“Lord, have mercy on me the sinner.”
Back in the 90’s I used to hear people ask how we will prevent classically educated students from becoming proud. That was a good question, because knowledge puffs up and we put a lot of emphasis on knowledge. I hear the question less now, but I still think about it a lot, if only because I see so much pride in myself.
Growing up moderately poor, I remember thinking that money made people bad too. And of course we’ve all heard Lord Acton’s misleading proverb: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
So there it is, knowlege, money, and power – the three sources of evil in the world today.
Only it isn’t that simple. It was not the tree of knowledge from which the serpent tempted Eve to eat its fruit; it was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the problem wasn’t the knowledge. God, after all, knew what good and evil are. Nor are money and power evil or sources of evil, though the love of either is undeniably the root of evil.
So we don’t want our students to become proud, but the solution is not ignorance. In fact, I want to suggest that I, at least, have misunderstood pride and humility all my life. I’ve always thought or at leat felt that the path to humility is walked by those who look at themselves and despise the wickedness they see there. More simply, I’ve always felt like the key to being humble is to realize how fallen we are, how far we fall short of what we should be.
I don’t deny the value of that perception, but I do deny its sufficiency.
After all, God is truly humble. Jesus was meek and lowly of heart, but He had no sin in Himself to despise. Consider these words from the great theologian Alexander Schmemann:
… humility is truly a divine quality, the very content and the radiance of that glory which… fills heaven and earth. In our human mentality, we tend to oppose “glory” and “humility” – the latter being for us the indication of a flaw or deficiency. For us it is our ignorance or incompetence that makes or ought to make us feel humble…. All that which is genuinely perfect, beautiful, and good is at the same time naturally humble; for precisely because of its perfection it does not need “publicity,” external glory, or “showing off” of any kind. God is humble because He is perfect. His humility is His glory and the source of all true beauty, perfection, and goodness, and everyone who approaches God and knows Him immediately partakes of the Divine humility and is beautified by it.
When you see a student who struggles with pride, how do you respond. Do you set yourself the task of humbling that student and do you develop a strategy of “putting him in his place”?
But wait, do you not remember what that place is? That child is the Divine Image. He was created for eternal glory. He does not need to be put down and reminded that he is broken and useless. He needs, on the contrary, to be reminded that he was created for eternal glory and that Christ gave His blood to achieve that restoration. If he can grasp that about himself, then he might be able to grasp it about his neighbor.
That is why I think our response to arrogance on the part of our students and children is often the opposite of what they need. We act arrogant to cover our disappointment and shame. We build ourselves up because we feel so low. That being the case, adult opposition only drives the pride and insecurity deeper into our hearts.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not arguing against repentance. Repentance is precisely what we need. Repentance from sloth, from faint-heartedness, from lust of power, from idle talk. But perhaps at the root of all these other sins is not an exagerrated sense of our own importance after all. Perhaps the problem is the exact opposite. Not believing we matter, not believing we are the Image of God, we lose heart. And in our faint-heartedness we yearn to rule over others through petty power plays, emotional manipulation, and harmful words. Perhaps we suffer, not from an exagerrated sense of our own importance, but a horrible and catastrophic forgetfulness of who we really are.
Thus we can pray, as the ancient hymn so directly and manfully chants:
When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgment.
But trusting in Thy lovingkindness, like David I cry to thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.
That’s how important that troublesome student in your class is: he can cry out like David! He can appeal to the God of heaven for mercy! And he can trust in His lovingkindness.
And suddenly, as for God so for us wicked children, “His humility is his glory.”
Thanks be to God.