Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

September 13, 1998

Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Romans 12:1-8

For the two previous Sundays, and again today, I have taken the theme and title for my sermon from the well-known passage in Micah that summarizes so eloquently the prophetic understanding of true religion: "[W]hat does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" This morning I invite you to consider with me what it means to "walk humbly with (your) God."

I am not sure how the scholar of Hebrew would parse the words of this particular phrase, but in English it seems to me that each word is of particular importance. First of all, we are to walk. In other words, this is not just a text about attitudes, or values, or beliefs. It is about a way of living. As a popular slogan of the day puts it, we are not just to "talk the talk" but to "walk the walk." Life with God requires embodiment, incarnation. To walk also suggests to me a movement, a journey, a direction, and perhaps also a destination. We are talking here about a way of living over time, over the span of our days. What God asks of us is not to be rendered in a moment, nor to be delivered once and for all. It is a sustained action, an ongoing relationship, a constant yet ever-changing and growing passage along the path of our existence.

Micah also says we are to walk "with" God. In other words, we are not to walk alone. When I was a Boy Scout I encountered an initiation practice in which a scout would be taken out into the woods at night and left there with instructions to find his way back to camp by himself. The walk that Micah is talking about is not some sort of initiation or test of our survival skills. God does not ask us to undertake the challenges of life by ourselves, or on our own. Nor is the emphasis here upon what we are to avoid. Micah does not say, "steer clear of this" and "keep away from that." Life is not to be understood primarily as an obstacle course. The emphasis is positive. A connection is implied. Walking as a way of life is not a solitary endeavor, but a form of companionship. The direction and course that we take are based upon a relationship.

That relationship is with God. The English translation actually says "your God." That is a characteristic way in which Old Testament writers spoke of the LORD, or Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. It is a way of saying that Yahweh, who has been manifest throughout the life and history of the people of Israel, and "your God" are one and the same. It is also, then, a way of saying that we are not to attach ourselves or devote ourselves to any other god.

To walk with "God" is to walk with the One who is known to us as our Creator, in whose likeness we have been made. This God is also the One who has called us into being as a people, who has preserved us during times of great struggle and oppression, who has delivered us from the bondage of that oppression and sustained us in our wanderings with manna in the wilderness, who has given us commandments and teachings by which to govern ourselves together and provided us with a good land in which to settle and enjoy the blessings of life. Micah no doubt knows the story that is told in our text from Deuteronomy. It is the story of how God has created this people and brought them to a land in which to dwell, a place to call home. It is the story that must have informed the Old Testament psalmist who wrote, "Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness . . . Know that the LORD is God. It is [the LORD] who has made us, and not we ourselves" [100:1-2a, 3ab]. To walk with God is to walk with our Maker, the One to whom we must look for all we have been given, the One upon whom we must rely for all that we need.

This brings us to the one remaining term of Micah's instruction. How are we to "walk with God"? We are to walk "humbly," with humility. Humility is the opposite of pride. My WESTMINSTER DICTIONARY OF CHRISTIAN ETHICS says that it "is not so much a virtue as a grace" [Helen Oppenheimer, p. 284]. That is to say, humility is better thought of as a gift than as an achievement. One of the paradoxes of humility is that--especially if we regard it as an achievement--it can become a source of pride. I was driving home on Hillside Drive yesterday afternoon when I noticed the bumper sticker on the truck in front of me. It read: "GOD save me from your followers." The sentiment is not charitable, and I found myself wondering if the driver considered himself or herself to be a follower of God. Nonetheless, I was reminded of this paradox of the religious life. Often those who claim to be devoted to God are not particularly humble at all. Indeed, they often act with such pride and superiority and condemnation toward others that they appear to have assumed the role of God for themselves. Humility is, among other things, a grace that helps us to keep in mind the difference between God's will and judgment and our own.

But what does it mean to be "humble"? Humility seems most easily defined in terms of what it is not. In his appeal to the Christians at Rome, the apostle Paul wrote, "by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think" [12:3]. Humility is not to think too highly of yourself. But there is also the possibility that we may think too lowly of ourselves. Ralph Sockman, a well-known Methodist of a generation-or-so ago, put it this way: "True humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps us from thinking too highly or too meanly of ourselves. It makes us mindful of the nobility God meant us to have. Yet it makes us modest by reminding us how far we have come short of what we can be" [ARKANSAS METHODIST; cited in THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGIOUS QUOTATIONS, p.359].

I have long appreciated the definition of humility provided by the great 19th-century English Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He said, "Humility is to make a right estimate of one's self" [GLEANINGS AMONG THE SHEAVES; ibid.]. It may be difficult to know what is a right estimate of one's self, but this at least reminds us that there is nothing false about humility. Humility avoids pretense of greatness, but also pretense of insignificance. Humility requires clear perception and honesty about ourselves.

Another thing humility is not is a form of self-loathing. Christianity has often been susceptible to the idea that we are "worms" and "miserable sinners," or that we are "utterly depraved." A recent antidote to this sort of thinking has been captured in the expression, "God don't make no junk!" If we have been created in God's image, it hardly does God any credit to claim that we are utterly worthless creatures. Nor does it cultivate our sympathies and compassion for others if we regard them as utterly worthless as well. One of the greatest sins of many Christians has been to hold too low an opinion of the human race, too low an opinion of their neighbors, and sometimes too low an opinion even of themselves. Humility is not a matter of turning our backs on ourselves or the world.

