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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Pursuing Obscurity: A Call to Pastoral Humility

Mike Phay

Beautiful things don't ask for attention.

Pastor / Affiliate Professor
December 4, 2017

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious, as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

In the 2013 Ben Stiller comedy film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the title protagonist embarks on a worldwide search to find eccentric photojournalist Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). Walter finally catches up with O’Connell in the upper Himalayas, where the globe-hopping photographer is stalking the elusive snow leopard. Motioning Walter—who has uncharacteristically pushed himself far beyond the borders of his comfortable, predictable, daydreaming life in New York City—to take a load off, Sean describes his quarry:

“They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. It never lets itself be seen.”

He continues, profoundly: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

A few lines later, Sean ambiguously refers to Walter himself as a “ghost cat,” calling attention to the nondescript beauty of an ordinary guy faithfully doing his job day after day, year after year. Pursuing excellence without calling undue attention to himself.

Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.

This is, of course, not how our culture functions. The idea that there is a shyness—a modesty—to beauty is antithetical to our society’s understanding of beauty. Isn’t it the beautiful things and beautiful people that constantly vie for our attention? Whether on the best and most expensive big screen TV, the magazine racks in the checkout line, the pop-up ads on the internet, or in the sports car in the driveway of the designer home, or the growing ubiquity of CrossFit “boxes,” it seems that beauty is always front and center, constantly demanding our attention. Beauty seems to be defined by calling attention to itself.

Pastoral Narcissism

Our culture parades and flaunts its version of beauty. It vies for it and pays for it. It worships beauty—or at least a caricature of it. To be beautiful is to deserve the spotlight; to demand attention. Youth, physical fitness, personal charisma, humor, charm, and popularity are imbued with such power that they shape an understanding of beauty that—like moths attracted to the light—we can’t help but be drawn to. To be a celebrity is to be recognized as a “beautiful one” and to leverage that beauty for reward.

This kind of attention seeking is not, of course, relegated to the marketplace. It has infiltrated the church and especially the ranks of the pastorate. Sadly, much like ancient Israel—who constantly allowed the shrines of foreign gods to invade the land—the church has fallen prey to the overwhelming siren call of this cult of beauty. Pastors are not immune to this kind of narcissism.

In this life, even the most humble will never fully be free from the human impetus towards pride. Pastors are no exception, and to make matters worse, there are peculiar temptations toward pride that seem to be unique to the pastoral vocation. The proximity of pastoral work to things that are holy—God’s people, God’s Word, the sacraments—brings with it an especially surreptitious form of pride. “It is a terrible thing,” C.S. Lewis observed of pride, “that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life.”

It is difficult for those who are publicly identified as God’s servants to separate themselves from what Henri Nouwen called “a success-oriented world.” Outward definitions of success line up so neatly with the inward temptations to receive applause, adulation, and affirmation. Put a man in any place to receive applause—on a stage, a platform or a podium; behind any pulpit or microphone—and resistance to ego-stroking is (nearly) futile. Suddenly, even we servants of the church no longer see an incongruity between our pastoral vocation and the potential for prominence among the ranks of the beautiful. As a result, we end up exalting our own beauty and brilliance.

Although celebrity pastors are not necessarily a new phenomenon—Martin Luther, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon were all well-known in their time—the past five decades of globalization have seen their rapid multiplication. This in turn has fueled a cult of personality and a culture of celebrity among the rank and file of pastors that is endangering the pastoral vocation.

In their essence, these temptations to mimic the surrounding culture find their modern clerical expression evidenced in our metrics of success: Dollars, followers, and platform. Success is synonymous with numerical growth: whether it be church attendance, giving, blog traffic, Twitter followers, book sales, social media clout, speaking gigs, or the breadth of one’s national or international influence. ‘Good’ pastors—so the narrative goes—are those that are growing along these lines.

