Joseph A. Tetlow
If you cling to a negative self-image and have no great respect for your gifts, you are not being humble. You are showing no gratitude to God, who gave you the gifts, and this sin of ingratitude provides the deepest wellspring of every other sin. You hate yourself, whom God loves. This fake humility masks a flinty pride….
Christian humility, properly understood, requires a strong sense of self, and the greater the humility, the stronger the sense of self. For as more than one saint has remarked, humility is seeing and acknowledging the truth about yourself and your world. If you are smart, you are lying—not being humble—if you act as though you are not. Consider this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, said that he was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and all four Gospels tell of a man who knew perfectly well who he was, a man with an unshakably strong sense of self….
Ignatian spirituality describes humility in terms of loving Jesus Christ and notes that it can be lived in three ways. Each way leads you to Jesus Christ and to live progressively more as he lived. God our Creator and Lord calls each person to one of these ways—though you are always free to beg the Lord to move you along in love.
The First Degree of Humility: The first way is fundamental. You love Jesus Christ so much that nothing and no one on earth could persuade you to do what you know would cut you off from him…. So you are a lover, perhaps not a very passionate one, but at the least one who says, “I would never do what you don’t want.” If you live that way in the church, you live like a good citizen who loves his country and keeps its laws but does not vote or take much interest in its affairs. When you follow this first way of humility, you will certainly have to act courageously in your life….
The Second Degree of Humility: Or you can be another kind of lover and live humbly in a second way. You love Jesus Christ so much that you want to remain loyal even to his great redemptive vision. You want to understand what Christ hopes for in the world and particularly in the church. You find real meaning in the Beatitudes. You refuse to hate your nation’s enemies and you forgive those who hurt you, as he forgave even those who nailed him to the cross. You reject the infidelities in the church but not the faithful men and women whom God has chosen—none of whom are any better than you….
If you follow Jesus in this second way, you are the kind of lover who says, “I want to do whatever you want.” Make no mistake about it: doing all of what Jesus wants demands a strong sense of self. You are proclaiming a desire to be a close follower of Jesus Christ, who asks us all to take up our cross daily.
The Third Degree of Humility: The third way to live humility in Ignatian spirituality begins with a prayer to the Father that he will grant you the grace to live in the way of Jesus, who “emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). It leads to choosing things that your life world despises….
This lover asks the Father, “Let me do things together with your Son and like your Son.” He is opening himself to some negative things and some positive things. He is saying to God that he will set aside anything in his life or his self that stands between him and the One he loves. He will not cling to any attitude or habit that would make him other than who Jesus of Nazareth was and is.
But there is more. He understands that God may have hopes for him that require his setting aside some strong and great gifts…. More than one superbly gifted musician has laid instrument and music aside because God called him or her to something different.
Is this moral? Is this not despising the gifts of God? It could be. But that is not likely if the lover has a strong sense of self, knows his or her gifts, and appreciates them for what they really are. But there is something that the lover appreciates more: doing everything together with Jesus Christ. The Beloved has lived a certain kind of life, so this lover wants to live it, too….
This third degree of humility often brings to mind images of someone despised and rejected, as Jesus was in the end. It may be that God the Father would choose that for the one who asks to live as the Son lived…. Always the prayer must be that the Father allow you to imitate in your own time the way of Jesus of Nazareth, so long as you do not sin, and no one else sins, either.
The lover in this case is made greater by love…. The person who wishes to be meek and humble as Jesus was can say to the Father honestly, “Treat me as you treated your own Son.” Such a prayer has nothing to do with negative self-image or despising the gifts of the Spirit. On the contrary, heroic love is meek and humble, but it is also glorifying. Just look at what happened in the end to Jesus of Nazareth.