One spring, I convinced my husband to help me start an herb garden. We’d been growing herbs halfheartedly for several years—a few pots of mint on the patio, small clumps of cilantro near the tomatoes—but I decided that I wanted a proper kitchen garden. I wanted a space just outside my door where I could mix flowers, herbs, and smaller vegetables. So one weekend in the middle of May, Nathan and I stopped by a local greenhouse to get started. Wandering through the metal growing benches, my mind was a whirl of possibilities: mint for tea and jelly, cilantro for fresh salsa and guacamole, basil for pesto, caprese salad, and lemonade, and rosemary and thyme for roast chicken. By the time we finished, my kitchen garden would also include lavender, lemongrass, dill, both curled and flat parsley, and pineapple sage.
In modern parlance, herbs are distinguished from other edible plants by the intensity of their flavor and aroma, a quality that also makes them naturally pest-resistant. Their concentration of oils is also why herbs have been used in perfumes, as seasoning, and in medicine throughout human history, earning them the moniker “friend of physicians and praise of cooks.” Even today, thousands of years later, many a middle-class, Western housewife could tell you to use mint to stimulate your senses, lavender to relieve anxiety, and lemon balm to cure insomnia.
Whatever the link between these piquant plants and our inner emotional life, it presents interesting questions about the nature of emotions and spiritual formation. Specific to this conversation, what effect does cultivating humility have on a healthy emotional life?
One of the challenges to understanding how humility shapes our emotional life is simply understanding what emotions are. What we now term “emotions” have been referred to throughout history as humors, passions, appetites, affections, and sentiments. We know fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness, embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, satisfaction, confidence, and amusement. We know the breadth and depth of them, the variety of their flavors and intensity. Some sharp, some sweet, some bitter. We also understand how emotions drive our decisions. We understand how shame can cause a person to hide away, how anger can lead to destructive behavior, or how fear can trap us in toxic relationships.
Humility is a proper understanding of who God is and who we are as a result.
Emotions are so powerful, in fact, that Stoics in the ancient world suggested that we deny them all together and only make decisions out of reason. With the rise of Christian philosophy, however, theologians like Augustine and eventually Thomas Aquinas offered an alternative reading of emotions—through Christ, our evil passions can be transformed to holy affections. Through Christ, apathy can become compassion and lust can become love. And this transformation begins with humility.
Remember that humility, itself, is not an emotional state. Humility is not feeling a certain way about yourself, not feeling small or low or embarrassed or even humiliated. Theologically speaking, humility is a proper understanding of who God is and who we are as a result. We may feel certain things because of this understanding—we may feel safe in the care of our Creator or we may feel fear when we disobey Him—but these emotions are the result of our reverence for God.
This idea that our emotions flow from our understanding of God flies in the face of contemporary advice to prioritize our emotions as a source of truth. Because what if prioritizing our emotional experience is what leads to our unsettledness in the first place? What if, given the lack of external reality, we have become driven by our emotions? Instead of prioritizing our emotions, humility teaches us that “God is greater than our heart” (I John 3:20), reminding us that the only version of reality that matters is God’s. And thus by rooting our sense of self in something—or Someone—greater than our emotions, humility frees us from the tyranny of them.
Free From Guilt
Within twenty-four hours of putting in my herb garden, more than half the plants had died. I was devastated. And embarrassed. Plants that only a day before were alive and flourishing were now sickly and limp. The leaves I’d hoped to turn into culinary and apothecary glory were scorched and dropping from the stems. And the only thing that had changed was that I had touched them.
Not only was my pride hurt, but we’d spent nearly seventy-five dollars and I’d put in hours of work. All for nothing. I’d failed. It was all my fault. Except that it wasn’t. After an hour of frantic searching online, I stumbled on a description of my poor burnt herbs. It turns out I’d spread “sour” mulch on my garden. But there was little way I could have known that it had soured in the hot sun at the garden center until after I’d spread it. I was frustrated, but I wasn’t responsible—despite my feeling entirely responsible.
The basis of faith is not how you feel about your faith but the object of your faith.
And here’s another lesson: Not only does humility free us from the tyranny of our emotions, it also frees us from self-condemnation and unnecessary guilt. Because humility teaches us that our feelings are not the measure of reality, humility also teaches us that the only person who has the right to condemn us is God Himself. In fact, this truth is the larger context of John’s assurance that “God is greater than our heart.”
In writing to believers struggling to have confidence in God’s call, John reminds them that their feelings are not the basis of their faith. “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (I John 3:19-20).
In other words, the basis of faith is not how you feel about your faith but the object of your faith.
Philosopher and theologian Dietrich Hildebrand puts it this way: “This is precisely the test of true humility, that one no longer presumes to judge whether or not one is too miserable to be included in the call to sanctity but simply answers the merciful love of God by sinking down into adoration.” And this sinking down, this humility, leads to confidence. Hildebrand continues, “The question whether I feel worthy to be called is beside the point; that God has called is the one thing that matters.”
When Nathan saw what had happened to my garden, he drew me aside and assured me that he didn’t blame me and so I shouldn’t blame myself either. Then he went out and bought seedlings to replace my sad, scorched herbs. He helped me replant them. He also helped me salvage the ones that had survived, stripping them of their dead leaves and promising me that by summer’s end, we’d never know the difference.
His prediction proved correct. My garden healed. The basil leafed out into a bush; the cilantro grew and eventually went to seed; both varieties of parsley produced more than I could ever use. What began so disastrously turned into a garden of plenty. We made mint jelly, dried oregano for the winter, and slipped sprigs of lavender between the sheets in the linen closet.
No longer a source of judgment, these herbs—sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter—became a source of beauty and blessing. So, too, when humility frees us from the oppression of our emotions, when we finally learn that “God is greater than our heart,” it also frees us to enjoy the depth and variety of our inner life. We are free to enter into our emotions, letting them do what God intends for them to do: draw us back to Himself.
This is an excerpt from Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul by Hannah Anderson (©2016). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.