Strategies for gaining this kind of success are legion and are mostly tied to our cultural understanding of beauty. In other words, the more beautiful—i.e., charismatic and winsome—a pastor, the bigger the numbers he or she will be able to produce. Pastors are told—either implicitly or explicitly, sometimes by the church and always by the world—that they must not only cultivate beauty but also flaunt their beauty in order to achieve success. The need for any successful pastor is to gain a voice—a platform—in order to amplify and project their charisma, intelligence, beauty, and charm beyond the scope of the local congregation and into the broader world.

Bonhoeffer’s Dichotomy

Observing this temptation for pastors to focus on the dispersion of their own beauty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely noted over 70 years ago that “the church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.” Bonhoeffer’s dichotomy is helpful in bringing light to the crisis for pastors in understanding and living out their vocation. All of us who call ourselves pastors are in constant danger of abandoning our vocation to be faithful servants of Jesus and His church in order to pursue our own brilliance.

Beautiful things do not ask for attention because they do not need to ask for attention. And this in itself is the source of their beauty.

Eugene Peterson has been reminding pastors for several decades that our “responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.” In other words, pastors inhabit a vocation that requires them to regularly call attention to beauty. But it is never their own beauty to which they are to draw attention.

When pastors call attention to their own beauty, they tread on dangerous ground, shrinking and limiting the boundaries of reality, and thus their sense of beauty. They experience what Augustine labeled the ‘inward curvature of the soul’, causing them to lose the ability to see beyond themselves. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the smallest package in the world is a man wrapped up in himself.

Abandoning a truly others-focused vocation to pursue one’s own advancement in the name of ‘ministry influence’ is not only to steal God’s glory, it is also to short-change the flock with whom a pastor has been entrusted, and to shackle and constrain themselves in a miniature, self-defining universe. Brilliant personalities are not necessarily the problem for the health of vocational ministry; but if they are everything, then we have a significant problem.

Beautiful Humility

Perhaps we can find our way back to freedom in the pastoral vocation by bringing light to the obvious cultural misunderstanding of beauty that has become entirely disconnected from Beauty. Perhaps these things that are crying out for attention—things that we call beautiful—are not actually beautiful at all. Perhaps Beauty is found in the unexpected behavior of not asking for attention. Perhaps the lack of attention-seeking is what makes a thing beautiful.

Beautiful things do not ask for attention because they do not need to ask for attention. And this in itself is the source of their beauty. In other words, humble things are beautiful things. And beautiful things are humble things.

Beauty can be understood as a litmus test by which we properly estimate the value of things, and give them proper esteem, based on their conformity to an objective standard. Far from being merely in the eye of the beholder, Beauty makes itself known in objectively quantifiable ways such as balance, harmony, symmetry, and proportionality. Beauty is found, then, in the appropriate weighing, the correct balancing, and the right relationships between things in the world.

We might think of humility as a similar kind of litmus test, but with regards to how we view and understand ourselves. “Humility is,” according to Charles Spurgeon, “the proper estimate of oneself.” There is a proper weighing of the self that objectively measures one’s abilities, gifting, intelligence, character, and relationships, recognizing exactly what one is—starting with “creatureliness,” as an individual before its Maker—and moving on from there.

Humility sees the self as it really is: not too low, not too high. If humility is the proper estimate of oneself, then the wrong views of the self that are so prevalent in our society—evidenced in multiple kinds of ‘dysphoria’—actually result from pride. This is a lack of humility that refuses (or is unable) to see the world and the things in it as they really are. Many issues of brokenness and dysfunction in our culture can be connected back to this basic disconnection with the way things ought to be—that is, with a proper ordering of things—both in our estimation and in our affections.

Pride—what C.S. Lewis called “the essential vice, the utmost evil”—is the epitome of ugliness, or non-beauty. “Pride leads to every other vice,” Lewis goes on to say. “[I]t is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Pride begins by attempting to disorder and reorder the universe by raising itself above its station. It desires to be placed where it has never belonged, and in doing so relabels the contents of the world: calling good things evil and evil things good, autonomously declaring ugly things as beautiful. Pride is never content with its station, never happy with its lot. It demands more, like cancer (to use Lewis’s illustration): “it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”

