Humility: The Path Along Which All Spiritual Growth Proceeds

Jeremy Taylor was one of the most influential teachers and theologians of the 17th century. His influence reaches our day through writers like Geroge Macdonald andC. S. Lewis. His two most famous works are The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. My son Kevin recently showed me some of his instructions from Holy Living on the subject of humility.

Since humility is the path along which all spiritual growth proceeds, and since “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” true humility is of greater worth than gold. Taylor makes the following suggestions for anyone who would live in the “grace of humility.”

To begin with, we need to understand that “Humility consists in a realistic opinion of yourself, namely that you are an unworthy person.” For the self-esteem generation, this assertion cannot help but seem misguided and even harmful. It is perhaps the most difficult advice Jeremy Taylor gives on the subject – and the most important.

When Taylor says we are “unworthy,” he does not mean we are worthless. Far from it: our worth is incalculable. When he says we are unworthy, he means that we have done nothing and can do nothing to merit the value God has placed on us. Until I see this is so, I will always be trying to prove myself worthy by my strength, my intelligence, my kindness or even my spirituality. I cannot “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) while at the same time trying to prove myself. It is impossible.

The sincerely-held belief that I am unworthy is foundational to true humility. But Taylor warns us that we must be content for other people to consider us unworthy as well. “You would be a hypocrite to think lowly of yourself, but then expect others to think highly of you.”

Another helpful instruction is this: “Nurture a love to do good things in secret … Be content to go without praise … Remember, no one can undervalue you if you know that you are unworthy.”

Then this gem: “Never be ashamed of your birth, of your parents, of your occupation, or your present employment…” When I was young and had only followed the Master for a short time, I think I had, at what time or another, been ashamed of all these things. Such shame is the companion of pride and the enemy of humility.

Along with this: “Never say anything, directly or indirectly, that will provoke praise or elicit complements from others. Do not let your praise be the intended end of what you say.” And when you are praised, “take it indifferently and return it to God. Always give God thanks for making you an instrument of his glory for the benefit of others.”

The old Anglican divine knew how devious pride is (or rather, how devious we are in nursing our pride), and so he warns: “Do not ask others your faults with the intent or purpose being to have others tell you of your good qualities.” He calls this “fishing for compliments” and condemns it outright, warning those who do so will end up “drinking the waters of vanity” until they burst.

Taylor goes on to warn his readers against entertaining “the devil’s whispers of pride … Some people spend their time dreaming of greatness, envisioning theaters full of people applauding them, imagining themselves giving engaging speeches, fantasizing great wealth.” This is “nothing but the fumes of pride, exposing their heart’s true wishes.”

Another very helpful piece of advice: “Take an active part in the praising of others, entertaining their good with delight. In no way should you give in to the desire to disparage them, or lessen their praise, or make any objection. You should never think that hearing the good report of another in any way lessens your worth.”

“The truly humble person,” Taylor points out, “will not only look admirably at the strengths of others, but will also look with great forgiveness upon the weaknesses of others.”

A further help to humility is this: Instead of hiding our weaknesses and pretending that we have none, Taylor counsels, “Give God thanks for every weakness, fault, and imperfection you have. Accept it as a favor of God, and instrument to resist pride and nurture humility.” In line with this, he warns his reader “not to expose others’ weaknesses in order to make them feel less able than you.”

There are many other helpful instructions from this wise teacher of another era, but I will share but one more: “Humility begins as a gift from God, but it is increased as a habit we develop. That is, humility is increased by exercising it.”

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