Friday, November 15, 2013

False Humility vs. True Humility

I recently wrote about the lack of humility in the Western Church, and of how cultivating empathy is a way to bring about this humility.  But I think it's important to understand that there is a false humility that often masquerades as true humility.  I think Charles Dickens paints a very vivid picture of what false humility looks like in "David Copperfield" with the character of Uriah Heep.  Uriah Heep is a character who is so creepy as to resemble a snake more than a human being.  Uriah Heep uses his false humility as a way to manipulate people into giving him things and doing favors for him - his humility is a bargaining chip to be used towards his ambitions.  He climbs the ladder by emphasizing to everyone how low he is on it, and as you watch him climbing you realize the very little value he places on everyone else.  You really to believe as you're introduced to this character that he is filled with self loathing, but it is because of this that he destroys others around him with little to no remorse.  Heep's main weapon is guilt: he even plans to use guilt to manipulate a woman - Agnes Wickfield - into marrying him!  So as the story unfolds, the reader gets a very clear picture that Uriah Heep is not really humble at all - in actuality, his spirit has been so poisoned that his false humility is really a form of hatred.

I think this picture is a profound window into the difference between false humility and true humility.  Because true humility is not born from self-loathing - as Uriah Heep's false humility was.  True humility is not born from devaluing life, but from bestowing such high value on life as to respect it above your own.  True humility is born from love - that which values the life of the beloved more than one's own desires and ambitions.

Far too many churches have sought to cultivate humility through guilt - they hold their audiences captive every Sunday morning and tell them everything they are doing wrong.  The fill their pews with shame and fear, and they call that humility.  But true humility is not born this way.

Often those who possess true humility may look as if they are very proud, because they refuse to back down in their causes.  They boldly stride towards the goal of the benefit of their beloved without any fear for their own well-being, and the world will speak of their pride.  A good example of such a man would be the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King had a goal - a dream that "one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."  Dr. King sought the benefit of all, and saw that for this to happen, white men could no longer impose their dehumanizing power over black men.  Because Dr. King realized that this not only dehumanized those being oppressed, but it also dehumanized the oppressors.  And so Dr. King fought valiently for this dream, and it may have looked like pride - indeed it was a form of pride in the value of life itself!  U2 even wrote a song about MLK's "Pride", in which Bono sings that they took Dr. King's life, but they could not take his pride - and this is true.  But Dr. King was a very humble man as well.  We know this because Dr. King refused to strike back at those who opposed his dream. 

In Birmingham, Alabama on September 28th, 1962, Dr. King was giving the closing speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC).  During his speech, a man named Roy James was present, and his anger had been growing within him during this speech.  When he could take it no more, he sprung from his seat and rushed the stage, striking Dr. King with such force that it knocked him backwards.  James then began repeatedly striking Dr. King with such force and fervor that Dr. King was unable to even raise his arms in defense.  The audience screamed in horror, and a few rushed the stage to come to Dr. King's aid, but there was a brief moment when the attacker paused to rest from his fierce attack.  And in that moment, Dr. King stood tall and faced James eye to eye with what one might describe as the strength of pride.  This surprised James so much that he did not continue his attack, and as three of the audience members approached to remove James from the stage, Dr. King shouted out: "don't touch him!  Don't touch him, we have to pray for him!"  And Dr. King and the audience proceeded to do so, and afterwards the Reverend took Roy James into a private room and spoke with him calmly while they waited for the police.  Dr. King refused to press charges, though James was still fined and faced 30 days in jail.

This situation exemplifies the true nature of humility, in my opinion.  And this kind of humility is not the opposite of pride, nor is it a form of weakness - but rather, it strengthens us and gives us purpose.  Because true humility grows from placing such high value on life that one is willing and able to face the most frightening of situations without fear, and to even hold back oneself from giving in to anger and acting upon it.  True humility is not burdened by guilt or fear, but is so consumed with love for others that selfish desires, fear, guilt, and anger cannot keep us from striving for the good of the beloved.  There is no true humility without love - so beware of the preacher who tries to dress shame up and call it humility.  True humility leads to love for others, and false humility leads to self loathing, which leads to fear and anger and hate.

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