“whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
Everyone knows how sucky it feels to be humbled. It almost always begins with entitlement: You think you deserve something, but then it slips from your grasp, or someone else takes it from you. Then, what some would call an ancient “ticker” in your mind goes off. You just dropped in some kind of status, and resultingly, so did your serotonin.
Bitter defeat. Ripped off. Then someone rubs it in: “Sucks to suckkkkkk!!!”
The ideas of status and dominance or competence hierarchies have been floating around in my head for a little while, thanks in no small part to Jordan B. Peterson’s constantly referring to them. While I don’t necessarily like the idea that my happiness is tied to a subconscious status tracker hard-wired into my system, it sure seems like it’s just a part of us.
But if it’s a part of us, there must be something inherently good (or redeemable) about it.
Consider the fact that “status” and this tracker seems to have a lot to do with self-perception and not mere circumstance. That’s why the same social situations can devastate some but not even scathe others (though this could depend on your current serotonin level, too). It’s also why an insult from someone you don’t know or care about usually matters less than one from a close friend or respected mentor.
If our perception matters, then we can have some control over this subconscious and hard-wired system in our brains. And that’s huge.
It means I can affect my own health and happiness as I shift my cognitive paradigms. I can reframe and see myself or my life circumstances differently. Thus, indirectly, I can influence my own serotonin and experience of happiness.
Obviously, there are limitations. Some changes might require so much of an overhaul that you’d be lying to yourself if you embraced them. But perhaps, at the very least, it might make circumstances more manageable and more easily overcome.
I actually think this is one of the great powers of the Christian message. Even a murderer can be forgiven by God when God himself is taking care of the legal debts we owe Him. Instead of suppressing the memory of a committed evil, instead of justifying it by lies, instead of being crippled by the weight of such guilt, we can own our guilt, grieve our innocence, and accept that God loves and forgives even the murderous. What could be a devastating status loss can be buffered, and a meaningful, redemptive way forward can be found.
So what does this have to do with humbling ourselves? Let’s see that quote again:
“…whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
In a way, Jesus is speaking about entitlement. What happens when you’re entitled? If you get what you expect from entitlement, it might feel good, but it won’t feel as good as it could because you just think you deserve it. The “victory” is just normal. And when you “lose”, it feels all the worse. And if we take the rest of what Jesus says seriously, do we really ever deserve the good things we enjoy in this life?
But what happens when you have the reverse mindset? When you know you’ll be fine win or lose? What if we “expect” that we don’t deserve positions of status or various privileges, given that we’re broken and even evil? What happens when we are blessed with what we see as undeserved gifts?
Perhaps our true security and “status” that ensures decent serotonin or the like is more to do with how we understand ourselves and our place in this world. When we understand that life is a beautiful gift, undeserved and even ill-deserved, we’ll be happy for every bit we can get. When we are reminded that God is our creator who loves us and will see us through suffering, we are kept from devaluing ourselves as if we’re nobodies. It’s only in this balance that we find true and life-giving humility. This is the psychological power of the Christian Gospel. We are exalted when we find our humility. Happiness is a matter of reframing. Lose your entitlement, know your true place, and all of life is a joy giving gift.