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The Door to Wisdom is Humility

If you read the book of James, it seems clear that the author is addressing a number of real issus in the early Christian community.  Clearly there were bitter, jealous people who were self-serving and ambitious. Perhaps those folks wanted to be in charge of the community. Perhaps those people claimed that they knew better than everyone else. Perhaps they even thought that they were wiser than everyone else. Whatever the case, James says a spiritual community shouldn't work that way, and the true spiritual path just doesn't work that way. Period. 

Wisdom, true spiritual wisdom, can’t - by definition - be filled with bitterness and jealousy. Those two things lead to disharmony, wickedness and hypocrisy. If that is what you are calling "wisdom" than you're confusing it with the wisdom of the world. 

Marcus Borg, in his last book Days of Awe and Wonder, calls this “conventional wisdom.” He says, “Conventional wisdom is a culture’s most taken-for granted notions about two things – about what is real and about how to live. Conventional wisdom is cultural consensus. Conventional wisdom is what everybody knows, and it is what we are socialized into as we grow up.”

Conventional wisdom not only defines how we see and label things and people, but sets up our central value system. Borg calls these values the three As – appearance, affluence, and achievement. Haven't we all been driven by these values at times? Especially in the first half of our lives! Look good, dress right, get a nice tan, make sure your make-up is perfect and your hair is stylish. Make as much money as you can and buy lots of cool things for your house, or your play-time. Climb the corporate ladder. Be recognized, be successful, be admired, be promoted… and make more money!

But this conventional wisdom tends to cause the disharmony that the author of James is addressing. He’s saying, this isn’t wisdom because worrying about how you look, how much you make, and how popular and powerful you are, only leads us to jealousy of what we don’t have. Conventional wisdom doesn’t really care about anyone else.

However, conventional wisdom has been so ingrained that no one wants to hear about a deeper, spiritual wisdom that has nothing to do with these things, and in fact, may be the antithesis of these things.

Spiritual wisdom, and the wisdom teaching of Jesus, invites us to radically shift our thinking from the norms of the world to a re-centering in the spirit. And the way to obtaining this wisdom is through humility.

As Proverbs 11:2 says,“Pride is always accompanied by disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”

Ugh… well doesn’t that sound awful. Who wants to be humble? It doesn’t really conjure up images of anything we want to be, does it? When I get a picture of a humble person in my mind, I come up with a monk or nun. Someone who is a doormat, quiet, meek, subservient, and lives simply.

And, yet, is that what it really means to be humble? Can you be humble and strong? Can you be attractive, wealthy, and powerful, and be humble? How?

Joan Chittester states, “[H]umility is about understanding and realizing the truth of the self." You see, humility is seeing yourself honestly with all your strengths and weaknesses, and then you see that you are just like everyone else. Hence, you don't put yourself above or below others, you regard all as equal beings of sacred worth. Humble people also aren't afraid to apologize and they are always willing to learn from others. Instead of saying, "This is the way I am" they say "There is more I can become."

Consider the star of a basketball team. If they are arrogant they'll hog the ball and take all the shots themselves. If they are humble, they will be more of a team player, giving his or her teammates opportunities to succeed. And, when interviewed, the humble person will credit their success to great teammates.

I read a Forbes article of "13 Habits of Humble People." It said, "Humble people can receive a bad rap. Humility is frequently associated with being too passive, submissive or insecure, but this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Instead, humble people are quite the opposite—confident and competent in themselves so much that, as a result, they seek to self-actualize by helping theirs."

Some of the 13 habits included:

  • They retain relationships - because humble people are more likely to help others, so they maintain stronger personal and professional relationships. "A study of more than 1,000 people—with roughly 200 in leadership positions—revealed that companies with humble people in leadership positions had a more engaged workforce and less employee turnover."
  • They make difficult decisions with ease – because they recognize other people’s needs and can base decisions on a shared purpose instead of self-interest.
  • They listen – because they value others enough to care about what they are saying rather than needing to dominate a conversation, talk over people. They are eager to understand others.
  • They speak their minds – because they aren’t afraid to be wrong. Because they see the big picture and have the general good in mind, they have the courage to face difficult situations and speak truth to power.
  • They take time to say thank you.
  • They ask for help – because they acknowledge they don’t have all the answers or all the abilities and ask for help. 
  • They start sentences with “You” rather than “I” – because they are bragging about others, not themselves.

All of these are completely in line with the spiritual wisdom Jesus taught. We can’t separate our spiritual selves from the way we see and treat others. When we are more connected to the Divine we recognize the sacred in every other person and in all creation. This fosters a sense of humility which leads us to the wisdom of how to behave and treat others.

People who are humble are more genuine and compassionate. They think of others and seek the greater good. They stand up for the underdog, appreciate those who help them, and seek to help others without looking for something in return.

This is why Joan Chittester said, “Humility… is the spiritual hinge on which the rest of life depends.”

Without humility, we will continue to be ruled by our egos and the need to be the most beautiful, the most wealthy and the most powerful. With humility we gain the wisdom to be a force in the world for justice, compassion, equality, human dignity and peace.

Humility must be something that we work toward, something we teach our children, something we model as leaders, and something we live as friends. Living a truly humble life will help to bring harmony to the world.

Light & Love!