Rolheiser: The frustrating struggle for humility

28 October 2019

Appears in: Columnists

It’s hard to be humble, not because we don’t have more than enough deficiencies to merit humility, but rather because there’s crafty mechanism inside of us that normally doesn’t let us go to the place of humility. Simply put, as we try to be self-effacing, humble, and non-hypocritical, variably we take pride in that and then, feeling smug about it, we become judgmental of others.

Jesus gave us a wonderful parable on this but mostly we miss its lesson. We’re all familiar with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.  Jesus tells the story of two men standing before God in prayer.

The first man, a devout Pharisee, is a man who took the pursuit of virtue seriously and he thanks God that he’s devout and moral and also thanks God that he’s not as amoral as the Publican who is in the temple with him.

The second man, a Publican, recognizes (honestly and without any rationalization) that he is amoral, that he is a sinner, and, within that recognition, humbly asks God to forgive him for his weaknesses. We know how Jesus assessed the two men. The Pharisee didn’t really pray while the Publican did. Moreover the parable highlights the internal blindness of the Pharisee in a way that’s impossible not to see. Everyone hearing this story cannot help but see his lack of humility.

What’s challenging however is to examine our own reaction to the story. We instantly see the difference between false pride and genuine humility. We see how arrogant it is for the Pharisee to say: “Thank God, I am not like that man!” But, but then, I would venture to guess that 98% of us hearing that story spontaneously nurse this feeling: “Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee!” And, in doing that, we are him! Exactly like him, we’re brimming over with our own sense of virtue and, because of that, begin judging others.

Our prayer is in fact usually the opposite of the Publican’s prayer. We are not praying out of our own sinfulness, but rather praying: “I thank you, God, that I’m not as blind to self and as judgmental as so many other people are!” It’s hard to be the Publican.  Our very virtue and humility invariably coil back upon themselves and make us proud and judgmental.

What’s the answer? How do we break the vicious circle? There’s only one way and the Publican shows us that way. How? He prays out of his own sinfulness, for real. He’s a sinner and he honestly admits it.

For our part, when we speak of ourselves as sinners mostly we don’t really mean it! We admit that we have our weaknesses and that sometimes we do sin, but then, like the Pharisee, we’re immediately thankful that we don’t have the weaknesses and sins of others.

Mostly we think this way: “Admittedly, I have my faults, but at least I’m not as ignorant and self-serving as that colleague of mine!” “For all of my shortcomings, I still thank God that I’m not as narcissistic as my boss!” “I may not have much religious faith, but at least I’m not as hypocritical as so many of those church people!” “I may be a bit of a mess, but thank God I don’t have Jack’s faults!” Pride is forever sneaking around our defenses and keeping genuine humility at bay.

But there’s one instance when it can’t do that and that is when we are genuinely acknowledging our own sinfulness. When we are truly standing inside of our own sinfulness, like the Publican, then we judge no one – not even our own selves.

As a Roman Catholic priest who has been hearing confessions for some 47 years, I can say without hesitation that people are at their very best when they are honestly confessing their own shortcomings. When we are genuinely standing inside the recognition of our own sin, we judge no one.

In that space we never think: “Thank God, I don’t have Jack’s faults!” We know that our own suffice.  Our prayer then becomes honest and, according to Jesus, it’s then that it’s heard in heaven.

And it’s precisely our sinfulness that we must existentially recognize and stand within. Our other weaknesses, our congenital and personal inadequacies, can be helpful in making us humble, but, since we aren’t personally or morally responsible for them, recognizing them doesn’t do the same thing for us as does recognizing our own sinfulness.

We aren’t responsible for physical or psychological DNA. We aren’t responsible for our ethnicity or colour. We aren’t responsible for the kind of family, neighborhood, and culture we were raised in. And we aren’t responsible for what happened to us in the playpen and on the playground when we were little. Yet all of these deeply impact both our weaknesses and our strengths. But since we aren’t responsible for these, ultimately we don’t have to be humble about them.

But we do have to be humble about our own sin.