Humility: don’t know what it is

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve wanted to write about humility. For months, the topic seemed to crop up wherever I turned. The only problem is, I’m not sure I know what the word humility means.

I know the definition, of course. And I know it is one of the chief Christian virtues. And I know God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. And I know the meek will inherit the earth. But I just don’t know what it would mean for me to be humble.

So after six months of waiting for enlightenment, I’m changing strategies. Rather than my telling you about the meaning of humility, why don’t you tell me?

The wrong path

To start the conversation, I can tell you the wrong paths I’ve taken. There was my determined effort to shake off my childhood self-confidence. My dad, especially, believed that I could do whatever I set my mind to. I believed it too, and earned a reputation as a bossy girl. So when I became a little older, I started to hang back – not to please the boys (in case my feminist friends are wondering), but to be a nicer person. But these efforts didn’t make me humble. If anything, they’ve made me more self-conscious, lurching between an insecure pushiness, and just plain insecurity. And I wonder what might-have-been if I had retained my know-it-all self. Would it have been worse than this?

I may be on a wrong path now. Like many of you, I long to make a difference in the world by finding and fulfilling my true vocation. But I wonder how much pride is mingled in all this.

I think of George Eliot’s great character study of two evangelical Christians in Middlemarch. The ardent Dorothea designs model workers’ cottages for her uncle’s estate. Her desire to do good is pure and noble. But as Eliot wryly notes, Dorothea can’t suppress her disappointment when she discovers the tenants in her future husband’s estate are all well-housed.

And then there is the Middlemarch villain, Mr. Bulstrode. He cries out to God, “Lord, use me how you will, but use me.” His ambition to serve God leads him to destroy the fortunes, the reputations, and even the lives of the people around him.

The lovely ideal

I also think about the real-life examples of humility that have charmed and moved me. I think of women speakers who are presented with T-shirts at public events. They gallantly pull the T-shirt over their carefully chosen wool suit and tidy hair because, well, it will make the audience happy.

I think of Foti (his name means light!), a young Albanian hoping to serve his countrymen’s fledgling church in Canada. The church’s priest did not have the educational qualifications that would allow the church to be formally recognized. So Foti agreed to take on the official role.  It meant growing a beard that scratched him, and getting rid of all his coloured clothes and wearing only black. (I think of idle conversations among Canadian Christians about whether we would be willing to die for our faith. I now know that, unlike Foti, I would have trouble giving up my wardrobe for Christ – I, who have never cared about fashion, and need to look down to remember what I’m wearing.)

I think of Jesus, who lived off hand-outs, hung around with losers, and sacrificed his life – not because it was clear to him it was the right thing to do  – but as an act of obedience.

Friends, these are the thoughts that swirl round my head. Now tell me what you have learned about humility, where you’ve seen it in action, and what it means for you.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Humility: don’t know what it is

  1. Jamie Perttula

    I share your struggle with this virtue, Joy. There are times when outwardly, I may appear humble but inwardly I am struggling with prideful feelings of superiority. This isn’t true humility – certainly not in God’s eyes when he sees what is in our hearts.

    Frequently, I equate humility with being self-deprecating or self-effacing – making little of my gifts and abilities. I don’t think this is true humility either.

    Jesus was humble, yet he was fully aware of his strengths and abilities. Like the examples you raised in your musings, he was willing to put those strengths aside for the sake of others. He was willing to use those strengths and abilities, not for his own ends, but for the good of others. He also didn’t feel the need to call attention to himself and the miracles he could perform.

    As I am pondering this, I wonder what the link is between humility and concern for others. I haven’t thought of it in this way before, but it strikes me that humility is a relational quality.

    Humility isn’t about putting yourself down, but it also isn’t putting yourself on a pedestal or drawing attention to your gifts. Humility is about allowing others to shine. It is about putting the interests of others ahead of your interests.

    I want to ponder this some more.

    • Elizabeth Sherk

      “In honour preferring one another”: a scripture we have previously reflected on in the context of “learning the steps of the Divine Dance” & “What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love mercy & walk humbly with God”.

      Two other associations came to mind as I was reading Jamie Pertulla’s thought on connecting humility to relationships:

      The Shaker Hymn–“To bow & to bend we shall not be ashamed, but to turn & to turn will be our delight till by turning, turning, we come round right”.

      And Jesus’ Parable about The Pharisee & the Tax Collector in Luke 18 9-14, which Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.”

  2. Dan Cooperstock

    Somehow I’m thinking of the relevant lines from Mordred’s song “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, from the musical Camelot:

    “Humility means to be hurt,
    It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.”

