The keystone: humility

The connection between my last two posts—the first on why we should talk with those with whom we disagree, and the second on the nature of wisdom—may not be all that obvious, but I think it’s a profoundly important one. Specifically, the connection is humility, which is necessary for both, and which comes from both. It takes humility to talk with those we believe are wrong, not so that we can demonstrate to them how wrong they are, but in a receptive way that is open to what we might learn from them; and doing so teaches us humility, which helps us to grow wise. Wisdom in its turn breeds humility, and teaches us how much we have left to learn from others.

This might sound like a strange thing to say, but it’s true: wisdom is humble. Humility even more than wisdom is underrated, not the sort of thing we tend to praise people for, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and because we often tend to consider pride a good thing. From the point of view of the Scriptures, though, humility is one of the virtues which is supposed to define the people of God. The Catholic priest and philosopher Ernest Fortin went so far as to call it

the Christian virtue par excellence . . . humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many. But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith. We are at every moment God’s creation.

Think about that: we worship “a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many.” That’s straight out of Philippians 2. No one ever had more reason to put his own interests and desires first, or to glorify himself, than Jesus; and yet he let go of glory, he let go of all the things pride values, and humbled himself to become a mere human being—and not even one who lived a rich, comfortable life, but a vagabond from the working class; and even beyond that, he accepted the horrible death of a convicted criminal. And he did it all for us, out of love, and set us his example to follow—and Paul points to that in 1 Corinthians 1 and calls Jesus our wisdom from God.

Does this mean, then, that God calls us to look down on ourselves, to put ourselves down and dismiss ourselves as unimportant? No. Those sorts of attitudes are counterfeits of true humility, and are really just pride in disguise; they still focus our attention inward, on ourselves, and they still put us at the center of everything we do. True humility takes our focus off ourselves altogether; it’s what Paul means when he writes in Romans 12:3, “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Humility is seeing ourselves clearly, in the light of God’s holiness and grace, and accepting what we see; it is the place where we are well aware both of our weaknesses and failures and of our glories and strengths, and don’t make too much or too little of either, because we know that our value and importance rests not in what we have done or what we can do, but only and always in the fact that God made us and loves us. As C. S. Lewis put it, someone truly humble could design the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and look at it and know it to be the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and enjoy it just the same as if someone else had done it.

This is why the Scriptures consistently associate humility with wisdom—to take another example, Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but wisdom is with the humble.” Wisdom begins with the understanding of our own limits—that is, I think, part of the reason for the declaration in Psalm 111:10 that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; one of the reasons for that is the recognition of just how great God is, and how small and limited we are. Wisdom requires the acceptance that we never know as much, we never understand things as well, we’re never as smart or as far ahead of the game, as we think—and that in consequence, we need each other. That requires humility.

We must humble ourselves before each other if we are to learn from each other; we must humble ourselves before God if we are to grow in his wisdom; we must humble ourselves to receive correction and rebuke if we are to learn from our mistakes; we must humble ourselves to confess our immaturity if we are ever to mature. We must humble ourselves to accept and admit our incompleteness, our brokenness, our sinfulness, if we are ever to be made complete, whole, and holy. And in the last analysis, we must humble ourselves to understand that “all is grace,” that none of us are self-made, but that “we are”—all of us—“at every moment, God’s creation,” if we are ever truly to be ourselves.

(Partially excerpted from “True Wisdom”)


Photo © John SalmonLicense:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Posted in Discipleship, Religion and theology, Scripture.

Leave a Reply