Humility’s fierce grace

“I am a great Christian.”  — Donald Trump

“I am a sinner.”  — Pope Francis

Donald Trump, chagrined at his falling poll numbers in Iowa, where the Christian evangelical vote is huge, made an unusual appeal to those voters on Oct. 27:

“I am a great Christian — and I am,” he said. “I am. Remember that.”

In a 2013 interview published in America magazine, Pope Francis took a slightly different approach. In responding to the question, “Who is Jorge Maria Bergoglio?” he said: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

Understanding that one is a sinner is central to understanding one’s relationship with God, for it underscores God’s gratuitous, completely unearned, love for us, even more, his willingness to sacrifice his Son for our redemption. This awareness is key to receiving God’s great gifts of gratitude and humility: “Amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me.”

Sometimes this awareness can lead to scrupulosity and guilt, but these are not manifestations of humility but signs of a perverse pride — not even God can truly forgive us.

In the lives of the saints, we can see what true humility looks like, for as they grow in God’s grace, so the saints grow in awareness of their own sinfulness. It is as if in God’s Bright Light, one can see all the more clearly the stains and the blights, the scars and the deformities that pockmark us. Saints do not become more boastful. Rather, they become more humbled even as they grow in holiness.

Yet most of us shy away from recognition of our sinfulness. I remember being horrified when I discovered the bowdlerized lyrics that substituted “soul” for “wretch,” neutering the power of the verse. Yet this editing reflects the relentlessly positive business-speak world that now rules. We are not allowed any thoughts that are not empowering and uplifting.

Like the Catholic couple that hated the prayer in the Mass — “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” — because it was too negative, the modern temptation is not that we are too guilty to merit God’s love, but that we are too awesome not to be loved by God.

This is the other side of Christianity, the one that can turn skeptics off almost as quickly as the scrupulous and the guilt-ridden. That is, not the Good News of Jesus, but the Prosperity Gospel of television preachers attributing every win, every bonus check, every shiny new something to God’s reward for our faithfulness. It makes God our puppet, our get-out-of-jail-free card.

The old bumper sticker that proclaimed “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” exuded a kind of arrogance that we had a pass by virtue of our baptism. We follow the rules; we get the jewels.

Even the quite humble act of counting one’s blessings can subtly morph from gratitude to a bit of triumphalism: Amazing grace that blessed a great Christian like me.

The antidote to the capital sin of pride, of course, is humility. Humility, unfortunately, when just a veneer, is the most prideful act of all. And when it is not a veneer, it can hurt. The “Litany of Humility” written by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val — “From my desire of being esteemed, free me, Jesus” — is blasphemy for those who worship at the altar of positive thinking, yet it speaks so powerfully to our soul that wishes not be humbled or tamed even by God.

Humility is the fierce grace God offers all of us even when we are patting ourselves on the back for being great Christians.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s publisher.