For most of us, however, the greater danger is some form of thinking "more highly of ourselves than we ought to think." This can take many forms. One is to assume the credit for all that we have and are. Robert Bellah and his associates, for their book HABITS OF THE HEART, conducted extensive interviews with a number of Americans in various locations to discover the typical attitudes they had about their lives. Most of the people interviewed, when asked about their particular achievements or accomplishments, attributed these to their own efforts. They did not deny that particular circumstances may have given them one advantage or another, one opportunity or another. But when it came to accounting for their accomplishments, they did not credit their particular advantages or opportunities, they credited themselves.

Most of us Americans, most of the time, discount the roles that luck and circumstance and the contributions of others have played in getting us where we are. Ever since I learned that former Indiana University President and still-Chancellor Herman B Wells titled his autobiography BEING LUCKY I have thought that here must be a man with an unusual sense of humility. Some Christians might object that luck has no part in our fortunes or success; only Providence can account for extraordinary human achievements. I suspect it is a mixture of both. It is surely true, in any event, that much that we enjoy of fortune and success goes well beyond our individual deserving.

Another form of thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think is embodied in the notion of the self-made woman or the self-made man. People who regard themselves as self-made not only discount the advantageous circumstances of their lives, and they not only deny the role of luck, and they not only take the credit for all they have accomplished. They often claim that they have gotten where they are in spite of circumstance and others. They have had to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps out of the muck into which they were placed in this world.

Truly, many people are born into disadvantageous circumstances. Many have great obstacles to overcome. But there is something fundamentally dishonest in the claim by anyone to have made good all on their own. With everything else each of us has been given along the way of life, we have also been given our very bodies, with all the mental and emotional and spiritual energies and resources that reside therein. In the biblical view, it is God who has made us, and not we ourselves. Even in a secular view, we must acknowledge that each of us comes into this world with the gift of a particular genetic inheritance that provides the fundamental possibilities for all that we may become. If some attain more that others, it is not only because of effort or circumstance, it is also because of the inherently greater possibilities with which they came into this world. In Christian perspective, all that we are given in life, including the possibilities of our genetic inheritance, is to be understood in terms of the grace of God.

Related to the idea of the self-made person is the idea of the self-sufficient individual. According to Barbara Streisand, "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." Not everyone seems to agree. Some seem to think that the best thing in life, the goal to strive for and attain, is to be totally independent. The self-sufficient individual does not need to depend on other people, who are notoriously unreliable. The self-sufficient individual can take pride in all that he or she is able to master and control. True, some people are able to go about their lives without the direct intervention or assistance of others. They have learned how to work alone, play alone, eat alone, secure the necessities of life alone. Except that they could not do any of these things if the world were not so constituted by other human beings as to make available to them the necessities of life. There is hardly anything that any of us do, or could do, that does not depend upon the contributions of others to our existence. In the words of Paul to the Romans, "individually we are members one of another" [Romans 12:5].

Pieter Kiwiet-Pantaleoni, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, reports that he and his family were on their way to a cabin in the Catskill Mountains when they passed a restaurant in a small town. The sign outside the restaurant read, "Eat here or we'll both starve" ["The Belfry", August 31, 1998]. Perhaps that sign expresses better than anything else I can say a basic ingredient of humility: The recognition that we cannot make it on our own. Life is given to us in relationships of interdependency. To deny the importance of these relationships, to discount those ways in which we are constantly dependent upon others, is arrogance and pride. The single, solitary individual, making his way heroically through this world on his own, in spite of the indifference of nature or the neglect of family or the hostility of society is not only a myth, but a fundamentally false myth. To walk humbly through this world requires us to acknowledge constantly our indebtedness toward others because of our dependence upon them.

Robert Bellah uses the term "ontological individualism" to describe the idea that the individual is the only firm reality. It is the view that each individual exists prior to society, which is a derivative, secondary reality. This ontological individualism is a sociological way of denoting what I have been describing as the view of the individual as original, self-made or self-sufficient. This is a cultural myth, a false cultural myth of our time.

Almost 400 years ago, poet John Donne penned these insightful words about our narrowing sense of self:

'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;

All just supply, and all relation:

Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,

For every man alone thinks he hath got

To be a phoenix, and that there can be

None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

["An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary"]

"To be a phoenix," that is, to be an utterly unique creature, of which only one can exist at any time, expressed Donne's sense of the dissolution of relationships, the exaltation of the individual. Bellah sees in this poem a prescience regarding the fragmenting course our lives increasingly have taken. Our culture celebrates such ontological individualism, while values like humility and kindness are neglected. In many respects we take pride in ourselves as individuals, and are wary of those who speak to us of dependency and mutual obligation. To walk humbly is, in our contemporary social and cultural situation, to walk uphill against the wind.

Of all the relationships that define our existence, and upon which we necessarily depend, there is one that humility recognizes above all. That is, of course, our relationship to God. To be humble is to know that we are human beings, and not God. Whatever we take to be the perfections of God, these are not our perfections. God may be all-knowing, but we are not. God may be all-loving, but we are not. God may hold the destiny of the future, but we do not. As human beings, we may surely frustrate the purposes and work of God. As human beings, however, we surely cannot accomplish those purposes and that work on our own. To walk humbly with God is to cooperate with what God is doing in the world, but it is no substitute. The arrogance and pride of humanity is never more evident that when we attempt to make ourselves the final measure of all things, and the final arbiters of human destiny.

To walk with God requires a commitment of body and mind and will. It is an act of faithfulness. To walk humbly is a spiritual grace. It is an act of acceptance and gratitude and trust. We have not made ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot even make ourselves happy, or give ourselves the sense of fulfillment, or secure for ourselves the fruits and blessings of our labors. All is gift. All is given in relationship. All belongs to what theologian Paul Tillich called "the structure of grace in history." All is shared in community. All comes to us as we walk humbly in the company of God. AMEN.