Humility and Humiliation

Nothing in my hand I bring,

simply to the cross I cling;

naked, come to thee for dress;

helpless, look to thee for grace;

foul, I to the fountain fly;

wash me, Savior, or I die.

The words of the hymn Rock of Ages characterize a humility born from an awareness of sin, who we are before a holy God, and a complete dependence on him. Repenting from sin, recognizing that we have been playing God in our own lives and turning back to him, naturally necessitates a posture of meekness. There is a pattern of mourning over our actions and being dependent on God’s grace in return. However, many, myself included, tend to wallow in the degraded state and not experience the sweetness that ought to characterize humility. C.S. Lewis begins to reconcile the two attitudes with the idea that to be humble is “not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.*” This thought process led me to wonder if there is a dichotomy between humility and humiliation.  In teaching me such meekness does my Father clothe me with sorrow or with joy? The prodigal son received a purple robe of rich silk and celebration, in response to falling on his knees. (*This quote comes from Rick Warren, summarizing what Lewis wrote in Mere Chrisitanity in chapter 8.)

Humility is the mark of a man or woman whose heart has turned to good. Christ characterizes humility by “not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped,” “emptying himself,” “serving.” This outward facing meekness is submissive, cognizant of the mighty hand of God and obedient to it.  There is also a sweetness and carefree spirit that marks a humble person. Her reputation is not endangered by others’ opinions or expectations of success. There is no pedestal to stand on, and so she has no fear of falling.

Sadly, we seek to achieve good standing by our own merit, leading to arrogance, rather than depending on God. In doing so we put ourselves at risk to be humbled. When our desires for happiness contradict what honours God, we redefine the rules in our lives to make room for what is self-gratifying. We take the place of God, assume both master and forgiver of our actions and cast ourselves as the center of all our experiences. The first sin committed by man was done in order to “be like God”; from day one we have been seeking to elevate ourselves. By God’s grace, we can become aware of our own sin. However, in an interesting twist, it seems that we often learn humility through humiliation. Like Eustace, whose disillusionment was graciously brought on when he was transformed into a literal dragon, we human beings sometimes need to fail miserably to see ourselves a little more clearly. When we come to an end of ourselves, we can let go of the arrogance that believes in our own abilities and trust instead in the rescue of our Savior. Sometimes the means to the end of pride is a crushing failure. This is why we are called to die to ourselves. The dying might feel like an utter humiliation; in a way it is the dismantlement of that false conception of self. Humiliation should rightly cause a loss of false self-image we develop. Where we feel we ought to be and what we deserve will be relinquished.  To the extent we cling to that identity, it will be a painful and searing abandonment. However, it shouldn’t go so far as a complete loss of self either. It is the loss of the false-self. We are still God’s creation, still his beloved, and if we are saved, we are new creatures in his sight. He takes us by the hand, the creator of majesty itself, and leads us in awe to walk with him.

Furthermore, sin taken to completion ensures humiliation, for a corrupt spirit eats away at the soul. “Sin, when fully grown, leads to death,” and death is the ultimate humiliation. A soul can descend no further than the pit of hell. And so, in the fallen state all humans are in, whether we overcome sin or are overcome by it, we will face humiliation.

When God saves us, he brings us back to the kind of humility from before the fall. He saves us from the utter humiliation of sin. It is by his grace we are restored and can stand before God as we are.

Humility demands a sense of one’s own lowliness, but can it go too far? Peter Pettigrew, a character from Harry Potter, was characterized by weakness and lacked confidence, which the villain twisted and used to control him. There is one scene in particular, when after bringing Harry Potter to the gathering of evil wizards, he approaches the Dark Lord of the story on his knees, in shame, sniveling and seeking favour from him. Is this meekness, humility?

Groveling is a deeply uncomfortable act to watch, even on screen. This does not seem like a proper way to relate to one another. Sometimes, when we have humiliation thrust upon us by an outside force, our approach is to see ourselves fallen from a place we believe we deserve and wanting desperately to be put back there. This can lead into an attitude that is ultimately selfish, seeking to obtain another’s favor through self-degradation. It’s a sort of emotionalism where if we think we are sorry enough about something, God will be appeased by that sorrow and respond in mercy. This undermines God’s grace! His mercy is not earned by our weeping, but freely given out of love.

This sort of desperate, pitiful state is also rather marked by fear. Although there is a proper place to fear God, the fear that God will refuse to save as he has promised is misplaced. We become  miserable because we see ourselves as fallen short and believe we can never receive God’s favour because of it. But, to come to that conclusion, we must again begin by subscribing to a works-based understanding of God’s favour to begin with.

Humility must be based on truth. It is seeing ourselves in our “proper place”–and that means evaluating and understanding the truth about who we are, and who we are in relation to an infinite, holy God.  David Brenner puts it better than I can: “In all of creation, identity is a challenge only for humans. A tulip knows exactly what it is. It is never tempted by false ways of being. Nor does it face complicated decisions in the process of becoming. So it is with dogs, rocks, trees, stars, amoebas, electrons, and all other things. All give glory to God by being exactly what they are.”

Humility is a simple call to know who you are before God. We should not be tempted to think of humility as a perpetually sorry state, for humility is not a product of the fall. In Genesis, man and woman walked humbly with their God. Every life begins humbly with a wail as chubby arms reach out for the safety of a loving mother’s caress. Jesus, who knew no sin, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped and humbled himself by becoming obedient, even to the point of death” in a way that we never could. When we seek to rely on the Lord rather than ourselves, his power strengthens us and provides security. We’re no longer relying on our own fickle powers, but rather God himself. In this process of becoming humbled, we become more emboldened creatures. Humility does not ultimately weaken us. It helps us to see that what we have been relying on has no foundation, and allows us to turn and depend on God. 

There is something about knowing exactly your place in this grand design.  We are his small and beloved creation, and in humility become sweet and empty of expectation, completely free to build and enjoy with no fear of endangering our own reputation in the process. Our status is not built on the teetering structure of our own merit, but that of Jesus himself. We have nowhere to fall and shatter, but the holiest of holies to delight in, forever.


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