Humility is not a popular virtue in our culture; it never has been. I think of the story about Winston Churchill who was once asked by a socialite at a dinner party what he thought of his political rival. After listening to his scathing review of the man’s character, the woman responded, “But surely, Sir Winston, you must acknowledge that he is a very humble man.” Churchill shot back, “Well, he certainly has a great deal to be humble about!
And you’ve heard, of course, of the priest who claimed he had a terrific sermon on humility but was waiting for a Sunday with a larger church attendance before preaching it! Humility has never come easy; it’s been a hard sell going all the way back to St. Paul’s time. In ancient Greco-Roman culture, humility was a word used only to describe slave status: a degrading, demeaning existence. Nobody, with the remarkable exception of the adherents of a new sect called Christianity, but certainly nobody else, considered humility a character trait toward which to aspire. Then, as now, humility has been considered more a character flaw to be mocked than a virtue to be cultivated.
It’s no surprise that many of us have decidedly mixed feelings when we come across the repeated admonitions in the New Testament that we should embrace humility. When St. Paul urges us to regard “others as better than [our]selves,” it can seem a lot like asking us to live with a permanent case of low self-esteem. If the point of humility is to think less of ourselves, we wonder, how can we expect to survive in an aggressive, competitive world that equates humility with weakness and sees self-promotion as a pathway to success?
But to view it that way is to misunderstand the meaning of the scriptures when it comes to humility. True humility has nothing to do with feeling humiliated. “Sometimes we confuse humility with timidity,” explains Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “This gives little glory to the one who has given us our gifts. Humility is the recognition that your gifts are from God, and this lets you sit relatively loosely to those gifts. Humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others, but it does not mean you have to deny your own gifts or shrink from using them. God uses each of us in our own way, and even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed, or the one who is there.” (Tutu, the Dalaï-lama, The Book of Joy, p. 211)
As Christians, we are not called to be down-trodden, self-denigrating ‘poor things’ who forfeit the power of our own personal agency. That’s not humility, that’s servility! This is especially important for you to hear if, just now, you are dealing with a great hurt, or with personal rejection, or you are working hard to recover from the pain and trauma of abuse. Paul is not telling us to humble ourselves so that others can take advantage of us. Practicing true humility is not training to be a doormat. Look at the figure of Paul, himself — nobody ever walked all over him!
To cultivate authentic humility is to choose a middle path between the two extremes of being caught up in an inflated sense of superiority or getting bogged down in a demeaning sense of inferiority. Humility means that, instead of thinking of myself as better or worse than everyone else, I think of myself as connected to everyone else. A humble spirit helps me understand that, in the end, I am just like the next person: I’m not above them, I’m part of them.
The Greek word Paul uses for humility is tapeinophrosyne. It’s a compound word which can be translated ‘being concerned for what is common.’ True humility embraces what is ‘common’ in both senses of that word: it values what is ordinary and lowly — we’re all in the same leaky boat, while honoring our shared connections — we all belong to each other. Humility knows that nobody’s perfect, everyone has limitations. At the same time, true humility recognizes that we all have gifts that we’ve been given. We don’t gloat over them, but we don’t bury our talents, either. Humility takes the common view: our gifts are there for us to help each other along, to serve the common good.
The Dalai Lama embodies that truly humble spirit. He writes: “I always see myself first and foremost as just another fellow human. If I relate to others, thinking that I am [important], the Dalai Lama, I will create the basis for my own separation and loneliness. [But] If I see myself primarily in terms of myself as a fellow human, I will then have more than seven billion people who I can feel deep connection with.” (Tutu, the Dalaï-lama, The Book of Joy, p. 100)
True humility is nothing more and nothing less than recognizing our shared humanity. ‘Humility’ and ‘humanity’ even share the same root. They come from the Latin word for earth, humus: the idea is that we all share common ground. Humility, then, is fundamental to building community, it’s all about how we treat each other. Thus, Saint Paul urges us to “Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” not to keep people down, but to build the fellowship up.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,“ he continues, because he knew only too well how divisive arrogant, self-promoting individuals can be. His churches were full of people for whom it’s ‘me first, my way, that’s it, no more to say.’ He understood how quickly that attitude can destroy a community. So he calls on all of us — not just some, but all of us, in all humility, to “have the same mind, the same love, the same [fullness of] accord,” that is, to care about what others need, to respect the other’s point of view, to search for that common cause where all can stand in unity.
Have we ever needed this brand of healing humility more than we do today? In our common life, on every level, humanity cries out for humility. We see what careless threats and pompous posturing can do to set the whole world on edge. We know what effect an inflated ego and a spirit of divisiveness can have on the unity of a nation. We understand how easily bruised or outsized egos and hurtful words and devious power plays can tear a congregation apart. We grieve when we see people we love treating each other badly and watch as a cold distance replace the fires of intimacy in our fractious families.
Humility, it’s all about our humanity, our pressing hope for unity, our crucial need for community.