Humbleness of Mind

Rethinking my mind

I wake up in the morning and look at the wall closest to my bed. Stuck to the wall is a jumbo sized post-it note, the kind you find in conference rooms and professional development meetings. On the note I’ve handwritten a chunk of words from the Bible. They are large enough to read from wherever I am in the room. Here they are:

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.

Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.

It is a section taken from the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians attributed to Paul, reprinted here from the King James translation (I tend to enjoy the older language). I was first turned on to this section through a talk by Dallas Willard. His focus, and mine at the time, was an understanding of human personality. The hiddenness of my life with Christ was the first thing that caught my attention. Since then, I’ve been learning to meditate on the entire passage. Many other things have come to light for me as I’ve thought about these words. The one that I’d like to share today is the simple phrase, “humbleness of mind.”

It’s buried in the list of things followers of Jesus are encouraged to “put on.” I sometimes zone out when reading lists, and likely would have missed this had I not been thinking about my thinking (that is, my mind). Translated in other versions as lowliness, humbleness of mind jumped out at me as I read this list of character traits. I’ve been thinking about what this really means, and what my own predisposition is.

Beginning at a very young age, I was told that I was smart. I was encouraged in school through “gifted and talented” programs, skipped a grade, and ended up in the smart kid’s high school. I did all the things expected of a “smart kid” – the tests, the special projects, the extra work, and the extracurricular activities – and I excelled at most of them. I learned to trust the sharpness of my mind, and I trained for speed. I cultivated a kind of assurance that I knew how to solve problems. If I didn’t know how to right away, I could find out. Either way, solutions would come quickly. That was my training: See the problem, find the solution. Do it fast. Be acknowledged, Get the prize. Win the race of the minds.

I’ve been rethinking this. It began when I started catching myself being wrong. The more accurate picture is me running into brick walls – thinking I was right. I had written an entire story in my mind, and hadn’t checked in with reality enough to respond accordingly. I thought the momentum of my own story would carry me through. That I was right enough. The brick wall of reality showed up in a big way. My judgement was off, and my mind wouldn’t accept it until I got hurt. Thank goodness for the brick wall.

The assurance and speed of action I had trained for were failing me. The distance between my thoughts and my actions was small. Too small. My thoughts were backed by a false confidence in my own thinking. Any contradictory information was simply glanced at or passed by, and hardly taken in. Little of this was conscious. I was so sure about my skill of observation, intuition, and critical thinking, that I just kept going. This momentum was bolstered by my training in improvisation in tap dance. That training helped me make a multitude of confident choices in a very small amount of time, in front of a lot of people, and not fall, literally. Well, at least most of the time. The only thing that kept me from coming off as a totally insensitive prick in most situations was the idea that improvisation is play, and while there are rules and desires of achievement, play shouldn’t be taken so seriously as to cause harm. Also, when I had the awareness of a situation in which either I or someone else would be hurt, I tended to take on the pain myself. These last two ideas simply prevented me from seeing the destructive undercurrent of my habits of thought sooner.

Confidence in choice-making is good. But confidence in my own mind has sent me down some destructive paths.

It can grow into a trust in oneself for outcomes. Of course, there is immense effort that I have put forward in my work and life, to do good work and become the kind of person I would like to be. The outcomes of that effort, however, is not something that I have ultimate control over. I cannot trust myself for them. This is especially true as I continue to learn how to live my life primarily with God (not in or for or by).

It can set up unnecessary battles with others. My knowledge of rightness can impede my ability to be with people. I can grow antagonistic, wanting to prove my rightness at every opportunity. I can become arrogant, tired of everyone else’s inability to see what is really happening. Every conversation becomes a battle - an opportunity to prove my rightness. As I am unable to be with more and more people, I land in a space, alone. In this space, my identity as a person who knows what is right, is the only thing keeping me company.

It can grow into delusions of grandeur. The move from trusting my own mind to having my identity wrapped up in that trust is small and carries dramatic consequences. If I trust my own ability to make the “right” choice, I can easily become “right.” One that shift occurs, there is nothing that stands in my way of acting on any thought that enters my mind. There is no person, no law, no moral code that I wouldn’t be able to think my way around to maintain my rightness. I make my own rules and live my life my own way.

That is until I hit the brick wall. The brick wall that I hit was the reality of a God who cared more about the kind of person I was becoming than anything else. Even things I thought were exceptionally valuable, like the speed and trustworthiness of my mind. Do I still use my mind? Yes. Does it still work quickly? Yes. But now I don’t think of the most elegant or quickest solution to every problem I see. I work interactively with God to see and hear what He needs me to know about the situations I find myself in. I continually ask Him questions, as a child might.

What are we working on today?

What will you teach me today?

Where are we going today?

Who should I be in touch with today?

And many others…

My mind is a tool in my relationship with God and the world around me. It is not what I trust. It is not what I rest upon. It is not what I rely on.

The character of humbleness of mind can allow for a kind of freedom of ideas. In one’s own mind, the good ones can stay, and the bad ones can leave. The good ones can be celebrated in gratitude. The bad ones can leave without a trace of condemnation. None need to be acted upon, until observed to be good in themselves, and good for the time and context. There can be an ease and lightness in the curation of our thoughts as we don’t have to prove our inherent worth or worthiness through them.

In community, humbleness of mind allows for a similar freedom between people. The ideas that we share may be judged for what they are without puffing up or tearing down each other. We may find ourselves able to go deeper with those who resonate with similar ideas of reality, God, morals, etc. However, we can honor every human being for the wonder that they are, regardless of what we think of what they think.

Ultimately, we can set our relationships before being right. We can set our care for each other over proving that our minds are smarter or faster than each other’s. Further still, we can set our minds to the care of our relationships. We can begin to think and do, what we think is good with each other. We can learn from each other as we journey in this thinking.

Have a thought on this? Leave it in the comments.