Descending In Humility
Fr. John Oliver · July 7, 2009
Fr. John illustrates how lowliness and self-condemnation should be our goal, rather than pride and self-esteem.
Question: Is it ever ok to agree with the devil? Let’s talk about that. A recent survey of Amazon.com revealed the top 20 best selling books in the Self-Help section to include such titles as these: Ten Days To Self-Esteem, The Self-Esteem Workbook, Self-Esteem: A Proven Program Of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem. The word “esteem” is a good and useful term. It means “to have a high opinion of” or “to value greatly.” But doesn’t value of the word depend entirely on the object that it modifies?
For example, is it really biblical for each of us to have a high opinion of ourselves? Is the very notion of esteeming the self compatible with St. Paul, who calls each of us to esteem others better than ourselves? Or, with Christ Himself who said that “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted?” Is it possible that the whole idea of ‘self-esteem’ is anti-Christian? But if we are not to esteem the self then what exactly are we to esteem? What should we have a high opinion of or value greatly?
In the early chapters of a classic book, G.K. Chesterton is walking down the street with a secularist friend. The friend has just made an observation about someone, saying, “That man will be successful, he believes in himself.” To this Chesterton replied that believing in oneself is an absolute disaster and a sure sign of mental illness. “Well then,” said his friend, “if a person is not to believe in himself then in what should he believe?”
After a moments thought Chesterton says, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” The title of the book that he wrote: Orthodoxy. That is to say, we do not hold a high opinion of the self but of the God without whom the self is nothing and in whom the self finds everything. We do not esteem who we are. We esteem Him who is the great I Am, who is the ground and source of our extraordinary being. We do not esteem what we can do, but what God has done in Christ and continues to do through His Church. There is no consideration of the self without confessing our utter dependence on God for everything.
Spiritual life is sometimes contrasted with worldly life by using the image of a pyramid. Father Sophrony Sakharov of Blessed Memory describes this beautifully. In worldly life, the mass of people are at the bottom and your goal is to distinguish yourself, to elevate yourself above the masses, to see yourself and have others see you as something special. And that ascent requires a self-confidence that looks a lot like arrogance. It is practically a Hallmark card, “Believe in yourself and you will go far.”
Spiritual life, by contrast is an inverted pyramid. The goal for a Christian is not to go up but to go down. We are called to walk, not the path of vanity, but the path of humility. Humility, wrote St. Macarius of Optina, brings peace, tranquility and true happiness. The saints tell us that humility means that we see ourselves exactly as God sees us, nothing more, but also nothing less. Humility, they say, is for the ego to continually decrease so that Christ might increase within us and change us more and more into who he designed each of us to be. The true and everlasting self, the hidden man in Christ, no longer swayed by the praises and insults by others. When we walk the path of humility we find that we are not trail-blazers, instead we find that the path has been walked before and the footsteps before us look precisely like our Savior’s. “Being in the form of God,” St. Paul writes in Philippians chapter 2, “He made himself of no reputation taking the form of a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name.”
When we descend in humility, toward the low point of the inverted pyramid, we find at least two things. First we find Christ there—He who is the very definition of humility. And second, we find that the devil is not there. When we descend in humility, the devil cannot follow us because he is too swelled with pride to fit in the low place where Christ is. The devil’s direction is not down in humility, but up in pride. This is why the high opinion of ourselves is precisely the way of Lucifer, who tried to place his throne above the throne of God. The devil’s strategy, however, is subtle. As we know, he is the accuser. So in order to inflame our vanity, he will come to us and accuse us of being no good, unworthy, wretched and wrong. He will accuse us of this so that we may be tempted to rise up and defend ourselves: “No, I am good, worthy, holy and right.” Because of this, when the devil comes to accuse us of being unworthy, our best strategy for resisting him may simply be to agree with him.
Humility attracts the Holy Spirit, and where the Holy Spirit is, the devil cannot last for long. So when the devil accuses you of being a bad person, a bad husband, a bad wife, a bad father or mother or employee or priest, our best strategy is to acknowledge, “You’re right. There is none good but God and I place all my self-worth in his hands, hands that were stretched out and pierced because He so loved the world. Humility opens us to the proper sense of the self, a self that, as Genesis suggests, is both as humble as the dust and as exalted as the very breath of God.
One of the Bible verses that we learn early in life is the 33rd verse of the 6th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” You and I can seek that kingdom in a lot of places, but there is one place where we are assured it will be found—down, in lowliness, in self-condemnation. Down in the high and exalted state of humility.