One afternoon in the synagogue, a rabbi was overcome with rapture and threw himself to the ground proclaiming, “Lord, I am nothing!” Not to be bested, the cantor prostrated himself and exclaimed, “Lord, I am nothing!” The temple handyman, working in the back of the sanctuary, joined the fervor, prostrating himself and crying, “Lord, I am nothing!” Whereupon the rabbi nudged the cantor and whispered, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
It can be a very thin line between humility and pride.
It is a longer article that might get written one day, but we modern people have inherited two understandings of “humility.” The Scottish philosopher Daivd Hume thought humility was a vice. St Augustine thought it was the foundation of all the virtues. Yet most of us would list humility as a virtue instead of a vice. But consider former President Trump. Be you for him or against him, I think it is safe to say that none see any demonstration of the virtue of humility in his outward behavior. It seems to me that his braggadocio appears to have helped him become president. He admits no weakness or acknowledges failures. He possessed a brash self-assurance that people judged was necessary to “make America great again.” Did Doanld Trump’s lack of apparent humility make him better as a president? Would we claim this lack makes him better as a person?
We think humility will make us better people, in other words, it is a virtue. But we worry, with Hume, that humility will prevent us from flourishing – which is why Hume thinks humility is a vice. I offer all this not as a political commentary, but perhaps to show how deeply Hume’s view of humility is active in the public square. Perhaps active in us.
So what does it mean to be genuinely humble as a Christian virtue? There are lots of verses to quote, but perhaps none more powerful than the words of St. Paul: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-8)
Clearly that is a preeminent demonstration of God’s desire to save us – holding back nothing, not even his only Son – and so we are to humble ourselves. But what does that look like in practical demonstrative ways? If I think of the most humble people I know, the composite might include:
- Easily laughs at themself
- Delights in the successes of others.
- Has no problem admitting when they have made a mistake
- See themself as a learner rather than a teacher.
- Doesn’t posture or pretend to have knowledge or abilities not possessed.
- Does not hide fears and vulnerabilities.
- Asks for help (or driving directions) when needed
….I am sure there is a longer list
But if you tell them that you see this demonstrated humility in them and you ask them why they live this way – I hope their answer would be that the love of God compels them.
May it compel us all.