If there’s a definitive sign someone is becoming spiritual mature, it’s probably this.
He or she begins to exhibit humility. Not humble-brag humility, but bone-marrow humility.
Most people we’d regard as spiritual masters also manifest love. But, in my observation, people who’ve had life-changing intersections with the transcendent often get whopper jawed by love right from the beginning.
They’re immediately carrying food baskets to the hungry and helping orphans through college.
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Humility, by contrast, takes time, hard experience and effort. You have to grow into it. Or, better said, you have to fail into it.
In its creation story, Genesis tells us — metaphorically rather than explicitly — that humanity’s first sin was hubris. Pride was and is the foundation for all other sins small and large, from white lies to genocide.
Like perpetual 3-year-olds, we humans want our way just because we want it. And because we think we’re wiser than God and better and more deserving than other people.
Pride is encoded in our DNA. We spring from the womb with it.
It’s the devil to overcome, the very devil himself.
Whether we’re Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics or secularists, a key part of our spiritual development consists of having our self-delusions gut-stomped out of us.
“As long as you are proud, you cannot know God,” C. S. Lewis wrote. “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.”
And so, as you go along, God — or maybe it’s just the nature of the universe — will do you the courtesy of repeatedly, often publicly, crushing you. This will happen over and over again until you get the message that you’re not the great gift to the cosmos you formerly assumed you were.
You’ll be jilted by the love of your life. You’ll get fired from that dream job you treasured. Your brightest child will fall into heroin addiction. You’ll develop varicose veins and a pot gut and lose your hair and go blind. You’ll encourage your daughter to marry a handsome, wealthy guy who proceeds to beat her and cheat on her. You’ll find yourself battling cancer or heart disease, dependent on others for your daily care.
Why, the possibilities are endless.
Amen and hallelujah, friends and neighbors. Yea, verily, life is blessing you in a dark, roundabout way that nobody wants to experience.
You’re learning profound mysteries you never wanted to unlock.
For, as St. Paul put it 2,000 years ago, “God’s power is perfected in our weakness.”
The humble are those who’ve learned they’re not the center of the universe, that it will go on ticking with or without them, that it won’t miss them even a whit when they’re gone.
They’ve learned that no matter how certain they are about this or that indisputable fact — be it a personal fact or a theological one or even a scientific one — that fact is apt to turn out dead wrong. They know this because half the self-evident things they believed in the past later proved unfounded.
They’ve learned compassion for the dumb and misguided and wrong-headed, because they’ve been dumb, misguided and wrong-headed themselves.
They’ve learned they needn’t crow about themselves or their accomplishments, because first of all no one else cares and second of all their accomplishments aren’t so accomplished, not in the grand scheme of things. Besides, anything they achieved was as much the result of luck as of talent or strength or pluck.
They’ve learned not to judge others’ sins, because they’ve sinned, too, and have been judged too harshly for it.
They’ve learned not to meddle in other people’s affairs, because they’re not God and don’t have the power to fix other folks, or even to accurately diagnose their problems. Heck, mainly they can’t fix their own problems.
As Mother Teresa said, they’ve learned to accept insults and deal patiently with being slighted, because there’s nothing particularly special about them that should inoculate them from such treatment. They remember that countless far better people — Jesus and Lincoln, to name two — have been subjected to far worse.
But the gifts this unwelcome knowledge grants are profound.
The truly humble are truly free.
They’re free from striving for human approval, for they see how fickle humans are and how transient their approval can be.
They’re free from runaway egos that could never receive enough gratification to satisfy their needs.
They’re free to not feel superior to others or to need to feel superior. Instead, they’re able to be merciful and empathetic.
They’re free to enjoy their spouses and kids and sunny days and sandlot ballgames without fretting about what greater glories they’re sacrificing. They understand that there is no greater glory.
They’re free to listen to contrary opinions, because they might actually learn something.
They’re free to fall to their knees without embarrassment and beg for help. And they’re free to accept that help when it arrives.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.