I’ve been thinking lately about humility … not that I find it that attractive or am particularly skilled in it, but because I’m giving a workshop on it as a virtue at the root of monastic life.
But what does it mean and what does it have to do with real life? Let’s start with the word itself. Who has told you to be humble and what did they mean? Was it positive?
Did you even understand what it was at first? In our childhood training it often had something to do with not bragging or thinking we’re better than someone else. Sometimes it gets tangled up with the related word “humiliation” and there is the idea that it has to do with being put down or being willing to accept insult and abuse. That’s a totally different thing and may or may not contribute to a healthy humility.
The word “humility” in its best sense is one of those characteristics of a good person that you know when you see it but struggle to put into words. Coming from a Latin word that means “low,” it can be found in a non-religious context in statements like “he came from humble roots” or “they lived in a humble house.”
In the original Latin concept, it was more like close to the ground. It is the same root as for the word “humus,” the earth itself, but not just any dirt. In science and gardening vocabulary, humus is the good dark organic matter that forms in soil when dead plant and animal matter decays.
So we can associate this as a reminder that we are of the earth. In the bible, we are created from the earth and we all understand that we return to it and become part of that rich soil.
In the Old Testament, the word shows up in instructions in 2Chron 7:14 where God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
So humility is really about how we relate to the power of God. We don’t just put ourselves down, we put down our selfish parts in order to put God up. It is recognition that God is God and we are not. Psalm 25 says, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
What becomes even clearer in the Old Testament is the direct relationship between humility and pride. This kind of pride is not about being proud of yourself and what you’ve done. Pride in early theology is the sin of Adam and Eve – trying to be God. Pride is a direct affront to God.
Its opposite, a reverent acknowledgement of God, is how humans actually become more like God because they begin to share in God’s love and wisdom. Proverbs says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom,” and
Ecclesiasticus states: “For the fear of the Lord is wisdom and discipline, fidelity and humility are his delight.” The prophet Micah has the well-known “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Jesus, of course, is the total embodiment of humility and challenges his followers to its practice. Paul speaks frequently of humility as imitation of Christ and the mark of conversion. Writer C.S. Lewis summed it up well when he defined humility this way: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”