Title: The Christian Life 2: Humility
Age: 15+ years
Liturgical Time: Any
Prerequisite: The Christian Life 1: The Beginning
We began this conversation by looking at some of the origins of the Christian life. In Lesson 1, it was found in the recognition and acceptance that we are living in a manner that is not according to our true nature. We admitted that things are amiss and not as they should be. We considered the fall, mentioned God's redemption through His beloved Son, and the cause of our disobedience, arrogance or pride.
Today we pick up the narrative at its most basic. What now? Things are not as they should be, we are separated from God, and our own disobedience has brought this condition upon us. It may seem that a decision is needed. However, that is not necessarily a given. Many come to this point and simply say there is not a problem or a solution, so leave things be.
In Lesson 1, the opening words of the Gospel are, "Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand." We bring them up once again for reflection. Scripture says that something is needed if we are going to progress a change of heart and direction. In following the course and narrative of the desert fathers and their wisdom, it is suggested that we recognize that this change is to become a penitent and one who demonstrates humility.
This means that to the question of, "What now," the Christian answers decisively, "humility." This is the beginning of things spiritual. Thus after one has rejected the half-life they live in this world, their existence outside of true union and communion with God, they come to humility. They decide for and are convinced that this is the true course of action. Please don't assume you have or underestimate the crucial step this is.
At the same time, we may object because, doesn't scripture seem to point to other things? 1 Corinthians 9:25, states, "And everyone who competes for the prize exercises self-control in all things." Psalm 110:10, states, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." What about faith? We hear in Hebrews 11:6, that, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him." What of almsgiving?
Nevertheless, the desert father says, "Before anything else we need humility: a being ready to listen whenever a word is spoken to us, and to say, ‘I submit,' because through humility every device of the enemy, every kind of obstacle, is destroyed" (Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, page 94).
View the icon of the Publican and the Pharisee as you listen to the passage:
"Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess." And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:9-14).
That humility is the beginning, let me lift up the Cross itself.
"Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name" (Philippians 2:1-9).
Listen again to the desert father: it is said of the Great Saint Anthony that he:
"Looked out and saw all the snares of the devil spread out everywhere, he sighed, and asked God how anyone could ever avoid them. God answered him, ‘Humility. It is humility that enables you to escape them all'." (Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, page 96).
If this is so, let us then return for a moment in order to examine that part of us that led to disobedience. It is pride. In truth it has been within my pastoral experience that I saw and learned of pride as the beginning of sin, again and again. Prior to this, I think the word pride and the children of pride remained theoretical, even scholastic. But arrogance is a deadly thing within the human person.
Thus if we are right minded, we see clearly that the antidote to pride is humility, it is its natural opposite. Consider again the fall of the Archangel Lucifer. It was from pride. This Archangel, Satan, is our adversary, who like the thief comes only to steal, and to kill and to destroy (John 10:10).
In Genesis 3:1-7, the serpent, the devil, tempts Eve. What is the basis of his temptation? First, it was a lie, "You shall not die by death. For God knows in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:4-5). We know this is a lie, for to be like God, what we call deification, comes through obedience to God, not through disobedience (St. John of Damascus). Secondly, the basis of this temptation is pride, the desire to exist and act outside of God, to be God.
Pride is a simple thing. In fact the desert tells us there are only two kinds of pride. The first type of pride leads to the second, and this second type of pride is absolute and deadly.
"The first kind of pride is when a man despises his brother, considers him worth little or nothing, while he puts a much greater value on himself," and, "Such a man, unless he speedily repents and takes great care, will come in a short time to that second kind of pride by which he lifts himself up against God, and ascribes what he does right not to God, but to himself" (Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, pages 96-97).
In like manner, humility is a simple thing, and it also has two types.
"The first kind of humility is to hold my brother to be wiser than myself, and in all things to rate him higher than myself and simply, as that holy man said, to put oneself below everyone. The second kind is to attribute to God all virtuous actions. This is the perfect humility of the saints. It is generated naturally in the soul by the performance of the commandments. [It is] just like a tree bearing much fruit: it is the fruit that bends the branches and lowers them down, but when there is no fruit, the branches point upwards and grow straight" (Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, page 98).
On developing humility, the desert father speaks of humility as Divine and incomprehensible (Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, page 101). However, it is something that is a great work, [involving one's disposition] bodily labor and prayer, ibid. It was mentioned before and must be mentioned again. The first type of pride is to think oneself better than the other. To develop humility, this mentality or disposition must be challenged and abolished. We simply can't think or operate in this way if we hope to progress spiritually. We must begin to see ourselves as lower than our brother; they are wiser, kinder, gentler, etc. It goes without saying that such talk is nonsense to those in the world and full of pride. "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Bodily labor: In Genesis 6:3, we read, "Then the Lord God said, ‘My Spirit shall not remain with these people forever, for they are flesh.'" St. Gregory Nazianzen said that the soul because of disobedience fell from the keeping and practicing of the commandments. Note the breaking of God's command in the Garden led to a love of pleasure and to the type of independence from God that fosters error. As a result, the soul comes to love the satisfactions of the body, and in turn, the soul takes on the characteristics of the body, to become fleshly minded (Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, page 102 and Gregory Nazianzen, Orations 39.7, page 36.341C).
Through disobedience, the right order of our human nature and existence is disturbed. The soul, which is immaterial, begins to resemble the flesh. The soul that is sick cooperates in the fleshly life the things done in the body. Thus as the body is humbled, so also is the soul. The body is humbled through prayer:
"To pray all the time is clearly the antidote to the second type of pride. It is more than clear that the humble man, the God-fearing man, knows perfectly well that nothing good, nothing straight and sure, happens in the soul without the help and the supervision of God, and therefore he does not stop praying unceasingly that God may act mercifully towards him. A man standing in need of everything from God is ready to make progress; he knows how he will make progress and cannot be puffed up. He does not rely on his own abilities but attributes to God everything he does right and always gives thanks to him. He is always calling on God for fear that God may stop helping him, and so let his native weakness and powerlessness appear. So through his act of humility he prays and through his prayer he is made humble. In as much as he is always making progress in virtue, he is always growing in humility. The more humble he is, the more help he gets [from God], and so he advances [in the spiritual life] through this virtue of humility." (Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, page 101).
The keeping of the commandments help us to produce humility. It puts us under an obedience that softens us and seeks not our own will, but another, chiefly God's. It fosters the virtues, which are spiritual fruits; these in turn further humble the penitent. Like a fruit tree our very selves are weighted down by spiritual fruit which leads us to even greater humility.
Continue with The Christian Life Lesson 3: The Struggle.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas