PRIDE AND HUMILITY
I was once giving a talk on the subject of PRIDE, discussing its many ugly manifestations, and I chanced to remark that in my opinion HUMILITY is nearly as bad as pride, and that pride and humility are in fact two faces of the same coin. A lady came to me afterwards in some bewilderment, and asked what I could possibly have meant by saying that humility is similar to pride! Surely humility is the direct opposite of pride? Is it not good to be humble before God? Were not St. Francis and St. Teresa humble? How could any Christian, let alone a minister, disapprove of humility?
Well, of course, she was right. Many of the saints in the Middle Ages were genuinely humble. But true humility is so rare in this 20th century that I had almost forgotten it ever existed! Today, humility is generally of the spurious kind, which tends to emphasize rather than diminish one's sense of self-importance ("I am not worthy; I am a sinner"); and self-importance, no matter what its basis, is the evil of pride which I had been considering.
Humble people generally take themselves far too seriously, concentrating obsessively on their own spiritual condition. All states of mind which encourage concentration on the ego (pride, humility, self-accusation, guilt)—all are dangerous. To say you are the "chief of all sinners" is just as boastful as to say you are the "chief of all saints!" When a person says to you: "I am of no importance; ignore me! I am a doormat, trample on me!" you can suspect his sincerity, because if you take him at his own evaluation and treat him like a doormat, he will probably be deeply offended! Try it and see.
There is a story of two ministers working in a church. The senior minister fell on his knees at the altar rail, and said: "Lord, have mercy on me, I am the greatest of all sinners!" His curate fell on his knees beside him and said: "Lord, have mercy on me, I am nothing but evil from head to foot!" Hearing them, the old caretaker, who was sweeping the church, laid down his broom and came forward and knelt beside them saying: "Lord, have mercy on me; I too am a sinner, as thou knowest, O Lord!" The curate turned to the rector and said indignantly, "Hark at him! Who does he think he is?"
The human selfhood is very versatile; it takes on many forms and puts on all kinds of disguises. What it wants is to be taken notice of. It is like a dog that doesn't mind being kicked so long as it is not ignored. There are different ways of being conspicuous and feeling important. You can do it by bragging; by self-pity; by running other people down, and moaning over the state of the world. Or you can do it by making a big point of confessing your sins and hugging guilt to yourself, even for evils you never committed! All these feelings are suspect, if they serve merely to bring "self" downstage and make it conspicuous. To pat oneself on the back, and to beat oneself on the chest, are both equally bad if done merely to emphasize one's own importance.
The problem of how to be humble without pride is no new one. Bunyan grappled with it. He said: "Lord, I am completely humble, I am an insignificant worm, all my pride is laid aside." Then he thought, "That's pretty good! I've done that pretty well!"—and immediately realized he was proud of being humble! So he tried again: "Lord, take away my pride in being humble!" Then he found he was proud at being no longer proud of being humble! And so you could go on. There is no end to it. This all confirms my view that pride, boastfulness, pomposity, self-pity, humility, self-accusation — they are all in the same basket. The only way to get relief is to empty the whole lot out of the basket, and fill it instead with Bread from heaven.
Man himself is nothing but an empty vessel. He is not the source or origin of any of his thoughts or feelings; if he were, the whole universe would collapse in confusion. He feels he is, of course, but this is only an appearance, allowed so that he can enjoy the life that is within him as if it were his own. Actually it all comes originally from the only Source of life—the Lord himself. It percolates down to man through many channels, taking on the character of those who receive it on the way and pass it on to him. In general, it can reach man through heaven or through hell. Evil thoughts and desires come to us from hell. The evil spirits are very cunning at making us believe they are from ourselves. They dress the ideas up in such a way that we fully believe they are our own. And if we allow ourselves to be bamboozled into accepting them as our own, then they become our own, and we take on the character of the evil spirits who gave them to us. The spirits even tried to do this with Jesus when he was tempted in the wilderness; but Jesus perceived where the temptation came from, and said, "Get thee behind me, Satan!"—which we should say also.
