On this blog I have often spoken about my personal struggles with humility. My issue mostly stems from the fact that I don’t truly understand what humility is, so I have never truly understood what I need to do to cultivate it in my life and heart.
Here I would like to share with you the latest insight I have had into this thing. It is so simple. I believe that true Christian humility is simply this: listening to the Spirit of God, and cultivating an ongoing attitude of listening to the Spirit of God.
One of my biggest struggles with humility has always been the idea that it involves making myself smaller than I am. That is, if I am good at X, to downplay my level at X. However, humility might indeed involve making ourselves smaller: not by downplaying our skills and talents, but by giving us a sense of perspective. Relative to God, His awe-inspiring splendour and His magnificent power, no matter how skilled, talented or otherwise fabulous we are relative to other people, all of it is as nothing. Furthermore, all these skills and talents, opportunities and privileges come from God Himself. Additionally everyone whom we’d be tempted to consider ourselves above is equally made in the image of God, just as surely as we are. So even having all the talents in the universe would not make us more valuable than anyone else, who might be seemingly untalented or even considered expendable by the world.
In that sense humility is rejecting the temptation to consider ourselves in an elevated way, but rather to see ourselves as we truly are, relative to God. So no, I don’t think that humility means that we should have to downplay our talents. Rather it is knowing that even if we are as talented as is humanly possible, we would still be so tiny in the grand scheme of things, certainly relative to the grand Schemer of things, (perhaps that should be “the Schemer of grand things” – hmmm) so for that reason it is silly to go around vaunting ourselves.
And yet I’m thinking that humility goes beyond correcting the way we see ourselves relative to God, and relative to other people. In fact, if anything I am thinking that humility concerns making ourselves more quiet, rather than making ourselves smaller.
I think that this is ultimately the point with humility: there are many voices that would seek to influence and control our behaviour, and the way we see ourselves and others. Because of our sinful nature, which we have all got, which we all struggle with while down here on earth, the voice of our own pride is always close at hand; that is, the voice that encourages us to regard ourselves in an elevated way; to take offence when someone does not recognise or acknowledge how important we are. Alongside the voice of our pride there is also the voice of our own prejudices, or preconceptions, plus maybe dozens of other voices. Sometimes these things roar so loudly that it is difficult for us to consider things from other viewpoints, or to appreciate that we might actually be wrong.
And yet I think that humility is coming before God, to listen out for His Spirit, to concentrate in prayer and silence for the sake of catching the voice of God. Prayer is also about being able to identify the voice of God. Sometimes in prayer, God’s voice will speak to me with the subtlety of a pindrop. Humility is about straining my spiritual ears to carefully hear those soft whispers. While I am praying, different thoughts will occur to me, and I have to carefully assess them with my mind and my spirit to see whether they could be of God, or whether they are arising out of my own pride or prejudices etc. If they are not of God, then I have to deliberately push them out of my mind, and keep listening. This is the way that humility is actually about becoming more quiet: because we learn to quieten these other voices which would try to claim control over us. Sometimes these false voices are not necessarily encouraging us to make ourselves bigger; rather they could even be fostering low self-esteem; telling us that we are worthless; or they could be encouraging us to engage in fear, or they could be prophesying failure and rejection in interacting with other people. Ultimately then, I believe that humility is about listening to God rather than to ourselves: an “attitude of quietude”!
Why is it worthwhile to listen out for the Spirit of God? Our own prejudices etc are lies. Pride makes us blind to what we really are, and the weaknesses we need to work on. It hampers our relating with other human beings, especially if we go around acting like we are better than other people.
The Spirit of God however, is the Spirit of truth. We can trust that whatever the Spirit of God tells us is utterly reliable. Listening to the Spirit of God will enable us to act in ways which are genuinely objective and rational. The Spirit of God will help us to identify negative voices, or ways we have been thinking which do not glorify God.
God is also the master of time. He already knows what will happen a day from now, a year, an eternity. He sees with a perspective that we can scarcely envisage. Because of this, we can trust that the instructions or advice He gives us today is reliable now and will only cause good things in the future. God also wants the best for us. Something that I love so much about God is that He is so big that He just cannot be threatened by us (although there was that Tower of Babel incident!) He will genuinely challenge us and encourage us to be our very best. How often this is not true in life otherwise, even of supposed friends. As human beings, we get threatened by one another so easily that we often fail to encourage or challenge one another to greater heights.
So ultimately, I believe that we have to build time to listen to the Spirit of God into our prayer times. It can be so painful when God’s Spirit identifies areas that we need to change, especially when we realise that these issues may have been glaring to other people. However, at least we can quickly run to put things right. Refusing to listen to the Spirit of God (perhaps because it is too painful) means that these glaring issues will simply remain in our life, continuing to glare away!
When pride comes, then comes shame;
But with the humble is wisdom.
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