I had big plans for Lent this year. I had spent the entire year since last Lent putting together a Lenten Office (A divine office is a set of prayers, practices, and readings) that incorporated contemplative practice, reading, fasting and feasting into one well crafted and well researched liturgy.
The first couple weeks went great. I was really diving deep and looking at my inner condition. I was feeling good about it. But, a couple weeks in, I ran into some trouble and decided to stop fasting when things got hard. After a couple weeks of losing hope and feeling down God showed me why I was struggling. Why I was hurting. How I was fasting entirely from the false self. In short God used my pride to teach me about humility. I am a person who prides myself on my deep inner life, my profound spiritual insight, and my special place with God. It comes from an honest yearning for God. It comes from a deep calling to follow Christ and be holy. I take pride in my spiritual life. Sound familiar?
Even though I choose to fast during Lent because I honestly want to draw nearer to the divine, I still approach it like race to be won. I expect great things from myself and from God (but mostly myself) and when things don’t turn out the way I have planned I fall apart and cry like a toddler. Despite reading the sermon on the mount many times over and preaching a sermon series on it in two different churches, I still missed the very important message I knew Jesus was trying to convey about fasting – if you’re doing it to earn your spiritual stripes and climb the contemplative ladder you’re doing it wrong. And that’s exactly what I was doing. I was trying to level up and that is very far from what Jesus taught.
Yet, even though I was fasting from a place of pride, God still took that intentional space I had created and used it to teach me something. Fasting was not a waste of time just because I came to it poorly. If I hadn’t been mixed up I wouldn’t have needed to fast at all. As it stands now I realise quitting fasting was the best decision I could have made and it has encouraged me for another go next year.
I learned a great deal in my perceived failure and I touched a deep place where I am still filled with pride, shame, and hopelessness. It was in the struggle and in the failure that I came to see myself more clearly. I would like to share with you now a small piece of my inner condition. Here it stands, laid bare for all to see.
What God Taught me
Shame is simply the next natural progression of pride. One cannot have shame without pride for shame is an injured and failed pride. Feeling shame that I am not good enough implies that I have an inflated sense of destiny – that I must be meant for great things even though most creatures are meant for average things. And that pride is firmly rooted in my psyche. Because I can never live up to the false image of myself I have created, I am destined to feel ashamed when it all falls apart – and it regularly falls apart.
In the history of Western Christianity we have too often assumed that any movement away from pride is beneficial for the soul. But shame is not a good thing. Even though it is no longer pride it is a far cry from humility. We have tried to cure people of pride by humiliating them and shaming them, telling them they are depraved and sinful. We have allowed our pride to trick us into false humility. Not every movement away from pride is a movement in the right direction. As CS Lewis so wisely pointed out:
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”
Genuine humility is a combination of unbridled truth and selflessness. When I cling to anything which isn’t true at it’s deepest level it comes from a place of pride because it means I am the one who gets to decide what is best. It means I think I am the source of truth. The Cloud of Unknowing tells that
“humility is nothing else but a true knowledge of yourself as you are.”
To be humble is to see yourself in the light of truth. It is to do away with false notions of grandeur and worthlessness because neither is what we truly are. Humility is also selfless. It is a spiritual decision to change your area of focus and interest away from your self and what you want and need and towards the vast expanse of existence and all the other countless creatures your creator has made.
It is to think about others, and especially God, instead of yourself. This is why shame is a false humility. It is still all about me and what I am and how I measure up and whether or not I’m smart or popular or attractive or funny or whatever. The soul lost in shame is self centered and thus not able to perceive the truth.
Hopelessness is the same – and that is where I found myself a few weeks ago before I started to realise all this. I had fallen into a feeling of hopelessness, as I do often do. Hopelessness is an enticing lover which seduces me and leads me down the wrong path. When things don’t go exactly the way I want them to – when my life doesn’t measure up to the perfection I expect from myself – then I run to my lover with open codependent arms – and there I lay relishing in my hopelessness and finding some false sense of truth in it.
I have come to realize my hopelessness is firmly rooted in my shame. I keep falling short. I keep imagining my life will unfold with some divine story and I will be able to reach great heights and when it doesn’t I feel ashamed that I am a normal person with boring struggles and a mediocre job. It is the disconnect between my great big dreams and my mundane reality which makes me lose hope and feel like I’m not actually good enough.
And so, that shame is rooted in pride. It is rooted in a false sense of what my life is meant to be like. In my pride I assume that someone as great as me MUST be destined for more. And so, my pride is rooted in a lie. A false understanding of who and what I am is at the core of my hopelessness. And so that is where my healing must begin.
The light of Christ is the light of truth and it is an endless wellspring. God showed me that if I can return to that light I can dispel the false idea of who I am and why I’m here. If I can see my true self in that light then I will no longer be proud. If I am no longer proud then I will no longer be ashamed. And if I am no longer filled with shame then there is no reason to feel hopeless.
There is hope in the light of Christ dear sisters and brothers. There is eternal hope to be found in simple truth. There is a true self buried underneath the false self and the most important task laid before us all by our creator is to uncover the true self. But we cannot do it for the wrong reasons. If we dig down in search of our true self so that we can rise to the top as a brilliant guru then all we will find under our pride is a false humility and we will be even further from the light of God.
So think of yourself less, dear sisters and brothers. And when you do think of yourself allow the light of Christ to show you your own self as you really are. And in that honest knowledge of yourself you will find humility and leave behind all the pride and shame which are always lurking in the shadows of the false self.
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