Discovering the Joy of Humility
written by: Noah Storkson
There is a captivating little collection of essays by G.K. Chesterton called The Defendant. A little essay therein titled “A Defense of Humility” is of particular interest to me because it compliments what I believe to be the best writing on the subject of pride —and its opposite, humility—that I have ever read: a chapter entitled “The Great Sin” in C.S. Lewis’ famous book Mere Christianity.1 I am sure that most of us have been sufficiently taught that pride is a heinous sin. In fact, I do not need to make any case for how annoying and repulsive pride can be in everyday life. I am sure we can think of plenty of examples! Does someone come to mind? I hope to bring about more helpful realizations through the wisdom of Chesterton and Lewis together: first, pride is sneakier than you think; and second, humility is more joyful than you can imagine!
First, pride is sneakier than you think. In the above paragraph, I commented on how many examples of pride we can think of in everyday life. How did you respond to that sentence? Lewis says that your reaction may be a good test of your humility because “the more we have [pride] ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.” Pride sneaks itself in through thoughts such as “He’s so prideful,” and “She’s so arrogant.” This is because pride is, in Lewis’ words, “essentially competitive” (emphasis mine), and to Chesterton, it separates one from another. Pride is not concerned with who is good, but only who is better. Does this not express itself in the separation of friends and family that have offended egos? And yet both parties accuse the other of arrogance!
The most serious case of this is religious pride. Both our authors point out the unique relationship that Christianity has with pride, which is the worst and most anti-God of the vices. Lewis poignantly says, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” A prideful person seeks to esteem himself; therefore, the vastly superior God is his enemy since the Almighty cannot be contended against successfully. So how can there be religious pride? Lewis says, “They pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow men.” In other words, a prideful man may admit his nothingness before the “Almighty” (this is the penny’s worth), but only insofar as they imagine this “God” approving them and their superiority to the average person! As you can see, pride corrupts in the most unnoticeable ways, disguised by the hate of it in other people.
Now we turn to the more enjoyable, but arguably more difficult, topic: humility. If pride is high esteem of one’s self, is humility low esteem? By no means! No one enjoys the company of someone who is always explaining how bad they are at things in an effort to be “humble.” I have been that person before, and to the contrary, I find that it is merely a front to pride. True humility is not concerned with esteem at all. Indeed, a humble person will not even be concerned with himself.
Humility is expressed in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This gives the “how” of humility: when you are exposed to God through prayer, devotion, praise, and worship, you must, as Lewis says, “forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.” That ability to forget yourself is humility. This may leave questions in your mind, but as Lewis’ and Chesterton’s wisdom reveals why humility results in joy, perhaps your query will be satisfied.
Put very simply, humility allows us to enjoy things in themselves. Chesterton has the following to say: “Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are—of immeasurable stature.” All that quotation needs is an explanation.
Recall what the definition of a point is. It has position, but no size. For Chesterton, this means it has no size by which to judge the world. It does not esteem itself. So, the humble person has made himself a point so that he sees the world around him just as it is, instead of in comparison to—or competition with—himself. So to forget yourself, not to esteem yourself, to reduce yourself to a point, and to be humble enables you to enjoy things simply because they are good. Why do you enjoy a professor’s compliment of your work? Because praise is a good thing, and it means you are doing well, not because the professor complimented you more than the next student. Why do you enjoy scoring a point for your team? Because it is good, and it furthers the success of your team, but it is not an excuse to brag. You could be just as joyful if your teammate had gotten it! Why even tell a joke? Humility enables you to enjoy jokes more because you are not concerned with being funnier than the next guy, rather you are simply enjoying time with your friends! Why worship God? Because He is so praiseworthy, and He is the creator of this world, which is full of so much to enjoy! A man obtains joy if he, “like the child…, is not afraid to become small” (Chesterton). If your faith is in magnitude, you will be too busy being concerned with ulterior motives to enjoy what is around you. So forget yourself, and praise God for all that there is to enjoy!
“The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“A Defense of Humility” in The Defendant by G.K. Chesterton
1For those interested, I say “compliments” because Lewis is concerned with pride more practically or generally, while Chesterton is writing only against the philosophical egoist’s notion that pride is a virtue and humility a vice. The egoism he writes against is still very influential today, but most people do not think about it. For example, self-esteem is highly venerated these days; yet, as I have shown, and both Chesterton and Lewis argue, a humble person does not “esteem” of himself at all.