Our reading from Second Corinthians today is one of my favorite pieces of Scripture. I can’t tell you how often I have given it as a penance for someone in confession. It is so full of hope! It is such a radical invitation to think differently!
Just before these verses in Second Corinthians St. Paul has been telling us here about his extraordinary mystical experiences. Now he picks up with his line about the thorn in the flesh to keep him humble: a mysterious ailment, or vicious experience of opposition, or some kind of struggle that left him begging the Lord to take it away.
But the Lord’s answer to his request was a firm, “No.” The Lord further says to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
Oh, what an insight into understanding that God does indeed sometimes say “No” to our requests! This is a powerful Scripture for someone who says that God has not heard their prayers. Not so! God’s answer may be, “Not yet,” or a flat out, “No.”
Here is where the virtue of humility needs to come into play. In humility we must remember that we cannot think that God must do what we tell Him to do. After all, He is God. We are not.
This takes humility. So what is humility? True humility, the humility of Jesus, ultimately leads to the point where we could say with St. Paul that we are content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, and persecutions. Who in his right mind would be content with these things?
There are phases or steps to becoming truly humble. No one is going to be full of himself and want to incur things like weakness, insults, hardships and persecutions. On the other hand, if we empty ourselves of self and become full of Christ, then we will do as Christ has done, and then suddenly, or not so suddenly, we will see negative things as not so negative.
Let’s begin with baby steps into humility. Assuming we are at least of the age of reason, we begin to learn humility when we think this way: not for all the money in the world, not for all the fame and honor possible, not for all the power I could have, would I ever consent to do anything to break off my relationship with God. This takes humility because most people want to dicker with God on what is permissible and what is not. The more our rearing makes us think we are entitled to everything we have or could have, the more we are reared in stoking the flames of a good self-esteem, no matter what we do, the less we will see the need for humility. The less we will see that anything could actually be forbidden to us. The less we will think that there just might be things we do that, in fact, alienate us from God. We call these choices, actions and decisions mortal sins.
So, the first step into humility says that there is no way on earth that I will ever do that. This step is essential for salvation. If we fail in this first kind of humility, it's time to go to confession!
The second phase of humility is where my love of the Lord has grown so much that I now realize that I don’t want even to do the least thing against God’s will. I want to think and act as Christ does. Therefore, I don’t want to commit even a venial sin.
Now the third phase of humility is the one Paul talks about when he says he is content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, and persecutions.
Being content with hardships and weakness and insults seems masochistic, doesn't it? So, since God obviously doesn't want to be masochistic, then there must be something else in this more perfect form of humility, don't you think? What would that be?
Try this on for size and see what this does for you:
If my love for the Lord has grown so much, if the truth of the Incarnation dawns on me, then I see God in other people. I especially see God in suffering people. It's as if Jesus has come back to earth and is on the other side of town, appearing in the form of someone who is weak, someone who is insulted, someone who is facing tremendous hardships, in someone who is being persecuted. And because I love Him, I want to be where He is. And I don’t care what anyone thinks of my preference for the outcast.
I no longer want to be counted among the beautiful set, I no longer want to be numbered among the powerful or influential or wealthy or popular. No, I now have come to see how vapid things like fame and wealth and power are, and now I want to identify with the lost, the confused, the sinner, the helpless, the forgotten, the very ones Jesus promises to be with. And maybe, just maybe, He has chosen me to be His presence to those who are most in need of His mercy. This is what true humility looks like.