In our early adult lives we are most of us dominated by love of self and the world, no matter how much we pose and posture as the humblest of creatures. Our job is to empty all this out, and let the angels fill us with the Lord's love and wisdom. This is not so difficult as it may seem, despite the propaganda of hell that shrieks at us with dismay and threatens us with all sorts of horrors if we so much as contemplate giving up our evils. Actually we are specially adapted to hold the Lord's life. Our will-faculty is designed to contain his love, and our intellect is designed to contain his wisdom, and we can only be really happy and at peace when his love and wisdom are in us. It was for this that we were created—to be finite vessels containing his infinite Life. In so far as we do contain it, and acknowledge that it is from him and is not our own, we are his children, in his image and likeness; he loves us, and we love him. This is how things are with all the angels. They are still "self-conscious," in the sense that they are intensely aware of being only finite vessels. They still have the two doors under their control, one from hell and the other from the Lord; but they freely and joyously choose to lock the door from hell and open the door from the Lord, and so the Lord enfills them from himself. They are filled to the brim and running over, and feel his glorious life as their own. They are like a glass filled with the choicest wine. The higher the angel, the more keenly sensitive he is of being only a finite vessel distinct from God, yet the more fully and gladly aware he is of being filled with God's life.
You probably do not qualify as one of the highest angels, yet even in our lowest estate down here in the first grade we can begin the process of emptying out self, and can experience something of the joy and lightness of heart which results from having the Kingdom of God within us. No longer do you care whether people notice you or not, whether you get due acknowledgment for the good you do. You no longer have that nagging sense of guilt unredeemed and sins unforgiven. On the other hand you can be much more objective in admiring your own work—a luxury which the old ethic forbade absolutely. For example, an artist paints a picture which he knows is good. Someone tells him it is good, but according to the old ethic he has to say: "No, it's a poor thing!"—because, being a Christian, he has to be humble whereas to accept praise would be boastful! Of course it's all hypocrisy—he knows perfectly well it is not a poor thing, but that is the stance he is supposed to take. But by the new ethic he can be honest and realistic, for he knows that he himself is only an empty vessel; the life within him, the skill and inspiration behind the picture, came from the Lord through heaven, so to praise the picture is perfectly appropriate. Maybe it did not all come from heaven; there are faults in the picture, which may have originated in hell. He can judge these quite objectively, just as if the picture were painted by someone else. He can say: "That aspect of it is good—it's fantastic! That part needs improving, and that part is definitely poor. But on the whole it is by far the best picture I have ever done!" He can acknowledge success without pride, and failure without shame. Compliments do not turn his head, and criticism cannot floor him.
How does all this fit in with the teaching that from time to time we must subject ourselves to a deep self-examination and practise repentance for the remission of sins? Well, self-examination is much easier under the new ethic than the old, because we can assess ourselves more objectively and frankly. However, repentance is going to be of a different nature, because we now know that the evil in us is not actually our own, any more than the good in us is our own. We are merely a vessel, which can be filled either from heaven or from hell. Ideally it should be filled only from heaven, and we can sometimes attain this ideal. I myself have attained it, just at rare intervals; and on those occasions I have experienced such a lightening of my old ego that I have felt myself in heaven already! Then I fall back, and the evil spirits swarm in and tell me I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul; I must stick up for myself and make a striking impression, and be offended and hurt if I am not admired; and so on and so on. That is the great sin, of which we should all repent and from which we need to be saved: not any sin of commission or omission, but a sin of attitude, of turning from heaven to hell, from God to self.
Only when we have realized all this can we understand what Jesus meant when he stated as one of the basics of the Christian life: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Humility, as I define it, is not meekness. Humility is sad and downcast, despising oneself; meekness is gay and serene, filled with quiet joy, the joy of acknowledging one's utter dependence on the Lord, and delighting in all he has given us. Humility can involve us in false guilt and misery, but meekness leads us straight into the glorious presence of God. Humility says: "Tread on me, for I am a poor wretched creature; it will do me good to be trampled on!" Meekness is so little self-conscious that it hardly notices whether anyone is treading on it or not! Anyway, it is so buoyant that even if it is knocked down it just bounces up again, with neither a swelled head nor a bruised heart. Humility admits that all its possessions are not worth much and should be down-graded; meekness has no possessions of its own, all it has is on loan; some of it beautiful, some of it not so good. Humility is introverted; meekness is extraverted. Humility is full of mud and pollution; meekness is a clear mountain stream. Of Moses it was said: "Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth." (Numbers 12:3.) Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
So much for humility. How about pride? Regarded as a "self" I am nothing at all, not worth considering. But as a child, of God I am important indeed! "My soul will make her boast in the Lord," says the Psalmist; and Paul says, "I make my boast in Christ Jesus." There is no harm in that kind of boasting! To conclude, I will quote the words of Jesus himself, which are repeated in slightly varying forms no less than six times in the gospels: twice in Matthew, once in Mark, twice in Luke and once in John: "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for the Lord's sake, the same will find it."