Science lesson for the non-scientist: photons. We see everything in the world around us because of photons. A photon is a massless particle of light that sometimes behaves like an energy wave rather than a particle. (Like a wise friend says, “Don’t be impressed; you can look it up.”) But no one has figured out how a particle can exist without mass; no one has figured out how a wave can have a definite position. Furthermore, this “particle of light” moves at the speed of light, something that any real particle that has mass cannot do! Basically, a photon is a mysterious “something” from which we can see its effect, but not the photon, itself. Yet we know it exists because it allows us to view everything else clearly. The frustration for the scientist is that as soon as he “looks at” a photon, it is changed just by his looking at it, moving at the speed of light which no eye can do.
Now what does this have to do with humility? I surmise that humility is the photon of the spiritual realm. Just as scientists study photons, it is worth our time to study humility. But do not expect to practice humility while you are studying it; that simply goes against the nature of humility, just as shining a light on a photon runs against the nature of the photon.
To examine humility, just as a photon, we can learn more about it by looking at its effects, and perhaps its opposite. Not being sure what the opposite of a photon is (darkness, maybe?), we can be fairly certain of the opposite of humility. However, it is sometimes not what we would expect.
Pride is not always the opposite of humility. I recall a mother whose picture I took along with her graduating son. She was beaming with a ‘humble pride’ because of her son’s excellence in graduating. There was no self-exaltation in her smile, no disdain nor arrogance over others who had not accomplished this milestone, no snobbishness or lordly contempt for others. Rather there was a profound sense of selflessness in her pride in what her son had done.
When James says, “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble” (4:6), a better translation would be, “Towards the scorners He is scornful, but to the humble He gives favor” (Proverbs 3:34), which is James’ reference. Isaiah gives some clarity on the opposite of humility with several references to “the haughty” (2:11), “the ruthless” (13:11), “scoffers” and liars (29:19-21), and even the religiously observant (58:3-5)!
The evil in “pride,” when it is the opposite of humility, is the self-congratulatory conceit that expresses itself in these forms of offense toward others. This pride is a keen awareness of “self” and a satisfaction that exalts one’s own importance at the expense of others.
Another illustration of what humility is not comes from a very talented friend I knew in college. He was a virtuoso vocalist with a four-octave range, perfect relative pitch, exquisite dynamics, and magnificent breathing and phrasing control. However, he almost seemed ashamed of the gifts God had given him and the ease with which he could move crowds to tears or laughter with his singing. (I was very jealous of him at the time, besides his having better face, muscles . . . well better everything than me!) Having been raised in a very religious home, he wanted to use his gifts well, but felt that if he could do what he did so well, he was being “proud” and conceited. His problem at the time was not that he was gifted, but that he paid too much attention to his gifts and not enough to their effects and from where they came. He was faced with a dilemma of self-consciousness over the good that he could do. He had not learned the lesson of Proverbs 22:4, “Humility is the fear of Yahweh; its wages are riches and honor and life.”
There is nothing to be ashamed of in being good at something. His shame was from “self-awareness” that is the opposite of humility. An artist can paint a beautiful mountain scene and stand back and say, “Wow! That is really beautiful,” without ungodly pride as though he was saying, “Wow! I am a great artist.” See the difference? The first reaction is a selfless admiration of something other than himself. The second reaction is a self-congratulations on being better than others. A mother can be “proud” of her son, without congratulating herself on being a better mom than any other.
So perhaps the opposite of humility is not pride, but self-awareness. Have you ever noticed someone having a really good time at a party, completely unaware that he/she is the center of attention? That is reflective of humility. But shine the light of examination on yourself when you are in that position, and the humility is gone!
Therein lies the problem with humility. We are almost constantly aware of ourselves. In fact, it is very difficult not to be! So how do you discipline yourself in humility without being aware of what you are doing?? Kind of like shining a light on a photon?
But such discipline is possible, else James and Peter would not have instructed us: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will lift you up” (James 4:10) and “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, and He will lift you up in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6) There are many examples of people in the Bible who “humbled themselves” before God . . . and many who did not! Go to https://biblegateway.com and search the words “humble” and “humility” and you will find these.
The common thread you will recognize with those who humbled themselves will be that they developed a very clear sense of God’s presence (see August 20, 2016), and among those who were not humble, was a very clear sense of selfish rebellion against a good, good God.
So the best way to begin to learn humility is to come into the Presence of One who is bigger than we are; One who inspires awe, One who loves perfectly and is perfectly holy; One who created you and me. When we stand before Him, or kneel or bow if you prefer, but when you really “see Him” who is unseen, you will be lifted out of your selfishness and caught up in a glory that you will enjoy more than anything else in the world, at the same time forgetting that it is YOU that is enjoying Him! All the attention will be on Him, and on His direction for our lives. We will see more clearly than we ever do when we are looking only at ourselves.