Longsuffering (patience), mercy, forgiveness, compassion; we have been the beneficiaries of these and much more from God and now they are to be reciprocated to others. Doing so requires a kind of openness, a vulnerability through which their experiences can be felt and through which mercy and all it means can be given. Jesus during His earthly ministry was so open to others and to God that people connected to the Father through Him, His body, His words, His actions. “He that sees me sees the Father” Jesus said and “the words I speak are not my own but His who sent me”; “whatever He (the Father) does, the Son does in like manner”.
But what is it that makes this kind of openness so difficult for us, that resists reciprocation and instead judges and condemns, that keeps us from being touched by the infirmities of others, or perhaps worst of all, ignores the pain of others trapped in sin and bound by the Enemy, including even our own brothers and sisters in Christ?
Ego-pride and spiritual pride I think is the answer. Both are instances of the same pride that made Lucifer become Satan and now, since the fall, the same that compels us to think more highly of ourselves than we should (thus making others lower than us) and resist God at every turn by insisting on having our own way. Instead of being open, then, we remain closed or, if we do respond to God and others, it is more often than not ‘on our own terms’ so to speak; i.e. we decide how open to be and when.
Because of this we might find ourselves in seemingly unbearable relationships with certain people, so that pride shows itself and we begin seeing ourselves as He sees us; the unbearable ‘other person’ is replaced by the unbearable ‘me’. So Jesus invites us to ‘learn from Him’ because He is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29) and Paul helps us when he describes in one of the most remarkable passages in the New Testament the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ, that preceded His incarnation and ended in His death after “he humbled himself and became obedient to the to the point of death, even the death of the cross”. (Phil. 2:5-8) Paul exhorts us to have this same “mind” or attitude that Jesus displayed, a tall order indeed.
The Greek word for “lowly” in Matthew and “humbled” in Philippians and other references to humility in the New Testament are derived primarily from tapeinoo. In Luke 18:13-14 and the parable that marked the beginning of this series humility is powerfully displayed by the Publican and Jesus says concerning his attitude “I tell you, this man (the Publican) went to his house justified rather than the other (the Pharisee); for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 parenthesis mine)
The many verses that speak of humility have important nuances that our English translations do their best to capture. For instance, when used as an adjective, humility describes something that is, or should be, true about us. When used as a verb humility entails first a choice and then a decision. As a choice, humility is one option among others, say arrogance, or pride, or hardness of heart and a decision for humility eliminates the other options. Humility, therefore, can be decided for or against resulting in a certain set of personal characteristics and a certain mind-set; i.e. your character is such and such because you think a certain way, ideally with lowliness of mind, for example. (see Phil 2:3 where ‘lowliness’ is from the root word tapeinoo)
True humility is not an inward, self analytical morbid assessment of our faults, a state of mental depression, or a lack of self-esteem. Neither is it an outward comparison of us to others as if either were a reliable standard of measurement. Real humility begins by looking upward, towards heaven, and drawing near into the Presence where we see the Lamb of God. In His Presence humility is realizing, believing and acting according to the truth that without Him, apart from Him we are nothing and can do nothing that really counts, that has eternal ramifications. In fact, humility is such a disregard for self it’s not even something we notice. We can notice its absence, however like “wow, I’m really humble today” or “so and so is sure proud, I’m glad I’m not that way.”
But pride is so subtle and so part of our very existence that many of the texts concerning humility suggest, along with humbling ourselves, that we must also decide to allow ourselves to be humbled; it’s this choice and decision that has to do with circumstances God brings our way, like the unbearable relationships mentioned earlier. James 4:7-17 and 1 Peter 5:1-9 (these should be read to “get the point” here) show a remarkable similarity about allowing God’s way with us to foster the kind of humility so critical for mercy to be reciprocated to others.
It is noteworthy that 1 Peter 5:5 tells us that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. The point is that humility is difficult to attain especially for us living in a society where self aggrandizement is highly regarded, almost a necessity for success, at least as its defined by the world. In fact, humility is often viewed as weakness to those whose pride knows no bounds. But, true humility is not weakness but enormous strength of character, supernatural strength even, formed in us by the Word who emptied Himself and became one of us. It is within the apparent weakness of humility that the strength of His grace is experienced. Hence we are sustained not by our pride and arrogance but by God and His merciful grace alone. So, in this same verse, Peter tells us we to be “clothed with humility”, a remarkable image.
The concept of “clothing” or “putting on” the Christian virtues is a common in the New Testament (see Rom. 13:12, 14; Eph. 6:11, 14; Col. 3:12, 14; 1 Thess. 5:8). However, Peter uses a verb ἐγκομβόομαι (enkomboomai, put on, tie around) that is found only here in the New Testament and since I’m convinced that every word in the Bible is there by design it set me to thinking. What came to my mind is this: Peter’s memory of Jesus washing the disciples feet as an example of humility perhaps compels him to use a unique word encouraging us to be “girded” with humility and prepared to serve others just as the Lord of Glory did. Some think this verb refers to what a slave would put on before serving. But, whatever its exact meaning, it is more than an encouragement; the verb is in the imperative mood which signifies a command, not an option. Coming from Peter this makes sense because the Lord repeatedly rebuked him for displays of pride we can all relate to and he would certainly acknowledge that humility is indispensable for relating to God, to God’s people and to the world around us. And for us engaged with this series, humility is indispensable to the administration of mercy.
Well, unless the Lord indicates otherwise, this entry will probably be the last in this series “On the Meaning of Mercy”. There is so much more to be said but you, the reader, can take this small beginning and add your own insights as you serve in the Presence of God and before our merciful High Priest. But whatever the case, be so open to God and others that mercy flows to and through you so that the circle we spoke of in the last installment remains unbroken.
© W.G. Ryzek PhD