My husband has told me several times that during the Wesleyan revivals (which eventually resulted in the Methodist denomination), the Wesley brothers formed a number of small groups for people who wanted to grow in holiness. One of the questions asked as part of the “application process” was “Do you desire to be told your faults?”
That always creeped me out just a little, mainly because I would imagine this small group of people meeting and taking turns telling each member all their shortcomings. Then I’d consider what it might feel like to be on the receiving end. ”OK Fernanda, now it’s your turn, and we have noticed you have a lot of them.”
I’m going to give these revivalists the benefit of the doubt and assume that indicating a desire to be told your faults was neither a guarantee nor an open invitation, but more a way of expressing a desire to grow in holiness that surpassed the normal human tendency to avoid being humbled at all costs. Sin in your life is a barrier to growing in holiness and so you will suffer the unpleasantness of being confronted with that sin so you can overcome it and it no longer hinders your growth.
To me, the heart of the question is “Do you desire to be humbled?” One could argue that pride is the number one deterrent to true holiness, so anyone serious about holiness would seek to have their pride broken. Often. Being humbled could come about through various means, including being told your faults.
None of this would have made any sense to me a year ago. But then one day I found myself in a situation where I experienced just that, being humbled, along with the conviction that despite the pain I felt, it was the right thing for me to be experiencing.
One of the common distortions of serving God can be summed up in the following quote that I recently saw on a local United Methodist church marquee: ”Many people want to serve God but only as advisers.” If you’ve been in church long enough, you’ve undoubtedly encountered this, or perhaps even been guilty of it. These are the people who always have an opinion about how things ought to be done no matter what it is. They may be actively involved in church ministry, or they may not, but they are more interested in telling other people what they should be doing rather than jumping in and doing the hard work themselves. And they assume that their advice is so meaningful and unique and valuable that the pastor of the church will take it very seriously and for the most part act on it, and be grateful for it.
Without turning my blog into a confessional I had (surely with the best of intentions) placed myself in that role of self-appointed adviser, and about a year ago found myself being told in the nicest way possible that there wasn’t anything particularly special about my opinions or advice or insights and they weren’t going to be acted on just because I’d shared them.
No matter how graciously and kindly someone breaks that kind of news to you being on the receiving end feels a lot like the guy in the parable who went to a feast and found the most honored spot available only to be told that he needed to make room for someone else. He then goes in shame to the lowest place.
I remember listening to what I was being told, asking a lot of questions to make sure I understood, and in the mean time thinking in some sort of surreal, abstract way that I really ought to be protesting this, defending myself, putting up a wall around my heart, getting offended or something, anything to prevent my inner pride from being completely shattered. But overriding all that was a more solid inner conviction that did not come in words but whose meaning was unmistakable: ”It is very good for me to be humbled in this way.” Not at all in the sense that it was good for me to be punished, but more importantly, that this process was somehow key to me getting what I ultimately wanted. So I opened up my heart wide, surrendered to the experience and took it all in, absorbing the myriad of emotions I felt which included a certain amount of sheepishness or embarrassment as well as raw pain as if from a deep and fresh wound.
It would take several months before I could even begin to articulate what had just happened, not that I didn’t try. When the dust settled somewhat I realized just how much pride I had on the inside that I hadn’t even been aware of, how much of even the good things I was doing up to that point had been motivated by pride and how hard I worked to keep that pride intact. But that encounter somehow displaced that pride and made me able to actually see it and abhor it for the first time.
At some point in the aftermath I went to Confession. I’m in the habit of going about once a month. Up to that point I hated it. It was just all awkward and the process of speaking my sins out loud felt very humiliating. Actually, the whole process did. I saw it as an affront to my dignity. Really, it was a challenge to my pride, and maybe going anyway was already putting cracks in my pride which made it possible for it to then be truly damaged in the above encounter. I really don’t know; God works in mysterious ways. What I do know is that the very next time I went to Confession it actually felt different. It was still difficult and all that, but rather than feeling humiliating, it felt humbling, and again, that inner conviction accompanied it: ”It is very good for me to be humbled in this way.”
And I have since come to understand that I have an incredible gift in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It’s essentially a very safe and controlled environment for me to experience being humbled, and not only that, but to voluntarily choose it and submit to the process. I don’t think there is any remedy against pride that is surer than a regular dose of imposed humility.
And make no mistake, confessing sins in an environment where what you say is listened to in silence and no excuses or justifications (no “oh don’t be so hard on yourself”) are offered, expressing out loud your contrition and intent to turn away from those sins (and all sins), accepting the penance and absolution are all very humbling things to do. Sure, you can close yourself off to the humbling process and walk out of the confessional with your pride largely intact. That is your choice and God will not violate your free will. However, if you surrender to the whole process and allow yourself to feel all the feelings however painful, submit to being humbled and then graciously accept Jesus’ abundant mercy in forgiving your sins, then pride really doesn’t stand a chance. It won’t be broken all at once (I’m sure I have even deeper layers of pride yet to be peeled off my soul), but it will be eroded away layer by layer until one day it’s all gone.
Those early Methodists were definitely on to something. They recognized the connection between dealing openly with their sins and breaking the ultimate but most insidious sin of pride that clings closely to everyone but which often goes undetected until it is displaced through some experience of being humbled. They tried to set up an environment for that humbling process to take place.
But the limitation is that for the most part we humans shy away from speaking openly about our own faults and even more so we shy away from speaking openly to our friends about their faults. Sure, it’s easy to gossip about someone’s faults when they are not there, but to tell them about their faults? That’s just plain awkward. So it really doesn’t happen that often.
Case in point. In the encounter I mentioned earlier, even though the Holy Spirit used that as a means to humble me and shatter some pride within me, a definite fault, the person through which this happened definitely made it clear to me that as far as he was concerned I hadn’t done anything wrong. Even then, I wasn’t exactly being told my faults.
I honestly think that while occasionally there may be a time when it is right for another person to tell me about some fault or sin they have observed, for the most part God would prefer that He Himself tell me my faults and then have me in turn confess my faults to Him. Out loud. It’s not just that confession and repentance are my invitation to Him to enter deeply into my soul and wash away the sin and dirt; it’s that the entire process from start to finish is by design a process of being humbled, and it’s that humility that is so important in washing away the pride that lies at the root of all the other sins. I can’t humble myself on my own, but I can of my own free will place myself in a situation where I will be humbled and accept it.
A lot of wonderful things have come my way in 2012, especially towards the end of the year–things that encouraged me and made me feel loved and esteemed and special–and I am super grateful for all of it. But deep down I know that the best thing that happened to me that entire year was being humbled and experiencing the breaking of a significant amount of inner pride. It’s not exactly fun to go through; in fact it can (and did) hurt a lot. But it is so worth it, and it is something I would gladly endure again and again for the sake of shattering every last bit of pride that remains in my soul and hinders me from becoming completely united with God.
It is good for me to be humbled in this way.
Some additional reading on the Sacrament of Reconciliation: