Remember that old song "It's hard to be humble"? It's true, though not for the reasons the song had. The truth is that humility comes from standing on a razor's edge of self-consciousness and selflessness.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from this week's lectionary Jesus introduces us to two people through their prayers. The Pharisee's prayer is a congratulating God on doing such a good job of creating him. It is hardly a prayer of humility! On the other hand, the tax collector simply asks for mercy. Both prayers arise from the person's conscious view of themselves. The one as the epitome of righteousness, the other as a sinner.
This is where self-consciousness is important. Just how good are we? We may put on a good show, but do we really live as God would have us? How often do we compare ourselves somewhat smugly with those who don't, in our eyes, do as well as we do? When we are truthful with ourselves we are more like the tax collector than the pharisee.
Yet oddly, we can, if we stay in that place, form a perverse pride in how bad we are. We look around and are sure that no one is as great a sinner as we are. While it is true that we are hopeless sinners, so is everyone else!
This is where the selflessness comes in. After we confess our sin we are to turn away from ourselves and focus on God. Repentance doesn't do us much good if we turn in a full circle to end up facing the same old direction. Focusing on God instead of our self means that we are facing a new way and our feet are on a new road. As long as we focus on God and not on ourselves we keep our way straight.
Inevitably we look up one day and congratulate ourselves on being so good and the whole cycle starts again.
It really is hard to be humble.