Bishop's Message

The foundations of humility

AFTER Sadhu Sundar Singh had completed a tour around the world, people asked him, “Doesn’t it do harm, your getting so much honour?” The Sadhu answered, “No. The donkey went into Jerusalem, and they put garments on the ground before him. He was not proud. He knew it was not done to honour him, but for Jesus, who was sitting on his back. When people honour me, I know it is not me, but the Lord, who does the job.”

Humility is an essential part of the Christian life as Richard Baxter and Jonathan Edwards have reminded us. Baxter pointed out that it is not possible to be a true Christian and not be humble. This makes sense when we search the Bible, for we are often urged to humble ourselves before God (Jam. 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:6). When we do so, God saves (Ps. 149:4) and guides (Ps. 25:9) us. Without humility, we remain as strangers to the salvation experience. We cannot enter into God’s presence without humility.

However, humility is not easily cultivated. Pride tends to stubbornly remain in the human heart. A preacher was once convicted of his lack of humility. A friend suggested that he march through the city’s streets wearing a sandwich board, shouting the Bible verses on the board for everyone to hear. The preacher did so, but when he returned to his study and removed the board, he said “I’ll bet there’s not another man in town who would do that!”

Pride is at the root of human sinfulness, and seems to be welded tightly into the architecture of fallen human nature. This pride is expressed through what some psychologists and spiritual writers have called the “false self”. The original shame, felt by our foreparents Adam and Eve, continues to echo relentlessly in the deep recesses of our empty souls.

And to escape from the torment, the deceitful human heart has manufactured the false self, built with the things valued by this world, such as wealth, human intellect, fame, power and possessions. The empty soul faces the world and manages life by living behind this mask and by continuously feeding it with what the apostle Paul has called “rubbish” (Phil. 3:8).

To manage our own self-judgement, we often invert this mask of the false self inwards to satisfy ourselves that we are all right. We become victims of our own self-deception. And in this way, pride flows through our veins and infects all of life. There is no cure for this until we approach God.

When we face holy God, we cannot but come in humility, for humility is the soil in which repentance and prayer grow, and these are necessary if we are to begin a new life with God (2 Chr. 7:14). When we see the glory and holiness of God, we will join the prophet Isaiah in confessing. “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6:5). Our masks will fall, and false selves crumble in the presence of God. But that is for our own healing and good, for we no longer need to live with pride poisoning our souls and society. We would have found a better way – the way of humility.

HUMILITY is like new blood in our spiritual veins. We must remember that Jesus Christ is described as humble (Mt. 11:29). He “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:7-8). For our sake, He suffered the humiliation (Acts 8:33) of being condemned as a criminal, the indignity of becoming an object of public ridicule, and the shame of crucifixion. All that to save us from our own sin and pride.

When we identify ourselves with Jesus and commune with Him, then His humility begins to flow in our blood.

It is clear that such humility cannot be taught or bought. It is given to us by God’s grace. Neither is it achieved in an instant, for as Francois Fenelon (17th century) said, “Humility is not a grace that can be acquired in a few months: it is the work of a lifetime.” Humility grows in us as we spend time in the presence of God.

Pride is so strongly welded with our souls that it is not easy to remove. Even in religion, it is easy to think that we are humble simply because of our piety and good works. But we can pray and do good with pride rather than humility if we have not really faced God in truth. It is easy to clothe ourselves with false humility, where in fact the false self has simply put on religious clothes and gone through the motions of a conversion. But the false self cannot be converted; it has to be denied and crucified on the cross, so that the redeemed true self can live its new life in Christ. Humility is a clear sign that this has happened, that the purifying fire of God has touched our souls.

“They that know God will be humble,” John Flavel has said, “and they that know themselves cannot be proud.” Flavel is right, for, as we have seen, humility is born when we face God and our true selves.

When we practise the discipline of finding ourselves regularly before the Divine Throne and the Mirror of Truth, then we allow God to remove our pride and give us new and growing humility. And when God sees Christ’s humility in our hearts, He is pleased. He delights in those who are humble. For God has said, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” (Is. 66:2).

The advice of St Augustine is useful: “If you plan to build a high house of virtues, you must first lay deep foundations of humility.” Such foundations can only be found near the Throne of God, in the rich soil in front of the Throne, made rich by the tears of a forgiving God and humble repentant sinners.