Christian humility

But let us then look at the attitude more closely. The Christian call seems to be, negatively speaking, away from oneself. "A person who loses his life for my sake will find it." "Unless a person repudiates himself, takes up his cross and follows me, he can be no student of mine," said Jesus.

There is a more literal sense here than we generally think. When we speak of self-denial, what we ordinarily mean is giving up the use of something that is not ourselves ("I will deny myself this ice cream,") usually for the sake of self-mastery: to gain greater possession of ourselves.

But that sort of thing is Stoicism, not Christianity. To be "free from attachment to the things of the world" so that you are in control of your destiny is the Stoic ideal; and if anything, it is the very opposite of the Christian attitude. The Christian, in a real sense, is not in control of himself; he has given himself up.

That is, we must give ourselves up, to be Christians, not for the sake of self-development, or even for the sake of the recovery of ourselves later, but absolutely. We are not to be interested in ourselves, just as Jesus was not interested in himself when he became man and submitted to that horrible death. What did he have to gain in self-fulfillment from it?

I hasten to add that the result of this abandonment of oneself is a recovery of a transformed self. "We are transformed to God," as St. Paul said; but this cannot be the motive for the abandonment. If this greater self is the motive for the self-denial, then the self-denial is not self-denial but self-affirmation; motive implies interest, and if you are "not interested in yourself" because of the greater you that comes from it, you are feigning disinterest, and doing so interestedly. You are lying. Self-denial for the sake of self-fulfillment makes self-denial impossible.

Let me say here why this giving up of the self is necessary. Christianity is really for those who have sinned; if there had been no sin, Jesus would not have redeeemed us, because there would be no point to redemption.

When a person sins, he makes a choice which puts him at cross-purposes with himself; he sets up a goal for himself which in one respect or other he knows can't be achieved, because to achieve it would be a contradiction. For instance, a thief wants the money he steals to belong to him--because he uses it as if it does belong to him--but he knows that the act of taking it against someone's will does not make it really belong to him; and his use is a pretense that contradicts the reality.

What the thief does not realize is that his choice is a spiritual act, and as such is an eternal act, one that he cannot get rid of, but can only forget now that he has a body and a brain. Once he dies, this act, along with every other conscious act he has ever had, will reawaken and be eternally present to him; and with it will reawaken the self-defeating ambition contained in it. He will, in some respect, be eternally frustrated, having a goal he intends to achieve and knows he can never achieve. This, of course, is the essence of hell.

But that choice is not a "part" of his mental reality, as if it could be removed and leave the rest the same. It defines him as the person he is; each of us is the person he makes himself by the sum of his choices. The choice permeates everything else about the person's consciousness, poisoning his whole spiritual reality, casting its color over everything.

[For a more detailed discussion of this see Modes of the Finite, 3.4.3 and 3.4.4]

But this means that, to be free of that sin, the person has to become someone else: that different person he would have been if the choice had not been made. And this is a person who (in some respect) is different as a whole.

We can see this, I think, when we consider the alcoholic's fear when he realizes that he has got to give up drinking. The drink is not the real problem. The real problem is that it has become such a part of everything about him that he says, "But if I give this up, who will I be?" He realizes that it is not the drink he has to give up; it is the drinker.

And the same is true of anyone who has ever sinned. You can't give up the sin without giving up the sinner; and who will you be afterwards? You don't know. You will afterwards recognize yourself; but you can't predict beforehand what the later self will be like.

So that is one reason why the Christian vocation is an actual giving up of oneself; it involves becoming a different person. It is also why the Christian vocation is a call. Actions ordinarily originate from us because of our interests, and hence are relevant to ourselves and our self-fulfillment. True self-forgetfulness must ultimately originate from outside.

Hence, we cannot choose Christianity, because there is no possible motive for choosing it; we must be chosen. "You have not chosen me; I have chosen you," says Jesus. The fact that once a person is Christian, the self is transformed into something infinitely greater than it was is another of the paradoxes and mysteries of Christianity. Christianity is itself for the Christian, even while it impels him to act not for his own sake.

Let us pause a moment to notice a practical implication of this. We cannot really persuade others to be Christians, because, if we are honest, we cannot give them a motive to be Christian. If we delude them by uttering the half-truth that if they are Christians they will be happy--in the hope that, desiring happiness, they will be converted--we are cutting off from them the only means to Christian happiness: lack of concern for one's own happiness. A Christian is happy, both here and hereafter, only to the degree to which he is indifferent to his own happiness. No, we can only provide the opportunity for others to be Christian; it is the grace of the Master Himself which will effect the transformation. Nor should we think that we can use persuasion at the beginning, and let God take over once our listeners have made the first step. This sometimes works, because God uses our mistakes; but it is cheating, and even for the Christian the end does not justify the means.

But then how to "provide the opportunity" for grace? By being Christian. We make ourselves different, this difference reveals itself, and the non-Christian sees it, not precisely as personally beneficial, but as true and good. Who has not been inspired by seeing someone not interested in his own gain? His life is a mystery to others, they read all sorts of hidden motives into what he does; and if his life shows that these motives are not really at work, then that life becomes itself a call to others. "It can be done," it says. It seems too beautiful and good to be true, but it can be done.

Here we have another facet of the Christian paradox. It is not just that the persuasion comes from not overtly persuading, but from living one's own life and not trying (by a kind of reverse hypocrisy) to hide what one is doing; but it is what the life reveals: the only human life, given sin, that can make sense, is the life that is beyond reason. What makes life reasonable is something that itself can't be put into a rational scheme; foolishness, as St. Paul says, is revealed as greater wisdom than human wisdom itself.

The name, of course, for this lack of interest in oneself and one's own fulfillment is Christian humility. But we must be clear about this word; like all Christian concepts, it has a thousand perversions that masquerade as "true humility."

