A seminarian recently told me about the time he was chatting with a high-achieving classmate after they had both completed a difficult final exam. "You know that question on humility?" his friend asked. "I nailed it!"
The irony got me thinking about my friend Jimmy.
Jimmy is an usher at a church I used to attend; he takes his duties seriously. Every Sunday, Jimmy is a reliably warm, bespectacled, suspendered presence in the church foyer, handing out bulletins, clasping hands, and sneaking candy to the kids. Knowing my interest in music, Jimmy is always keen to report to me (even now, when I come to visit) which gospel quartets he recorded off the radio over the past week. Once, he gave my young son a wristwatch he no longer needed, out of the blue, much to their mutual delight.
There is something unusual about Jimmy. I know nothing of his background—there may have been an accident in the past or simply a genetic quirk. I only know that he is what some people call "a little different."
At a New Year's Eve service several years ago, I discovered that Jimmy is different from most of us in the best possible way. The church congregation traditionally celebrates Communion together just before midnight, and then invites people to share some of the past year's triumphs and trials. That particular year, there was a moving mix of thankfulness and heartache—cancer healed and cancer raging, jobs found and lost, relationships mended and some still up for prayer. Eventually, Jimmy stood up and asked if he could tell us about a praise item.
"This year," Jimmy started, with tears in his eyes, "I learned how much I can count on God. See, I promised him I would pray for a list of people every day. But when I started, I couldn't remember who I was supposed to pray for, and I got frustrated. So I asked God to help me remember. After that, all the names came to mind, every time. And I never could have remembered on my own, so I knew it was God!" And then Jimmy sat down.
That night, Jimmy taught me something important about humility. Richard Foster defines humility not as a "less-than" type of self-abasement, but as an ability to "live as close to the truth as possible: the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live." When we are humble, we are un-fussily realistic about our strengths and weaknesses—about what we are capable of, and what we are not. We are also clear on the fact that we are not God, and that we cannot heal or transform ourselves on our own. Thus, when growth or change happens, it is only in humility that we can identify God's care and provision for us.
When we are proud, we don't have an accurate picture of the way things really are, and we end up believing we are engineering our own progress. And then we wonder why we don't see God moving in our lives. This phenomenon might be another layer of what the apostle Paul meant when he told us we would best know God's strength in our own weakness.
A few weeks after that New Year's Eve, I found myself praying about a financial shortfall my husband and I were facing at the end of the month. Three days later, an unexpected check arrived in the mail, matching almost to the penny the amount we needed. My skeptical mind knew the money could have been purely coincidental, but in that instance I had the unprovable but resolute sense that it was God's answer to my prayer. I was of course flooded with immediate gratitude, but within minutes I was undergoing mental gymnastics. What if I hadn't prayed? I wondered. Would God have provided anyway? Do I really have to ask when he knows our needs before we do?
I don't generally hear the audible voice of God. But that particular afternoon, I could have sworn I heard a chuckle. Of course I would have provided, it seemed God was saying. But you wouldn't have had the joy of knowing it was me.
Jimmy has the kind of humility that allows him to recognize God doing what only God can do in his life. He may never go to seminary, but he has a rather advanced understanding of what James and Peter might have meant when they told us to "humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord." I have known for a long time that humility is required in order to acknowledge God's supremacy. But what Jimmy has taught me is that humility not only helps us in the offering of our prayers. It is also essential to recognizing their answers.
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Previous columns by Carolyn Arends include:
Power Washed by God | The blessings—and danger—of divine proximity. (October 17, 2011)
A Both/And Path to Truth| Why the narrow way to faith is also expansive. (August 15, 2011)
Carolyn Arends Contemplates Her Own Death, and Yours| Going down singing: Why we should remember that we will die. (April 18, 2011)
Relationship That Leads to Life | Why God's law is good news. (August 11, 2010)
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