by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 28, 1979, p. 207. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Christians must never be taken in by worldly attacks on humility — not only for our souls’ sakes, but for the sake of the world itself. A prideful Christian is perhaps the world’s most dangerous citizen.
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. . . . therefore, as it is written. “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” [I Cor. 1:26, 31].
When Paul wrote these words, he was obviously addressing a congregation of rather ordinary folk. He saw them as living evidence of God’s curious indifference to human standards of importance. Writing to the Corinthians with a bluntness that spared no one’s feelings, he used such adjectives as “foolish,” “weak,” “low” and even “nothing.” Since their inferior social status was hardly news to the Christians at Corinth, why Would Paul rub their noses in the fact?
Clearly he wanted to celebrate the graciousness and power of God by contrasting the church’s need with God’s mercy. It is also clear, however, that Paul was concerned about the ubiquity of human pride. We take pride indiscriminately. We boast of our virtues if we can discern any; failing that, we boast of our weaknesses. Christians are uniquely vulnerable to the most insidious kind of pride. We confess our dependence on grace -- but then, with just the slightest twist, this poverty of spirit becomes the grounds for the most unseemly boasting. “I am a sinner -- true enough. But God chose me.” The old joke about being proud of one’s humility is really no joke. Even humility’s great cliché -- “There, but for the grace of God, go I” -- suggests a certain sense of attainment: “I am not as wretched as that poor soul.”
This psychological paradox is paralleled in history. Consider the paradox of Christendom. It is a frequently observed irony that the church of the crucified Christ should have risen to such dominance in Western history-- and yet it should not be too surprising. The love of God in Christ comforts and inspires sinners, and in this sense, Christ empowers. The spiritual power that Christ awakens cannot help spilling out into one’s life in the world. Sometimes this occurrence will, to be sure, lead to martyrdom, but at other times one’s faith helps one to conquer adversity. The very poverty and humility Christ blesses in the Beatitudes are transformed by the fact of his blessing them. It cannot be denied that the Christian faith can inspire worldly success, but it is-also an “iron law” of church history that Christians don’t seem to handle success any better than unbelievers.
The call of Christ is not a call to perpetual wretchedness; craven cowering is not the goal of Christian life. New life, sanctification, is our true destiny. God loves the humble, but to be loved by God changes the very ground an which our humility is based. Paul is aware that, with the gifts of Christ, the Christian has something in which he or she must glory -- the Christian will abound, the Christian will boast. The only corrective to sheer, unconscionable bragging is to “boast of the Lord.”
There is a way, of course, to short-circuit this whole discussion: reject humility altogether. Rejection of humility is epidemic in the modern world, from Marx to the defenders of capitalism, from Freud to Nietszche. Why be humble? Humility is un-American. What about our Yankee know-how, our get-up-and-go? Humility denies, the glory of rational, scientific humankind. Humility is born of a monastic hatred of the body. Humility is a phony posturing. “When you’ve got it, flaunt it.” Too long the Christian religion has advocated groveling, self-hate; all that posture has ever created is neurosis. Humility is an inferiority complex turned into a virtue. But when Paul exhorts to humility, he is not advocating neurosis. He is calling for the very opposite of a neurotic distortion of reality.
The call for humility is a call for simple realism, An inferiority complex is just that -- a complex; i.e., a false assessment of oneself. A guilt complex is just that -- a neurotic reading of events narcissistically focusing blame on oneself. However, when an Albert Speer at Nuremberg confesses his guilt, he has no guilt complex; he is guilty. The sinner humbled before God is not sick: he is coming to health.
Paul exhorts people to humble themselves because humility is an honest and objective reflection of our real relationship to God. The fact is that we are dependent. All that we have comes from God -- our lives, our salvation, our hope, our Christ. God has given all; nothing is our own. God gives; God will take away; God will give again. To be humble is not an act of self-effacement best cultivated by spending years in a monastery. It is a simple, objective recognition of the reality of God. Humility isn’t even a virtue, any more than to recognize that the sky is blue is a virtue. If God is God, then we are God’s creatures. To be humble toward God is to acknowledge what is both the most obvious fact and yet the most difficult admission: we are not God.
We Christians must never be taken in by worldly attacks on humility -- not only for our souls’ sakes, but for the sake of the world itself. A prideful Christian is perhaps the world’s most dangerous citizen. We are God’s people. Without humility, this statement- which ought to fill us with awe before the wonder of God becomes the basis for the most unspeakable arrogance before God and ultimately before our neighbor. How fanatical Christians become when they put the stress on “we”: we are God’s people. Only in objective awareness of our dependence on God can we hope to be delivered from judging and thus despising -- and thus oppressing -- our neighbor.