Humility from our Fathers


UnknownRecently a friend opened me up to Michael Haykin’s Rediscovering the Church Fathers. Church history and I are not the closest of friends — a relationship requiring my investment. This book is a gem. I just finished it this morning and plan on reading it a second time. It took me some time to finish all 156 pages because Haykin inspired me to read the primary texts. I read Letter to Diognetus and have planned Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit. What a tremendous read Diognetus was and I look forward to Basil. Most of my thoughts on the book are still scattered in 800 different directions requiring more thought and questions, but I was immediately struck by Basil. Haykin says of Basil, “a masterly combination of fourth-century piety and theology” (158).

Basil lived from roughly 330 – 379 and was the Greek bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He fought against Arianism and advocated the Nicene position. Although Basil lived according to the  monastic lifestyle he bucked against it. **

“How will he show humility, if there is no 220px-Basil_of_Caesareaone with whom he may compare and so confirm his own greater humility? How will he give evidence of his compassion, if he has cut himself off from association with other persons? And how will he exercise himself in long-suffering, if no one contradicts his wishes?” (quote taken from Haykin, 109-110).

Basil strived for humility in himself and among believers. It is necessary because of our natural disposition to find glory in ourself.

“Would that a man had abided in the glory which he possessed with God — he would have genuine instead of fictitious dignity. For he would be ennobled by the power of God, illumined with divine wisdom, and made joyful in the possession of eternal life and its blessings. But, because he ceased to desire divine glory in expectation of a better prize, and strove for the unattainable, he lost the good which it was in his power to possess. The surest salvation for him, the remedy of his ills, and the means of restoration to his original state in practicing humility and not pretending that he may lay claim to any glory through his own efforts but seeking it from God.” [1]

“The sermon’s [Homily 20] focus, in a sense, is the acquisition of glory — the glory lost by Adam in the garden, that glory by which man is ‘ennobled by the power of God, illumined with divine wisdom, and made joyful in the possession of eternal life and its blessings'” (Haykin, 113).

What is true glory?

“But what is true glory and what makes a man great? ‘In this,’ says the prophet, ‘let him that glories, glory that he understands and knows that I am the Lord’ [Jer. 9:24]. This constitutes the highest dignity of man, this is his glory and greatness: truly to know what is great and to cleave to it, and to seek after glory from the Lord of glory. The Apostle tells us: ‘He that glories may glory in the Lord,’ saying: ‘Christ was made for us wisdom of God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption; that, as it is written: he that glories may glory in the Lord’ [1 Cor. 1:30-31]. Now, this is the perfect and consummate glory in God: not to exult in one’s own righteousness, but recognizing oneself as lacking true righteousness, to be justified by faith in Christ alone.” [2]

Humility should lead us to realize there is nothing we can boast about unless it given by God. Again Basil says,

“Why . . . do you glory in your goods as if they were your own instead of giving thanks to the Giver of His gifts? ‘For what do you have that you have not received? And if you received, why do you glory as if you had not received it?’ [1 Cor. 4:7]. You have not known God by reason of your righteousness, but God has known you by reason of his goodness. ‘After that you have known God,’ says the Apostle, ‘or rather are known by God.’ You did not apprehend Christ because of your virtue, but Christ apprehended you by his coming.” [3]

Basil encourages us, habitually look to Christ and reflect on His examples of humility. Here is the source of true humility and the teacher as well. “In everything which concerns the Lord we find lessons in humility. . . . He did not make use of the marvelous power that he possessed to resist any of those who attacked him, but, as if yielding to superior force, he allowed temporal authority to exercise the power proper to it . . .” [4]

Basil’s exhortations are good for modern mankind’s soul. He warns of pride, especially the pride manifested in looking down on others.

“That stern Pharisee, who, in his arrogant pride, not only boasted of himself but also discredited the publican in the presence of God, made his ‘righteousness’ void by being guilty of pride. The publican went down justified in preference to him because he had given glory to God, the Holy One, and did not dare to lift his eyes, but only sought to win mercy, accusing himself by his posture, [and] by striking his breast . . . Be on guard, therefore, and bear in mind this example of grievous loss sustained through arrogance. . . . Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners.” [5]

Humility is not insurance, purchased once, set on auto-pay, and never thought about again. It requires daily practice and work.

“Your manner of speaking and singing, your conversation with your neighbor, also, should aim at modesty rather than pretentiousness. Do not strive, I beg you, for artificial embellishment in speech, for cloying sweetness in song, or for a . . . high-flown style in conversation [i.e, don’t sound overly religious]. In all your actions, be free from pomposity. Be obliging to your friends, gentle towards your slaves, forbearing with the forward, benign to the lowly, a source of comfort to the afflicted, a friend to the distressed, a condemner of no one . . . Speak not in your own praise, nor contrive that others do so.” [6].

Finally, leaders, we are servants. We are called to serve, not be served. Our work seeks to exalt God, not ourself. Even the servant to his pastor is called to serve and exalt Christ, not the pastor. We live for God’s legacy, not man’s.

“Suppose you have been deemed worthy of the episcopate and men throng about you and hold you in esteem. Come down to the level of your subordinates, ‘not as lording it over the clergy’ [1 Peter 5:3], and do not behave as worldly potentates do. The Lord bade him who wishes to be first to be the servant of all.” [7]

Basil finishes his sermon tying together glory and humility,

“Strive for glory with God, for his is a glorious reward . . . Strive after humility as becomes a lover of this virtue. Love it and it will glorify you. Then you will travel to good purpose the road leading to that true glory which is to be found with the angels and with God. Christ will acknowledge you as his own disciple before the angels and he will glorify you if you imitate his humility.” [8]

[1] Quote found in Haykin, 112-13, from Basil’s Homily 20.1.

[2] Ibid, 113.

[3] Ibid, 114.

[4] Ibid, 115.

[5] Ibid, 116.

[6] 116.

[7] 116.

[8] 117.

** Most of this article reproduces Haykin’s organization of Basil’s material. The attempt in this post is to introduce Haykin’s arrangement of the material therefore introducing the book too. The commentary, for the most part, comes from him too. 🙂 I pray this inspires you like it does me too.