Here is the second half of the sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and Publican that I preached at St. Joseph's last Sunday. To those of you who posted comments on the first half, I thank you for your kind comments. I'll try not to let them make me proud like the Pharisee!
How to Achieve Humility
Now you might ask me, “Well, Fr. James, that’s all well and good, but easier said than done! How can I actually obtain humility?” I am certainly no expert on the subject, but based on my reading of the Scriptures and the Fathers, I can suggest three ways.
First, learn to think properly of yourself. Three years after Mac Davis sang “Oh Lord, It’s hard to be Humble,” U2 released a song in which they sang “When I was three, I thought the world revolved around me—I was wrong.” Now none of us would admit to thinking the world revolves around us, but many of us often act like we think this. We tend to look on others and say, “I’m better than that person,” and we come away thinking we’re pretty hot stuff. But we’re really not. We need to remember St. Paul’s words that each of us should not “think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). Remember also that even though God loves us very much, we have all failed him many, many times. We need to think of ourselves as St. Paul did, as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 3:15). Rather than bragging to God (or to ourselves) about our goodness, like the Pharisee, we, like the Publican, need to cry out “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is the beginning of humility
"When I was three, I thought the world
A second thing we can do to acquire humility is to welcome hardships. St. James tells us that we should “count it all joy when we fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3). But trials also develop humility. I know this from experience. During all my years growing up, my parents told me over and over again that I was pretty much the smartest kid in the world. But when I went to UT and enrolled in the honors program, I went from being one of the smartest kids in my class to one of the dumbest. I learned that I wasn’t so smart after all. I thought I was a good percussionist, until I went to UT and didn’t even make the band. I thought I had great people skills, until I went to Tuzla, Bosnia and offended nearly everyone I met (even getting kicked out of the Baptist Church there for a while). I thought I was a good Chess player until I got beaten in tournaments again and again (including once by a six-year-old). I thought I was a pretty good person until I began reading the lives of the saints.
Granted, these weren’t terrible trials, but they certainly felt trying at the time. And they certainly taught me humility. All of us need lessons in humility, and because of this, God will send them to us, often in the form of trials. And when the trials come, we should ask ourselves, “What is God trying to teach me from this?” and then thank him for the trial (difficult though this may be). Listen to the words of St. Dorotheos of Gaza: “There are certain kinds of trees that never bear any fruit as long as their branches stay up straight. But if stones are hung on their branches to bend them down, they begin to bear fruit. So it is with the soul: when it is humbled, it begins to bear fruit. And the more fruit it bears, the lowlier it becomes. So also the saints: the nearer they get to God, the more they see themselves as sinners.”
Finally, to develop humility, we must submit to others. The more we develop this habit, the more humble we will become. St. Paul told the Ephesians to “submit to one another out in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21). Doing what other ask or tell us, without complaining or arguing, breaks down our pride. Listen to the words of Tito Colliander, from his wonderful book Way of the Ascetics: “Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a [monastery] could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbor” (44). Submitting to other persons helps us learn to submit to God.
(Left): Tito Colliander, author of Way of the Ascetics, a brief and excellent summary of the teachings of the great ascetical Fathers of the Orthodox Church.
We also can learn humility is to submit to the teachings of the Church. And perhaps the most powerful tool that the Church gives us for learning humility is fasting. As Colliander says “since the time of the apostles, [the Church] has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live. Whether we be in the city or country, married or single, poor or rich, the teacher is always with us and we always have the opportunity to show him obedience. Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting.”
You see, when our body tells us: “You need a hamburger,” but we tell it back, “No, today is Friday,” that is a great exercise in humility. We can say “I don’t care what the Church says; I have to have a hamburger!” or we can say, “I will submit my will to the teaching of the Church.” And when we do submit, it breaks down our bride and builds humility. And saying no to food also helps us to say no to sin. If we can’t deny ourselves the right to eat meat or dairy, then how will we deny ourselves the “right” to slander, gossip, judge, lie, or commit some other sin? And this is one of the major purposes of Lent: to help us gain humility.
So as we move through the Lenten season this year, let us work diligently toward gaining the humility of the publican and let us put to death the pride of the Pharisee that is in each of us. Oh Lord, it is indeed hard to be humble. But it is truly a matter of life or death.