Finding Paradise through Radical Humility

As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

There is nothing like a fight with someone you love to make you desperate for paradise.

Conflict is the keenest display of broken communion, the Fall’s fracture slithering out like branching cracks in a frozen lake. We’re all standing on the fault lines. There's a friend we don’t talk to anymore. There’s the topic we’d be insane to preach on. Social media comment wars, even those that we merely observe, blister our spirits and fade relationships. Climbing divorce rates and increasing polarization erode hope of common ground. And every time we storm away from those we love, severing communion, we lose paradise again. In wrongful anger toward a brother, we become Cain-like: vulnerable to judgment and unfit to approach the altar of worship (Matt. 5:22).

The problem is I want a good life, but I don’t want to live a life of goodness.

As a kid, old enough to know that pride was a sin and recognize it in myself, I remember praying for humility. But adolescence is a sea of mortification and anxiety for praise. Seconds later, I prayed, “Actually, God, I’m scared of being humbled. I take it back.”

Why would anyone pray for humility? When you’re 10 or 11 (or 25) every barb, retort, and rebuke hits your heart like cannon fire. I thought conflict would hurt less if I had less pride to wound.

I had heard that anger is the urge to fight triggered by a fight-or-flight response. A word can feel the same as a blow. If you let go of the love of self (become humble), you will be free of offense.

Mother Theresa expressed it better: “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”

Mother Theresa equates humility to an accurate understanding of our identity. Thus, pride, humility, identity, and conflict are all spun together. We can follow the spiral back to its origin: Genesis.

We know who we are: the Imago Dei. But will that make us humble and free us from offense? Wouldn’t it give us something to be proud of instead?

Belief and Humility

Humility is rather hard to surface in the rush and roil of personal conflict when we are perhaps most conscious of our righteousness, worth, and intelligence. We know who we are, and it astonishes us that anyone would dare question someone so obviously right. We’ve conflated our beliefs or positions with the mind that made them.

A competition of ideas turns into a comparison of persons. To discount, deny, or ridicule our beliefs is to discount, deny, or ridicule us. I wonder if it is a characteristic of our individualistic American culture or simply a human attribute. Belief is part of what makes us human.

A bee may know that nectar is necessary for survival. But as far as we can tell, the bee doesn’t believe its role as a pollinator is vital for the survival of other organisms.

Belief is an imaginative act that adds to the rational foundation of physical facts a broader narrative of explanation—meaning. The capacity of belief is part of our humanity. But our individual beliefs must be distinct from our personhood or innate value; individual beliefs are changeable, but our objective worth is not.

Knowing who you are—a beloved, broken, and redeemed child of God—allows you to hold beliefs, actions, hopes, and fears with an open hand. If you know you will be fallible, you will be able to receive correction without insult. If you know your worth is not dependent on reputation, the smartest and most successful can ridicule you, and it will matter as much to you as the squabbles of chickens.

What Humility Isn’t

But humility could be clearly marked as the highway to paradise, and we’d still hate it. It’s the virtue equivalent of the kid that gets picked last in a playground game. Courage or love is our first choice. We’d even take generosity over humility. On our best days, we Christians, with our upside-down, “last-shall-be-first” concept of the universe, might succeed in “turning the other cheek.” But nobody wants to be a doormat.

It’s a comfort, then, that C.S. Lewis explains that, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

In Lewis’s definition, humility does not diminish our gifts or power but turns it to the service of others. That is perhaps more comfortable than meek surrender, which doesn’t feel like a virtue at all. It would be just like cowardice, for example, to put on humility’s coat and say, “I am nothing. So nothing is required of me. I’ll surrender to any abuse. I’ll just stand by.”

If humility is concerned with rightly recognizing what we are, then it shouldn't shrink from calling out the harm or devaluing of sacred, image-bearing life. The second half of the Ten Commandments enumerate sin as acts that harm people, the beloved Imago Dei.

If an aggressor harms or devalues us, unchecked, they might harm or devalue others, perpetuating patterns of sin. That addictive, destructive cycle of sin breaks their relationship with God, diminishing their joy. True humility risks getting hit again to warn the aggressor of what they risk. True humility values the protection and prosperity of others over the performance of meek martyrdom.

Radical Humility

It’s all about finding this full life. It all aims at finding paradise. Every self-help doctrine and academic aim seeks this. In the 1990s, Brad Blanton marketed “Radical Honesty” as the key to our freedom, whole relationships, and absolution from shame. I think the word “radical” contributed to the success of this idea.

Our longing for paradise is so fierce, the humility that might lead us there cannot be paltry. Perhaps it can be radical.

As Christians, we spend so much of the race of life tensed at the starting line or sprinting. The question burns in us: “What can we do?”

We love an applicable sermon. We seize terms like “vocation” and “spiritual discipline.” But all this empties us.

When the pastor says, “You cannot pour from an empty cup,” we say “amen” and breathe a sigh of relief. We may now have a holy excuse to ease the hunger pangs in our spirit. And we try with the carefully notated practices the pastor suggests. We also try Netflix, snooze buttons, and “self-care.”

We’re already exhausted from doing. When Humility says, "Empty yourself, take up your cross,” we dread it. Humility doesn’t sound like life; it sounds like penguin parenting, self-sacrificial regurgitation to nourish someone else—noble and disgusting.

But Jesus promises complete joy. Christianity is not a groveling existence but the slow refinement of life into worship. And what is worship but the natural awe of seeing God? What is humility but that fine-tuned seeing that reads sacred worthiness in the least of these and the natural response of reverence?

Humility and worship are the results of right seeing—knowing who we are. So paradise is not boring, even without marriage, careers, art, striving, and all the things we think make our identity.

Rather, imagine work, art, and all the rest of it stripped of pride—radically humble. Imagine an eternal experience of God’s assured love for us and reflected through us. Humility is the anecdote to conflict, the salve to the fractures of the Fall, for it restores communion, the intended echo of Trinitarian relationship. Jesus prays for this oneness, shared and surrendered glory, in John 17: "... as you, Father, are in me, and I in you that they also may be in us.”

Living like that must be like running with no acid building your muscles, each stride growing longer and more free until each brief press of toes upon the ground is like a thrill of lighting, as you surge forward in unimpeded perfection of the movement for which it was made.

About the Author

Emily Joy Stroble is a graduate of Calvin College, art maker, mocha drinker, and reader of many books. A regular contributor to The Banner and perpetual student of the world, Emily lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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