August 27th, 2017
Ms. Beth Fisher
In the Christian faith, we often talk about humility, and warn against the dangers of pride. Our reading from Romans is one of the verses I heard often as a child, usually as a “don’t get too big for your britches” rebuke: “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.”
For most of my adolescent years and well into my twenties, I often expressed what I thought was humility in one of two ways – either a bashful, self-effacing dismissal of praise, “Nah, I’m nothing special!” – or a more overt self-deprecation, “I’m actually quite terrible! I’m no good! Look at how awful I am!”
But I don’t think these are representative of true, healthy humility. For me they were attention-seeking & people-pleasing posed as humility, in which I would seek out praise, then dismiss it, but secretly thrilled about how great they thought I was, or a socially acceptable outlet to point out that for every strength I might have, I had many more flaws. I wasn’t actually demonstrating humility; I was vacillating between pride and self-loathing.
So what is humility, and how do we cultivate it?
The word “humble” comes from the Latin word humilis, – it can also be translated as “grounded” or “from the earth,” because humilis is connected to the Latin word humus, which means “earth.”
For the past two years, I’ve been working on a research project led by a Wycliffe professor and clinical psychologist named Wanda Malcolm. There are many perks to having a psychologist for a boss, and one of them is that truths about wholeness and psycho-social health that are well-established facts for her have been revolutionary for me. In the first year MDiv course I took from her, she spoke often about the importance of “Seeing ourselves the way God already sees us.” I like the language of “groundedness” to talk about humility, particularly when this is what we ground ourselves in: not the world’s standards, not a made-up evaluative model we’ve created within our own minds, but the truth of God’s perspective of us.
This is what we hear in our passage from Isaiah, where the servant of God speaks to the people of Israel, reminding them to remember where they’ve come from.
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.”
Abraham and Sarah lived a wild, adventure-and-misadventure filled life. They were far from perfect people; Sarah became petulant when the servant she had sent to Abraham had the son she couldn’t have. Later, she laughed at God when he told her she would still have a son. And Abraham – he lied about his relationship with Sarah multiple times, was complicit in sending Hagar and his son into the desert at Sarah’s request – and yet, they are frequently held up as examples of faith in God.
So why does Isaiah bring them up here?
Just as Abraham and Sarah did not earn God’s blessing in their lives, Israel’s hope for the future lies in remembering their history, rooting themselves in how God has always seen them: a people called to and beloved by God, not by their own greatness or moral perfection, but simply because of God’s overflowing and unending love. This passage is one of many throughout Scripture that calls God’s people to remember and reset themselves in relationship to God – a reminder that God’s love has always been on offer, and we are the ones who have often refused to accept it.
Cultivating humility, or being grounded, starts here – not with a diminished sense of self or a stark awareness of our flaws, but by accepting that before we even talk about strengths or weaknesses, we are already loved. That is our primary identity. Beloved by God.
And when we truly believe this, it flows into our relationships. In our reading from Romans’, we see how being grounded in God’s love is lived out in community.
First, Paul begins this passage by calling his readers to the same reset/recommitment that we heard in Isaiah. “Come back to God, don’t get caught up in the rest of the world.” It’s a reminder that we, as people in relationship to God, are called to view the world around us from a different perspective. When we look at ourselves with the same gracious love that God sees us, there is no shame or judgment for our limits and flaws. And when we are able to see ourselves this way, we are freed up to celebrate the strengths and gifts of those around us.
Paul celebrates the diversity of the Roman church, and encourages each person to live in to their unique skills:
“You can help us envision direction for the future? Lead on!”
“You can organize programs to help those in need? Please do!”
“You can teach! Yes, thank you.”
“You always have a kind word; I need those.”
“You love to support the community financially? It’s essential to have people like you.”
“You have a deep capacity to care for others? Let’s love our neighbourhood together.”
The research project I am working on explores satisfaction & stress for people who work in Christian ministry. As part of the research, each participant answers a set of questions about 17 potentially positive aspects, and 12 potentially negative aspects. We have had over 200 participants, and here is a perhaps obvious, but important reality of what we’ve found: there is no blueprint for what someone’s gifts or favourite parts of ministry life are. Each person’s individual set of satisfiers and stressors is different. When I talk to participants about their data, over and over we start at the same place: celebrating the uniqueness and the goodness of who they are as a person, and when needed reminding them that there is no perfect ministry person. Satisfaction in ministry is about living into their own specific calling, and, my hypothesis is, developing spiritual practices that help them stay grounded in God’s love – that is, hopefully, the focus of my PhD: the relationship between prayer & personal spiritual practices and satisfaction/longevity in ministry.
Of course, most of us here are not in ‘professional’ Christian ministry. But I’m convinced that the same essential truths are at play for all of us who belong to the kingdom of God. Humility, or groundedness, starts with seeing ourselves the way God already sees us: wholly seen, wholly loved. And that love frees us to live into our own uniquenesses, and to celebrate as others do the same.
These past six months, the most frequent response I get when people find out Matt and I are foster parents is, “I could never do what you do…” I don’t want people to think we’re superheroes; we really aren’t. But I do see how our lives and gifts have led us to a place and a calling that not everyone is going to share. And that is ok! I can celebrate the way we are loving our corner of the world, and I can celebrate the ways that others do the same. I’m not a ‘better’ person than anyone else because we’re fostering. And there are roles and choices I will never take on that are the best way for another person to live out God’s love.
God’s invitation to remember who we truly are has been issued for millennia – and is still being offered to us today. Just as the Israelites and the Romans were invited to reset and re-ground themselves, God gives us the same opportunity – this is particularly symbolized on Sunday mornings when we gather together, confess that we are flawed, imperfect people, and then come forward to receive the Eucharist, the symbol and sacrament of God’s ultimate, unwavering love.
When we truly trust that God is love and that love is for us, specifically, with all our foibles and flaws, we embrace grace. We learn to look at ourselves with both compassion and clarity, knowing that who we are is something we simply live out, and that internal groundedness produces connectivity – it allows the love we’ve received to overflow, for the same grace we’ve experienced to be offered to others – it transforms us, as Paul wrote, and it transforms the world around us.