Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but think of yourself with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and not all members have the same function,…” ( Romans 12:3)
If there were more humility in the world, there would be more caring, more love, more endurance, more sacrifice (by the strong for the weak). Less complaining, less greed, less worry, less sacrifice (of the weak for and by the strong). An easy and true enough proposition. But what about the Church? What about the exercise of humility there?
Humility has come to mean its dissonance – even in the Church. It has come to mean the put down of self that elevates and makes comfortable a society bent on self-assertion. But humility is not self-deprecation. As the book of Romans tells us: we are to think something of ourselves. And others are to think something of themselves. That reasonable two-way view prevents us from looking at each other as disposable when faced with dilemmas like the one facing us today in this pandemic. But are we doing that now?
Chesterton’s quote below about humility goes to the point God is making about the Christian ethic. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). It’s humble love. The early Church historian, Tertullian made the famous observation of humble love about Christians then: “See how they love one another, they are willing to die for one another”. That was how Pagans saw early Christians. They did not see them sacrificing the young for economic reasons nor did they see them sacrificing the weak or the elderly for the same economic reasons – worse, still, sacrificing them for their political “rights”. Do they still see us that way now?
In times of trouble, we as Christians, should be helping others for their own sake, not for ours. If we were collectively doing those things, the popular reply today of God “loving you” would be seen and not have to be said. When we treat others as if they are disposable and replaceable, as society is doing now, when stacked up against our wants, even our needs and political “rights“, what do they see? Faith? Courage? No, they see that they are in the eyes of others the very opposite to what Chesterton is saying here about humility. They don’t matter. They are in the way. No one feels loved when seen that way. They certainly don’t feel safe. Would you and I? The problem is that we don’t see the weight of their glory as much as our own even to their natural death or as Chesterton puts it: “the stature of all things”.
We have reduced life to our wants, and yes, our needs, even our political “rights” and commoditized all of it. It all comes down to money, to the commodious life. In each time of test in this current Age, with increase, we have demonized and agreed that the weak who need our protection are expendable, everyone who might get in the way of our making money. We put them out of our lives and then we accept their early demise if it means we keep the commodious life. But God said: “No one can serve two masters: Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?…” (Matthew 6:24-25)
So how do we protect ourselves from falling into this spiritual trap? Our protection lies in our trust in God and his promises to provide if we obey Him and the exercise of humility.
“Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are — of immeasurable stature. That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other.”
― G.K. Chesterton, In defense of Humility, The Defendant, 1901
Chesterton spoke a number of times about humility and its dislocation in society. Most pointedly, in 1932, he wrote an essay entitled The American Ideal focused on what the dislocation of humility had done to America and what we could do to get it back. Please read the essay in its entirety.