September 2, 2006

Humility is not convincing yourself you're not the best (even though you aren't)

Taking some instruction from Hugh Nibley and C.S. Lewis, the subject of humility is very interesting. The true nature of humility was described well by Lewis in his book "The Screwtape Letters." The book is a fictional collection of letters written by a senior devil to his young nephew, Wormwood, advising him on how to tempt a man into damnation. If you haven't read it I suggest you do, it's a short book, and really insightful as well as entertaining. At one point in the story, Wormwood's assigned man becomes a Christian. Wormwood is worried, but Screwtape encourages him to exploit the man's newfound religion. He explains how to warp the concept of humility.

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. 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. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible. ~C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942)
The true concept of humility does not involve trying to convince yourself that you are not a great person. Individual worth is important. This isn't to say God wants us to be prideful, however. For example, in the Pearl of Great Price Moses is shown an awesome vision of the world and the whole human race. After the vision he is so amazed and says "man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed." God didn't correct him in saying that, but later explained that his very 'work and glory' is to exalt man, because they are all His children. This is a great paradox the gospel presents, that we are the children of God, but are "less than the dust of the earth." (Mosiah 2:25) This conversation God has with Moses demonstrates what true humility is. Other prophets have had similar experiences, and they can help illustrate my point here, as Nibley pointed out. In the Book of Mormon, Moroni said Jesus spoke with him "in plain humility, even as a man telleth another," (Ether 12:39.) Of this experience, Nibley said:
"Now that's what humility is. It is not bowing the knee in the presence of overwhelming superiority, power or glory. Anybody can do that. But it is recognizing that other creatures, small, very unimportant [to you] creatures, are just as good as you are and are on an equal basis with you. That's what humility is. You are listening and you put yourself on the same level with them." (Nibley, Teachings of the PoGP, pg. 214).
Humility is an opposite of pride. I'm talking about the bad kind of pride, not the kind where a dad says "I'm proud of my son," indicating a warm love and appreciation. I mean the kind of pride that sets us up on different levels above other people. President Benson said pride was the universal sin, the one the Saints would likely struggle with most. He's probably right. Pride makes us unaware of those around us who may need some cheering up, or a helping hand. The funny thing about pride is, it believes it is so great, so smart, yet it is not smart enough to even recognize itself. That's where the danger lies. Lewis said it best:
"If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed." (From Mere Christianity)