Many people are confused about the nature of humility. A common misunderstanding of the Christian virtue of humility is that it means having a low view of oneself. On this understanding, the humble person thinks that neither she nor her accomplishments are worth very much. She will deflect or reject any praise of her character, accomplishments, and talents.
While some philosophers argue that humility is not a virtue, the Christian tradition holds humility in high regard. For those who want to imitate Christ, and grow in this virtue, we must first understand what it is. And for that, we must look to the example of Christ, our moral exemplar.
One key passage for understanding humility is in the book of Philippians. It is worth quoting the passage in full:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Philippians 2:1-11 (ESV).
Paul exhorts the Philippians to be united for the sake of the gospel. He encourages them to imitate the humility exemplified by Christ through his obedience in the incarnation and crucifixion.
There is a lot to say about humility. I’m currently finishing a book on this virtue, so I at least have a lot to say about it. Here, I want to focus on one central aspect of this trait for Christians. Humility can be defined as a self-lowering other-centeredness. It is primarily about how we view and interact with others. The central point for those who want to imitate Christ is that humility is a social virtue. The humble person will be disposed to perform self-sacrificial actions done for the good of others. Such a person will tend to see others’ interests as more important than their own. Just as our exemplar, Jesus Christ, set aside his divine prerogatives by becoming human in order to redeem humanity and the rest of creation, we, guided by wisdom, may set aside our rights and privileges for the sake of others.
Christian humility, then, is not self-denigration, and it rejects all forms of sinful pride. Instead it enables us to offer ourselves in loving strength to others, in the way of Jesus.
In a future post, I’ll discuss ways we might cultivate humility in dependence upon God. For now, I’d love to hear what you think. What other misunderstandings of humility have you encountered? Does this understanding of humility make sense? Would you add or subtract something from it?