Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Sweetness of Humility

"What kind of tree is that?" I asked my Chinese friend Jerry. The name he used had a familiar sound, but I couldn't remember what it meant. "Is the fruit edible?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, "But don't eat it; it isn't ripe."

"I'm going to eat some," I said, "Just to figure out what it is."


"Why not? Is it poisonous?"

"No, but it is incredibly bitter."

I plucked one of the hard green fruits and bit into it anyway—and immediately spewed it out in disgust. It was more bitter than anything I had ever eaten. It was a long time before I forgot the Chinese word for walnut.

Pride is as acrid as a green walnut. I have heard from a young age that I should forsake pride, but my sinfulness is such that I do not begin to relinquish a sin until I repulsed by it. Over the past several months I have tasted pride's acerbic flavor, and now I hate it—and as I result, I also love humility and its sweetness.

Indeed, humility is sweet. A scene from C.S. Lewis' Perelandra makes a profound comment on the nature of humility by picturing the innocence of the Green Lady:

[The Green Lady] stared for quite an appreciable time [into the mirror] without apparently making anything of it. Then she started back with a cry and covered her face...

"Oh—oh," she cried. "What is it? I saw a face."

"Only your own face, beautiful one," said the Un-man.

"I know," said the Lady, still averting her eyes from the mirror. "My face—out there—looking at me. Am I growing older or is it something else? I feel...I heart is beating too hard. I am not warm." (116)

"That thing" (she pointed at the mirror) "is me and not me."

"But if you do not look you will never know how beautiful you are."

"It comes into my mind, Stranger," she answered, "that a fruit does not eat itself, and a man cannot be together with himself." (117)

The Green Lady's beauty was not for herself: it was for the King. While she must have always been conscious of her own beauty in a vague way, she did not even know what she looked like. We speak of someone being "stuck on himself"; the Green Lady was stuck on someone else. Here is humility, not as a dry "spiritual" attribute, but as a charming addition to the Lady's physical beauty. The Apostle Peter understood this well.

Don't be concerned about the outward beauty that depends on fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should be known for the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. (1 Peter 3:3-4)

Humility is also becoming to men. Once an unusually intelligent linguist was explaining some of the peculiarities of the Thai counting system to my father, my brother and me. He mentioned some of the speculations that certain linguists had relating to the subject, and then added, "But that doesn't really matter to us, does it." His apparent lack of interest in the details of the linguistic speculations demonstrated that he had told us this for our own interest and not to flaunt his superior knowledge, while his warm smile and use of the word "us" created an aura of camaraderie. He regularly spoke in this manner, and I loved him for it and respected him far more than if he had used his knowledge to diminish me.

Another example of sweet humility is to be found in Proverbs 30, where Agur son of Jakeh writes:

I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. I am too ignorant to be human, and I lack common sense. I have not mastered human wisdom, nor do I know the Holy One.

Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down? Who holds the wind in his fists? Who wraps up the oceans in his cloak? Who has created the whole wide world? What is his name—and his son's name? Tell me if you know! (1-4)

Here is profound humility. Not only does Agur not claim to understand the wisdom of God, he cries out that he has not even mastered common sense and human wisdom! As his oracle continues, it becomes apparent that he does have some wisdom to share. But even his wisdom is sometimes expressed in terms of things he does not understand (see verse 18).

One of the sweetest things about humility is its accompanying confidence. In an ironic paradox, pride, which presents itself as strong and confident, has a close relationship to insecurity, while humility, which overlooks itself, can be built only on an inner confidence. Insecurity tells a person his current size is unsatisfactory and that he has to inflate himself, whereas a person who is confident—that is, someone who trusts in God, for trust in anything else is false confidence—is able to honestly and sorrowfully admit his own faults. A humble person feels no need to respond in kind to deflating remarks because he has no pockets of hot air puffing him beyond his real size.

If pride is a green walnut, the bitterest taste ever to touch my tongue, humility is a honeycomb, the sweetest of all flavors.


Anya said...

Thank you.

I wrote an entire paper about hubris once... and yet it's still an issue in my life.

F.B. said...

Love that quote from Perelandra.

Humility sounds so simple, but I don't think I've ever managed to possess it for even the tiniest portion of my life. Pride was our first sin, and it's still underneath everything else....

Anya said...

Yep, that was the foundation of my paper... basically that pride was the underlying motive behind EVERY sin. It was interesting. :)