Day 37: True Humility
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
Observe diligently, daughters, observe diligently this point which I will tell you, for, because sometimes thinking yourselves so wicked may be humility and virtue and at other times a very great temptation. I have had experience of this, so I know it is true. Humility, however deep it be, neither disquiets nor troubles nor disturbs the soul; it is accompanied by peace, joy and tranquility…Far from disturbing or depressing the soul, it enlarges it and makes it fit to serve God better. The other kind of distress only disturbs and upsets the mind and troubles the soul, so grievous it is. I think the devil is anxious for us to believe that we are humble, and, if he can, to lead us to distrust God.[i]
Teresa of Avila (d. 1582), The Way of Perfection
Almighty and ever-living God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
Daniel 3.32-45 (Song of the Three Young Men)
This is a prayer offered up by Azariah, better known as Abednego. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego ran afoul of King Nebuchadnezzar because they refused to worship the false Babylonian gods. Nebuchadnezzar threw a fit and had them thrown into a fiery furnace, heated to seven times its normal temperature. Yet, not only did the fire not consume the three young men, a fourth figure appeared in the midst of the fire, the angel of the Lord, which almost all Christians interpret as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. This prayer is what the young men offered in the midst of the fire before they were miraculously delivered. As this prayer has been passed down to us in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate but not in the Hebrew text, it is very likely that this was an ancient, but later, addition to the story (likely dating from about 100 BC).[iii] Thus Anglicans usually consider this “edifying reading” but not Scripture. Notice the responsibility Azariah takes for his own shortcomings as well as for the nation’s present condition as exiles in Babylon. His humility and contrition, prayed on behalf of the entire nation, are a model for all, especially for those facing trying circumstances.
24Now they were walking in the midst of the flames, singing hymns to God and praising the Lord. 25Then Azariah stood and offered the following prayer. He opened his mouth in the midst of the fire and said:
26”Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our fathers. You are worthy of praise and your name is extolled forever, 27since you are just in everything you have done to us and all your works are true; your paths are straight; and all your judgments are right. 28You have executed correct judgments in everything which you have brought upon us and on Jerusalem, the holy city of our fathers, since in truth and justice you have brought all this upon us for our sins. 29For we have sinned and have acted lawlessly, having removed ourselves far from you and having sinned in all things and having not kept your commandments. 30Nor have we kept your commandments in mind nor have we done as you ordered us so that it might go well with us. 31So in everything, as much as you have brought upon us and in everything you have done to us, you have done with correct judgment.
32However, do not hand us over into the hands of lawless enemies and hateful apostates, and an unjust king, more wicked than anyone in the world. 33We aren’t able to open our mouth now, having become a shame and reproach to your servants and to those who worship you. 34Don’t hand us over finally; for the sake of your name, do not annul your covenant. 35And do not remove your mercy from us for the sake of your beloved Abraham, and your servant Isaac and Israel, set apart for you, 36to whom you promised, saying to them that their offspring would be multiplied as the stars of the heavens and the sand of the seashore. 37O sovereign Lord, we have become less than all the nations and we have been humbled throughout all the earth this day because of our sins. 38In this season, there is no ruler or prophet or governor, not even a burnt offering, sacrifice, gift offering or incense offering, not even a place to offer a sacrifice before you that we might find mercy.
39Nevertheless, with a shattered heart and humbled spirit, let us be accepted. Accept our plea like burnt offerings of rams and bulls and like innumerable plump sheep. 40Similarly let our sacrifice come before you this day and enable us to follow after you completely since those who put their trust in you will not be put to shame. 41So now we follow you with our whole heart and we reverence you and seek your face. Please, do not let us be disgraced, 42but deal with us according to your graciousness and according to the abundance of your mercies. 43Deliver us by your miraculous works that we might give glory to your name, O Lord. 44And let all those who bring harm to your servants be put to shame and let them be dishonored in their power and dominion and let their strength be crushed. 45Let them know that you alone, O Lord, are God, glorified throughout the entire known world.”
New Testament Lesson
The crowds are reacting to Jesus’ reinterpretation of the imagery from the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus is the one who gives light and the one who can give living water. A sharp disagreement ensues about whether Jesus is the Christ or not. Given that the Feast of Tabernacles was being celebrated in Messianic terms in the first century, it is not hard to see how this idea would naturally develop.[iv] The religious leaders simply refuse to see what is right in front of them. Only one of them – Nicodemus – has bothered to investigate. Their lack of humility and contrition make it impossible for them to embrace their Savior. Those responsible for judging have become biased and unjust. They simply cannot entertain evidence that goes against their existing opinion.
40So those from the crowd who heard Him speaking were saying, “He really is a prophet!” 41Others were saying, “This is the Christ!” Still others were saying, “It can’t be, the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does He? 42Don’t the Scriptures say that the Christ comes from the line of David and from Bethlehem, the town where David was from?” 43So there was a sharp disagreement among the crowd because of Him. 44And some of them wanted to arrest Him, but no one laid a hand on Him.
45So the officers of the temple police came to the High Priests and the Pharisees. The religious leaders said to them, “Why didn’t you bring Him?” 46The officers answered, “No one has ever spoken like this man.” 47Then the Pharisees said to them, “Have you been deceived as well? 48None of the Ruling Council or the Pharisees have believed in Him, have they? 49But the rabble who don’t know the Law are accursed.” 50Nicodemus, the one who had previously come to Jesus, who was one of them, said to them, “Our Law doesn’t judge a man without first hearing from him and understanding what he’s doing, does it?” 52They answered and said to them, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Look it up in the Scriptures and you’ll see that the prophet does not come from Galilee.”
