Confessing Thorns: Spiritual Practices for Cultivating Humility (Part 2)

By Sharon Brown on July 28, 2016

Editor's Note: This is part two of a three-part series by Sharon Brown. Click here for part one.

"Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

In my previous post, I invited reflection upon ways to cultivate humility by embracing our weaknesses as gifts of grace. Paul goes beyond accepting his weaknesses to boasting about them. What a counter-cultural practice! Our primary view of weakness is not typically one of celebration, rejoicing, and trust. Instead, we do everything we possibly can to conceal our flaws, to minimize our failures, to hide behind an "everything's perfect" mask.

Humility means coming into the light and declaring, 'See this weakness here?' This is where I'm despairing of my own strength and trusting God's. This is where I am most aware of my insufficiency and where I'm casting myself upon God's faithfulness. Rejoice with me as God reveals his glory here. Right here.

Such boasting takes practice and intentionality because our first response is often to look at our weaknesses as impediments to God's call.

Think of Moses at the burning bush, called by God to confront Pharaoh and demand that he set God's people free from captivity in Egypt. Moses doesn't immediately jump for joy at the idea. He doesn't say, "While I am completely aware of the insufficiency of my own resources—though I clearly see my own weakness and limits—I am nevertheless absolutely confident that you, O Lord, will be accomplishing your mighty purposes through me."

No. Moses says, "Who am I to go to Pharaoh?"

Even when God answers the question by saying, "This isn't about you, Moses. I will be with you," Moses goes on to give God a whole list of reasons why it's not a good idea, why he isn't the man for the job, until finally he bluntly exclaims, "Lord, just send someone else!"

There's a word for Moses' posture at the burning bush, a word I learned from my friend Rebecca DeYoung, author of "Glittering Vices." The word is pusillanimity.

Pusillanimity means "smallness of soul," faintheartedness.

Pusillanimity shrinks back in the face of challenge. The pusillanimous person sees only her own limits and insufficiency. She lives with a chronic sense of inadequacy, a "thinking less of herself" that some might mistake for humility.

But despair over one's own weaknesses and limits is not the same as humility.

Pusillanimity says "I can't."

Humility says "I can't. But God can."

Pusillanimity is self-focused. Self-protective. Self-absorbed. Afraid of failure. Afraid of being exposed and shamed as weak or imperfect. And so pusillanimity is rooted in pride.

If we are not convinced of God's love for us, God's faithfulness to us—if we are not at rest in the grace and power and trustworthiness of a good and generous God—we will either shrink back in fear, or we will seek to puff ourselves up through the pursuit of achievement, honor, status, possessions or any number of false gods that promise worth and security and significance.

That's why the foundation of our life with God must be built upon the character of God. We've got to be rooted and grounded in the height and depth, length and breadth of the love of God which has been poured out for us in Jesus Christ. We've got to be convinced that God is good, that God is for us, that God is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Humility sees both the self and God clearly. Humility acknowledges weaknesses and boasts in God's power.

Humility readily confesses that we have God's treasure in jars of clay so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. Humility says, Apart from God I can do nothing. But God loves me. He has called me by name. I am his. And therefore God is able to do far more abundantly than I can ask or imagine according to his power at work within me.

That is humility.

What God offers Moses at the burning bush is the remedy for pusillanimity: 'Get your eyes off your own limitations and weaknesses, Moses and trust my power.' And as Moses moves forward as the leader of God's people, we see his growth in humility, his growth in his confidence in God's power to accomplish God's plan. No matter what.

Meditate on God's Character

I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, Paul says, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

What about us? How confident are we in God's power? God's grace? God's love? God's faithfulness? Where do you fix your mind and heart to be reassured of who God is and who you are in Christ?

Meditating on the character, trustworthiness and love of God is an essential spiritual practice for cultivating humility. If pride is rooted in the desire for control, then humility is rooted in trust.

As a spiritual practice, consider ways to dwell with the Word. Consider Scripture texts that reveal who God is and that remind you he is trustworthy. Rehearse God's faithfulness to you—the times when you have seen God at work on your behalf, building up your faith, not just individually but in community.

Cultivate humility by remembering who God is and what God has done.

Confess Your Thorns to Others

As a further spiritual practice for cultivating humility, take a next step and choose a trustworthy friend to whom you can boldly confess your weaknesses. Naming our thorns to others is a way of experiencing God's grace in community, a way of moving past the paralysis of pusillanimity to the courage and freedom of humility.

To whom could you boast about God's power being made perfect in your weaknesses, and what might you say?

Category: Theology