Sunday, April 19, 2015

Christian Ethics and the Seven Virtues: part I, Humility

2 Chronicles7:11-16
James 4:1-10
Mark 9:30-37

“Humility is the foundation of all virtues, so in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”  St. Augustine of Hippo

In other words, we can put on a show for others, but virtue will not be a part of who we really are.

As “pride goes before destruction” (Prov 16:18) and opens the “wide gate” to all other of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins, so also “humility before honor” (Prov 15:33) is the “narrow way” to the necessary attributes of the disciple: faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence, and temperance. 

But what is humility, really?  What does it mean to “humble oneself” to The Lord … or to anyone, for that matter?  Jesus teaches that if it is Divine Favor we seek, and we should, we must first be willing to be “last of all” and “servant of all” – not only to a select few.  How do we seek Divine Favor by intentionally not seeking Divine Favor?

Pastor and author Rick Warren believes, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less”.  A general consensus would suggest that our view of our own importance would be in deference to the importance of others.  We don’t think less of ourselves; we just think more of others.  As Jesus teaches the Twelve who would soon become the Church, we of that same Church, that same tradition, must be willing to be “last of all” and “servant to all” if we want to be “first” in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

This would be summarized in such a way: if we honestly believe we are better than someone else, more deserving than anyone else – by any measure or means – we lack humility, and consequently, all other virtues; and “destruction” will follow – if the Bible is correct.  One way or the other, we will be humbled – by our own choice and deliberate practice or by some external agent against our will.  

It is one thing to have confidence enough in something that gives us motivation, drive, and a certain sense of fearlessness to do what needs to be done regardless of the risk.  It is another thing altogether, however, to cross that fine line from confidence to arrogance.  It is the difference between trusting The Lord completely, enough to obey Him without question – or trusting ourselves primarily.  WE become the masters.  It is that point of distinction between a necessary sense of gratitude for anything we may have and a sense of entitlement for everything we think we deserve. 

We should not be thinking of ways to beat ourselves up when we are so richly blessed.  We must instead be thinking of ways to build up others through those blessings.  If we believe we are so richly blessed because The Lord favors us personally, we deny the biblical reality that The Lord shows no partiality.  We are blessed for purposes beyond our own “selfish ambitions”

When we stop worrying so much about ourselves, we will find more time and more room for The Lord in our lives.  We will find The Lord more prominent – and dominant – in our lives.  And that is what we are looking for.

Here is an interesting thought I was made aware of this past week.  In Leviticus 10 we are told of Aaron’s sons who had “performed the [fire] ritual correctly but had not done so as a "commandment" - that is, they had not consulted Moses to see whether it was The Lord's intent that they offer the fire … it is a reminder that the way the priests - and we today - serve The Lord is not only … by [doing things properly], but also [in doing properly we express] our intention to fulfill a command of The Lord [to an end greater than the means done properly].”  Rabbi Richard N. Levy

As Holy Communion is to serve a holy purpose, we may even consider the ways in which we add or remove from what is written in the Scripture to suit our own, less-than-holy purposes.

This is significant for us.  Moses reminded the grieving Aaron as his sons had been consumed by the fire they had tried to offer, “Through those who are near Me I will show Myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev 10:3) … not “you”.  The text seems to suggest the sons of Aaron were out of line in offering “unholy fire” perhaps because they got a little too full of themselves in their capacity as priests.  They were not offering fire to reveal The Lord’s glory; they were offering fire to enhance their own glory and were ultimately destroyed by their own means.

Genuine humility serves a holy purpose but only if humility itself is considered a means to a greater end – growing in faith and confidence in The Lord and in love for our neighbor, opening the “narrow door” to genuine virtue and closing tight the “wide gate” to vice.  As the Church Fathers and other philosophers believed and taught, if humility is lacking in us, so will virtue itself be lacking.  And The Lord nor our neighbors are lifted up. 

And I think this is what St. James must be alluding to.  He writes (3:16), “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind”.  Opening chapter 4, James writes of the “conflicts and selfish disputes” within the fellowship of the Church.  Do you suppose the reason there are so many disputes in the local church today is because what we seek, what we desire most, what we are willing to invest in and work toward, is what we want for ourselves (4:5), with no mind or concern about what The Lord may actually want from the church?

Even with limited resources one group wants “this”, another group wants “that”, and still another group thinks “another” thing is what the church needs most (none admitting it is strictly what they desire) – but the desire of each group has nothing to do with the overall mission and need of the Church.  Our personal desires are more about making the “club” more pleasing to ourselves.  Nothing has to do with striving to make The Lord look good (which is what it means to “glorify” The Lord) or conveying His mercy. 

We want what WE want for our own self-pleasure or sense of self-satisfaction.  And because we are unique individuals with unique tastes, there is no way – NO WAY! – we will be able to come together for the common purpose to which we as The Church are called, the common purpose we each vowed toward when we joined HIS Church … in humble submission to The Lord and His Church and, yes, His Moral Law.

Somewhere along the line, being a long-time member of the Church has come to mean special privilege according to personal demands.  Somewhere along the way, The Lord has all but been kicked to the curb of the Church with hardly a notice, and yet we curse and protest and worry that The Lord was somehow kicked out of public schools because they won’t make the kids pray! 

This is strictly about being more mindful of and more sensitive to what offends us personally rather than about what will teach others about the true nature of The Lord and His open arms to all sinners through the Church.  In worrying more about public schools than the Church we serve, we reveal our own less-than-humble nature.  And that’s when we know we are in danger of crossing – or already have crossed - that line from spiritual confidence to personal arrogance.  Both the Church and those who need The Lord will suffer.
It is not about “you” nor “you” nor even “me”.  It never was, as Aaron and his sons were reminded.  It is entirely about how the holiness, the perfection, the abundant mercy of The Lord will be revealed through us and not strictly for us.  This is the essence of humility and the foundation of all virtue, including faith. 

As we intentionally choose to “descend”, we will soon find ourselves “ascending” by the might and the mercy of The Lord.  Let us choose to be lifted rather than to lift ourselves in vain.  If we choose to elevate or lift ourselves by our own chosen means, the fall is imminent – in this life or the next.  But when we are so lifted by The Lord, lifted us where we will stay. 

For all glory and honor are yours, Almighty Father, now and forever.  Amen.

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