In order to overcome what I concluded was a sinful need for validation, I decided to step up my pursuit of humility. This proved challenging, to say the least.
Though I toyed with self-loathing as a means to humility now and again, I found this only produced false-humility and a rather counter-productive preoccupation with my own pathetic and pitiable condition. There had to be something more to it.
Perhaps from some Eastern mystic leftovers or maybe from absorbing some of the Greek philosophy that is retained in popular Christian theology (or a nice combo of the two), I borrowed the notion that the highest form of humility was an absence of self-consciousness—that if I properly understood my own inconsequence, meditated on God enough, and practiced selflessness diligently—I would inadvertently attain a state where I literally lost all thought of self (identity). True spiritual humility would produce in me a drone-like serenity—utterly free of personal desire, and infused with a disengaged inclination to do God’s will and serve others.
Of course, I realized that it would be next to impossible to stay there perpetually, but it was a goal. The more I was able to reach and maintain such a state, the closer I would come to conquering my pesky desire for validation from God or anyone else. And (somewhat ironically) the more likely God was to be pleased with me.
There are problems with this view, though. First of all, if humility is defined as lack of self-awareness, one could never be aware of having achieved it. Neither could one ever affirm or declare a past attainment of this virtue. Any such claims would only prove themselves false.
This certainly could not have been Peter’s or Paul’s or James’ understanding of humility. All three included it in exhortations containing very volitional and observable behaviors that ought to characterize the Christian life (1 Pet 3:8; Eph 4:1-2; Jas 1:21). It is unlikely that, in this context, they would have tossed in humility as the one ambiguous and nebulous exception—one that cannot consciously be obeyed. Besides, Paul is able to boldly and unapologetically remind the Ephesian elders of his own successful obedience in this area.
“…You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility…” Acts 20:18-19
He was humble, he was aware of it, and he didn’t seem to feel that confessing his conduct would somehow compromise its validity.
And then there’s Jesus. His humility certainly wasn’t relinquishment of self-consciousness. He was aware of his own pleasures (Lk 19:5-9; Mk 10:21), discomforts (Jn 4:6; Mk 11:12), emotions (Mk 8:12; 3:5), and desires (Lk 13:34, Matt 26:39). And he most definitely lived and ministered in full awareness of himself and his identity (Jn 8:12; 13:3). In fact, one could argue that the desert temptations were an attempt by Satan to attack and undermine Christ’s identity (Mt 4:3, 6, 9). (This could, in turn, cause one to become suspicious of the source of belief systems that reject self and unique identity as evil, fleshly illusions—but that’s a discussion for another time…)
So what did Jesus’ humility look like?
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8
The first clue is in the Greek word ταπεινός (tapeinos) that is translated here as humbled. It literally means base, or low. In this passage and others dealing with humility, the idea is specifically to make low. This is where many have gotten the unhelpful notion that the main ingredient in a humble attitude is the perpetual rehearsal of one’s own wretchedness. But in Christ’s example (which is the attitude we are supposed to also have), that is not the idea at all. Christ began with the full awareness of his own exalted position, authority, and identity. Then, for the sake of love, he temporarily laid aside the privileges, rights, glories, and honors appropriate to his person. It wasn’t that he counted himself as inconsequential or his uninterrupted exaltation in heaven as inappropriate. Rather, he counted something else a greater priority and a greater joy.
I am still honing my understanding of humility. But as it now stands, I believe humility to be the practice of willingly giving up our rights, privileges, and honors (however appropriate and deserved) for the sake of love. If you recall, humility was the vehicle with which I intended to squash my desires to be valued as an individual. What a dead end. Being humble isn’t rejection of selfhood or individuality—it isn’t even about tearing myself down or beating myself up.
Granted, I am not Jesus. My heart is deceitful and I am capable of being very wicked. It is important for me to be mindful of the reality that I belong to a fallen race, and that I have a sinful nature to battle with. An honest and proper perspective is one that acknowledges that I am utterly dependent on God for my existence and for my restoration. But that begs a couple of questions. Why do I exist in the first place? And to what am I restored? Sounds like identity stuff to me…
Your responses are most welcome.
Come back for part 6!