Pride distorts reality because it suppresses the truth and exalts the lie (see Romans 1:18-25), enthroning that which is not God—namely, the self. Pride and disorder go hand in hand. The prideful soul, creating its own organizing principle, is in a constant state of disarray and dis-integration. No matter how ‘together’ it may seem, it is falling apart. As Isaiah cried out when in the presence of the One who alone could silence his pride: “Woe is me! For I am undone!” (Isaiah 6:5, KJV, emphasis added)

Just as pride is connected to disorder and ugliness, the Scriptures connect wholeness and holiness with Beauty (1 Chronicles 16:29; Psalm 29:2; 96:9; James 1:4; Ephesians 5:26-27). There is such a thing as a beautiful character. And just as pride is the ‘essential vice,’ its opposite—humility—is the ‘essential virtue’. It is the foundation of a beautiful character; the cog that holds all of the gears together; the hub that connects the spokes and offers stability to the wheel. Humility is the starting point for returning things to their proper places. The re-integrating of a broken life and a broken world begins with “the proper estimate of oneself.” Humility is, therefore, the necessary first step in the pastors’ return to vocational integrity.

Transformational Beauty

But where do we learn humility? Elaine Scarry, professor of Aesthetics at Harvard University, writes that “beauty is a starting place for education,” and I would argue that an education in humility begins with looking at Beauty. The discovery, observation, and contemplation of Beauty is, I believe, a divine calibrator for the Real. It seems to have been put in the world to guide us toward truth, and in turn, to bring us to wholeness. This begins with confronting us with our own tendency toward error—that is, our fallenness, pride, sin, and brokenness. Again, Beauty is the proper ordering of things—in harmony, symmetry, balance, and proportion—but Beauty also has the ability to bring disordered things into order.  

As Scarry writes in her penetrating monograph, On Beauty and Being Just:

The experience of ‘being in error’ so inevitably accompanies the perception of beauty that it begins to seem one of its abiding structural features. On the one hand, something beautiful—a blossom, a friend, a poem, a sky—makes a clear and self-evident appearance before one…The beauty of the thing at once fills the perceiver with a sense of conviction about that beauty, a wordless certainty…On the other hand, the act of perceiving that seemingly self-evident beauty has a built-in liability to self-correction and self-adjustment, so much so that it appears to be a key element in whatever beauty is.

This idea finds its scriptural echo in the words of Paul, that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV, emphasis added). Beauty—in this instance, God’s own Beauty, or glory—convicts and transforms. It does the work of reorganizing the disordered soul, putting it in its place, and imbuing it with its own Beauty, or glory.

The Beauty of Humility in Philippians 2

So we learn humility by first looking at Beauty—by gazing at the Beautiful One, Jesus Christ. As Andrew Murray encouraged us in his classic work Humility: Study the Humility of Jesus.

Philippians 2:3-8 is our most instructive text for contemplating the peculiar Beauty that is humility, and subsequently finding a path back to our pastoral vocation:

3Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Change Your Mind (v. 5)

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” Basic transformation begins with having one’s mind changed. Believers have been given the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), and are commanded to constantly pursue this new mind (see Romans 12:2). It takes the careful, thoughtful, intentional looking at Jesus in order to have one’s mind, and life, transformed and conformed to His. This is a beholding of Beauty—the contemplation of true humility—found in an prayerful immersion in the Word of God. Pastors—always expected to be the spiritual experts of a community—would do well to admit that we don’t know everything and are probably not the most humble people in the room. We must first be calling our own attention to Jesus if we are to call others to Him as well.

Put on the Humble Nature of God (v. 6)

The meaning of Philippians 2:6 has been widely debated, but it seems that it is best translated with the preposition in a causal (‘because’) rather than a concessive (‘though’) way: “precisely because he was in the form of God he did not regard this equality with God as something to be used for his own advantage.” In other words, it is Jesus’s divine nature that is the driver of His self-giving, humble love. His very nature is to give of Himself, rather than take advantage of His divine worth and position. Humility, then, is the very nature of God. Because He has a perfectly accurate estimation of Himself, God has no need to grasp for power or advantage. All that He has cannot be taken away from Him, but it can be freely given. This is beautiful humility, and for pastors to pursue humility is to pursue the imitatio Christi—the imitation of Christ. Pursuing humility does not move us away from significance; on the contrary, it moves us towards God.

