The Malady of Not Marking
1 Peter 5.5 ... all of you must put on the
apron of humility.
Talking about humility is
difficult. Partly this is because we are each vulnerable to accusations of
not practising what we preach; and partly because addressing humility
tends to make plain the slightest lack of that virtue.
Traditionally, humility is the opposite of pride, which
is thought of as rebellion against God. It follows that humility involves
submission "under God's mighty hand" as the author of 1 Peter puts it. He
echoes Paul, who saw Jesus as humble because he "... walked the path of
obedience all the way to the end" (Philippians 2.8). An apron
protects against the messiness of doing dirty work for others. We are here
being urged to put on the universal badge of a servant, that most humble
Both writers reflect the social norm of their time that it is right to
keep to one's given station in life. Thomas Aquinas, for example,
suggested that obedience to God implies moderation of ambition. We are all
put where we are by the divine will, he argues. If our station is to
change, God will arrange it. Until then, we should humbly submit.
The moral seems to be, "Don't make more of yourself than you should."
This sort of humility comes to mind when an 18-year-old footballer,
already a multi-millionaire, appears on television amidst much praise and
adulation. How is he to resist an inflated ego? In a celebrity culture
such as ours his fate seems sealed by the unflagging attention and praise
he's likely to receive regardless of the way he lives.
humility is badly neglected it is for good reason, however. For some
hundreds of years now, humanity has increasingly been seen as having
metaphorically "come of age". Where submission and dependence were once
the norm, autonomy and self-direction are now in the ascendant. Where God
was a parent-figure in the sky issuing orders to obedient children, the
divine is now firmly rooted in daily life. In the West, and increasingly
elsewhere, very few now define themselves in terms of toeing the line, of
kowtowing to the powers that be.
How does that change how we think about
humility? Not much, if we continue to work from the Bible towards life, if
we try to live life today as though nothing much has changed in two
thousand years. The Bible derives from what we would today call an
authoritarian culture, one which envisaged God as a heavenly emperor, to
be blindly obeyed and completely depended upon. Its vision does not admit
a modern standpoint. Instead, the modern must bend and conform to it -
even if it breaks.
It makes more sense today to start with life as we
know it and work from there to understanding Jesus. One such response
derives from what we now know about healthy personality.
If any one
thing marks maturity it is the capacity to be realistic about oneself. The
more you and I see ourselves as others see us, the more easily we adapt to
life's demands. A further question naturally arises. How does one reach
self-knowledge? The answer is by being open to the feedback which our
environment gives us minute-by-minute and day-by-day. That is a useful way
of understanding the traditional metaphor of "God's voice".
Some of what
is reflected back by God will be uncomfortable, some pleasing. But all
of what we see and hear is God speaking to us. "Obedience" is possible
only when God's voice is heard - and that in turn requires that we listen
carefully. If the Christian faith is worth anything, this must yield good
fruit. For faith is trust that God's creation is so designed to give us
that feedback and, as it were, put each of us in our proper place.
Humility, then, is the act of listening to God through the world. True
listening requires putting one's own agendas on hold, cocking our ears to
hear better, and noting with care what comes to us. Interestingly, none of
the behaviours of traditional humility fall away. Arrogance and listening
are poor bedfellows. Self-centredness (not the same as looking inwards)
fails to notice the messenger at the window. Wealth still blinds and
deafens. Bigotry still shuts the door on the stranger.
The opposite of
humility for us today turns out to be not rebellion but willful deafness
and blindness. It's not that the older perception of humility as obedience
was wrong - far from it. It's just that it makes more sense today to think
of Jesus as humble, not because he was obedient, but because he listened
so well to God's voice that he could be obedient. That's what servants do
at their best - listen in order to anticipate, if possible, the wishes of
those they serve.
We, in contrast, tend to hear but not take it in; we
see but don't notice (Matthew 13.15; Isaiah 6.9). As Shakespeare put it,
we are plagued by the "disease of not listening, the malady of not