“Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” —Luke 14:11
There used to be a cable news program that presented itself as the “no spin zone.” The degree to which this program and its host fulfilled this claim is beyond my experience to judge. But I can say with certainty that in our relationship with God, we are truly and completely in a “no spin zone.” No rationalizations. No exaggerations. No boasting. No playing up the positive and stuffing the negative under cover of lies or silence. No evasions and no excuses.
This is to say that all that we are, all that we fail to be, all of our striving, all of our laziness, all of our good deeds and all of our sins are seen by God with perfect and all-penetrating clarity. If this makes you squirm a little bit, I can assure you that you are not alone!
We see an exchange of gazes in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14): the people at the home of the Pharisee “observing (Jesus) carefully,” and the searching, penetrating gaze of Jesus Himself, a gaze that not only notices the external behavior of choosing seats of honor at a banquet, but knows the motivations operating in the hearts of the people seeking such places.
And what does Jesus prescribe as an antidote to the poison of their ambition? The virtue of humility. Now humility is not just spiritual frumpiness or mousiness, walking around with your shoulders drooping low and speaking in a whisper all the time. Among other ways humility can be described, we can say that it is the virtue of seeing ourselves the way that God sees us, seeing ourselves with the same penetrating clarity, with the same honesty, and without any “spin.”
Humility is not just spiritual frumpiness or mousiness, walking around with your shoulders drooping low and speaking in a whisper all the time. Among other ways humility can be described, we can say that it is the virtue of seeing ourselves the way that God sees us, seeing ourselves with the same penetrating clarity, with the same honesty, and without any “spin.”
It can be difficult to achieve this kind of humility, because our minds and hearts are often cluttered and complicated with self-justifications, grasping ambitions, and a pernicious sense of superiority over other people. And these forces are often subtle, making them all-the-more difficult to identify and clear away.
Prayer and self-denial are the tools we need for this work. Prayer helps us to cut through the forces of pride within us, and to see ourselves as we really are: meaning, both our dignity as children of God and our lowliness as God’s creatures, our weakness, and our sinfulness.
Of course, only thinking of ourselves as sinful bums would be something like the spiritual frumpiness I referred to earlier. And so we need to see both the good and the bad, but to see them both as they truly are. Speaking more particularly of self-denial, we need to be very careful that we avoid doing things for the sake of praise, that we avoid reacting harshly when we are criticized, and that we are willing to say or do necessary good things even though we know we will meet with criticism.
As we strive to grow in humility, it is also good to be aware of the rewards God wants to give to the humble, rewards we find in this Sunday’s first reading (Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29):
- to know God’s love more deeply and truly;
- to be a greater person in the way that counts, that is, to grow in holiness;
- and to “find favor with God.”
St. Augustine, whose feast day we celebrate this week (Aug. 28), once said of humility, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not preceed all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.” He also said, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
If we achieve true humility, along with the other necessary virtues of the Christian life, we can be sure of the reward promised by Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel. We will be invited to the “higher place” to which Jesus refers, which ultimately is a place in the kingdom of heaven. Truly, in humbling ourselves, by the power of God, we will be exalted.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.