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The Elusive Virtue of Humility

By November 9, 20112 Comments

As some of you may remember, last year I fasted from blogging and used the season of Lent to re-examine my motives as a writer. It was a valuable time for me that brought some of my sinful tendencies into the light. Ever since then, I have spent a lot of time and prayer reflecting on the reasons for my ministry and the orientation of my heart in writing.

I must confess that this is an area in which I continually feel troubled. Writing is a funny kind of ministry because, in order to broaden one’s audience, a measure of self-promotion is necessary. Most Christian writers I know struggle with this aspect of writing: How do you promote the fruits of the Holy Spirit in your life without promoting your own glory? That’s a tough line to walk, and I too often feel as though I fall on the wrong side of it.

Pride is a tricky devil. He’s an escape artist of sorts; every time you think you’ve conquered him in one area of your life, he manages to slip through your fingers only to show up somewhere else, just as powerful as before. This is how I feel about writing as a ministry. My pride is constantly on the line, a reality that has driven me to my knees in prayer on a regular basis.

As I have continued asking God for the kind of humility that would orient my ministry rightly, I came across a wonderful nugget of truth from an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School. In her commentary on Ecclesiastes, Ellen Davis expounds upon Koheleth’s (the author of Ecclesiastes) words in chapter 4 verse 4, which darkly reads,

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Of this observation about envy, Davis responds,

“Koheleth is the great biblical teacher of humility, and, as Thomas Aquinas taught, humility is nothing other than the patient pursuit of one’s own excellence. It is a remarkable insight, which every teacher should hold forth to her students. Striving to do the best I can–regardless of what others are able to do–is not a matter of sinful pride. Indeed, it is the very opposite. Even my greatest abilities may be moderate by someone else’s standards, but using them to the fullest is how I give praise and glory to God and how I sometimes discover with grateful surprise how much God has given me.”

In a world fraught with comparison and the “envy of neighbor,” Davis’ words were a marvelous comfort to me. Excellence for me will look different than it does for the next person, so I am only charged with doing my best for God, not someone else’s best. I will be treasuring that thought as I continue the clumsy path of doing ministry as a sinner.


  • Tim says:

    “Excellence for me will look different than it does for the next person, so I am only charged with doing my best for God, not someone else’s best.” Exactly, Sharon! Happily, God himself knows what is expected of us better than even we do.

    I also like this insight into what Christian writers deal with: “Writing is a funny kind of ministry because, in order to broaden one’s audience, a measure of self-promotion is necessary.” The Bible studies I write have a limited audience (a few hundred church bulletins on Sunday morning and posted on a website) and they don’t have my name on them anywhere, so I get to avoid the self-promotion issue. Still, my authorship isn’t top-secret and people who inquire are told that I’m the writer. Occasionally someone will approach me with appreciation for the ministry, or I’ll hear from a pastor that they learned there’s small group using the studies in their weekly meetings.

    Part of my thought process then is “Really? I hope I wasn’t heretical …” and part is “It’s a good thing the Holy Spirit is the one responsible for guiding people in understanding God’s word, and not me!” The longer I’ve been teaching, writing, occasionally filling the pulpit, or whatever work God has given me to do (cradling bawling kids in the nursery, anyone?) the more I realize that my abilities are always in need of God’s redeeming work to fulfill his will.

    Thanks for provoking more thoughts today, Sharon.


  • Halee says:

    Good post, Sharon.

    Davis’ quote reminds me of the enmity that is fictionalized between Mozart and Salieri in the movie Amadeus. I’ve only seen the movie a few times, and then when I was just a kid, but when I think about envy, I think of Salieri, a devout Catholic composer who could not understand why God would gift a drunk boor like Mozart with such an enormous talent while he, ever faithful, was only mediocre by comparison. In the end, his envy destroys both of them.

    Such a great thing when we can rejoice in the giftedness of others, secure on the knowledge, that our value is not derive from our giftedness and that we, too, have a purpose in glorifying God.

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