What is Humility?

What is your mental image of a humble person?  Is it an appealing picture?

When was the last time a political candidate was applauded for his or her meekness?  Did you ever land a job by highlighting your humility?  Even among Christians, humility is given more lip service than actual respect.

Perhaps it is not humility itself that we undervalue as a culture, but a faulty understanding of humility.

The dictionary unhelpfully defines “humility” as “the quality or state of being humble.”  “Humble” is described as the opposite of pride and arrogance, “a spirit of deference or submission,” or of low rank or importance.  Some synonyms are: demure, lowly, modest, unassuming as opposed to bold, assertive, and confident, some of its antonyms.  We live in a culture dominated by humble’s antonyms.

Yet, the Bible is very clear that God expects, even demands, humility, meekness, lowliness and selfless service from those who follow Christ.

What does that look like?

The Bible gives us at least two examples of profound humility: Moses and Jesus.

Moses, who was raised in Pharaoh’s palace and then confronted Pharaoh and led the entire nation of Israel out of Egypt, was described as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers. 12:3)

Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Painting by Jacopo Tintoretto. Image from Wikimedia.

Even more astonishingly, Jesus is described as having “made himself nothing…taking the very nature of a servant…humbled himself.”

Jesus and Moses both demonstrated great boldness, assertiveness and confidence.  (Well, Moses had his insecurities, but Jesus didn’t.) Moses and Jesus were both described as humble, yet they behaved in ways that are exactly opposite of humble.

As usual, when evaluating apparent biblical disconnects, the problem is not the Bible but in our understanding of the Bible.  This is often because we project our culturally informed understandings and experiences on to words written in ancient languages and actions lived out in very different cultures.

So, what is true humility?

C.S. Lewis give us an instructive picture of humility at the end of a chapter on the subject of pride in his book Mere Christianity.

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.  Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.  If you do dislike him it will be because you felt a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily.  He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”  (Emphasis mine.)

The short form of this concept is a phrase that I’ve also heard attributed to Lewis, but that I first read years ago in Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life:

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

When we are relieved of prideful self focus we are free to live in the boldness, assertiveness and confidence that is available to us in Christ.  That is biblical humility, and it makes perfect sense.

How do you understand humility?  Have you ever behaved boldly and confidently out of a spirit of honest humility?

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”  1 Peter 5:5-6

10 thoughts on “What is Humility?

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  1. Based on your thoughtful comments and my own observations, I’ve been thinking about how biblical humility seems to be an extremely rare quality. It must be very valuable! What would the Church accomplish if we who follow Jesus really lived and served in true humility? I must echo Cara: “I strive…oh I strive” to remember that it’s not about me.

  2. Judy, like you I believe that humility involves self-forgetfulness. That’s probably why it goes unnoticed so much of the time, and seems to make humble people simply likable and approachable (the phenomenon Lewis described). It also involves having an understanding of our place in the scheme of things. It isn’t deceived. It doesn’t say ‘I can do anything I set my mind to,’ and any rewards that accrue, ‘I deserve them!’ Also, humility involves pain, for it is at odds with our fallen nature.

  3. I’ve always felt there is a paradox that exists within humility. In order to truly be humble — not self-deprecating — one must be extremely secure and self-assured; however, most secure people tend to weigh on the side of confidence and pride, and in the worse cases, narcissism. Therein lie the paradox. I know very few humble people. I know plenty of confident people, a host of insecure people, but only one or two humble people. I strive . . . oh, I strive.

    Thanks, Judy.

    ~ Cara

  4. I have been richly blessed to know a truly humble person, who has been my mentor by simply living and believing each day. Walking the walk comes as natural as breathing. Her love for Jesus is evident, because her genuine love and concern for humanity are simply “who she is”. She opens her heart, puts others first and has replaced the desire for things of this world with her desire to follow Christ’s example. She is amazing!

  5. I love Rick Warren’s definition, and I DO know someone who is truly humble. I met her here on the blogs–she’s truly amazing, a great example for me, a wonderful friend, and God’s gift as the sister I only dreamed of. I realized how humble she was when, in saying all these things to her–and adding something about how “high the bar” is, to be more like her–her gentle and loving response was that she doesn’t set the bar, and shudders to think anyone would measure themselves by her beliefs and behavior. It was truly amazing–not a false note anywhere in it. What Larry said is true of her–she’s joyful and cheerful, though her dreams have been stripped down to nothing. She just loves Jesus, and waits on Him–and loves and gives 24/7 to others–a modern day saint. “Privileged” doesn’t begin to say how I feel, to receive her loving acceptance and generous support.

    1. What a beautiful witness of humility, Caddo. And I smile to think of your friendship – sounds like a great gift to both of you! Bless you today, Caddo!

  6. I have never met a truly humble person who has not undergone a horrendous stripping process designed by God to destroy every part of that person’s life. Although his/her demeanor will be filled with joy and cheer, their will be a side of that person none will know unless he/she is forced to talk about it. The unseen side will be the nights spent weeping as his/her dreams are destroyed by God until finally he/she only cares about the One who lives inside him/her and what the Greater One wants him/her to do.

    1. Thank you for your powerful insight on humility, Larry. I hadn’t really thought about the cost of it. You are so right, it doesn’t come cheaply.

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