An early fifth century monk known to history as ‘Mark the Hermit’ penned the following:
Humility consists, not in condemning our conscience, but in recognising God’s grace and compassion.
This definition subverts popular notions of humility which have to do, in some shape or form, with the idea of self-abasement or self-denial. Back in Mark’s day this might have meant a life of rigorous asceticism: fasting, chastity, prayer, penance, solitude. Some would have donned hair shirts, lived in deserts or climbed high mountains barefoot in order to gain God’s ear. (A few even castrated themselves in order to ensure that they lived a holy life.) A monk or hermit would endure such austerity because they believed it brought them closer to God. It at least gave the ‘flesh’ little room to assert itself, which was essential if one sought intimacy with God.
However Mark, himself an ‘ascetic’, warns about the dangers of such reasoning. According to Mark the truly humble person, the individual most likely to receive God’s grace, isn’t somebody that beats them self up over their sins, or who grovels before God because they are filled with a sense of unworthiness. A truly humble person, says Mark, is somebody who has learned to accept that God has totally forgiven their sins simply because that is the type of God he is!
In saying this Mark was alert to the ways in which our desire to be humble might easily become a subtle form of pride, shaped by a distorted understanding of who God is.
It is human nature to want to offer something to God in order to win his approval – or get into his good books. The bible calls this ‘religion’. Ever since human beings have walked the earth they have contrived endless ways of placating the gods. Animal or human sacrifice was one way. Paying agricultural or monetary tithes was another. By prostrating themselves, or by crawling on their knees, by wringing their hands in abject remorse, humans believed that they could convince the gods that they were sufficiently humble or penitent to warrant favour or forgiveness. Out of this developed the idea of ‘merit’ which is found in all world religions, including Christianity. Shining moral behaviour or cultic purity, in this instance, is seen to be the channel of divine blessing.
But this isn’t a true picture of what God is like, says Mark. God is love. His love for us is eternal – it precedes any good or bad we may have done or ever will do. God loved us when we were his enemies. He cherished us when we hated him. God extends nothing but grace, mercy and compassion towards us, despite our sinfulness and rebellion. To believe this however takes real humility and spiritual maturity, according to Mark, because our innate tendency is to despise ourselves. Hence we pursue humility to make ourselves more loveable, more accessible to God’s favour. The danger of this is that we will end up worshipping a god who suspiciously resembles our self: a god who makes harsh demands on us because we make harsh demands upon ourselves.
This is not the path of humility, according to Mark the Hermit. True humility is throwing up our hands and saying ‘God loves me and there’s absolutely nothing that I can do about it except to revel in it!’ The reason this is the hardest thing to do is because we don’t believe we deserve such favour. Deep inside, even as Christians, we feel we have to earn the right to be loved and blessed by God. But so long as we believe this we will never know the profound, inner meaning of humility. True humility says ‘I am worthy because God says I’m worthy!’ Mock humility says ‘More faith! More repentance! More prayer!’ True humility is the end of all moral and spiritual self-exertion. Mock humility, by contrast, is the beginning of a moral and spiritual ascent of Mount Everest.