Forsake Graspiness (v. 6)

The nature of pride is to desperately grasp at things that do not belong to it. The irony in this verse is that Jesus didn’t grasp at the things that rightfully belonged to Him. We can learn a lot from this: God in His sovereignty has given each person everything that they need. We need grasp at nothing, for all that is necessary is provided freely and cannot be taken away. The things for which we grasp are generally the things that are toxic for the human soul, because they are things that haven’t been given by God. There is a contentment—that pastors must diligently pursue—that trusts God’s sovereign will for every aspect of life. A contentment with the gifts and calling of God. “We have nothing but what we receive.” Nothing more, nothing less.

Serve Jesus and the Brethren (vv. 3-4, 7)

Humility results in high regard for others and an attendant service of them. It counts others as better, considering their needs as on par or above the needs of the self. Humility necessarily results in outward, downward action: purposefully and intentionally taking the lowest place; actively serving; thoughtfully attending to the needs of others. As Bonhoeffer so eloquently reminds us, the pastoral vocation is to be “faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.”

Reclaiming the Pastoral Vocation

As has already been discussed, pastors “are abandoning their posts, their calling”—what I have called the pastoral vocation. Pastors no longer have a collegial grasp of what a pastor is and what a pastor is for. We have been detached from the ends, and have grasped at straws seeking to understand the means of pastoral work. Because we don’t know what true success is, we’ve taken our identity and vocation from the world and have gotten ourselves off-track.

True shepherding requires the intentional pursuit of messy people—not the glamorous or beautiful people.

Because we don’t have a firm grasp on either of these important definitions—pastoral vocation and pastoral success—we will believe and live in whatever the world tells us. “But if I, even for a moment,” Peterson’s prophetic voice calls out, “accept my culture’s definition of me, I am rendered harmless.” In the end, this capitulation tends towards an enslavement to our own desires and the expectations of those around us. Until we can crucify this in ourselves, we cannot rightly function as good pastors. We need help, and we need to be ruthless in the crucifixion of our pride—for the sake of the flock, and for the sake of our own souls.

So how do pastors reclaim their vocation, and begin to make a God-defined pursuit of success? Keeping Philippians 2 as our grounding, we can find the clarifying help that we need in Peter’s short, instructional phrase for elders:  “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2).

“Shepherd the flock”

Pastors are placed in the role of shepherds and given the tasks of nurturing, teaching, and protecting the flock. Working with sheep is dirty, menial, thankless work. Rather than being a place where prideful personalities—brilliant or otherwise—will flourish, flocks are needy, noisy, and messy. As Jared C. Wilson has written in his important book, The Pastor’s Justification, “For a pastor to become a man who seeks humility, he will need to stay on the front lines of messy ministry. He will continually seek to get in over his head with people in need.” True shepherding requires the intentional pursuit of messy people—not the glamorous or beautiful people.

In order to shepherd as God would direct, pastors must rediscover and reclaim this primary vocational identity. We must abandon all of the job descriptions that are handed to us and easily adopted that center us around dollars, followers, and platform. This will take an unusually honest assessment of ourselves, our ministries, our time, and our energy—and will necessarily include heavy doses of confession and repentance. We could begin by confessing our desire to be known, to be significant, to be affirmed, and to be applauded. Only then will we be able to allow Jesus to crucify these desires, becoming content with being known by Him, counted as His children, and affirmed by Him alone.

“The flock of God”

Peter makes it clear that the flock—the local church—does not belong to the pastor. It is God’s. The first implication of this reality is that we do not ultimately answer to the church, but to her Lord. Secondly, pastors must constantly confess their particular propensity to take personal possession of that which does not belong to them. We must confess our desire to control and dictate and demand. We must actively resist language that claims personal ownership, like “my” church of which I’m “the” pastor. It takes practice—and a backbone, because we will meet resistance—to ask people to call you by your first name and drop the titles that we often cherish. Does this encourage a lack of respect in a congregation? Perhaps, but most of us probably need to be brought down a notch anyway. Remember: pastors are servants and stewards, not owners or sovereigns.

