The word humility literally means ‘lowliness of mind’ (Col 3:12) and it is derived from the Latin word ‘umilitas’ or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, i.e. the earth which is beneath us. Humility is the chief of the seven cardinal virtues and it may be defined as a quality by which a person, accepting his own helplessness, has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake. St. Bernard defines it as a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself. Jesus Christ is the ultimate definition of Humility.
The Bible describes humility as meekness, lowliness, and absence of self. It is freedom from pride or arrogance. Humility is an attitude of the mind, not merely an outward demeanour. One may put on an outward show of humility but still may have a heart full of pride and arrogance. Jesus said that those who are “poor in spirit” would inherit the kingdom of heaven. That means, only those who admit their lack of spiritual worth and total inability to grow in holiness will inherit eternal life. Therefore, humility is a prerequisite for holiness and it is the hallmark of a Christian.
Humility in the Bible
The whole life of Jesus, from birth to death, is marked by humility. He presents himself as the model of humility when he says: “Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls” (Mat 11: 29). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, perfect humility means subjecting oneself to those lesser than oneself. Jesus Christ himself embodied this virtue by washing the feet of his disciples like a servant (John 13:1-16). He was not ashamed to humble Himself as a servant in fulfilment of his words: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life in ransom for many” (Mt. 20: 26-28). This was the summary of his life’s mission. Thus he has set an example for our emulation. Such self-effacing attitude of humility is the foundation of Christ’s redemptive work. In Hebrews we read that, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Behold, I have come to do thy will, O God” (Hebr 10. 7). Can we ever grasp the wisdom of God in assuming human form and being born in human flesh in a manger as the archetype of humility? Can we ever comprehend the depth of Christ’s humility in his being disowned, betrayed and abandoned by his own disciples? The folly of the cross illustrates the supreme act of humility of the Son of God.
Several times in the New Testament Christ exhorts his disciples to humility by words and examples: “Blessed are the meek” (Mat 5: 5); “He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Mat 23:12). Jesus called a child to Himself and put him in their midst and said: “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 18:2-4). Humility is the most prominent attitude of a child and we must approach God with a child’s simplicity. A child knows that it is incapable of doing anything by itself and that it is totally dependent on its parents for all its needs. Acceptance of one’s inability, poverty, unworthiness and dependence on God is the core of Christian humility. It is this attitude that makes us acceptable to God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus recommends the purity of heart, which is the hallmark of a child, as a basic condition to see God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8). Humility in Mary and in the Apostles
The same basic attitude of humility pervaded the life of Mary. She remained always the humble servant of God. Her humility is clearly manifested in her words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Lowliness is the way to holiness and humility is the hallmark of holiness. Mary stands as the model of the spirit of humility when she says in her Magnificat: “He has regarded the low estate of his handmaid….He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1: 48, 52).
Along with Mary, Apostle Paul is also a great model of humility. In spite of the great gifts and understanding he had received, Paul saw himself as the “least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle” and the “chief of sinners” (1 Cor 15:91; Tim 1:15). He gives an exalted position to humility in the redemptive work of Christ and exhorts Christians to imbibe the humble disposition of Jesus, when he writes: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col 3: 17). In his letter to the Philippians he presents Christ as the supreme model of true humility:”Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2: 5-8). Paul seems to say that without this basic disposition of humility in our thoughts, words and deeds no holiness and no salvation is possible.
According to Paul, we should glory only in the righteousness from God, which is through faith in Christ and not in self-righteousness (Cfr. Phil 3:3-9). St. Peter too appeals to the Christians in unambiguous words: “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1Pet 5:5). In fact humility should become the celebration of our identity as the followers of Christ.
The virtue of humility is a necessary condition for a Christian to attain holiness and to enter the kingdom of God. It is the foundation on which our spiritual edifice can be built. The spirit of humility is necessary to serve others. Just as Jesus came to serve, so must we commit ourselves to serving others in all humility, always considering others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3). This attitude precludes selfish ambition, conceit and strife that come with self-justification and self-defence. The truly humble does not defend himself when falsely accused or unjustly treated. He defends the truth, but not his own ego or reputation. In His humility, Jesus was always obedient to the Father and so should a Christian be willing to put aside all selfishness and submit in obedience to God and His Word. True humility produces godliness, contentment and security and it is distinctly different from “false humility” which consists of deprecating one’s own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others.
Pride and humility
Pride is the sin that stands contrary to humility. Pride is the greatest enemy of God and it is the root cause of all sins. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Prov 11:2). Humility removes pride and makes a man subject to and a fit recipient of grace: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1Pet 5: 5, Jam 4: 6.). C.S. Lewis in his book ‘Mere Christianity’ writes: “It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Therefore, we must put away pride and clothe ourselves with the attitude of humility.
As sinners we can approach Christ only in utter humility. We acknowledge that we are paupers and beggars who come with nothing to offer God but our sin and our need for salvation. We must acknowledge our total unworthiness and our complete inability to save ourselves. God’s offer of mercy and salvation is an unmerited and gratuitous gift. He has exchanged our worthlessness for His infinite worth, our sin for His righteousness. The only thing we can do is to surrender ourselves to God in profound humility and gratitude. Without humility there is no holiness.
Fr. James Mundackal CST