What G.K. Chesterton Taught Me About the Danger of “Dislocated Humility”

July 27, 2017

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Once upon a time, man and woman walked humbly with God. Lovingly, faithfully his will was known and it was ours. And it was Paradise.

 But only for a time.

For too soon, the Tempter entered the scene. With dulcet tones and seemingly perfect reason, we were offered what appeared to be the sweetest fruit: Ambition. 

“I know what you were told by God,” cooed the friendly voice. “But how can you be sure? And what about you and what you want?” The Truth that we had known seemed shaken. The ego that we discovered felt intoxicating. And so when the fruit was offered, we bit.

Thus began our dislocated humility. 

In his masterpiece of apologetics, Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton brilliantly articulated “the remarkable case of dislocated humility.” As children of God, we are called to trust in his providence and the Truths that he has revealed to us. God has revealed to us that we are dignified (incomparably special), fallen (prone to sin), yet redeemable (offered salvation through Christ’s sacrifice). So on our road to reconciliation from our broken selves to our redeemed selves, it is essential that we trust God and his Truths while being humble about ourselves and our appetites.

Instead, we have done the reverse.

Here is what Chesterton said,

“Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always out-stripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs…But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason…For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”

Brilliant.

But to apprehend this truth doesn’t require a reading of Orthodoxy (although I heartily recommend it). No. One can witness humanity’s misguided aspirations again and again by encountering our ancestors in the Bible or by simply looking in the mirror. While God awaits our faithful devotion, we are lost in the Devil’s hypnotic chant of ambition: My needs, my wants, my way, my reasons. Over and over again. Let’s approach the Bible for a moment.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky and so make a name for ourselves,” said the descendants of Noah contemplating construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4). 

“Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for that man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him,” barked the Israelites to Aaron at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32:1).

“Come, let us sell him to these Ishmaelites, instead of doing away with him ourselves,” conspired Joseph’s brothers as they jealously disposed of their father’s favorite son and disregarded his moral teaching (Genesis 37:27).

 “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom,” beseeched the mother of James and John to Jesus (Matthew 20:21).

 “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?,” scowled Judas Iscariot at the anointing of Christ (John 12:5).

“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you,” exclaimed Peter as Jesus described his coming Passion (Matthew 16:22).

Again and again, the Tempter whispered into the ears of man: Make yourself greater. Serve your appetites. This is about you, your wants, your needs. Yours is a better way. The Truth is a distraction. Humility is repeatedly dislocated.

I don’t know about you, but I hear that sweet voice in my ear even today. The Tempter never stops whispering. Assert yourself. Never mind God. And sadly, with the fruit before me, I am tempted to bite. 

And yet Christ objects. He showed us how to parry with the Devil. Oh, he was not left alone by the Evil One. In fact, the Devil viewed Christ, God enfleshed, as his greatest quarry. His most hated enemy could now feel deep emotional and physical pain – the pain of being human. Surely, the Christ could be encouraged (if not tortured) into abandoning his purpose to die for the salvation of man. Surely, ambition could displace Divine Reason. Surely, humility could be dislocated.

Or so the Devil thought.

But as he tempted the hungry, weary God-man with food (turn these stones to bread!), power (leap to your potential death!) and earthly glory (all kingdoms can be yours!), Jesus tamed his own appetite and rebutted the Devil with Truth. As Peter’s words, late in Christ’s ministry, slipped from his mouth to challenge the bloody, salvific road Christ must walk, Jesus recoiled saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Christ knew his old nemesis when he heard him. And when Jesus knelt alone, to the point of utter collapse, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he did not run from his hellish duty. Instead, he prayed about it fervently and accepted his calling.

Unlike all mankind (including me), Jesus Christ did not have a dislocated humility. Regardless of what temptation whispered or appetite craved, he saw God’s will as primary. Everything else was secondary. Whereas man’s walk has been one of unrestrained ambition and uncertain conviction, Christ’s was the exact opposite. And that is precisely what is expected of us.

But how, in our fallibility, are we to follow Christ’s example and avoid the Devil’s trap of a dislocated humility?  

Here are a few thoughts.

Be quiet. As Robert Cardinal Sarah said in his extraordinary book, The Power of Silence, “Noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking…Contemplative silence is a fragile little flame in the middle of a raging ocean…Silence impels us toward an unknown land that is God. And this land becomes our true homeland. Through silence, we return to our heavenly origin, where there is nothing but calm, peace, repose, silent contemplation, and adoration of the radiant face of God.” We must first be quiet.

Pray and open yourself to God’s voice. Jesus didn’t implore us to pray to move mountains or to ask, seek or knock because it doesn’t work, but because it does. Though God speaks in his own time and fashion, he speaks nonetheless. Once we start looking – I mean really paying attention – we will see and hear him. And it is extraordinary.

Have faith, don’t worry and find comfort with mystery. Part of the trouble with our incessant need to ambitiously seize control of our lives is that we are terrified of uncertainty and imperfection. And yet, this is the fertile ground for growing our dependence on God. It is a dependence that will assuredly lead us to a better end than we could ever design on our own. Trust.

Discipline yourself. Jesus taught, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. (Luke 12:48). He knew the wily ways of the Devil – the excuses, justifications, rationalizations – which feel so good (for a time), but serve our selfish designs and not God’s. To rebut the Devil’s plots requires discipline, especially the ability to say “no”. To prepare himself for the temptations that would come during his ministry and his Passion, Christ took the self-denying step of going into the wilderness. We should too.

Be humble. “The least shall be greatest,” “Wash one another’s feet,” “Unless you make yourself as a little child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” These lessons permeate Christ’s teachings. To be humble is to be willing to learn, receptive to correction, and open to God’s call. While worldly ambitions stunt us as we seek to exalt ourselves, God calls us to become our fuller selves as we glorify him. St. Teresa of Calcutta reminded us from the hope-starved gutters of Calcutta, “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”

God calls us to a true humility, not a dislocated one.

Once upon a time, man and woman walked humbly with God.

Indeed.

Shall we try again?

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