In 1975, singer Mac Davis released a song entitled “It’s Hard to be Humble”. The lyrics of this tongue-in-cheek song brought crowds to laughter, yet, they certainly struck uncomfortably close to home. The crowds would merrily sing along as Davis crooned:
“Oh, Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way/ I can’t wait to look in the mirror, I get better looking each day, /To know me is to love me, I must be one hell of a man,/ Oh, Lord it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can!”
Humility or Humiliation?
In many Christian circles, even among very devout Christians, the mere mention of “humility” seems to make people cringe. Personal and theological perspectives about the definition of humility, what it means, and how it is lived out are as diverse and divergent as are people.
For many, the common understanding of humility is little more than an antiquated notion used to keep people down, limit their vision, and control their behavior. After all, how does one “humbly” aspire to greatness, whether that is greatness academically, financially, or athletically? It certainly doesn’t sound very humble to say, “I want to be the best at what I do!”
In more religious settings, the encouragement and direction often focuses on “serving”. Never mind the gifts and abilities one possesses, they should be taking out the trash, sweeping the floors, or caring for others at their own detriment. Humility somehow becomes confused with being personally humiliated, and specifically, personally humiliating ourselves.
A Fresh Perspective
True Humility is not about the activity in which one engages. It’s entirely possible to perform tasks that have the appearance of humility, with a heart and attitude that is completely devoid of the interior disposition of humility. Jesus saved His sharpest criticism for the Pharisees- the priests of the day. He called them “whitewashed tombs”, doing all the right things on the outside, but with hearts that were rotten.
Humility, in simplest terms, is about seeing ourselves as we really are. St. Thomas Aquinas stated in his Summa, “The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.” In other words, a truly humble person sees themselves ‘accurately’, neither inflated or deflated in their strengths, weaknesses, skills, abilities, and gifts. A truly humble person, knowing themselves, understands their own limits and does not attempt to reach beyond them.
The latin root of the word humility, is “humus”, which means earth. Anything that is ‘of the earth’ has limits. Humility involves understanding the limits contained within one’s own intellect, emotions, and body. It is a recognition that the imperfections of ‘humus’ are superseded by the perfections of the spiritual realm.
The Dual Qualities of Humility
True Humility consists of two vitally important traits. On the face of it, they may even seem contrary to each other. But, in balance with each other, they lead to a heart and interior life that is authentically humble, and yet, fully alive. The first of these qualities is ‘uniqueness’, the specialness and unrepeatability of the individual. The second quality is ‘littleness’, the understanding of one’s limits, particularly in relationship to God.
The first key quality is “unique-ness”. The Scriptures are replete with texts to indicate the unique nature of every human person. In Luke, Chapter 12, Jesus tells the crowd how special each and every person is to God. He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” In Psalm 139, David praises God, acknowledging the intimate way in which God made and knows him, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Jesus’ most profound interactions were not with nameless and faceless crowds. Rather, they were intimate interactions in which Jesus was addressing the completely unique situations and hearts of the people. The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Peter’s denial, Peter walking on water are all examples. While there are elements of the stories that resonate within every person, these events took place with individuals who were completely unique and special in their own right. Jesus recognized each of them as a special individual, each with his or her own story and life.
Littleness is the recognition of human limits, especially before God. Jesus, fully divine, recognized the limits of His human nature while He walked the earth. It is to this that He referred when He said, “Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls” (Matthew 11:29). His humanity had limits.
Likewise, our own humanity has limits. Some are stronger. Some are smarter. Some are wiser. Each person has natural gifts and spiritual gifts. All of those gifts, though, are akin to a small child in the presence of a wise and good father. The child is ‘little’, in every respect. Knowing that he is little, the child doesn’t strive to ‘be the father’, or to take care of himself. Instead, he runs to his father’s arms for care and protection.
The Perfect Perspective
Finding authentic humility allows each person to grow and thrive in the uniqueness of his creation, becoming the best version of the person God created him to be. That humility can be nurtured by contemplating two thoughts and realizations. When God looks upon a person, God doesn’t see his or her smallness, limits, or imperfections. He sees a magnificent, completely unique and unrepeatable person. When a person looks upon God, the person should see the immensity of the One who brought him into being, who loves him, and sees him in perfect love.