Pride is our most pervasive and serious sin; humility is its antidote and the foundation of our spiritual life. And as the remedy to our most deep-seated pathology, it must be strong medicine. Humility is hard to swallow and has a lot of things it needs to work on.
Let’s consider humility under a number of headings.
I. The Foundation of Humility – Indeed, humility as a foundation is a good image, since by it we bow toward the earth or soil (humus in Latin) and abase ourselves before God. Foundations and holes in the earth go together.
By humility we understand that we are small, poor, barely more than dust and water. If God does not scoop us from the earth, we are nothing. Only by His command is the mysterious spark and organizational principle of life ignited. We are wholly dependent on God; our life is contingent. We do not explain ourselves at all. We are dependent not only on our parents (who cannot explain themselves either), we are dependent on God’s purely gratuitous act of summoning us from dust. We are given existence by Him who is existence itself.
And we are given not merely existence, but something mysterious called “life.”
Think you have life figured out? Think you can define it? Hmm … Imagine before you an acorn and a small rock of similar size. One (the acorn) has the mysterious spark of life in it; the other does not. Plant both in the earth and add water. One transforms into a mighty oak; the other remains unchanged for thousands of years. What is the difference between the acorn and the rock? “Life,” you say. Well, tell me what that is. Can you weigh it in a scale? Can you see its essence under a microscope? We see life’s effects, but we do not see it. We detect its absence, but where has it gone? What exactly departs when a human, an animal, or a plant dies?
And thus humility, like a foundation, bids us to bow low to the earth and admit that we know very little. Even the most basic thing (life) that enables everything else eludes us and taunts us by its mystery.
II. The First Humility – When it comes to humility, we distinguish a humility toward God and a humility toward others. Humility toward God is simple (and first and foremost) because our duty in that regard is clear. There is no ambiguity in comparing ourselves to Him who is perfection, glory, and purity.
Humility toward others, though, has ambiguities that can only be resolved by reference to God. For not everything in another person is superior to us; not everything in others is perfect truth or purity.
But indeed, our first humility is toward God. And by it we recognize that we are nothing without Him. But even more, no good work of ours, not even the slightest salutary act, can happen without the grace of God. This is the first humility.
III. The Finding of Humility – Humility also recognizes that neither do we have meaning, direction or purpose apart from God. And thus we must look to the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture, the Word of God, to discover and obey the truth and meaning given by God in what is created and what is revealed.
Atheists and materialists boldly assert that nothing has meaning, purpose, direction, or sense. They hold that everything that has happened is by chance, a random, meaningless crashing together of atoms (wherever they came from). But even atheists cannot seem to accept or live by their radical theory. Only one of them, Nietzsche, was ever “brave” enough to really live in a meaningless world. And he died insane.
But for us who would seek for humility, we must sit before what God has created and what God has revealed in Scripture, humbly observing, learning, and obeying what God teaches us there. We do not simply project meaning; we must humbly seek it, find it, and obey the truth and meaning of things.
IV. The Frank Truth of Humility – Humility also admits the frank and obvious truth that we are sinners. We have base, selfish, and narrow hearts that are strangely attracted by what we know is harmful and resistant to what we know is good. Our wills are inconsistent, vacillating, whimsical, and yet at the same time stubborn. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Our darkened minds seem almost to prefer foolish and dubious explanations to what is clear, common sense, and obviously true. We almost seem to want others to lie to us. We love to rationalize and daydream. Knowing a little we think we know it all. Frankly, we are a mess. We are only saved with difficulty and because God is powerful, patient, and abundant in grace and mercy.
V. The Fellowship of Humility – St. Thomas Aquinas says quite poetically, “Wherefore, every man, in respect to what is his own, should subject himself to every neighbor in respect to what the neighbor has of God’s” (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 161, a 3). For indeed, our neighbor has many things from God that are to be respected. They have things which we share, but also many things that we do not have at all. I do not have all the gifts; you do not have all the gifts; but together we have all the gifts. But we have them all only by mutual respect and humble submission. And thus our humility toward others is really humility toward God, who wills that others should be part of His governance of us, and of our completion.
But note, too, a careful distinction that flows from what St. Thomas teaches in regard to humility toward others. It is not to be reduced to mere human respect or flattery, or rooted in worldly and servile fear. True humility has us abase ourselves before others based on what is of God in them. The humble person does not abase himself before others for what is wicked in them. Indeed, many holy and humble people have had to rebuke the wicked and suffer because of it.
Consider our Lord, who found it necessary to rebuke the leaders of His day. Consider John the Baptist, who rebuked Herod; or the Apostles, who refused the command to speak Jesus’ name no longer. These were humble men, but they also knew that the first humility belongs to God, and that no humility toward human beings can ever eclipse or overrule the humility due to God.
Therefore the modern notion of “Who am I to judge?” is not proper humility. Rather, it is rooted more in a kind of sloth (cloaked in the self-congratulatory language of tolerance) that avoids humbly seeking truth and being conformed to it. The truly humble person is open to correcting others and to being corrected, because humility always regards the truth.
VI. The Focus of Humility – And that lead us finally to a kind of focal statement about humility: “Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves.” Indeed, the focus of humility is always the truth.
And what is the truth? You are gifted, but incomplete.
Humility doesn’t say, “Aw shucks, I’m nothing.” That is not true. You are God’s creation and are imbued with gifts. But note this: they are gifts. You did not acquire them on your own. God gave them to you. And most often, He gave them to you through others who raised you, taught you, and helped you to attain the skills and discover the gifts that were within you. So you do have gifts. But they are gifts. Scripture says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had not received? (1 Cor 4:7)
But though you are gifted, you do not have all the gifts. And this is the other truth of humility: that God and others must augment your many deficiencies. For whatever your gifts, and however numerous they are, you do not have all the gifts or even most of them. That is only possible in relationship with God and His people.
Ok, admit it, true humility is tough. And if you don’t think so, then try the test below from St. Anselm, who lists seven degrees of humility. How far along are you?
Here are St. Anselm’s degrees of humility (as quoted in the Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 161a. 6):
1. to acknowledge oneself contemptible,
2. to grieve on account of it,
3. to confess it,
4. to convince others to believe this,
5. to bear patiently that this be said of us,
6. to suffer oneself to be treated with contempt, and
7. to love being thus treated
In this video do you think that Lancelot might be struggling just a bit with pride?