Humble Yourself with a Discipline
During the pandemic, I would drive by a house with a yard sign announcing, “I Am A Health Care Hero.” What an odd thing to boast about. Real heroes don’t brag. Certainly, front-line health care providers are heroes. But it’s like combat veterans whose bravery was recognized by a medal, like the Silver Star or Medal of Honor. Many such awardees discuss how uncomfortable they are for being singled out among others who fought in the same situation. Most put their medals away rather than brag about them.
So it is with humility. Humble people don’t go around bragging about how humble they are. That’s a fundamental contradiction. True humility is not an accomplishment. It’s an attitude that comes from within. What you can do is work on keeping yourself humble. You can choose disciplines for that purpose.
When I think of spiritual disciplines, I recall visiting the afternoon service (None) of a large Trappist monastery in Rome. The setting was beautiful, with an ornate sanctuary and the procession of monks two by two in their special habits, who then solemnly chanted the Psalms. But I also recall thinking I could never do this; it must be really boring doing the same thing fives time a day every day. It seemed so grim.
But there are other spiritual disciplines everyday Christian can commit themselves to. Richard Foster is the most popular recent writer on spiritual disciplines for Protestants. His book is Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. He recognizes three categories: Inward, Outward and Corporate Disciplines.
Three Kinds of Disciplines
The Inward Disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. Prayer is basic for most practicing Christians. Conversational prayer was discussed in the first practice: Go to God in Prayer and Worship. Meditation amounts to reading God’s Word For You. Fasting never caught on among Protestants. Studying is my chosen discipline. I love probing the Scriptures to understand what is special about spiritual and church life in view of behavioral insights.
The Outward Disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. Service to others is a major emphasis among Protestants. Submission is so significant that I recognize it in the third of the seven basic practices: Obey the Challenge to Deny Yourself. It has been particularly productive in my personal spiritual life.
The Corporate Disciplines are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. While historically Protestants have not looked favorably on individual spiritual disciplines, we do practice weekly worship. Most congregations have occasional celebrations, typically around some sort of shared meal. Guidance for most is a new frontier. This is more than pastoral counseling about specific problems or situations. It can be a monthly session exploring steps an individual Christian can take to grow into a closer relationship with God. I have served as a spiritual director. I think the counselees made progress in their personal journey. I do know that I found those sessions spiritually productive for me personally.
Confession of Sins
Ordinarily, God can’t do much with you when you are full of yourself. That’s why the discipline of emptying yourself is so important for spiritual growth. This is done through regular repentance of sins. Martin Luther urged daily repentance of drowning out the old nature and letting the new nature in Christ come forth.
Here are some suggestions for improving the weekly repentance in the worship services of many traditional churches. The hymnal uses the same set of words every week. Frequently these are recited by rote without much thought. I have difficulties with pastors who write up their own confessions for everyone to say together. So often they put words in my mouth about specific sins I can’t identify with. I find myself getting peevish and losing my focus on God.
What I do find more helpful is the worship leader informally guiding me through my recent relationships with God and those around me. What do I wish I had done better in the last week or two? When did I not keep God first in my thinking and dealing with others? I resist being led to confess something about conditions over which I have no control. The purpose of this confession is to straighten out my personal relationship with God. It is not the occasion to campaign for social justice.
Dallas Willard offers a helpful perspective on the disciplines, contrasting spiritual church life with individual spirituality. “A spiritual life consists in that range of activities in which people cooperatively interact with God. Spirituality deals with another reality. It is absolutely indispensable to keep before us the fact that it is more than a “commitment” or a “lifestyle,” even though a commitment and lifestyle will come from it. The disciplines show us how we can “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God.”
The opposite of humility is pride. It’s a natural human instinct to want to take pride in what we have accomplished. Status is the category in the classic motivational hierarchy of needs. We want to increase our personal status above those around us. But pride in the Christian life can be a trap that ensnares those who want to grow closer to God. It can easily lead to taking our eyes off God’s blessings in order to highlight what we have done. I personally struggle with pride because indeed I have accomplished a lot. The corrective for me is to recall the unusual providential acts of God that have presented special opportunities. A stress-related clinical depression helped to break me from dependence on myself. I consciously have to humble myself when that urge to boast presents itself.
Pride is an occupational hazard in ministry. Particularly irksome are pastors who let it be known how they grew a church from a lower number to a higher one in attendance. I want to challenge them with Paul’s explanation that he planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. Especially troublesome are pastors who seem to base their ministry identity on a special set of doctrines to which they give their allegiance. Biblical doctrine is basic. Also basic is an initial attitude of serving God creatively and energetically—and humbly—where he has placed us.
Are you serious about wanting to become more like Christ in your daily living? That’s hard to do on our own strength. Jesus’ strategy depends on empowerment by his Spirit that he sends to continue his work. Our role is to place ourselves where he can most readily change our motivation.
Go to God in Prayer and Worship
Hear God’s Word for You
Obey the Challenge to Deny Yourself
Witness through Servant Behavior
Trust God in a New Venture
Humble Yourself with a Discipline
What kind of Spiritual disciplines do you practice? How important is the regular confession of sins in your life? How do you keep your pride in check?