I remember the moment so very clearly. I had been reading through 2 Corinthians over winter break of sophomore year, in hopes of preparing to step into a big leadership position for my campus fellowship. After listening to a couple of incredibly good sermons on the book by Alistair Begg, I was convicted of two things:
The best leaders are humble; or, in other words, humility is a prerequisite to really being used by God. And,
I am not very humble.
Not a great setup for stepping into a big, visible leadership role, if you ask me. So I sat down in the chair that I sat at (and still sit at) every day when I’m at home, and I prayed. God, humble me, make me useful to you, whatever it takes.
After saying “amen” and getting up to unload the dishwasher, I felt a slight sinking in my stomach. Alongside the clink of plates and silverware, I began to imagine all kinds of really hard things that could happen to answer that prayer. What am I getting myself into?
Ah, the topic of humility. There is something quite contradictory about attempting to write a publicly-published blog post on it. As I sat down to prepare this post, over a year after that dangerous prayer, I waffled a bit over whether I actually should try to write on humility. Contradictions aside, it’s so often spoken of in Christian sources that language surrounding the subject easily veers into the realm of the cliché.
But cliché need not be synonymous with boring or only-skim-worthy content. Really, many topics that are cliche have become so because they hold much-needed truth. It’s a shame that important words and phrases become Christianese so quickly, because truisms widen the void between deep meaning and language, which is a proxy for meaning (more on this in another post). But language is necessary regardless, and perhaps a Wednesday blog post on humility (however contradictory or familiar) may be too.
As a twenty-year-old with limited life experience, I make no claim to be any kind of expert in humility. In fact, if there is any vice that I struggle with it is craftily-hidden but deep-seated arrogance. But I can say with certainty that the months since that prayer have been the most humbling time of my life.
In my past couple of blog posts, I’ve alluded to my “really hard winter break.” There’s no way I can really describe what it was that I went through — to do so would take up its own blog post. I guess the simplest way to summarize was that I finally, honestly, realized my fallenness. Many of those realizations were fixed in the matrix of lifelong struggles, my personality, events from the previous months, and burnout. But at the end of the day, that was it. My craftily-formed, perfectly-polished spiritual exterior cracked, letting all of its horrible contents out in an explosion of emotional mess.
And it was so humbling. Shocking, even, because in many ways I had begun to believe that my perfect self-presentation was true. If I’m really honest with myself, for most of my life since childhood I’ve thought of myself as amazing. I strove for– and in many ways thought I achieved– the marks of the perfect daughter, student, and spiritual leader in my fellowship circles. This arrogance went unchecked and unrealized for so long that it bled into my attitude towards ministry, dating, friendships, and more. It made me feel entitled; I deserved to be pursued, lauded, given greater leadership because I was great.
And yet the slow burn of God’s humbling process had brought a year that ran contrary to this narrative of entitlement. Many of the things I thought I deserved were lost or disappointing or exhausting. I had thought that I was the perfect porcelain vessel, worthy and ready to be used by a King. And now, I’ve only just begun to internalize that I’m actually a plain jar of clay.
Richard Rohr once wrote that “God comes to us disguised as our own life.” From my own experiences, I think this is very pertinent to the process of being humbled. Humility is not naturally a part of our human nature, and learning to embody it requires some breaking and reshaping. Life can be mundane, tiresome, and really difficult at times, and it is through circumstances where our fallenness and inadequacy are exposed that we are forced to truly look at our real selves– our sinful selves. And when we do so, our imaginary lacquer of arrogance slips away and we are humbled because we see our real substance as dull earthenware jugs– not worthy or deserving of being used by Him; not pretty to look at; not at all remarkable.
Aside from the Holy Spirit’s illumination of Scripture, there is no amount of head knowledge or podcasts or — dare I say it, blog posts — that can help us internalize this. Humility cannot come by simply reading a book or even telling oneself to be humble. I tried to cultivate it by myself for my entire life and all it really brought was a sense of false humility that masked my true pride.
St. Augustine once wrote, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” Oof. Over the years, my false humility had become the scaffold of all the virtues that I had tried so hard to embody but which were mostly a facade. As when that scaffold began to break down, weakened by God meeting me as my own life and mercifully allowing me to struggle, it brought down all the other virtues that I thought I had with it. I was stripped of the “mere appearance” of any other goodness or maturity.
I’ve learned that humility is hard. It’s meant facing the depths of my inadequacy, sin, and lack of control. The process has been really ugly at times. But for all of the disillusionment with myself and the scariness of my limitations, it’s forced me to depend on God, who is truly perfect and all-powerful. It’s helped me better understand grace, for as hard as it is to realize that I am a jar of clay, I serve a King who– in grace– chooses to use clay pots, despite their plainness. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:7-11:
…we have [knowledge of God’s glory] in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
When I look back at that prayer from winter break of my sophomore year, I laugh a little. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but unlike what I thought that morning when I imagined all kinds of suffering-filled scenarios that God could use to humble me, there has been no punctuated hardship in the last year-and-a-half. Instead, the humbling has come through life itself: as God met me in the ups and downs of each month, as I was forced to depend on Him, as handfuls of small losses accumulated and as burnout broke me open.
I suppose this is how a lot of sanctification is. Even for those who have dramatic, radical testimonies, life eventually eases into the mundane and suffering gets processed and still growth persists. There is never a point when we arrive, spiritually, and more often than not I think that the “trials of many kinds” that produce perseverance (James 1:2-3) just come in the form of the continual vicissitudes of life.
The beautiful thing is that while we cannot control those ups and downs, we rest in the arms of the One who is in control of all things. We are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, not by our own efforts, and it is by grace that we grow at all. When we ask God for growth in humility– or patience, self-control, and really any other virtue– He is faithful to answer in the form of our lives. Those answers may involve some hardship and loss, but they are so worthwhile.
I’m still mired in the process of getting back on my feet after this past January. Oftentimes the process feels stagnate and frustrating. But slowly, slowly, I can feel the Holy Spirit picking up all of my shattered, earthenware pieces and putting them together into a vessel that I hope will be even more useful than before. Lord, may I be broken again and again if only to continue seeing you restore me in grace.