July 30, 2020

The Quietest of Virtues

We are building counterculture here.

Bill Knott

It is the age of braggadocio, and we are never sure whether to laugh incredulously at all the empty posturing, or weep for all we’ve lost—like modesty and grace.

The airwaves crackle with boasts that only yesterday were deemed unspeakably preposterous. Politicians, athletes, entertainers and 3-year olds stare unblinkingly at us and say what ego always wants to say: “I am the best. There is none like me.”

And so we fault poor parenting, big salaries, and omnipresent television cameras for coarsening the culture, for reducing the humility we once admired to what gets said by those who finish second or clutch congeniality awards. When “man is the measure of all things,” we quickly see how cheap and tawdry all things seem. Our beach is overrun by surging hubris, and we ache for understatement; graciousness; the self-control that can allow another to go first.

We are building counterculture here.

Cue the church—the one place left on Planet Earth where humility still finds a home, a resting place, a value. The founding ethic of this community Jesus built deplores the boast, the taunt, the cruel jest. It prizes anonymous deeds of kindness only heaven sees; values tender words that rebuild broken hearts; urges service to the ones the world tramples and forgets. The church of Jesus is, by definition, a sanctuary for losers—for all the mixed-up, broken men and women who may never stand atop an earthly podium, but whose permanent, ineradicable value is enshrined in the heart of God. He gathers in, He said, the poor, the disabled, the dispossessed, and sets them at His banquet table (Luke 14:21). And so must we.

That’s just the reason we must always guard the way we think and speak about Christ’s church. Against the tide of endless chatter about performance, personalities, and politics borrowed from the culture, we can say aloud—again—that those who advertise themselves are selling what we do not want. We should set a guard for narcissists who flatter us with words designed to bring them glory. We can find the godly resolve to say “No” when leaders take the credit for the harvest God has ripened—those who build their résumés and reputations on all the selfless acts a hundred thousand saints have quietly performed.

This is a time for telling different stories than the ones our culture roars. We are building counterculture here, a wall against a corrosive tide of arrogance and self-assertion, and evidence suggests that we can’t labor fast enough. Our pulpits should preach patience and hiddenness, of seeds that grow in secret, and of a Father who watches even sparrows fall. We need more lessons about the uneconomical searching for lone lost sheep, instead of smugly counting those within the stadium or fold. Our kids can learn that no external sticky star can ever match the inner prize of knowing that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:4).*

It requires collective courage to insist on these things, and to build again within this movement the habits—strategies—for making certain that “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” take root, grow up, set flowers, and bear fruit (Gal. 5:22, 23). Not only is there no law against such things: there’s a positive commandment that we cherish them. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Humility is not an accidental virtue we acquire casually along the way. If it is ever true that we are humble, individually or as a people, it will be because we speak of it and preach of it and underline it as a virtue we insist on—“encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).

Because this is the call of Christ to all who are members of His body, the church I want to belong to is . . . humble.

* Bible texts in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.