    Seriously, when I have thought about this, it’s usually from the “pride” direction. I think there are two sorts of pride. One is thinking that because you are better at something specific than someone else, it makes you better than them overall (a better person). I think that is harmful. The other is pride in a job well done. I think that is harmless and entirely appropriate.

  3. Elizabeth Sherk

    Picking up on literary characters who model this delightful virtue, humility. (I have not read Middlemarch. I wish I had, but I haven’t. maybe I will move towards fulfilling this wish, as I have been spurred on to read a few other long neglected books by reading this blog, e.g. Parker Palmer)

    The characters I am thinking of are Mr. & Mrs. Beaver in “The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe”.
    They are homey, down-to-earth (humility is related to hummous?), deeply aware of the old stories that relate to the breaking of the long winter that has held Narnia in its grip for too long, hospitable, cautious, rustic, practical. I like them very much.

    Is it ok to aspire to be like them? John & I aspire to be like their gentle, friendly, wise selves. Aspiring to be like humble people??? Yes, I think that is a worthy ambition. Chuckle.

    • Jamie Perttula

      Elizabeth – I love the image of John and you as Mr and Mrs Beaver. I think it is great to aspire to be like them.

  4. Kathy Campbell

    I have found that my character has been marked by arrogance. There is such a thing as false humility which looks quite good to others, but God knows the heart. I have no idea what real humility is, except when I see it exhibited either in a person in the Bible or a well crafted character in a book. Most importantly, a person that I may meet.

    I don’t think it’s self debasement; but it is more seeing oneself in a true light in reference to God, and then other people. This true light may be only possible by revelation of the Holy Spirit. But, it is evident that certain people do have this virtue and I think it is wonderful when it is exhibited truly.

  5. Great topic.
    Jesus knew he was humble (see Matthew 11:29) but he may be the only one who knowingly is.
    Were I humble I would be the last to know it. Were I to confess to being humble the mere confession would invalidate it. So any understanding I have of humility is non-experiential.
    So guessing at what humility might look like, as a trait it is to be teachable. Not just the ability to learn teachers of renown but the ability to learn from anyone.
    Jesus was humble enough to recognize in the response of a Roman centurion (see Matt 8:10) a faith exceeding that of his own people. He could be taught by a Canaanite woman that God’s healing should extend beyond the Jews (see Matthew 15:21-28). When God can instruct us through anyone – most especially the marginalized – then humility isn’t far off.
    As an activity, humility is to pray, to fast, and to do acts of justice when nobody’s watching. Nobody that is other than our Father in heaven, who sees what is done in secret, and rewards with among other things, humility.

  6. As I sat by my best friend Jeremy’s bedside in Casey
    House just two weeks ago, I witnessed what true humility is, and decided to share my thoughts.

    Here was a man who was dying and so weak, yet still always said ”yes please”, and ”thank you for your help”to the those of us caring for him with a boyish sweetness that was so profound. Once a vital man who traveled the world, was a professional photographer,sailor, and lived bigger than anyone I know,
    now had to depend on others to help him with everything, from eating and drinking, standing, going to the toilet, bathing, all things we take for granted. He had no ego, no self pity, no anger at all. To me this was absolute grace and humility in action.

    Jeremy helped countless friends and artists during their down times, including me, over the years who needed financial help and support. He never spoke about it ever, he just shared his wealth without anyone knowing except the receiver.

    His simple lack of ego, respect for others, and giving unconditionally is my model for humility.

  7. Paul Connelly

    Well, I think that many of us who read and/or contribute to this blog are going to get a chance to deal with the meaning of humility very soon – starting on Toronto’s municipal election day. It looks very much like Rob Ford is going to get elected mayor, so how are we going to deal with it?

    I suspect we’re going to see a lot of Kübler-Ross behaviour ¬ denial, anger, bargaining (maybe not this one so much), depression (for sure), acceptance (could be tough). I’m not trying to be flippant here. I think it’s going to be a challenge to avoid getting caught up in a lot of anger- or depression-related behaviour. But I think one of the most important challenges will be to avoid saying “all those stupid people who elected that guy. What were they thinking?”

    (Actually, Jonah and God already had this discussion. “There are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left,” but God still loved them.)

    So there it is. A bunch of people are about to make a brutal mistake, one that upsets a lot of assumptions that I (and I suspect others) have about how the world should work. And the effects of that will be felt on people a lot worse off than we are. All we’re likely to get out of it is a bruised ego. We’re going to get a four-year refresher course in humility. How are we going to deal with it? Are we going to love, or are we going to retreat into anger and depression? And how do we act out of love in the coming time of tribulation? The choice is ours.

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