Humility and The Spiritual Life


I believe that humility is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the spiritual life.  Humility is not the sense that we are worthless and that we will never amount to anything; humility is the sense that there is something larger than ourselves and that we need that, however we define it, to help us through.  The story of the Publican and Pharisee from the Gospel of St. Luke is a contrast in humility.

The story has two men, one a publican (tax collector) and the other a Pharisee going up to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee is wearing his best clothes and walks in at the time when most people would be in the Temple to pray.  He walks down to the center of the Temple and begins his prayer that sounds fine at the start but then his focus shifts from God to himself.  He prays, “God I thank you that I am not like other men.”  His prayer lacks humility because the focus shifts from his thanks to God to being about him.  His prayer was done for effect, publicity, and for admiration.  His thought was not on others but on what others were thinking of him.  He prayed with himself and not for himself.

The publican, standing alone, a few feet away in the shadows so as not to be seen, had his head down and was so weighed down and ashamed by the enormity of his sin that he could not even raise his gaze to heaven.  He whispered softly “Lord have mercy” as the only prayer he could form on his lips.  He stood there, in the shadow of the Pharisee, softly repeating the same prayer over and over again never daring to look up.  He had come to the realization that he needed to change his life and repent for all that he had done to others in the past.  He had the necessary humility to come and ask God for forgiveness.

Admitting we were wrong is not an easy thing for us to do.  No one wants to look as if we do not know what we are doing or talking about.  And the admission that we have done wrong is never easy.  Admitting we are wrong is related in some sense to forgiveness.  Withholding forgiveness affects us on a spiritual level and not admitting when we are wrong does the same thing.  And as I have written previously, the spiritual and the physical are connected, so if our spiritual life is not where it should be it will have an effect on our physical life.

Being able to admit that we are wrong, and asking for forgiveness, shows a level for humility that we all need to strive for.  We should not wait until we are like the publican in the story where we are so weighed down that we cannot even bring ourselves to form the words on our lips.  Take care of those situations where we need to admit that we are wrong, as soon as we can and that will aid in our spiritual healing.

The end of the Gospel story has Jesus telling His disciples that the publican will be justified rather than the Pharisee.  The publican focused on his prayer and his wrongs and not that of others.  He focused on what he had to do to get his life right and did not compare himself to anyone.  He held his head down in humility and simply asked that God forgive him and to send His mercy and His grace to help him moving forward in his life.

Our spiritual life is made up of both the publican and the Pharisee and we have to decide which one we are going to be most like in our lives.  If we wish to be like the Publican then we need to find the humility and we will need to admit that we are wrong and accept the fact that we need to change our lives.  We need the humility to admit that we cannot do it alone and that we need the grace of God to get us over the humps and bumps in our lives.  If we are willing to do that then we will get on the right road, but we will have to recommit ourselves to the journey everyday.

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