Holy Obedience – Part Three

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Humility and Holiness

The fruits of holy obedience are many. But two are so closely linked together that they can scarcely be treated separately. They are the passion for personal holiness and the sense of utter humility. God inflames the soul with a craving for absolute purity. But He, in His glorious otherness, empties us of ourselves in order that He may become all.

Humility does not rest, in final count, upon bafflement and discouragement and self-disgust at our shabby lives, a brow-beaten, dog-slinking attitude. It rests upon the disclosure of the consummate wonder of God, upon finding that only God counts, that all our own self-originated intentions are works of straw. And so in lowly humility we must stick close to the Root and count our own powers as nothing except as they are enslaved in His power.

But O how slick and weasel-like is self-pride! Our learnedness creeps into our sermons with a clever quotation which adds nothing to God’s glory, but a bit to our own. Our cleverness in business competition earns as much self-flattery as does the possession of the money itself. Our desire to be known and approved by others, to have heads nod approvingly about us behind our backs, and flattering murmurs which we can occasionally overhear, confirm the discernment in Alfred Adler’s elevation of the superiority motive. Our status as “weighty Friends” gives us secret pleasures which we scarcely own to ourselves, yet thrive upon. Yes, even pride in our own humility is one of the devil’s own tricks.

But humility rests upon a holy blindedness, like the blindedness of him who looks steadily into the sun. For wherever he turns his eyes on earth, there he sees only the sun. The God-blinded soul sees naught of self, naught of personal degradation or of personal eminence, but only the Holy Will working impersonally through him, through others, as one objective Life and Power. But what trinkets we have sought after in life, the pursuit of what petty trifles has wasted our years as we have ministered to the enhancement of our own little selves! And what needless anguishes we have suffered because our little selves were defeated, were not flattered, were not cozened and petted!

But the blinding God blots out this self and gives humility and true self-hood as wholly full of Him. For as He gives obedience so He graciously gives to us what measure of humility we will accept. Even that is not our own, but His who also gives us obedience. But the humility of the God-blinded soul endures only so long as we look steadily at the Sun. Growth in humility is a measure of our growth in the habit of the Godward-directed mind. And he only is near to God who is exceedingly humble. The last depths of holy and voluntary poverty are not in financial poverty, important as that is; they are in poverty of spirit, in meekness and lowliness of soul.
Explore the depths of humility, not with your intellects but with your lives, lived in prayer of humble obedience. And there you will find that humility is not merely a human virtue. For there is a humility that is in God Himself. Be ye humble as God is humble. For love and humility walk hand in hand, in God as well as in man.

But there is something about deepest humility which makes men bold. For utter obedience is self-forgetful obedience. No longer do we hesitate and shuffle and apologize because, say we, we are weak, lowly creatures and the world is a pack of snarling wolves among whom we are sent as sheep by the Shepherd (Matt. 10:16). I must confess that, on human judgment, the world tasks we face are appalling—well-nigh hopeless. Only the inner vision of God, only the God-blindedness of unreservedly dedicated souls, only the utterly humble ones can bow and break the raging pride of a power-mad world.

But self-renunciation means God-possession, the being possessed by God. Out of utter humility and self-forgetfulness comes the thunder of the prophets, “Thus saith the Lord.” High station and low are leveled before Him. Be not fooled by the world’s power. Imposing institutions of war and imperialism and greed are wholly vulnerable for they, and we, are forever in the hands of a conquering God. These are not cheap and hasty words. The high and noble adventures of faith can in our truest moments be seen as no adventures at all, but certainties. And if we live in complete humility in God we can smile in patient assurance as we work. Will you be wise enough and humble enough to be little fools of God? For who can finally stay His power? Who can resist His persuading love? Truly says Saint Augustine, “There is something in humility which raiseth the heart upward.” And John Woolman says, “Now I find that in the pure obedience the mind learns contentment, in appearing weak and foolish to the wisdom which is of the World; and in these lowly labors, they who stand in a low place, rightly exercised under the Cross, will find nourishment.”

But God inflames the soul with a burning craving for absolute purity. One burns for complete innocency and holiness of personal life. No man can look on God and live, live in his own faults, live in the shadow of the least self-deceit, live in harm toward His least creatures, whether man or bird or beast or creeping thing. The blinding purity of God in Christ, how captivating, how alluring, how compelling it is! The pure in heart shall see God? More, they who see God shall cry out to become pure in heart, even as He is pure, with all the energy of their souls.

This has been an astonishing and unexpected element for me. In this day of concern for social righteousness it sounds like a throwback to medieval ideals of saintliness and soul-combing. Our religious heroes of these social gospel days sit before a battery of telephones, with full office equipment, with telegraph lines to Washington and London and Tokyo and Berlin. And this is needed, desperately needed. Yet there is in the experience of God this insistent, imperative, glorious yearning—the craving for complete spotlessness of the inner self before Him.
No average goodness will do, no measuring of our lives by our fellows, but only a relentless, inexorable divine standard. No relatives suffice; only absolutes satisfy the soul committed to holy obedience. Absolute honesty, absolute gentleness, absolute self-control, unwearied patience and thoughtfulness in the midst of the raveling friction of home and office and school and shop. It is said that the ermine can be trapped by surrounding it with a circle of filth. It will die before it will sully its snowy coat.

Have we been led astray by our fears, by the fear of saccharine sweetness and light? By the dangers of fanatical scrupulousness and self-inspection and halo-hunting? By the ideal of a back-slapping recommendation of religion by showing we were good fellows after all? By the fear of quietism and of that monastic retreat from the world of men’s needs which we associate with medieval passion for holiness of life? Nay, tread not so far from the chasm that you fall into the ditch on the other side. Boldly must we risk the dangers which lie along the margins of excess, if we would live the life of the second half. For the life of obedience is a holy life, a separated life, a renounced life, cut off from worldly compromises, distinct, heaven-dedicated in the midst of men, stainless as the snows upon the mountain tops.

He who walks in obedience, following God the second half, living the life of inner prayer of submission and exultation, on him God’s holiness takes hold as a mastering passion of life. Yet ever he cries out in abysmal sincerity, “I am the blackest of all the sinners of the earth. I am a man of unclean lips, for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of Hosts.” For humility and holiness are twins in the astonishing birth of obedience in the heart of men. So God draws unworthy us, in loving tenderness, up into fellowship with His glorious self.

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