On the virtues of humility and its causes.
More often than not, I am not a humble person. I would rather people recognize me for my immense talent, incredible mind, fantastic wordplay, and lucidity of writing before I would willingly hand the spotlight over to another. When I’m challenged and confronted to be more humble, I would normally find myself reacting extremely poorly to that challenge. Why would I lose out on the opportunity to be affirmed? Why should I give up the rewards from the work I’ve done?
Psalm 131 challenges our view of ourselves, our pride, and exhorts us to live a life of humility and submission before God. Not only do we live in obedience to God by doing this, but the Psalm promises that God has planned that humility would benefit us greatly for his glory. Pride and anxiety, for this Psalmist, seem to go hand-in-hand.
“O Yahweh, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in Yahweh from this time forth and ever more.”
On the surface, this verse does not seem to give much hope for the proud. It seems to assume that the believer started from a place of humility rather than pride. But there is something deeper hidden in the song: the psalm provides an interesting comparison between pride and anxiety. I see a few lessons hidden here:
- Pride and certain forms of anxiety go hand in hand
- Being proud is antithetical to trusting in God
- Pride tells us that we cannot stop what we are doing (our work, our homework, our ministry, our constant busyness) – ever
- We must mutually encourage each other to humility
Consider first the background of the Psalm: it is a song that the believers would sing on their way to the Temple to celebrate one of their yearly festivals. As Israel came together to worship and celebrate Yahweh, they would sing these songs together. While they came to Jerusalem – by disrupting their every day lives, homes, jobs, farms, etc. – they would be forced to look at the Lord starting today and stretching forevermore. For most of us, taking a single day off work causes us to feel anxious. Will I still be able to afford food? Will my mortgage payments overtake me if I take time off? These are legitimate fears, and if we’re not careful, we can forget our privilege and dismiss the needs of the poor and oppressed in our midst. God called Jews to Jerusalem yearly to celebrate him and celebrate each other, and his bountiful provision, by coming to the Temple and disrupting their lives for these festivals. In obediently following the Lord and coming to Jerusalem, it was an extreme act of trust and faithfulness. For anybody to take time off work is scary, daunting, and extreme in the world as it is. But God does not do this to be capricious: no, God has a better plan for our lives. Our obedience to Him is for our well-being.
Consider this: by leaving their homes behind, the Jewish people would be acting in humility saying that the Lord would preserve them and give them all that they needed to be active worshipers and followers. God was teaching them that by taking the time off to celebrate Yahweh, they would not be putting their lives at risk. In our pride, we seem to think that the world revolves around ourselves. During my time as a Connection Group (small group) leader, I was afraid to cancel meetings or to decline meetings with guys who reached out to me. I was acting in pride that made me think that if I wasn’t able to meet, or didn’t want to meet, that they would be ultimately screwed because they would be deprived of their ultimate good: me.
I think our proclivity towards not taking time off from work, hanging out, homework, or what have you all come from the same root of pride. When we can’t take time off work, we start to betray a heart that says that we, not God, are the ultimate provider of daily bread. Rather than considering the birds or the flowers, we consider ourselves. When we can’t give up time doing homework to consider our Bibles or our prayer life, we are considering ourselves as the ultimate source of strength and admitting that we think we have enough power, in ourselves, to supply all of the energy we need for the day. When we can’t give up time for rest from homework because we need our work noticed, we find ourselves searching for affirmation beyond the affirmation that God gives us in his Son. Any time that we cannot make time to rest in God, we are acting in pride and saying that we, not he, are the source of life and strength for the believer.
Our pride is a constant attack on the finished work of Christ in his resurrection. It says that we don’t need to die to be resurrected, but we might already be good enough enough without resurrection. It says that it is our strength that magnifies the Lord, not our weakness. It says that Christ is exalted in winning rather than the upside cruciform shape of the death and obedience of believers. But doesn’t think pride cause us more anxiety? We cannot produce life in ourselves. We cannot will ourselves more energy. Our efforts to fight sin on their own end up as useless and not fighting them when we don’t fight with the strength of the Spirit and of the Scriptures. This anxiety only gets deeper the further we fall into that rabbit hole. Our work, our homework, our busy schedules, cannot create life. My meetings with students didn’t save anybody; my extra time and effort spent on homework did not produce the affirmation I sought; and my extra reading to gain knowledge only created more vexation.
I was learning, accidentally, what these verses might have been teaching for thousands of years. The verses seem to push together the ideas of pride and of anxiety. It seems that the pilgrims’ current state, of being like a child with his mother, was incompatible with pride. They couldn’t be focused on being like a child with their mother if their thoughts were too busy focusing on themselves. Children can’t provide for themselves, and the sooner they think they can they turn less and less to their mothers. There is a time when this is right to do physically, but spiritually we can never turn away from the provision of God through his Spirit. We must constantly, in humility, return to the resurrection of Christ. By stepping into the community of believers and falling back on God, it helps relieve us of some of our anxieties.
Just because we know that being humble is better for us doesn’t make it any easier for us to fight our pride. Even the Jewish believers, making their pilgrimage to the Temple, needed a reminder in this. In fact, they seem to be saying more to each other: by acting in humility, they would actually be doing themselves a favor. Notice that they must exhort each other to continue to trust in God despite their stepping away. Stepping away from our pride and our work isn’t supposed to be done in isolation: we step away from our work to enjoy Christ in others and in ourselves through the Spirit. When we step away from our work, we should seek the communion of the Church, past and present, to encourage us in our walks with the Lord. A few chapters later, the believers will extol the value of unity: “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! […] For there the Lord has commanded blessing, now and forevermore.” (Psalm 133) Combating pride and growing in humility to destroy pride is stepping away from ourselves, considering ourselves less, and considering the work of Christ in the unity of the brothers, who, blessed by the Spirit of God, help us meditate on Torah day and night. God is calling us out of our work, our constant modes of production, and calls us into the fellowship of the Church that values us because of the value we receive as bearers of the image of God.
So take that time off from your work (whatever that may look like right now for you). Stop considering yourself so much and consider the goodness of God and resting in him. Consider the goodness of God in community. Take time from your busy schedule – as much as you are able in cases of emergencies – and rest in God’s provision because he is the ultimate provider of all. “O Israel, put your trust in Yahweh now and forevermore!”