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Humility and Joy

Robert C. Roberts


A philosopher's reflections on joy, envy, humility, and the call of the Christian to rejoice in the coming of God's kingdom.

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
May 24, 2019

Joy Small and Nasty

Judas went and conferred with the chief priests about how he might betray his Lord into their hands. And Luke (22:5) tells us that they rejoiced and agreed to give him money. Mark (15:10) explains that Pilate wanted to release Jesus because he knew that the chief priests had handed him over for crucifixion out of envy. The priests succeeded in rousing the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead, and no doubt rejoiced again. Their envy explains both their joy on these occasions and the action of plotting Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

Envy is painful, so how does it generate joy? Envy is a feeling we have toward rivals. We envy a rival when he seems to be getting the better of us. The competition is not friendly, though on the surface it may seem to be (sadly, we sometimes envy even our friends). We feel diminished or put down by the other’s success. We measure ourselves not against some absolute standard, but against the standards of our perceived competitors. ‘Diminished’ and ‘put down’ suggest that we are interested in being large and rising above, and in this context that means being larger than the rival, rising above him, or at least equaling him. And we’re frustrated because we seem to be moving in the other direction. He’s enlarging and rising, we’re shrinking and sinking.

Our impulse, if we’re envious, is to lower the rival. We’d like to see a bit more failure on his part. If we’re in a position to do so, we’ll put him down. If he’s a skater, maybe we’ll break his kneecap. If we can’t do anything about it, we’ll diminish him in thought. We’ll contemplate all his faults we can think of, with bitter delight and consolation.

Mark says the chief priests envied Jesus. They wanted to be big shots with the people, and Jesus was drawing bigger crowds and greater admiration. He threatened their power, so they wanted to kill him. Then along comes Judas with an offer, and their hearts grow glad. They want to put him down, and here’s the opportunity. This murderous joy arises from envy, and it’s about as nasty as joy can get.

All emotions are born out of our caring for one thing or another. The chief priests’ envy of Jesus seems to emanate from their love of being big shots. They like being looked up to by the people. They like the power of their position and the privileges that come with being chief priests. Let’s call it narcissistic personal importance. They like being important in the form of being admired, wielding power, and having privileges that make them “special.” Joy is the emotion we feel when our heart’s desire is satisfied. Jesus’ popularity was threatening the chief priests’ hearts’ desire, and now Judas has come with his offer to set things right. And their hearts are glad.

People whose minds are dominated by concern for their narcissistic personal importance impress us as small-minded. We say that their world is small, that they are wrapped up in themselves. The satisfactions of their heart’s desire are petty. This means that however intense their joys may be, they are small and petty joys. The murderous joy of the chief priests is not only as nasty and ugly as joy can get, but also as small as it can get.

Joy Large and Beautiful

At the end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus departs from his disciples into heaven. “And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24.52–53). N. T. Wright notes the oddness of the disciples’ rejoicing (!!) at their Lord’s departure.1 Didn’t they love their Lord? How could they rejoice in his departure from them? Wright explains: as Jews, they loved something bigger than their own private pleasure, even if that was pleasure in having their Lord physically close. It was in their cultural bloodstream, inherited from ages of oppression and waywardness, prophetic criticism and aspiration, worship and petition and reading scriptures, that they yearned for a transformation of the whole world under the sovereignty of God.

On the day of Jesus’ ascension, the disciples were rejoicing about the enthronement of Jesus. With Jesus on the throne at last, their prayer of “thy kingdom come,” could be fulfilled. The righteousness that makes you blessed if you yearn for it — “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” — was here to be tasted. This is a joy as deeply good as joy can be, and as wide as all of being. It’s a joy that looks far beyond the self in love. This is the joy with which we rejoice when our worship is at its most profound and real. This is a joy that enlarges and makes beautiful the mind and heart of him who rejoices.

Humility Liberates Large and Lovely Joy

Envy is just one of the vices that are built on the concern for narcissistic personal importance. It is not alone among the vices of the shrunken heart. Others in the family are vanity, arrogance, self-righteousness, conceit, snobbery, domination, and grandiosity. At their core, they are all the concern for narcissistic personal importance. They are all vices of personal smallness—smallness of mind, smallness of vision, smallness of action, smallness of world. The virtue of humility on the other hand, is a matter of being unconcerned with narcissistic personal importance. The person who is free from this concern is able to focus on good things. Her heart can be touched by them. She can rejoice in what is worthy to rejoice in

The call of the Christian life is to learn this most apposite delight, this large and beautiful joy. As we grow in our ability to taste it, the hunger for narcissistic importance dies away.

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