Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. -Apostle Paul, Philippians 2:5-8
I know a man, once at the top of his profession. He has a long list of credentials. He travelled the world as a representative of the world’s largest company in his industry. He worked with other companies and governments on matters of international regulation. At times he had individual’s lives in his hands. Now, he works in what most consider as an entry level job in his profession.
I know a woman, considered an expert in her field. She held a prominent position in one of the largest organizations of its kind in the world. She knows state and federal law applicable to her field. She has spoken at national conventions and has consulted across the country. She has coached and influenced the lives of hundreds. Now it is hard for her to be accepted into an occasional volunteer position in her field.
I know a man, once a spiritual leader of hundreds, ordained by his denomination. He has years of advanced study behind him. He has taught at the university level and led spiritual retreats across the country. He now attends a beginners class with other new believers in his own faith.
Humility is a curious thing. Someone once said that the moment we think we are humble we have lost it. We often think of a humble person as one who does not seek to be noticed and if noticed is quick to deflect praise and give credit to another. The humble person might say, “I didn’t do anything special,” or “I didn’t do anything anyone else would’t have done,” or “I didn’t really contribute anything, Jane did much more than I did.”
I think this is humility, but that it is so much more.
Let’s go a little deeper and consider cleaning toilets. I have cleaned toilets for Christ. In my zeal to help another, I have cleaned toilets on occasion. And I have come to see the pride in that: “Look at me, everyone, I am such a good Christian that I clean toilets.” There is no humility in that attitude! But, what if the only job you could get is cleaning toilets? What if, despite all of your years of schooling, your vast experience and expertise, your accumulated wisdom, etc., what if all anyone would hire you to do is to clean toilets? This is a different level of humility. Would you take the job or would you consider it beneath you? If you took the job, would you do it daily as though you were doing it for God?
Deeper. Imagine a private screening of your life story, but you see your actions through the eyes of others. You see and hear the real story behind the story, how hurtful your actions have been, how self-centered your life really is…the lasting pain you have caused another. My first response would be to quickly look around to ensure no one else was watching my movie. Could you stand to watch as the all scenes unfolded or would you hide your eyes during the painful moments and relish the joyful ones? Would you have the courage to not rationalize away all that you saw, but to face who you are?
Still deeper. Think of what it would be like to reveal to another human the darkest side of yourself through the stories of the deeds and thoughts you have just witnessed. Facing the shame of who we are is hard enough in the privacy of our own minds; however, would you have the courage to reveal it to another? Not just to reveal the things you could bear revealing, but to reveal the deepest, darkest part of you? What would it do to us? Would we feel crushed? Or…would we feel sorrow in the depths of our soul?
It is here, I believe, that humility and repentance become one.
True humility is an emptiness of self so that one can turn to and be filled with God (repentance). It is realizing that we are nothing but dust with the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit in us making us into the image of God Himself. It is realizing that, as dust, we cannot even fully grasp the fulness of our own wretchedness. However, it is not, ultimately, self-abuse.
St Gregory of Sanai says it well:
…true humility does not say humble words, nor does it assume humble looks, it does not force oneself either to think humbly of oneself, or to abuse oneself in self-belittlement. Although all such things are the beginning, the manifestations and the various aspects of humility, humility itself is grace, given from above. There are two kinds of humility, as the holy fathers teach: to deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions. The first is the beginning, the second the end.