Humility

Humility and the related substantive and verb humble, translate several Old Testament Hebrew words and the New Testament Greek tapeinoō family. The meaning shades off in various directions, but the central thought is freedom from Pride—lowliness, Meekness, modesty, and mildness.

Terminology

`ănāwâh; tapeinophrosune)


In the Bible


The place of humility in Christianity

Few religions or philosophical systems assign as much value to humility as does Christianity. Philosophers, except those positively influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, often ignore or belittle it. Thus Aristotle in his masterful systemization of pre-Christian wisdom, The Nichomachean Ethics, praises a high-minded self-sufficiency which is the obverse of ταπεινοφροσυνη. Centuries later Fredrich Nietzsche castigates humility as part and parcel of a perverted morality, that Christian transvaluation of values in which inferior individuals like Paul resentfully metamorphose their baseness and weakness, exalting servility to the apex of excellence. Humility, therefore, is attacked by Nietzsche as a denial of that genuine humanity which will be embodied in the anti-Christian, aristocratic Superman.

Within the framework of revelational Theism, however, humility is indeed a Virtue, the proper attitude of the human creature toward his divine Creator. It is the spontaneous recognition of the creature’s absolute dependence on his Creator, an ungrudging, unhypocritical acknowledgment of the gulf which separates Self-subsistent Being from utterly contingent being, Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative difference between God and man.” It is the bent-knee stance of awed and grateful awareness that existence is a gift of grace, that inscrutable Mercy which, having called a person out of non-being, sustains him moment by moment from lapsing back into nothingness. Humility, then, is explicated in Abraham’s Confession that he is but “dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). It is explicated again in Paul’s sharp reminder to the inflated Corinthians that man’s position before God is necessarily that of a recipient, a Beggar whose hands are empty until divine benevolence fills them (1 Cor 4:6, 7).

Within the theistic framework, furthermore, humility is the altogether right reaction of a guilty creature in the presence of his holy Creator. It is the Sinner’s admission that his irreducible insufficiency as a finite creature has nevertheless been immeasurably diminished by rebellion against his Creator. In the Old Testament is the cry of the young Prophet as he sees the Lord: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). In the New Testament it is the Apostle’s honest self-deprecation as he reflects on his stubborn Disobedience to the Truth (1 Cor 15:9; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 1:15). Humility is the logical corollary of Sin-consciousness. Despite his dignity, therefore, his inestimable worth as imago dei, man as a finite agent of rebellion is indeed “dust and ashes.”

Old Testament


New Testament



Jesus and Humility


Paul and Humility

Paul makes an earnest appeal to Christians (Php 2:1-11) that they should cherish and manifest the Spirit of their Lord’s humility—"in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself," and adduces the supreme example of the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ: "Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus," etc. The rendering of heauton ekenosen (Php 2:7 the King James Version) by "he humbled himself" has given rise to the designation of the Incarnation as "the Humiliation of Christ."

There is a false humility which Paul warns against, a self-sought, "voluntary humility" (Col 2:18,23). This still exists in many forms, and has to be guarded against. It is not genuine humility when we humble ourselves with the feeling that we are greater than others, but only when we do not think of self at all. It is not alone the sense of sin that should create the humble spirit: Jesus had no sin. It belongs not merely to the creature, but even to a son in relation to God. There may be much self-satisfaction where sinfulness is confessed. We may be proud of our humility. It is necessary also always to beware of "the pride that apes humility."

More on False Humility

This virtue is susceptible of gross misunderstanding. Let it be said flatly, therefore, that Biblical humility is not the inverted conceit which disguises itself as lowliness. It is that attitude which results from a fearlessly honest self-appraisal, a self-appraisal which neither minimizes one’s achievements nor exaggerates one’s failures. Humility is not the subtle masochism which enjoys its own debasement. It is not that cowardice which protects itself by a groveling Uriah Heep servility. It is not, moreover, a purely privatistic virtue. It is the child of that radical theocentricity which gratefully acknowledges God’s sovereign bestowal of gifts and His sovereign enablement in service; thus it eliminates the arrogance that destroys community. Completely devoid of arrogance, humility nevertheless rejoices with Mary, “He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).

Augustine, therefore, was right. The secret of sanctity is, as he gave it triple emphasis, “Humility! Humility! Humility!” Or in the penetrating words of Kenneth Kirk: “Without humility there can be no service worth the name; patronizing service is self-destructive—it may be the greatest of all disservices. Hence to serve his fellows at all—to avoid doing them harm greater even than the good he proposed to confer on them—a man must find a place for worship in his life....If we would attempt to do good with any sure hope that it will prove good and not evil, we must act from the spirit of humility; worship alone can make us humble” The Vision of God [1931], p. 449.

Bibliography

  • M. S. Enslin, The Ethics of Paul (1930).
  • B. Häring, The Law of Christ, Vol. 1 (1961), Vol. II (1963).
  • K. E. Kirk, The Vision of God (1946).
  • References