Humility as a Path to Happiness

By Daniel Sarell
Posted 5/6/13

In my own spiritual journey – one that I walk hand-in-hand with my wife, Angela, I am committed to becoming a more positive, hopeful person.  My wife has been known to call me “Danny Downer,” from time to time, alluding to a Saturday Night Live skit, “Debbie Downer.”  

As I try to grow into a more optimistic, positive person, the reading I have found indicates that such dispositions are essentially choices and habits that are learned and developed with time, intention, support and practice. This is not dissimilar to learning to be negative. However, I tend to think of positivity as the “uphill climb,” whereas negativity is easier to fall into.

You just let go and roll down that hill.

I believe in the truth of this “gravity” analogy, because being positive requires something from us; we have to do something.  We have to give of ourselves, of our pride, of always having to be right, of always having to be the center of attention.  Energy is expended.  When we are negative, it is like snapping a rubber band that has been held in tension.  A negative comment or thought or action takes something away, because it introduces the void of love, rather than love’s presence.  Rather than building up, we are dismantling both ourselves and others.

In marriage education – and this applies to all interpersonal relationships – it is often said that it takes many re-affirmations – complements or appreciations – to undo one put-down, insult, name-called, etc.  When I say “many,” a 5:1 ratio is often cited, though I suspect that is arbitrary.  Nevertheless, if we were to quantify this “exchange,” would I or you be a debtor or creditor when it comes to the economy of our relationships, our support networks?

I think of the time we climbed the sand dunes near Alamosa and how much effort it took to make positive, upward progress.  The effort normally required to advance the length of one stride, took two or three hard climbing steps to cover the same distance.  Our negativity can be the sand, the hindrance, to moving forward in our relationships and in our lives, our spiritual and earthly journey, the destination towards which we are climbing.

Pessimism and negativity are learned from many sources, from childhood influences, primarily one’s nuclear family of origin, to personal experience.  However, one’s disposition does not seem to be primarily a function of socio-economic circumstances.  Anecdotally, I know as many happy poor people, as I do miserable wealthy folks.  Don’t get me wrong, money and material comfort can cover a lot, and I don’t know anyone who would not like to be “more comfortable” materially or financially, but clearly, the answer to happiness in life is not simply “to have more money.”

Recently, I’ve had some minor but annoying health issues and other transitional stress in my life that has compelled me to re-think my over-all outlook.  Part of that realization is that there exists an incongruity – a paradox, a tension, a contradiction – between what I know intellectually and profess through faith, and how I react emotionally and even behaviorally towards other people.  Suffice it to say that I am challenged to live more faithfully, as we all are.  My issues and baggage are not yours, necessarily, so without getting too personal, I’d like to reflect on some of the fruit of my prayer and study and how I am attempting to apply it to my own life and spiritual journey.

This is an exercise in theological reflection, which is personal for me, but not unique.  Theological reflection is taking a situation or a theme in one’s lived experience and applying it directly to the wisdom and tradition of one’s faith tradition.  Integrating sound scientific research, as I do in my work of marriage, youth and family ministries, only enhances our encounter with the truth of God’s revelation.   

In my conversations with people in my work, and personal friends and loved ones, I hear a resounding theme of seeking love and wholeness.  There are not very many people in my life, whether I am close to them or not, who are not very stressed.  We experience stress in so many forms, but in the end and in our most honest and personal moments, we get glimpses of recognition that what we really need to do is “let go.”

We hold on to many things, but letting go is not “giving up.”  “Letting go” – in the positive sense – or “stepping back,” often entails releasing the things that are weighing us down.  In short, what weighs us down, the gravitational force pulling us away from our “mountain top” destination, is our negativity, our need to be right, to control, to blame, to complain to criticize, to judge, to withhold, to avoid, to get bogged down.   It is from this that I need healing, and I see the same need in others everyday.  I see it in individuals, in working groups, in churches, communities, and yes, in our nation and world.

"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God, a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:5-8.  This is one of my favorite scriptures, what we traditionally call the “Canticle” or ‘song’ of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  It is from this that I will prayerfully examine the role of humility in healing my negativity.

But Jesus was equal in his divinity.  The nature of Christ’s “begottenness” (i.e. “begotten not made; consubstantial with the Father”) is a mystery that we cannot fully comprehend or unpack.  And yet, by faith and reason, we can understand that God the Father required neither another divine person nor creation itself to be complete. 