“That is among you”

This is the phrase that powerfully places God-given boundaries around a pastor’s ambition. Because of the public nature of pastoral “celebrities,” lesser-known, obscure pastors are often tempted to desire greater things for themselves than have been given them. They desire to live outside of their God-given bounds. Pastors must—with a faith that flows from humility—trust in the boundaries that God has set (Acts 17:26).

Pastors are called to a particular people in a particular place at a particular time.

Brilliant personalities are often drawn beyond their own particular place and tempted to focus on the global rather than the local. Global influence is not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s not call it pastoring. The threat of globalization to pastoral vocation is that it allows for disembodied influence. It tempts pastors to “pastor” in a non-localized way, lifting them out of the dual realities of place and time and their attendant relationships and accountability. It is a self-exalted detachment from space and time—an attempt to break into the eternal, much like the architects of that fateful tower on the plains of Shinar. The pursuit of global influence—often driven by the desire to make a name for oneself—detaches a pastor from the earthly, the human, and the real. It undercuts the humility that can naturally be found close to the ground. When eyes are lifted above and beyond, it is easy to miss the Beauty that is close at hand.

Some of the greatest saints I know are those who have faithfully served in obscurity for a lifetime: in little-known places, with very ordinary people, and very little fanfare or applause.

But people—that is, real people who inhabit place and time—don’t need brilliant personalities from whom they are disconnected. Real people need shepherds who know and love them in the towns and businesses and schools and homes where they live. In an age of increasing disconnection and isolation, where “relationship” is replaced with “social” and “place” is replaced with “media,” brilliant personalities are in danger of finding themselves creating brands that are wrapped around their egos, removing them from the real lives of people and imprisoning them to the whims of a faceless mob.

Faithful servants of the brethren, on the other hand, anchor themselves in place and time. They attach themselves to a piece of earth and serve and love the people who inhabit it. Contrary to our grandiose assumptions, being ‘grounded’ is actually a source of freedom. It is a way to live within one’s limits and to actively recognize their place as creatures. Living in community with real people is an act of submission—not only to God, but to the community with which He has gifted us.

As counter-cultural as it may sound, the wisest and most success-oriented move for pastors is to actively pursue obscurity. As Henri Nouwen so wisely wrote, based on his experiences living with mentally handicapped people: “The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.” Some of the greatest saints I know are those who have faithfully served in obscurity for a lifetime: in little-known places, with very ordinary people, and very little fanfare or applause. Pastors might make a move toward obscurity by seeking out one or two of these saints to be their mentors. They will be humbled.

What Is a Successful Pastor?

What, then, is a successful pastor? The thrust of this article has been to argue that pastoral success lies not in the world’s definitions, but in faithfulness to a vocation, which is—as Bonhoeffer so eloquently elucidated for us—to be “faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.”

Faithfulness to a calling must be grounded in humility—a life lived trusting that whatever and wherever a pastor has been called is enough. This kind of humility brings freedom, and unless pastors are able to let go of all of these other things, true freedom will be elusive. Anchored in humility, every personality—“brilliant,” “average,” or “subpar”—finds freedom to serve faithfully: both Jesus and the brethren.

This is a call, then, to regain perspective: to call beautiful things beautiful and good things good. To regain a correct understanding of who we are and our calling as pastors. To reclaim the beauty of our vocation by re-organizing and reordering our worlds, putting things—especially our own egos—back in their proper places. There is a different vocational trajectory towards Beauty that we must take—and it’s downward, not upward.

Ultimately, my concern is for pastoral freedom: the freedom to live out a vocation detached from the tyranny of the culture and the tyranny of our pride. Freedom comes when our eyes are graciously refocused on Beauty, we are given true perspective, and we are changed into the beautiful pastors that God would desire for us to be. Pastors who are much like ghost cats: because beautiful things don’t ask for attention.