Saturday, October 5, 2013

What Can Happen to Humility in the Hands of a Sinner?

Sometimes, the most insidious form of pride comes when Christian humility is perverted.

The unending trouble with man in his fallen state is that he takes everything that is good and right and turns it to suit himself.  True humility is good.  It is a right and true virtue which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  True humility is an external thing which God brings to us by grace through faith.  It comes to us from the preaching of His Word.  Conversely, false humility, that perverse facsimile which man produces within himself, is little more than an endless circle of self loathing.  Sinners are idolaters even on their best days and there is no limit to their creative ability to fabricate whatever they touch to make everything about them and about what they are doing.

And make no mistake, humility can become one of the most clever idols of them all.  It is fabricated with our own hands using self deception and erected with our best of intentions.  One must be careful.  All by itself and without the Law's proper goal in view, simply hating one's sin does not justify and it offers no boon to sanctification.  It is dangerous.

Because it is can be very selfish... and selfishness is sin.  It is an all-consuming exercise in vanity.  It does not lead to life and hope, but rather to despair.  That is a dead end street deep within our own sinful hearts.

At the end of the day, the very introspective self-evaluation that creates true humility is an act that requires someone to stop looking outward and turn in on oneself.  In the hands of sinful man, with his penchant for navel-gazing narcissism, this good work of the Holy Spirit can be warped until it wraps around and becomes eerily close to pride.  We focus and prize the things that we love.  If we are honest, we do not love the things of God.  We love only ourselves.  We dwell on our own obsessions.  Our idols consume us.  When we focus and prize our own depravity as a sign of our piety, we have started to look in the wrong place and become consumed by the wrong thing.  We have taken the good tool of the Law which is there to drive us to the cross and turned it into a flail that we like to flagellate ourselves with to prove our keen awareness of our condition.

The object of something (what the thing is about and is directed towards) is important to consider.  Who is the object of self loathing?  The same as it's source:  The self.

Self loathing is not faith.  Who is the object of living faith?  Christ.
Self loathing is not the Gospel.  Who is the object of the Gospel?  The work of Christ for us.
Self loathing is not loving God.  Who is the object of loving God?  God, of course.
Self loathing is not loving your neighbor.  To whom is that directed?  Everyone but you.
Self loathing is not a vocation.  Who is the object of vocation?  Whatever you are called to do.

At its worst, self loathing drives us to take our eyes off of Christ and our neighbor and plants our focus firmly where we all secretly want our focus to be:  just us and nothing else.  It constantly whispers, "What is happening to me?  How do I feel about me?  How am I different (read: better) than others?"  The inevitable answer to those questions ends with "Wow...I am really humble."

Sometimes we Christians suffer from "paralysis by analysis".  When everything is about me there is nothing left for anything else.  Self evaluation is well and good when used properly, but one must ask:  "Do I even care what is happening to my neighbor?"  Often the self loathing man can only honestly answer that question:  "No, I don't have time for that because my true focus is me... I must focus on me."

This is where we see the false humility as it comes full circle.  When it becomes the benchmark of our Christian life it becomes a negative version of pride and self-righteousness.  This is especially true when we judge our neighbors on their articulation of their own self loathing verses the depth of our self loathing.  We find that we even make the act of humility a holiness contest... one that we are obviously winning when we compare ourselves to others.  We find that we cannot understand why others do not appear as humble as we are.  They are not as crushed by the Law as we are.  God hates our sin.  I hate my sin.  We finally God and I agree on something.  This is the place where we feel closest to the mind of God and that comforts us a little.

But if we look at our feelings honestly we must ask ourselves, "Why am I humble?"  Well, I believe the right doctrines about myself.  I am more in tune with God's Law because I understand its purpose more than others do.  I know more scripture than those who aren't humble.  I am steeped in the best dogmatics.  I am so much more pious.  I may not have any good works, but at least I know that I can't do good works (unlike those other people... who are self-righteous and mired in error.)  I have a deep spiritual connection and most closely resemble the humility of St. Paul and Luther... even Christ Himself.  If we are honest, we find ourselves admitting that we ambitiously pursue our own loathing.  We come to love it and trust in it.

Then we see it clearly.  This humility has actually turned into idolatrous pride and we've dressed it up as a fruit of faith.  "Why aren't others as humble as me?"  We don't want to admit that we have concluded that they obviously lack those things that we have in abundance.  Hate of the self has become our greatest achievement.  It is the only good work that we put any stock in.

After all, there is not all that great a difference between an overemphasis on what good we can do and an overemphasis what good we can't do.  There is no great difference between being obsessed with the evil that we manage to avoid and thinking only of what evil we cannot stop committing at the expense of everything else around us.  The object and source of these two opposites is the same:  we care only for what is going on subjectively inside of us.  We are curved in on ourselves.  By itself, there is no room for God when we are the thing that encompasses our every interest.  There is no room for true repentance.  There is no room for faith.

Self loathing is distinguished from true repentance in that the former drives the sinner deeper into himself while the later drives the sinner out of himself to the objective reality of Christ's redemptive work that culminated with His sacrificial atonement on the cross.  Self loathing is distinguished from true holiness in that the former is a self-inflicted misunderstanding that paralyzes the Christian in introspection and grief while the later is a gift of the Spirit that empowers the Christian to live for something other than himself.

The remedy is to stop looking inward by counting yourself as the most significant thing in your universe and start looking instead to Christ in faith.  "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." [Philippians 2:3-8]

This mind of Christ, this true humility, is a free gift given to us by the Holy Spirit.  This true humility is not ours through proper discipline and right thinking.  It is not a thing that we can achieve no matter how harshly we push.  It is a work of God within us which is the fruit of living faith.

Christ came to save sinners which includes those trapped in the grip of despair.  When confronted with your own unrighteousness, know that Christ is righteous on your behalf.  He has paid the debt of your sin, given you the gift of faith, and sent the Holy Spirit to comfort you and guide you into all truth.  It is this same Spirit that brings forth fruit in every believer.  These are often good works that we do not see and do not value.  Our ignorance of the Spirit's work does not negate His power nor does it invalidate the good works that God has established for us to do.

We stand redeemed on account of Christ.  We stand set free from the chains of sin.  The curse of death and the threat of divine judgment were placed upon Christ in our stead.  In Christ, Satan is defeated and we are made righteous.  That sweet redemption does not necessitate a life of despair but sets us free of our burdens and lifts us up into a life of hope and peace.  It is a life defined by God's trustworthy promises and not by our manifold failings.  It is an eternal life of grace where we will see an end to all of our wretchedness and suffering on the Last Day.  That glorious day when Christ's chosen sheep will be rescued from their long night of sin.

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