- Do you find the story of Azariah unrealistic? Are we supposed to be believe that someone standing in the middle of a furnace is calmly praying to God and giving thanks to him? What do we do with stories in the Bible that seem to defy our experience, physical laws or common sense? Can you read this story with the eyes of faith?
- Why does there always seem to be resistance in our lives? If a malevolent force like the Devil does not exist, where does the constant resistance come from?
- Have you settled in your mind whether Jesus really is the Christ? Why do some in the crowds seem to get who Jesus is and what He’s claiming while others do not?
- One of the problems with religion is that it can lead to very strong opinions on issues without much rational justification. How much investigating have you really done about whether what you believe is true or not? Are you willing to challenge your assumptions and your own views?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
All through Lent, we have been engaging in a series of disciplines to take stock of our spiritual lives. We have insisted that it is only by repenting, cultivating humility and seriously examining our lives that we’re able to make progress. Listening to the voice of God changes us, usually gradually, as we become ever-more conformed to Him.
Today, we start to see some of the fruit that might come from our efforts. Hopefully, we will never be thrown into a burning furnace at the behest of a corrupt king. Yet it’s also not hard to read the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego more allegorically. Our OT lesson shows us that when we face the fiery troubles that inevitably come into our lives, Christ will be there with us if we’ll let Him.
Notice that as Azariah prays, there is no complaining about how unjust this is. There is no angry tirade against God. There is acceptance that what has happened to them is just. But it certainly doesn’t seem like it from our vantage point. These young men have bravely refused to worship the Babylonian gods. They’re about to die for it. Yet Azariah confesses that he is by no means innocent. These men are sinners.
Receptivity is one of the most important aspects of the spiritual life. Receptivity does not mean passivity. By no means should we see the injustice that has come upon the three young men or the resistance that goes up against Jesus as something that we’re just supposed to lie down and accept. We should resist injustice and evil where we find it. Passivity is not good; receptivity is.
Receptivity, however, requires a change of heart. Being receptive means being open to the moment-by-moment invitations of the Holy Spirit in our lives. For example, when we hit a traffic jam that makes us late for an appointment, this is an opportunity to learn patience and receptivity. Perhaps there’s something that we’re supposed to observe that we will only see if we slow down. When we start to see God at work in every moment and in every little decision we make, this can have a profound influence on our lives.
In Jesuit spirituality, for example, there is something called the “discernment of spirits.” It was St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order and one of the greatest spiritual directors of all time, who discovered this when he was convalescing after a terrible war wound he had sustained. Ignatius at the time loved medieval romances. But they didn’t have any available in his hospital. So he was forced to read the Bible instead.
Ignatius always had a great imagination. Even though there were no romance novels, he could still imagine a conquest in battle or a great romance with a young damsel. As enjoyable as these mental images were, he noticed his mood would inevitably crash shortly after he was done imagining the scene. He would become agitated, notice his pain and often lash out in anger. However, when he read the stories of the Bible, there was no crash at the end. Instead of imagining himself as a gallant knight, he started to imagine what his life would be like if he tried to be a saint instead of a suave military man. His choice to become a saint changed the world and impacted thousands of people through his writings on the spiritual life.
This interplay between (as Jesuits call it) consolation and desolation is what seems to govern the spiritual life. In consolation, we move towards God, experience peace as well as a desire to embrace faith, hope and love. In desolation, we are led towards conflict, anxiety and disharmony. Although it’s difficult to maintain, a healthy spiritual life involves trying to maintain an awareness of the natural ebbs and flows between consolation and desolation in our spirits.
Becoming receptive to the work of the Spirit in our lives is a key skill we need to cultivate in order to experience God in a deeper way. Embracing faith, hope and love leads us to greater peace. This is why people with genuine sanctity are sometimes so disarming to be around. It’s like they float on air. This is probably because they’ve learned how to be receptive to the work of the Spirit.
Would you like a life with less anxiety, overflowing with love and brimming with purpose? This is what a deep spiritual life can offer. Even in the fiery furnace, you can maintain confidence, composure and a Christ-like attitude. Every moment of every day becomes an opportunity to learn that the Spirit is all around us, inviting us into a deeper relationship. The question for all of us is whether we will stay quiet enough to listen to this still small voice and be receptive enough to say “yes” when the Spirit calls.
- Spiritual Growth
Read more about the discernment of spirits, which is a classic Ignatian spiritual discipline. Following this link (http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/making-good-decisions/discernment-of-spirits/introduction-to-discernment-of-spirits) might be a good place to start.
Before Holy Week, make an appointment with a priest to confess your sins and receive absolution for them. If you have never made a confession before, remember its Biblical roots. James writes, “Therefore confess your sins to one another” (James 5.16).
- Spiritual Direction
Consider finding a spiritual director who has experience with discerning the work of the Spirit in people’s lives. Spiritual directors can be enormously helpful in getting us to avoid the pitfalls that inevitably face us in the spiritual life. A good director can hold us accountable and help us grow in godliness.
[i] Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection (London: J. M. Dent, 1902), 39.3.
[ii] The Book of Common Prayer, 817.
[iii] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 72–73.
[iv] Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 329.