Descent into Humility
Prayer changes us. It is only one part of our transformation. It must be combined with the other spiritual disciplines, means of grace, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And yet prayer, if only used for our own purposes, will not be a catalyst of our change. If we approach prayer solely from a “Simple Prayer” point of view, we’ll not change, and we’ll get bored with prayer pretty quickly.
The change that can happen in us is far more important than the change God can make in what we’re praying for.
Pause for just a second. The degree that we believe that is the degree to which we’re willing to move from simple, me-focused prayers to other forms of prayer. In that move, we hear God saying that He wants to be more than our Provider. He’s glad to hear our heartfelt, honest words to Him, but we cannot repeat the same things over and over if we are to proceed in the way of prayer.
For example, God may begin to challenge us about our greed, our ego, our vanity, our values, our entertainment choices, the way we speak to our spouse, etc. In Formation Prayer, as Richard Foster calls it, He addresses us with the call to repent and change.
Foster points those who want to change to St. Benedict’s Rule. St. Benedict (ca. A.D. 480-550) developed this rule as a basis for life in the monastery in Monte Cassino in 520. Benedict discusses 12 steps into humility—living as close to the truth about ourselves and God as we can. We do not become humble people by striving toward humility directly, but we can do the work of prayer so God can make us humble, and therefore, more like Christ. Do we need to pray in this format to be changed? No. But you may find this ancient “ladder” of descent into humility a helpful guide.
As you read, imagine the content of your prayer moving from one degree of humility to the next.
- We must have the fear of God always in front of us. Psalm 36:1 says, “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes.” We must remember that God reserves eternal life for those who fear Him, not for the wicked. Because God knows our thoughts, we are “forbidden to do our own will” and pray that God’s will may be done in us (Matthew 6:10). So we begin by telling God how holy He is, that He is God and we are not.
- We no longer love our own will or are pleased to fulfill our desires, but by our deeds live out the words of Jesus: “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). We confess the times when we’ve sought to live our own way.
- For the love of God, we subject ourselves to our superiors in all obedience. In this we imitate Jesus, who Paul says became obedient even unto death (Philippians 2:8). We pray for Christ’s help in each arena of life where we are subject to others.
- We embrace suffering patiently and obediently. We don’t grow weary or give up, because Jesus says, “Those who stand firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). We live joyfully, saying, “In all this we overcome because of Him who so greatly loved us” (Romans 8:37). When difficult things are demanded of us by others, we gladly submit to them. We pray, then, for perseverance and patience to endure.
- We confess our sins and faults. For Benedict, this meant confession to the abbot. For us, this means we confess our sins to one another; we don’t conceal them. We might pray alone for someone to confess to, if we don’t have someone. Or we might interrupt our time of prayer for a phone call to someone.
- We are content with lowliness. We do not seek to rise higher in rank or fame or praise from others. Wherever God has placed us in life, we are content with that.
- We possess interior humility. We declare with our mouths and believe in our hearts that we are the lowest of people. We pray Psalm 119:71, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” We do not shame ourselves unduly, but properly recognize that we are no better than any other person.
- We “keep the rule.” When we do nothing except what is sanctioned by the common rule of the “monastery” and the example of our elders. *This one may feel less applicable today, unless we have made a covenant in church membership or with a small group. We pray for grace to live out the words we’ve promised to others.
- We practice silence and solitude. This is a good practice for prayer and daily life. Proverbs 10:19 says, “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” You’ll notice that numbers 9 to 11 are all about our speech in daily life, but they can also serve as reminders that prayer involves quiet also.
- We keep silent in times of laughter. The things we laugh at are appropriate—we don’t laugh at the crude or cruel things of this world. Laughing at things is one way we place ourselves above it, so we must be careful not to use laughter as a tool of humiliation. Pray in repentance for the humor you use that offends and lacks humility.
- We speak gently, with few and sensible words. When we do speak, we are careful with our words.
- We are humble of heart and bear all these things each day. Then we will know the perfect love that casts out fear.
May your prayers lead you to a descent into humility. And may God change you as you pray.