The 'Sin' of Humility

Theologians tell us that the quintessential sin is rebellion against God - or pride. The 16th century reformer Martin Luther described pride as "man bent in upon himself." Not unlike the little child who prayed: "Dear God: My dad thinks he's you. Please straighten him out." The sin of pride is thinking too much of ourselves, of thinking we're God. It's the sin from which many of us need to be straightened out.

English pastor and Greek scholar J. B. Philips, who was something of a Eugene Peterson in his day, became a household word with his translation of The New Testament in Modern English (my first introduction to the Gospels as a new Christian over 30 years ago). In his autobiography Philips acknowledges he was at the height of his glory back in the 1950s, experiencing unimaginable notoriety and success when he realized it was all going to his head. He knew it had to stop. Finally one day he prayed, "Lord, make me humble?but not yet."

Of course, not all pride is bad. There's the pride of a creative accomplishment, of work well done, for instance. Like the way I felt when I made that wooden sawhorse and crock pot full of white bean chili from scratch. Or when I masterminded my mother-in-laws 80th birthday party or have preached an inspiring sermon. If this kind of pride were bad then one could argue that Almighty God who observed the newly created world and exclaimed, "This is very good!" was the first sinner!

Not all pride is bad.

And not all humility is good, either.

I wonder if there is not also something we might call "the sin of humility" - when we think too little of ourselves, when we are afraid to be human, when we are harder on ourselves and one another than God is, when we refuse to accept that God has lavished the grace of Christ upon us, and when we fail to accept our calling and refuse to celebrate our unique gifts and abilities.

The root word for "humility" and "humble" is humus, meaning "rich earth," or dirt - the material out of which humans are made in Genesis. But that doesn't mean we have to grovel. Indeed, when the Spirit breathes life into humanity we are, to use one theologian's phrase, "inspired mud pies," God-breathed, and created in God's image - and that's something we can be proud of.

When Eve was tempted to eat of the fruit with the promise that she would be like God, she could've responded, "What are you talking about? I already am." There is a proper pride. Perhaps this is why the congregation in San Francisco's Tenderloin filled with smelly and scraggly street people who have been beat up by life can be heard to belt out fresh lyrics to one of our most revered hymns: "?Twas guilt that taught my heart to fear / and pride my fears relieved / How precious did that pride appear / The hour I first believed." They are singing about pride in the good sense.

January 29, 2007 at 9:45 PM

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