Destructive self-importance

An enduring devotional work from the fourteenth century is The Scale of Perfection by Walter Hilton.

Hilton was writing to those seeking a deep spiritual life. More specifically, he was writing to a fellow believer most likely in a convent at the time.

Among other things, he wrote about humility. His words certainly stand in contrast to ‘the power of positive thinking’ and other upbeat messages we are used to hearing today. But let’s listen in on the counsel he gives:

“Imagine yourself to be a wretched outcast, viewed as dung by other people, as you live an isolated life, shut up all alone in a house, so that you cannot bring a malign influence on anybody else, as you are so unable to do anything positive for anybody.”*

Wowza. He’s describing an attitude of severe humility. It goes a bit too far for my liking; after all, we should still live confidently as God’s beloved children, made in his precious image, and given talents and skills to work for his glory. 

But as you read through his work, you realize that his white-hot focus on humility is directed toward a greater purpose. It is to drive people away from self-interest and toward the interests of others. When we are self-absorbed and self-exalting we are less passionate about tending to the needs of other people.

You sometimes hear about “deadly sins,” the first of which is always pride. It was sometimes called “vainglory.” I almost prefer that word. The misdirected glory we give to ourselves is ultimately vain; not only is it unwarranted but it concentrates our attention in the mirror.

Hilton’s words are a bit jarring. I’m not giving them my whole-hearted endorsement. But they are helpful if they un-hitch our hearts from the illness of destructive self-importance which blinds us from the needs of the people around us.

Paul said it much more perfectly like this in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Don’t think too little of yourself. But don’t think too highly of yourself either. Clarity about reality goes a long way.

Be humble. Be loving. Glorify God.


–*Walter Hilton, ed. Halcyon Backhouse, The Scale of Perfection (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), 43.

–Bible quotes are from the NIV.

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