God is the very concept of Being.  And yet, integral to the mystery is that God is Love, and love is self-emptying.  Christ did not need to be obedient to the Father, yet his nature as “Son” to the Father necessitates their mutual gift, their exchange of divinity, which is Love itself, the divine person of the Holy Spirit.  The difference is the concept of Aristotle, from the notion of a divinity that is complete but static, or inactive, to the “Unmoved Mover” (Aristotle’s term) who is complete and perfect, yet a God of action, life, creation, relationship, and process, which is Love and Being, the principle and source of all that is.

There is mutuality to “obedience,” which finds its root in “to hear” or “to pay attention.”  If the order, the object of one’s submission, is false or unjust, then it is not worth submitting to, and the subordinate (voluntarily or coerced) becomes complicit in the lie or the injustice.  This is why when war crimes are committed the defense, “I was just following orders,” does not stand any reasonable moral test, much less the scrutiny of the international courts.

By obeying the Father, Christ was listening to the very source of truth and justice, to which it is not hard for us to conceive that submission would naturally follow.  And yet, in our lives and in our society, disobeying truth and justice – following influences other than God’s revelation through Scripture and Tradition, treating people with disrespect, condescension, and manipulation – is not hard to find at all.  Perhaps even the lived example starts in the mirror. 

We are sinners seeking healing and wholeness.  The source of our healing is known to us by faith – Christ Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  Christ is complete in his lordship and redemption of our brokenness, but we are an “already and not yet” work in progress, an incomplete repair job, though we have the manual well in hand.  The deck is stacked in our favor so heavily, yet humility is hard, a stumbling block to growing as disciples of Jesus, and by extension, as spouses, parents, co-workers, students, good citizens and decent people.

In humbling ourselves, we are building up our dignity and freedom, not tearing it down through humiliation.  This is “ironic” to some people, because of the way in which humility has been traditionally conveyed, which is a misinterpretation, in my view, a tragedy that has plagued civilization for centuries.  To authentically humble oneself, we must first begin with fixing our gaze on our relationship to God the Father, before whom, we are our most authentic selves.

Psalm 139 reads, “LORD, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar … Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all … Where can I go from your spirit?  From your presence, where can I flee? … You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!  My very self you know.”

We are formed in the image and likeness of God, to be “little less than a god,” crowned with “glory and honor” (Psalm 8:7).  Therefore, what we have been called to is nothing less than to share in the divine life.  The “how-to manual” for this is not a book, so much as it is a person, Jesus Christ, in whom all things are fulfilled.

The Letter to the Hebrews (2:8-10), alluding to Psalm 8 reads, “In ‘subjecting’ all things [to him], he left nothing not ‘subject to him.’ Yet at present we do not see ‘all things subject to him,’ but we do see Jesus ‘crowned with glory and honor’ because he suffered death, he who ‘for a little while’ was made ‘lower than the angels,’ that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.  For it was fitting that he, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering.”

In our ‘already and not yet’ tension, pain and suffering remain realities, the consequence of sin and death, even though we also live with the “already” of our redemption, the victory over sin and death won for us by Christ Crucified and Risen. 

I know from the medical procedures I had to endure recently, that we are humbled by pain and suffering.  The mantra that got me through one particularly uncomfortable event was “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  My obedience in pain, even to the point of death, if necessary, not only involves the confidence to know that I am seeking the “not yet,” even in my pain, rather than crying, “Why not now?” 

The relationship aspect of my obedience also involves being heard, “Remember me … Don’t forget me … I want to be included.”  In the meantime, I need to step back, even out of my comfort zone, to understand that the “not yet” is a journey, which also continues to include suffering.

The retreats I am currently giving for married and engaged couples includes a theme that figures prominently in the research literature on increasing the quality of communication in marriage, namely, assertiveness.  Being assertive, clearly conveying our wants and needs, is a healthy skill by which we offer our needs as a gift to those with whom we are in relationship.  This is somewhat counter-intuitive, because it seems to contrary to what we think “humility” entails.  It is in fact, just the opposite.

A false, or passive aggressive, approach to relationship would be to withhold our thoughts, emotions, wants and needs from others.  The classic “mind reader” syndrome that plagues so many dysfunctional relationships – in marriages and between parents and children, friends, relatives and co-workers – is operable here.  Making the assumption that others are supposed to anticipate our needs, without proactively communicating them, is almost always a greater burden to those with whom we want to cultivate trust, respect, reliability – and ultimately – commitment and intimacy.

Our family, friends, and spouses, deserve to know how they can help support each one of us, because it is an invitation to love.  Authentic humility, then, calls us to be assertive, but the other side of that equation is for what are we asking.  Are we critical, humble, pure, and just, in addition to being forthright and honest? Are we being controlling and manipulative?  Are we keeping score or strict account of who “owes” us?  Are we protecting something when it would be better to let go?  Am I asking a burdensome amount of time, effort and resources from others, merely so that I can avoid the same burden, which may belong to me and me alone in the first place?

