to warn them of the dangers of pride. It is a warning we would do well to heed in our present day.
Humility has gotten a bad rap lately because often the first thing people think about when they think about humility is something more like humiliation - like being a doormat - either in a fake martyrdom sort of way - as in, "oh, don't worry about me, I'll just sit here in the dark" - or in a self hating kind of way - as in, "I'm going to take care of all your needs first because you're a much better person than me and I am not worthy to mention."
But neither of those things describe the traditional virtue of humility, which has long been considered the most important virtue in the Christian tradition. Humility is not listed as one of the fruits of the spirit, but without the nourishing soil of humility none of the Spirit's fruits will be able to grow in us. I'd like to approach the rich meaning of humility as a virtue from some varied angles.
C.S. Lewis famously described humility by saying that it is not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking of yourself less often. Humility definitely has something to do with breaking out of a world view that puts yourself and your own wants and desires at the center of all things. It doesn't mean that you think of others instead of yourself, but that you think of others as being as important as yourself. Humility allows an awareness that other people, even some who have different viewpoints and needs, exist as fully in God's sight as you do.
Another phrase you may hear going around about humility is "God is God, and I am not God." True humility keeps us 'right sized,' and reminds us not to have delusions of grandeur about ourselves or our abilities. There are few big things in life that I have the power to fix, solve, create, manage or control. Despite that silly bumper sticker that was around in the late 20th century that said, "God is my co-pilot," humility teaches us who is really in the driver's seat in this life.
Another phrase that describes humility was included in our psalm last Sunday: "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." 'The fear of God' is not meant to describe being literally afraid of God. It is a phrase that is meant to convey a deep respect and deference to the awesome power of God. It is only when you hand the reigns of your life over to God that a deep life of faith can finally begin to develop.
I also like a quote I found from Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Benson: "Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right." Humility creates a profound awareness of both the bigger picture and the greater good. When the world does not revolve around you, you realize that God needs you to step up and do what is right for others.
And our collect this Sunday says that in order to receive God's wonderful promises, we must learn to love what God commands. Sometimes life brings us stuff we would not choose, if the choice were up to us. A prideful attitude would be to resent all the many things we don't like. On the other hand, humility helps us to remember that there is no such thing as deserving anything in this life. I'm not going all puritanical here and saying that we only get what we earn. There is no way to earn everything we want, either! Humility is what keeps us aware that everything we have and everything we are are God's gifts to us. Adopting an attitude of profound gratitude to God naturally opens us up to true humility. For we did not do/achieve/earn/create any of our own blessings - or losses - in this life. And that is true for all of us. Even those who we may judge have made their own beds and are lying in them.
I invite you to intentionally seek out examples of humility in the world around you - people you know or have known or heroes you have read about. See out examples of people who choose to put God first in their lives out of true humility and gratitude. In an era in which winning seems to be everything and those the world seems to admire most are the ones who believe they are righteous while regarding others with contempt, humility might well be the virtue we most need to practice for the sake of the world as followers of Jesus.