May 20, 2007

The Wise Person’s Character: Humble
Proverbs 1:7; Matthew 23:1-12

“If there were no humility in the world,” Thomas Merton once commented, “everyone would long ago have committed suicide.” Rather strong words, wouldn’t you say, particularly coming from someone known for choosing his words carefully? Yet we all have felt at one time or another the irritation that arises when humility is lacking. I happened to enjoy watching Muhammad Ali box, for example, and who would argue that he was among the finest boxers of all time. If you have any doubts, just ask him! Do you remember his slogan, the phrase for which he is most often remembered? “I am the greatest,” he’d regularly repeat. In fact, on one occasion in 1962, Ali responded to a writer from the New York Times and said, “I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.” If you find Ali annoying, try, with Merton, to imagine a world in which there was no humility at all.

But all of this small talk, in a sense, runs the risk of trivializing what lies at the very heart of humility. A person who spouts off like Muhammad Ali, for example, might be demonstrating showmanship more so than modeling self-centeredness. At the same time, someone who quickly downplays personal accomplishments or abilities might very well be calling attention to his or her own insecurities more so than demonstrating true humility. Is it humility, for example, when an accomplished musician perfectly performs a piece of music but suggests that he is untalented? Is it humility when a cook moans that an eloquently-prepared meal is in fact second rate? Are such gestures humility, or absurdity? When St. Augustine wrote centuries ago, “If you plan to build a house of virtues, you must first lay deep foundations of humility,” surely he had in mind far more than simple denials of competence or accomplishment.

What, then, is humility? The common root word that comes to mean humility in the Old Testament—’anah—has at the heart the meaning of being “bent over.” The word is frequently translated “the poor,” and it refers to people who suffer or are at risk, not because of something they have done or not done, but because of circumstances or exploitation. They are neither free people nor, technically, slaves, but a collection of needy individuals positioned somewhere in between. These “poor people” are often the victims of unjust policies or unfair practices on the part of those in power. “The villainies of villains are evil” Isaiah announced; “they devise wicked devices to ruin the poor with lying words,… (32:7).” Before long, the consolidated weight of such oppressive policies becomes heavier and heavier, causing the knees of the poor to shake and eventually break. They buckle, in other words, under the weight of their circumstances.

I’m reminded of a scene in the movie, The Crucible. Giles Corey, an irascible and combative old resident of Salem, MA, runs into trouble with the law during the now famous Salem witch trials. When Corey refuses to cooperate with the local authorities, they force him to lie down on the ground. In order to coerce his participation, they begin placing stones on his chest. One stone, and then another, and another. Finally, as Corey continues to refuse to cooperate, the weight becomes sufficiently overwhelming and he dies.

Similarly, poor people who are victimized and abused buckle under the weight of the surrounding circumstances. And when they do—when the weight becomes overwhelming—they share in common, not only their desperation, but a sense of their place in the world. They are aware of their own neediness. They know that the world doesn’t revolve around them. They are not the leading actors on the stage.

But, as the Old Testament unfolds, such “poor” people also come to realize something else: they have an advocate in higher places who cares more about them than they could ever have dreamed. “Don’t rob such people of their rights,” Isaiah warns (10:2). “Stop trampling upon their heads,” Amos chimes in. For these people are special to God, and he will protect them when they cry out to him (Prov. 22: 22-23; Ps. 14:6; 25:18). And they often do—their cries to God appear throughout the Psalms and elsewhere. “I am poor and needy,” the Psalmist declares, “but the Lord takes thought of me (40:17).” So deep is the emerging sense that God cares for the poor and needy, in fact, that Isaiah depicts the city of Jerusalem as a sort of sanctuary—a center of renewal—for them:
The Lord has founded Zion,
and the needy among his people
will find refuge in her (14:32).

What, we might ask, does all of this have to do with humility? Just this. This same root word, over time, came to describe a similar “bending of the knees” in people’s religious or moral lives. In the same way that overwhelming physical circumstances lead “poor” people to recognize their situation or position in society, so too should the various circumstances of our lives and the world in general lead us to recognize our proper position in God’s creation. We are lying on the ground, like Giles Corey, and stones of varying shapes and sizes are piling up on our chests. Some stones are particularly painful when they are placed on our chests. Stones of our own foolish decisions in the past that continue to haunt us. Stones of hurts that we’ve brought upon others. Stones of difficult situations from which we were unable to free ourselves. But other stones, though of an entirely different composition, are no less weighty. Stones of the sheer magnitude of the world around us that leave us feeling small and insignificant. Stones of grace or forgiveness that was extended to us when we never expected, much less deserved, it.
Stones of love showered upon us. One stone, and then another, and another.

As these and other stones continue to pile up on our chests and the weight becomes heavier and heavier, we begin to realize certain things. The world, I come to recognize, doesn’t revolve around me. I’m not the leading character on the stage. I’m not the center of everyone’s attention. There are concerns in the world that go well beyond my wants and my wishes. History didn’t begin, nor will it end, with me. I realize, furthermore, that I am a part of something big, something that transcends both time and space. Something that descends into the depths of the earth and extends to the far reaches of space. Something that includes billions upon billions of people of all colors and languages. And all of it—all of it—is orchestrated by someone who is infinitely greater than I am. Someone else is calling the shots. Someone else is giving the orders. Someone else establishes the rules. Someone else is in control. Someone—and this could be the weightiest stone of all for me to wrap my mind around—who somehow, in the midst of everything else going on in the world, cares about me, provides for me, loves me. Under the collective weight of all of these stones, my knees buckle. And as the weight gets heavier and heavier, I, like Giles Corey, die. I die to both my inflated and deflated views of myself. I die to the need to be the center of attention. I die to the need to always be right. I die to my preoccupation with myself. And I come to life in God. This is what humility is all about.

Moses, as you perhaps know, is described in Numbers 12:3 as “very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” And the context of that description helps us understand why. On this particular occasion, Moses and the other Israelites were making their way through the wilderness to the promised land. Suddenly, Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, stood up and challenged his leadership. Oh sure, they tried to mask their deepest concerns with a more personal racial slur—“Moses married a Cushite, Moses married a Cushite.” But the root of their antagonism could not be hid—they were jealous of Moses. They wanted more power, more recognition. But Moses, in spite of the severity of this challenge, didn’t respond. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t take matters into his own hands. Instead, he modeled a selfless, nonassertive attitude. He modeled humility.

Humility, then, goes well beyond casual and even at times absurd denials of our own gifts and abilities. Humility is instead an entire way of looking at life. If wisdom, as I have suggested, is the ability to discern and live in accordance with the rhythm that God has placed within creation, then humility is the related ability to recognize what my rightful place is within that same order. I am infinitely important to God, but the world doesn’t revolve around me. Nor does it revolve around you. Neither of us has to have the final word. Neither of us has to be right all of the time. Neither of us has to plead our own cases and fend for ourselves. Neither of us has to be the center of attention. That’s God’s rightful position, and we can rest in him. Humility, as C.S. Lewis so vividly describes it, “is not thinking less about yourself, but thinking about yourself less.” Humility, as Proverbs defines it, involves renouncing our preoccupation with ourselves and letting God be the center of attention instead.