By John Mason Lock
Not long ago I was asked how things were going in my parish. My brief response was that I am learning humility. It is a cliché (but true) that it is not easy to be the church in our day. For pastors, a push to perform comes from at least three quarters.
First, you have the pressure from the diocesan hierarchy. In my ten years of ordained ministry, every clergy conference I’ve attended has a speaker on church growth and how to be a more effective leader. These are not bad things, but the frequency sends a clear message that the diocese is looking for numerical and financial growth.
Second, you have the expectation of the congregation that the pastor will be the lead evangelist and chief marketer. This desire is understandable in a family- or pastoral-sized congregation, which the vast majority of Episcopal parishes are, but it is overstating the case to imagine that one person can effectively drive the entire ministry of a congregation, and that is usually an obstacle to further growth. Ministry belongs to the whole congregation as we all share in the priesthood of believers.
Finally, there are self-expectations, the inflated sense of what one person can realistically accomplish. This internal pressure can equal or easily exceed the external forces to perform. The pastors with whom I converse — especially in the Northeast — talk a lot about how they feel squeezed by the all these, and that outward results are only growing harder to see.
A rediscovery of humility is in order, especially if pastors are to maintain the mental, emotional, and spiritual health that allows them to continue faithfully in the ministry. The claim that I am learning humility may disqualify itself, but I’d like to think that I am going through what Dean Leander Harding calls “positive disillusionment.” I am letting go of being the Doctor Faustus of the ministry — the sage with all the answers — and becoming the affable if somewhat comical Don Quixote.
Humility as an admirable quality attracts scant attention these days. There is a good deal of misunderstanding about humility — that it has to do, for example, with being down on yourself and even implies a degree of self-hatred. We live in the age of self-esteem, which is impressed upon young people from a very young age. I grew up with the narrative that I can do anything I want as long as I set my mind to do it. We have received many participation awards.
A more recent factor is President Donald J. Trump. Whatever you think of his person or his policies, he can hardly be called an exemplar of humility. For better or worse, we tend to become like our leaders, even if we disagree on politics and policy. The level of vitriol and even overt malice in our public life is sad and disheartening.
Humility is not a quality that comes to us naturally. Ecclesiasticus tells us that “pride is the beginning of sin,” adding: “The beginning of pride is when one departeth from God, and his heart is turned away from his Maker” (10:13, 12, KJV). Adam and Eve sinned in believing they knew better than God what was good for them. In essence, they said to God, “We don’t need you.”
The contrast between pride and humility is especially noticeable in the succeeding narrative of the tower of Babel and the opening call of Abram in Genesis 10-12. The tower was built, on the one hand, to “make a name for ourselves,” for fallen humanity. Meanwhile God told Abram, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” The narrative of Babel is about self-magnification, while that of Abram is about divine magnification, which the Lord accomplishes so that his servant can be a blessing.
My working definition of humility is a sober and honest evaluation of one’s self. Humiliation is a repudiation of two trends. On the one hand, there is the trend of self-inflation in which one exaggerates capacities and strengths.
Such self-inflation is often evident in the way people perceive their roles in various institutions and organizations. Everybody thinks that they are the critical cog in the machinery of their place of employment or church. The lie we often tell ourselves is that the institution will fall apart if I leave, when in fact the hard, sobering truth is that almost everyone in an organization is replaceable. Yes, in the eyes of God we are special, but in the economy of human activities whatever we do can probably be done by others and likely even better than we can do it. This fact holds true even for those at the very pinnacle of their fields.
Sober and honest self-evaluation also repudiates a more toxic trend of self-loathing. In self-loathing we falsely devalue ourselves, and this can and does lead to severe psychological distress and sometimes physical self-harm. Although I am skeptical about some of the excesses of the self-esteem movement (participation awards!), I am not down on the notion of self-esteem. It is an admirable if secular attempt to heal the disease of self-loathing, which from anecdotal observation seems to be more pervasive than self-inflation. In the final evaluation, however, self-inflation and self-loathing should be considered as two sides of the same coin. They are both falsehoods that result in a skewed self-perception, like a funhouse mirror.
To have a sober and honest self-evaluation means neither to be drunk on the spirit of self-loathing nor the spirit of self-inflation. Freud helped us to understand just how deep the human psyche is, reaffirming the biblical idea that the human heart is impossible to know (cf. Jer. 17:9). As believers, though, we know that God knows us better than we do. He made us and there is nothing hid from his all-seeing eye. For this reason, self-evaluation is not possible apart from the grace of God. It must begin with prayer.
If we have the courage to pray for an honest sense of ourselves, and if we put our whole lives in the light of God, of course some of what we see won’t be pretty, but I know that the prints of the Maker will be found in each and all. As St. Augustine prayed in Confessions: “You are more inward to me than my most inward part” (III, 6, 11).