Monday, November 12, 2007

In defense of praying for humility

So there's a proverb in the church, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes not, that says that you should not pray for humility because then you might get it. I remember missionaries in the MTC and in the mission field who would repeat this without any sense of irony at all as though they actually believed it. Yesterday it was repeated over the pulpit.

I have a problem with that.

It reminds me of Augustine's prayer (Give me chastity, but not yet!). It's a rather selfish attitude, really. It's an attitude of fear, fear of being humbled. But what if what you really need is humility? Then you shouldn't pray for it because being humbled might be hard? Doesn't all repentance have the same potential to be hard? If I pray for charity, what's to say that I won't have to go through something difficult to learn charity? Why is a plea for humility any more susceptible to hard answers than a plea for any other trait of a Christian life? What if pride is the reason I have a hard time learning charity? Should I then not pray for charity because I might have to be humbled to get it?

And it takes a odd view about what it means to be humbled. It assumes that being compelled to be humble is something that will only happen to you if you pray for it. That ignores reality. Most people in the world live lives that make our North American lifestyle look like the height of luxury. Alma said this:

it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble. And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved. (Alma 32:12-13)

I find it interesting that Alma uses the word necessarily, like it was some incontrovertible decree. Is it likely that the people Alma was talking to had asked to be humbled? Some of them, maybe, but not all. (See verse 25). It happened to them anyway. Do we really think that the majority of the world's population that lives in "exceeding poverty" got where they are because they made the dumb mistake of praying for humility? How arrogant is it to think that not asking for humility is going to stop anyone from being "necessarily brought to be humble"?

Compulsion to humility is not a bad thing. Why do we talk about it like it is? Alma calls it a blessing. Why in the world would be ever tell anyone not to seek repentance? But isn't that essentially what we do when we repeat the maxim: don't pray for humility?

But telling someone not to pray for humility goes beyond just being afraid of being compelled to be humble. It actually increases the need to be compelled to be humble. Alma also said this:

And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word? Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed—yea, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty. Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble. (Alma 32:14-15)

What does it mean to humble oneself? If it is done sincerely, isn't a prayer for humility an act of humbling oneself? If so, then doesn't refusing to pray for humility actually make me more likely to have to be compelled to be humble? Not only is it selfish, it is ultimately self-defeating. It brings on the very consequences it sulkily seeks to avoid.

And given the interrelation between humility and charity, teaching that we should not pray for humility runs the risk of directly naysaying one of the most sublime injunctions of the Christian life:

pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. (Moroni 7:48)

Those of use who claim to understand and believe the Book of Mormon should be the last people to breathe a discouraging word about praying for humility.


The Shark said...

I've always thought it was more tongue-in-cheek when I've heard it, but I agree with your post. In fact, as I read the first paragraph I thought to myself that anyone who sincerely refuses to pray for humility is someone who is in need of being compelled.

In any case, President Benson stated that the Lord WILL have a humble people, whether they choose to be or are compelled. Praying for humility is definitely proactive and would prove more pleasant than being chastized for laziness.

And who's to say that receiving humility from the Lord is necessarily undesirable? Isn't it merciful of the Lord to bring us situations in which we can develop more Christlike attributes? Didn't Peter say that our trials are worth more than gold? I think the sooner we can learn to ask for learning situations, and thank the Lord for them, the happier we will be and the less likely we will be to want to find someone to blame for our problems. I know that life can be very hard, but I have always believed that we can be happy in an overall sense if we have the correct attitude and mindset towards life, ourselves, and other people.

As a sidenote, I'd like to add that being "compelled" doesn't mean being forced, as "God will force no man to Heaven," but rather I believe it implies being put in a situation where the only clear way to deal with it is by choosing to follow the Lord, even though you certainly could stick to your selfish ways and see what Hell on Earth is like.

Cabeza said...

JKC- Amen and amen. I agree completely with your post, though I must admit that there have been times in my life where I have been "afraid" (for lack of a better word) to pray for humility. I think that false maxim just worked itself into my system. We should change our attitudes and remind ourselves of the words of Peter, Alma, Mormon, and others who in fact direct us to seek humility.

Shark- I actually had a zone leader on my mission tell me very seriously to never pray for humility. There was another elder who refused to read The Miracle of Forgiveness because he was afraid of how it might make him feel. I said, "If it makes you feel guilty, then I guess that means you need to repent, so it could only be a good thing if you read it, right?" The elder seemed to be comfortable where he was at; perhaps he was praying Augustine's prayer. Oh, and please provide references to the quotations you alluded to. I was curious about the President Benson bit and Peter's trials scripture. Oh, and it took me like an hour to remember that that hymn starts out "Know this that every soul is free..." That last one is just me being stupid, I guess...

JKC said...


That's what I'm talking about. If you stop and think about it, then you realize that it can't possibly be anything more than a joke. But the scary thing is, sometimes we don't stop and think about it, and sometimes if you tell or hear a joke enough, you actually start believing it.

The Benson quote is from his 1989 April conference talk Beware of Pride.

The Peter quote is 1 Peter 1:7.

apyknowzitall said...

I had to laugh at myself while reading this because when I was becoming active again in the church, I prayed specifically for humility and the next day I received an unplanned bill in the mail. Amazed at how fast my prayers were answered, I prayed for patience and on Sunday I received a call to be the Sunbeam teacher.

I agree with what JKC said. I would much rather be willing to pray humbly often than not to be humble and wait for any consequence.

The Shark said...

I feel weird mentioning this, but the film "Evan Almighty" illustrates your comment pretty well, apyknowzitall.

I really didn't like the movie overall, but it had a couple funny parts, and it had a really good message that Morgan Freeman spells out for us: when you pray for patience, are you going to be suddenly made patient, or are you going to be given opportunities to develop and practice patience? If you pray for humility, will you suddenly be humble, or will you be given circumstances in which you can develop and practice being humble?

I thought it had a very important, thought-provoking message, though the story itself was lacking.

JKC said...

Actually, shark, you raise an interesting question with the Evan Almighty reference. I haven't seen the movie myself, so I can't comment on it, but the question you ask is interesting:

"If you pray for humility, will you suddenly be humble, or will you be given circumstances in which you can develop and practice being humble?"

My first reaction is to say that it is the latter. But I think there's more to it than that. After all, if we take the atonement and grace seriously, God is more than just a coach to cheer for us as we struggle ourselves through trying and growing experiences.

Many of the characteristics of a Christian life are nothing more than the natural fruits of a forgiven and redeemed soul. The Atonement changes our very natures. I believe that if I ask God to change me into a humble person, and I ask in faith (which may require exertion), then he will not only give me tools to learn humility, but that he will change me. Or, to use an example that is perhaps more familiar, a priesthood blessing will sometimes result in miraculous healing, not just the availability of a doctor.

But sometimes, he only provides the tools. I guess what I'm saying is that we can't always know definitively that a prayer will be answered in this way or that way. We only know that it will be answered.

The Shark said...

I agree with you -- the Lord DOES change us and we are often blessed with attributes we need in a more direct way than just being given the tools.

I don't think that disqualifies the point of the film's message, though: either way, we're going to be given opportunities to put it into practice and either prove to ourselves that the Lord has made us better or that he is in the process of making us better.

apyknowzitall said...

All I really remember about that movie is it was a bit dull except for the confrontation he has with a bunch of guys in the alley, specifically when monkeys fly out of dudes butt. My dad and I had a good laugh. (Nothing like spoiling the spiritual tone of this post eh?)

apyknowzitall said...
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