The quest for humility
by Glen Doss, Major –
“I don’t think I see any arrogance in you,” observed the officer, leaning across his desk, staring holes in me. It was the occasion of the annual officers’ review, my first at this appointment; I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. Squinting, he stared intently at me as if arrogance were an attribute he could discern, like the color of hair or eyes. “I don’t believe I see any arrogance in you.”
This little drama has haunted me for years. There is no doubt that The Salvation Army places a premium on humility—as well it should, since Scripture teaches that the attribute is absolutely essential to a right relationship with God. Dallas Willard points out: “Moses may well be the all-time record holder for lengthy conversations with God, but he was also one of the least presumptuous human beings who ever walked the earth. Psalm 25:9 says of God, ‘He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way’ ” (Hearing God).
Christian literature portrays humility and holiness as two sides of the same coin. “A holy man is one who has found himself out, and pronounced judgment against himself, and come to Jesus to be made every whit whole,” explains Samuel Logan Brengle, “and so long as he keeps the blessing he is deeply humble” (The Way of Holiness).
“It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life. For the beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness and the consummation of humility is the perfection of all joy,” points out Thomas Merton (New Seeds of Contemplation).
A question has long tugged at me: can we really detect humility—or its antipode, arrogance—in ourselves or another, as the aforementioned officer attempted? Given the scriptural emphasis, the question merits careful consideration. A survey of the literature shows that while we may be able to discover it in another, detecting humility in ourselves is a different matter altogether, for “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). The great tragedy is that those who consider themselves humble, usually aren’t; and those who think themselves arrogant are often the only humble people in the room! “Our ability to deceive others is noteworthy,” points out psychologist David Benner, “but retreats into insignificance when compared to our ability to deceive ourselves” (Care of Souls).
“Oh, how slick and weasel-like is self-pride!” observes Thomas Kelly. “Our learnedness creeps into our sermons with a clever quotation which adds nothing to God’s glory, but a bit to our own…[We] desire to be known and approved by others, to have heads nod approvingly about us behind our backs…Yet he only is near to God who is exceedingly humble” (A Testament of Devotion).
The elusive nature of this prized Christian virtue has caused many of us to conclude there is nothing we can to do to gain the prize. Scripture, however, offers some insights, for within the biblical context, humility refers by and large to an action rather than a state of being.
“When you are invited, take the lowest place…” (Luke 14:10)
“Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:16).
“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves… But, ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’” (2 Cor. 10:12, 17).
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:26).
“When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits,” teaches Richard Foster. “The result of this daily discipline of the flesh will be the rise of the grace of humility. It will slip in upon us unawares. Though we do not sense its presence, we are aware of a fresh zest and exhilaration with living. Even more than the transformation that is occurring within us, we are aware of deeper love and joy in God” (Celebration of Discipline).