Humility: The Art of Self-Forgetfulness
This Lenten season I’ve been reading The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. In this eloquent novel that cuts to the heart, Lewis writes about the basics of Christian life, our relationship with God, and how to avoid temptation. The fictional novel is written from the point of view of Screwtape, a senior demon, to Wormwood, a lesser demon, on how best to tempt humans and limit their spiritual growth. Since Lent is a season of reflection, repentance, and renewal, I’ve appreciated how Lewis draws my attention to the many ways in which I wander from God and the grace with which God calls me back.
Over and over again, I’m realizing that pride is at the root of sin. It’s pride that turns me inward, and pride that leads me to choose other things, lesser things, over God.
In letter 14, Lewis defines pride as “minds endlessly revolving on themselves.” I think most of us would probably agree that the typical definition of pride is something usually like “arrogance, conceit, thinking of yourself as superior,” etc. But Lewis argues that pride is nothing but self-centeredness. That pride occurs when we’re consumed with self.
It’s the attitude, “No one is going to help me, and so I must help myself.” And so life becomes about acting in my own self-interest.
Maybe I tell a little white lie to avoid embarrassment and save face. Maybe I take credit for the success of the team project so that I’m better positioned for a promotion. Maybe I walk a little bit quicker to the checkout counter because I see a woman with a full cart of groceries coming. And who has time to get stuck behind her?
At its most basic and primal level, self-centeredness, or pride, occurs when we put ourselves before everything else. And the problem with this is that when we rely upon ourselves, we’re displacing God. We’re placing ourselves at the center of our lives instead of God. We’re declaring ourselves, imperfect beings, to be superior to the perfect being, God.
Lewis draws attention to this fact by highlighting the two extremes of pride: “vainglory or false modesty.” The “vainglory” side of pride is the one that we’re most familiar with. It’s the arrogant, conceited, know-it-all side of pride.
But the other side of pride is a less familiar concept. Lewis calls it “false modesty.” In letter 14 he also describes it as “self contempt” and “the denial of truth.” False modesty has many forms and it can look like self-abasement, shame, compulsive guilt, people-pleasing behaviors, etc.
But why is it called false modesty? Because it’s not true humility. It’s pride disguised as humility. You see, low self-esteem is still self-centeredness. It’s still pride. Whether I have high self-esteem or low self-esteem, I’m still consumed with myself. And when my focus is on me, then it’s not on God.
In contrast to the self-focus of pride, Lewis defines humility as self-forgetfulness. In letter 14 Screwtape says to Wormwood, “Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness, but as a certain kind of opinion (namely a low opinion) of his own talents and character.”
I personally appreciate that Lewis makes that distinction. Humility is not self-abasement. It’s not allowing others to abuse you or misuse you. It’s not thinking of yourself as inferior or subservient.
Humility is simply self-forgetfulness. Or as Tim Keller says, “humility is not thinking more of myself or less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”
In Mere Christianity, Lewis paints a beautiful picture of humility. He writes, “Would you recognize a humble person or call him ‘humble?’ Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.”
I love that description. For a visual learner like me, it makes the art of self-forgetfulness tangible. Humble people are people who are concerned with God and others. They are able to forget about themselves, focus on God and extend love to others because they understand the power of the Gospel.
To paraphrase Lewis at the end of the letter 14, God is most pleased when we are in communion with him. God doesn’t delight in us beating ourselves up for our sins or dwelling on our failures. Instead, we are to confess our sins, repent of our inward focus, and turn our attention upward again toward God.
And why do we practice humility and choose to live a God-centered life instead of a self-centered life? Because in dying on the cross, Christ expressed the ultimate act of humility and self-sacrificial love. The perfectly loving and perfectly holy God bore our sins and shame so that we might intimately know God and enjoy him forever. We practice humility because it is an expression of our gratitude to and recognition of our good and holy God.
I pray that we would together, as the body of believers, continue to grow in gospel-humility, delight in the truth of the Good News, and worship and adore the Lord. May your Lenten season be one of great rejoicing.
Humility Is the Root of Our Salvation
I like C.S. Lewis's practical descriptions as well. They've always helped me and my kids to grasp some of the more abstract ideas and virtues.
Another thing to think about. If pride is the root of sin, then humility must be the root of virtue. Perhaps just as pride can be described as a "mind endlessly revolving on [itself]," humility may be a mind endlessly revolving on God, not to the exclusion of self, but in self-subordination.
Also, maybe Jesus's work on the cross was the ultimate expression of humility. "Here on earth 'He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death'; His humility gave His death its value, and so became our redemption. And now the salvation He imparts is nothing less and nothing else than a communication of His own life and death, His own disposition and spirit, His own humility, as the ground and root of His relation to God and His redeeming work. Jesus Christ took the place and fulfilled the destiny of man, as a creature, by His life of perfect humility. His humility is our salvation. His salvation is our humility." (Murray, Andrew (2011-03-03). Humility [Illustrated] [Annotated] (Kindle Locations 83-86). Niche Edition. Kindle Edition.) Our expression of humility, then, would be our acceptance of his work and his way of salvation.