Thoughts on Humility, Self-pity, and Pride
(originally shared at Emptied for Holy District on 09/26/2020)
Nov 1995. It’s a cold, dark morning in Montreal around 5:55 am. I’m 20 years old, on my way to work, slowly making my way out the subway station. I’m barely awake and all I’m thinking about is that after 15 more minutes on a bus, I’m going to have some time to grab coffee before clocking in at 6:30. I’m almost at the top of the steps, when a woman unexpectedly rushes past me at, pushes open the heavy exit door, and then lets it fly back in my face. Major pet peeve! For a split second, she turns around and I see the look of alarm in her face which is framed in a blue chiffon headscarf.
I immediately think of something snarky to say about how it’s way too early in the morning to be jostled around by Mother Mary, but I decide against it. Tensions in the city were high at that time. Why? Well, let me jog your memory with a small snapshot of world history that took place just north of the border. On Oct 30th, 1995, Quebecers had voted in a referendum to either remain a province in Canada or to secede. The ‘Yes’ vote to remain a part of Canada won by a very tiny margin of 50.58% over the 49.42% vote to not remain Canadian.
The night of the referendum, the Premier of Quebec who was obviously disappointed made a concession speech attributing the loss to “money” and to “the ethnic vote” referring to minorities who had voted to remain in Canada. He also went on emphasize that “we” (whoever that was) will have our revenge and we will have our own country. The next morning, although he never apologized, he acknowledged his poorly chosen words and resigned. A few other politicians chimed in, made things worse before they made it any better, and while it might not have been their intention, the whole affair caused a wave of subtle, but unmistakable racial tension and ordinary civilians like Mary and I were caught in the crossfire. I’m going to call this lady in the blue hijab ‘Mary’ because I never found out her real name.
Back at the bus stop outside the subway, Mary has rushed to the front of the line and put herself ahead of all the other commuters already waiting there. I walk to the back of the line thinking to myself, it’s only the 6am bus, so settle down because we’re all getting a seat, lady, and I’m getting one as far away from you as possible. Where have you been in the last week? Don’t you get what’s going on? They don’t want us here, sister! So why wear your rudeness on your sleeve and stand out even more.
All of a sudden, my mental monologue is interrupted by a man trying to get a harsh rattle of words and phlegm out of his lungs. I haven’t seen him yet, but I hear him and now I can even smell him. It’s that sour stench of urine mixed with sweat and cheap beer. No one needs to tell anyone that this man has probably spent days, if not weeks living on the streets. He staggers past Mary as she cautiously moves back, keeping her eyes locked on him. He stops to take a hard look at her and starts praying out loud to Hitler, asking Hitler to come back from the dead and take all the Muslims along with the remaining Jews back to hell with him where they belong. No one says anything and our silence is more deafening than his words.
I nervously start digging into my backpack. Maybe I can find a book in there that I can pretend to read in the dark. I mean, c’mon, this is not my fight, is it? I have nothing against Jews or Muslims or anyone else. Should I tell him to bugger off? We’re the only two women here. Why won’t these men say something? Do something! I’m still digging, when I notice that I have now slowed my breathing to keep from gagging because the overwhelmingly pungent smell coming from this man is now directly in front of me.
He keeps coughing and finally dislodges something deep inside him that needs to come out. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he looks right at me through his vacant eyes, spits on me in front of everyone standing there, swears at me, and walks away. Once again, no one says anything. Everything after that is so hazy. I don’t even recall the bus pulling up, but I’m pulled out this haze by a tug on my sleeve. I turn slowly and through my tears I see a blurry, modern day version of Mother Mary again. She’s telling me that I have to get on the bus and that I can sit by her, if I want.
I’ve lived in 3 different countries as a minority, so that was neither the first time nor the last time I have been humiliated for either looking different or believing something different from the dominant culture in any of those countries, so you’d think that I’d be used to this by now. I used to tell myself that it didn’t really affect me and if I didn’t give it any credence, I could just move on. My life after all had been blessed in so many other ways these small things didn’t really matter. I mean, let’s be honest…we all have our prejudices…I know I did. So, go ahead…add some spit to your sticks and stones…see if I care! I don’t care.
That was a lie because that little spoonful of phlegm and saliva threw my entire world off its axis. But before we go any further, I want to say to you: Whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for me. I say this because I have spent most of the last 25 years since this incident avoiding any real, honest feeling about what really happened and how deeply it wounded me. I chose instead to snuggle up with self-pity. Deep down inside, I also told myself that humility and humiliation are the same and I want nothing to do with both. They are not.
Humility, on one hand, is the position of one’s self before God and the attitude with which you view yourself and others. It is based on God’s Word. It does not involve self-deprecation or walking around like a doormat. For me personally, the hardest thing about true biblical humility “walking humbly before God” is that it needs to be lived out in relationships with other humans. Humiliation, on the other hand, is the act of being shamed and the result of being put down either by one’s self or by others. It is dehumanizing and degrading.