First of all, it is not self-depreciation or "modesty." St. Paul was anything but "modest," and he himself admits in his first letter to Timothy that he was a "conceited ass." Yet he was humble in the true sense. Here is what he says, for instance, in the fifteenth chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians:

"I am the lowest ranking representative; I don't even deserve to be called a representative of the Prince, because I tried to destroy God's community. I am what I am because of God's free gift--and his gift to me has not be wasted; I have worked harder than anyone else. But even this is not my doing; it is God's gift with me that did it.

"Anyway, what difference is it what I did or they did? This is what our proclamation says..."

The humility is not in the first part ("I am the lowest, etc."); this is a statement of fact; nor, precisely, in the second ("I am what I am because of God's free gift), because this is also simply a fact; and it certainly isn't in the third ("I have worked harder"), because here the conceit shows itself.

No, the humility is in the last part. "What difference is it what I did or they did?"

So humility does not consist in running down your accomplishments; it consists in the fact that your accomplishments (or your lack of accomplishments) don't matter to you.

The person who is humble in the worldly sense, who says, "I've never done anything or been anything remarkable; I'm not anybody, really," is not necessarily humble in the Christian sense. Very often the person who doesn't consider that he has done anything worth while is depressed about it, which shows that he cares about the fact that his life hasn't accomplished anything. He might be very accurate in his assessment of his impact on the world--and in that sense (the worldly sense) he is being truly humble. But the depression shows that that person wants to be somebody; he is interested in being significant or being great. He has not given up himself.

Notice that the two greatest saints in Christianity didn't accomplish much of anything at all. Mary's great accomplishment, really, was to agree to be the mother of Jesus; and of the ten or a dozen things recorded of her, one of the most significant was that she did the unmotherly act of losing track of her youngster for a whole day. And St. Joseph was just a carpenter who had a dream or two. What else do we know of him?

But why did God create us and die to redeem us if he doesn't want something significant from us? We will have to handle this shortly.

The point here is that self-depreciation is, so far from being Christian humility, often the very opposite of Christian humility.

Nor is humility "truth," as some Christian writers have said. The truth, to be sure, is humbling, given that we can do absolutely nothing on our own. St. Augustine said, "nothing but sin," but we even have to have God's help to sin. Objectively speaking, we have absolutely no value, because nothing, objectively, has any value. And this is not just true for the atheist, but for the Christian too. St. Paul says, writing to the Christians in Galatia, "Because, remember, if a person thinks he is something, when in fact he is nothing, he is fooling himself."

But even though this is the truth, this recognition of one's objective worthlessness is not Christian humility, because it also can cause depression, to the person who cares about the fact that objectively he is not something valuable. It is simply not important to the Christian whether he is important or not. Humility is not the opposite of "having a healthy sense of self-worth," but of not caring whether one is worth a lot or nothing at all, because one does not care about oneself.

In fact, it is really only the Christian who can face the actual truth about himself: that he does not really matter. For the atheist, it matters whether or not he matters--what else does he have to live for?--and so he must delude himself that he "really does matter" at least to someone. Perhaps he does, of course; we can matter to other people. But perhaps he doesn't, and most likely he doesn't really matter much to anyone, and not to very many in any case. Most likely he will not be remembered, even, a generation after his death, and possibly not more than a year after. Can he stand the thought?

But it does not matter to the Christian whether he matters or not; and so if he doesn't matter, what difference does it make? If he is not remembered afterwards, he can face this, because what matters to him is not himself but God. On the other hand, if he matters vitally to others, even thousands of others, this does not "puff him up," as they used to say, because it does not matter to him whether he matters or not. Humility can recognize superiority, even; it is that the superiority is of no concern to the person who is superior.

Christian humility, in short, consists in not being important to oneself. Self, fulfillment, happiness, relevance, and all the rest of it, are boring topics to the Christian.

Not many of us are very Christian, are we? But not even that matters.

[For a discussion of what importance is see Modes of the Finite 4.7.2]

Notice that humility as a Christian virtue cannot be attained by practice. If you "practice" humility, you are trying to "make yourself better" in this respect, and so you are paying attention to yourself and your development in this virtue; and this particular virtue consists in not paying attention to yourself and your development. Another of Christianity's paradoxes.

No, Christian humility comes from practice; but it can't be practiced deliberately as such. A person acquires the virtue of humility by turning away from it--and all virtue--as things to "acquire" so as to be "a better person." Humility is a gift, not an acquisition. As time goes on, you will be able to say without disappointment what St. Therese of Liseux said, "I have finally become resigned to being imperfect."

I think it can already be seen how impossible it is to be a Christian by oneself, and why Christianity cannot be regarded as a philosophy of life. Philosophy builds itself on reason, and everything about Christianity transcends reason, and sounds like a contradiction from the point of view of reason. Not that the Christian avoids reason; he just does not look on it as ultimate.

But if nothing matters, why bother? The answer is, Why not?

There will be those who are now saying, "But I can't accept this. Christianity can't mean that I don't have any real importance, and that it doesn't really make any difference to God whether I do good or sin!"

It may be that what you mean by this is, "This is not the way I understand Christianity." In that case, you are simply saying that you read the evidence differently--and presumably are willing at least to consider what I am saying as a possible interpretation of the truth of the faith. There is room for disagreement within Christianity; not even the "correct" interpretation of the Christian message is of ultimate importance (he said, a Catholic sounding dangerously Protestant), because we will all be saved--those of us who will be saved--not only in spite of, but to some extent because of, our mistakes.

But if what you mean is, "I will not accept a version of Christianity in which I don't have any objective importance, because I will hang on to my importance and accept only those views of life which preserve it," then I am afraid that I really do not have much that is useful to offer you.