Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Tag: Humility

Who Helped You?

The late Thurgood Marshall, who served on the US Supreme Court for 24 years, once said, “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody — a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns — bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

Much of our success — financial, career, educational, spiritual, relational — comes from the contributions of others. Think of all the ways others have helped us: A word of encouragement; money; a timely rebuke; a shortcut; a recipe; an idea; standing behind us when nobody else would; forgiveness; a hug; a place to stay; food; a recommendation; a tool; a gift; a scholarship; a freebie. We can’t begin to count all the ways in which others have helped us. 

Two responses are demanded by the kindness and generosity of others. 

First, we should be humble toward those who help us. Sometimes humility means that we allow others to help us. Some of us are too proud ever let anyone help us. There’s nothing good about that kind of pride. Sometimes humility means that we acknowledge what they’ve done for us. A simple “Thank You” is a powerful way to recognize the one who gave us the gift, and to recognize our heavenly Father for channeling his gifts through others.

The second response is that we should try to help others. If we’ve received grace, we must extend it. The apostle Paul had this in mind we he said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1.3-4). If we’ve been comforted, we should offer comfort.

He enlarges upon this concept in Colossians 3.12-13 when he says, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other. Whoever has a complaint against anyone, just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”

As modern Americans we tend toward proud self-sufficiency. As Christians, we tend toward gratitude, humility, and generosity. May God help us remember who helped us.

On Letting Go

Martin Luther once wrote, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” (Letter #1610, to Justus Jonas the Elder, 29 June 1530).

Humans have a tendency, even an instinct to cling tenaciously to our valuables. Whether our valuables are material possessions, relationships, jobs, status, or whatever else, we often have a death grip on them for one simple reason: We’re afraid that if we let go, we’ll lose them.

For Christians, the key to keeping something is to let go of it. Jesus said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25). Jesus was saying that letting go of your life is the only way to ultimately save it. Letting go means that you quit trying to control things, to control others, and to constantly get your way. 

The apostle Paul’s life is an excellent illustration. In the third chapter of Philippians, he warns against putting trust in the earthly things. To illustrate, he says that at one time he did exactly that, and then lists seven aspects of his life in which he once took pride. Those seven things were all part of his Jewish heritage and his life before becoming a Christian.

But then he says, “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3.7). Paul says he had to let go of those things because they kept him from coming to know Christ (v. 8-11). How may we do the same?

First, we must let go of past successes. Success feels great, but it can keep us stuck in the past, afraid to try anything new. Success fine, but growth is even better. Past successes tend to stifle our growth by making us think we don’t really need to improve. 

Second, we must let go of past failures. Past failures can cripple us by making us slaves to our anger, our fears, and our disappointments. We sometimes make the mistake of letting past failures define us. Sometimes we equate our failures with our identity. 

Third, we must let go of our desire to control everything. This may be the hardest thing of all. Most of us understand that both success and failure are part of the ebb and flow of life. But ego convinces us that if we give just a little more input, if we have a little more control, if we grip just a bit tighter, then everything will work out. 

Paul says later in the chapter (v. 13-14), “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, why not trade something you can’t keep for something you can’t lose?

Humiliation or Humility?

I knew that some day it would come. I just wasn’t ready for it when it happened. But there it was, in the mail. In the upper left corner of the plain white envelope were four letters: AARP. I was being scouted by the geezers.

Its optimistic tone couldn’t mask the baleful implications of its message: “Our records indicate that you are already missing out on great benefits, yada, yada, yada.” Well, their records were wrong! At the time, I wasn’t even fifty years old – at least in that regard I was like Jesus (John 8.57).  

Regardless, the signs were already there. My youngest child is the only one to not remember me having hair. When I played football or basketball with my son, I was in pain for days. My oldest daughter could outrun me. My clothing began shrinking at an alarming rate. My forehead got taller and taller. My cholesterol had far outstripped my IQ.

Could geezerdom be far behind?

As I pondered the letter, and my reaction to it, I first thought to myself that it was a humbling experience. That wasn’t quite true. It would be more accurate to say that it was a humiliating experience. To humiliate is to “make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect” (Oxford American Dictionary). To humble someone can have the same meaning (at least in English), although it primarily means to “lower (someone) in dignity or importance” (Oxford). 

In Biblical thought, to be humbled is to be brought low. Humility is lowliness of spirit. It’s not so much having a poor opinion of yourself, your accomplishments, or your abilities; rather it’s simply not allowing self to enter the picture. Paul said that humility involved regarding others as more important than you and considering what’s in the best interest of others before considering your own interests (Philippians 2.3-4).

Where humiliation and humility differ is in their origin. Humiliation originates with our egos. When we’re humiliated, it’s because our egos have been bruised. We think, “How dare they do that to me!” Humility originates with a conscious decision to quit thinking of self. Self isn’t allowed an opinion about how others treat us. So then, if we’re injured or ridiculed, there’s no need to react with shame or embarrassment because we realize our self-worth is unchanged. We think, “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” (Hebrews 13.6)

Too often we react from an inflated ego rather than a humble spirit. Insults and injuries (real or imagined) ignite us in a moment. In our minds we have something at stake, something to defend, and we react accordingly. 

Jesus expects more from his followers. It’s no wonder Jesus said that to be a disciple, a man “must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Luke 9.23). Step one is self-denial. In this we’re only following Jesus’ own example: “And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2.23). Perhaps the reason we do so poorly in applying this is because we’ve never mastered step one.

Humility is liberating because it allows us to function in a variety of circumstances, good or bad. When self is no longer the reference point of our existence, we’re free to pursue other, more worthwhile things. Such humility enabled Paul to say, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.10).

For most of us, the biggest source of misery is not age, illness, money or persecution. Our greatest source of misery is self. So long as self holds first place in our lives, we may expect regularly to be humiliated. 

And as for me and my mail: “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid. What will AARP do to me?”