These are just a few critical questions that may measure the difference between being humble, assertive and in right relationship, or being self-serving, proud, self-aggrandizing, manipulative, or passive aggressive.

In the second book of Chronicles, the king of Judah (the southern kingdom), Rehoboam, like so many Hebrew rulers of God’s Chosen People, violated God’s commandments, which are defined so often in Holy Scripture as “righteousness and justice.”  These words point to the vertical relationship to God (“You shall not have other gods beside me” – Ex. 20:3) and the horizontal relationship to others, especially the most vulnerable of society (“Cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” – Isaiah 1:16-17).

King Rehoboam, having broken God’s covenant, faced God’s wrath in the form of the looming Egyptian army.  Learning of this from God’s prophet, the King and his commanders humbled themselves.  As a result, God spared them from complete annihilation, but the natural consequences played out, and the foreign invaders did much damage.  2nd Chronicles 12:12 reads, “Because [Rehoboam] had humbled himself, the anger of the LORD turned from him so as not to destroy him completely; in Judah, moreover, there was some good.”

In the end, the process of seeking humility as a path to lasting happiness is about ‘right relationships:’  With God (first) and with those who are in our daily lives, our family, friends, coworkers, even the slow driver holding us up in traffic.  We are not spared suffering.  Righteousness and justice must always come before our comfort, and even our safety.  This is challenging in so many ways and rocks the foundations and assumptions of how we operate as a society today.

Humility is not humiliation or self-degradation.  Each of us is entitled to our dignity, rights and needs.  Only when we give of ourselves for others – without counting the cost – and only when we do this mutually and reciprocally (in justice), will we realize the only authentic “win-win solution.”  This is hard, and it is always an uphill slog.

I am wonderfully made, and so are you.  We are not alone, and in fact, we will fail every time when we choose to ‘go it alone.’  Israel and Judah, in the Old Testament, continuously decided to go it alone, without the God who led them to the promised land, which they occupied but took for granted. And yet, the verses go on and on, not just of God’s anger, but of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

God’s restoration and redemption came no less in the form of God entering our humanity in Jesus Christ.  Humanity did not and could not deserve God’s grace and mercy, and yet it is there in infinite abundance.  God’s grace is available to us today and every day.

Grace is God’s free and undeserved gift of divine love, but the “uphill slog” for us is our assent (our essential “yes” to faith) and our cooperation.  Even then, God’s help is assured.  Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30). 

‘Take my yoke’ and ‘you will find rest’ is a paradox.  It is the paradox of “victory” in the Cross of Christ.  When we are hurting, why do we go to the doctor and willingly submit to more pain?  We do so in hope that deliverance from what ails us will take place.

The “rest of the story” – as commentator Paul Harvey used to say – about the humility of Christ conveyed in the Philippians Canticle goes like this: “Because [Christ humbled himself], God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2: 9-11).

This was Paul’s admonition to obedience.  Further, he teaches, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (2:12-13). To work … To function … These are processes that move beyond mere awareness to acceptance and action.

We as Americans are skeptical of the notion of finding freedom through obedience, particularly, because we do not understand either term.   In motor racing, there is an expression, “Drive slow to go fast.”  Surely, that can’t be right!  But it is, because slowing down, which means for the driver, giving one’s tendency to charge to the front, also means being prudent, a little more careful, and waiting for the right time.

In everyday life, “go slow to go fast,” could be re-worded, “step back to move forward.”  I think of people who spend their time at the grocery store wandering around looking for the shortest line, so that they don’t have to wait so long.  Meanwhile, more people add to the long lines, accepting that they may have to stand there and wait together.  In the end, getting in line probably leads to moving through the check-out in a reasonably timely way, relative to every other shopper.  This takes humility and trust that your time will come.

“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5).  The Apostle continues, “So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.  Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.”

St. Peter in his epistle alludes to Proverbs 3:34-35, which draws the parallels between wisdom and humility, which God favors in his glory, while “scoffing” demonstrates shameful foolishness.  Scoffing – or ‘derision’ – can more generally be interpreted as ‘being negative,’ the thing from which I am seeking to lessen in my own life and actions.

I can educate myself, and I can work really hard at putting my new information and skills into practice.  However, until I step back and accept God’s grace, lowering myself in humility and obedience to God’s will, and until I let God’s grace work in me to set all of my relationships in righteousness and justice, then and only then will I not only discover the meaning of ‘stepping back to move forward,’ but only then will I begin to experience how humility leads to true happiness, the happiness for which God created me, and for which Christ died on the Cross and rose on the third day.