The spitter humiliated me. What I didn’t realize was that I had also humiliated myself by telling myself “Who cares, Rosh? No one cares because guess what? They all have their own sob story.” I never shared what happened to me that morning with anyone, until I finally opened up about it to my husband, a couple of close friends, and a Christian counselor last year. I chose instead to spend the bulk of my life feeling sorry for myself, while simultaneously placing unrealistic relational expectations on people close to me who had no idea how deeply wounded I was.
I walked away from humility, but rather than resorting to the more obvious, braggadocious way of being prideful, I took a roundabout path. I would not be surprised if quite a few of us here who still carry some deep wounds in us have been or still are on this roundabout path. If no one has ever helped you make the connection before, then let me make it for you today. No matter how legitimate your grievance, feeling sorry for yourself for any length of time will inevitably bring you back to the mother of all sins: PRIDE.
John Piper explains this connection better than I ever could, so buckle up! “Self-pity is the response of pride to suffering… Self-pity says, “I deserve admiration because I have sacrificed so much.” “Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak. The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego and the desire of the self-pity is not really for others to see them as helpless but as heroes. The need self-pity feels does not come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized worthiness. It is the response of unapplauded pride.”
I’m really good at feeling sorry for myself. I’m so skilled at it that with a magician’s sleight of hand and a little bit of biblical literacy, I took the act of being spit on and not retaliating and I connected it to the act of Christ being spit on and not retaliating. Like the Pharisee, in Jesus’ parable about the 2 men who went into the temple to pray in Luke chapter 18, I told myself for years that no matter how sinful I was, at least I am not like that Hitler-worshipper who had no qualms about going around terrorizing people who didn’t look like him. But as I read and studied the Word and as it grew bigger inside me, there was less and less room for self-pity.
I know we’ve already read Philippians 2:1-18, but I want to do it again, in the MSG paraphrase this time. There are a number of reasons why I want to read this again, but the main reason is because after reading this passage over and over again in many different translations in the last few weeks, I’m not entirely convinced that anything that I have said to you bears more weight than the words that St. Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that our late Brother Eugene paraphrased for us.
So here we go…
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy; an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.
Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.
Even if I am executed here and now, I’ll rejoice in being an element in the offering of your faith that you make on Christ’s altar, a part of your rejoicing. But turnabout’s fair play—you must join me in my rejoicing. Whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for me.”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians written most likely while awaiting execution is anything but an example of self-pity. It is a subtle symphony where 3 basic notes are repeated over and over again over a strong root note of humility. Those notes are a life of service, death to oneself, and the hope of resurrection and joy through all of it. They center in on an undisputed internal focal point bringing us to the supreme example of what ultimate humility and ultimate humiliation look like by pointing us to Christ Himself, the Master of all.
Paul knows that no matter how much he humbles himself or is humiliated in his position as a prisoner, he can rejoice and we can rejoice with him, because we matter to Christ. We matter so much that Jesus Himself took on the ultimate humiliation even before the cross when He left behind the ‘privileges of deity’ and took on the form of a human. You can read and re-read the gospels front to back and you will never find a hint of self-pity in the life of Christ.
The trade-off for us is nothing short of scandalous! We now get to be co-heirs with Christ, no longer slaves, no longer orphans, seated in heavenly places with Him, carrying His light in us, and no longer humiliating ourselves and others by believing the lie that we don’t matter. Would the God of the universe go to such lengths for the world if we didn’t matter to Him?
The fact that we, the prideful, are saved by the greatest act of humility and humiliation combined is something I will never be able to wrap my mind around. Even more ironic is the fact that when we humble ourselves before Him by esteeming others and looking out for others before we look out for ourselves, no matter how different they might be from us, He lavishes us with grace upon grace and lifts us up for His glory and for our good.
Friends, can we love each other deeply enough to not only share our wounds with one another, but also be safe places for others to share their wounds? Can we love each other deeply enough to share the source of our pride and prejudices? We don’t need festering wounds in the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ can be whole and healthy. It can be a place of confession and healing and forgiveness and reconciliation, vertically and horizontally. I let my wounds fester inside this Body for nearly a quarter of a century and it turned into something ugly.
It took me a long time to realize that even though I wasn’t going around spitting at people, my inner monologue about ‘Mary’, my avoidance of her, and my avoidance of my own hurt, put me and the spitter on a much more even playing field before God than I cared to admit. I am eternally grateful that God the Holy Spirit never stops working in us giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases Him. He finishes the work He starts in us. So 25 years later, the grace lavished upon me is that I now get to stand before you to confess and acknowledge that the lady in her Mother Mary blue hijab at the bus stop was a much better example of Christ to me than I was to her. So…whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for me!