Have you ever thought of God as humble? He is many different things, and all of them good—kind, generous, loving, and forgiving are some common ways we describe Him. Humility—which is is a virtue, and as such God must have the perfection of it—is not ascribed to Him as frequently as those others. Actually, the full scope of His divine humility didn’t really occur to me until a friend talked about an interesting aspect of humility that I had never considered before.
An Uncommon Kind of Humility
If I recall correctly, my friend was discussing a more human and less well-known aspect of humility, a kind of humility that comes with having a great office. He said that duly accepting the honors of one’s office is a form of humility, not because such honors belong to the individual, but to his office. It makes sense, too; John Cardinal Doe isn’t normally characterized as “conceited” simply because people kiss his ring when they meet him. If he is truly humble he understands that honor comes with his duly given office, rather than being paid to John Doe simply because “He’s John Doe!” Nor, here in America, do we call the President conceited because “Hail to the Chief” plays when he walks into the room for the same reason—the honor is conferred on the office, not the person himself.
God is Humble, and His Creatures Should Imitate Him
By now the connection may not be very obvious—first I start out talking about God and then I refer exclusively to human humility. Odd though it may seem, my friend’s discussion of human humility actually helped me to better understand the humble aspect of God. As with all human virtues, our practice of them is an imperfect imitation of God’s perfection of them.
God—not wholly unlike the cardinal who has his ring kissed—does not say “Bow down and worship Me,” because He is in some way conceited. First, He is all good, and conceit is evil. Second, though this is not a perfect analogy, since our God is not fulfilling an appointed office, the similarity here is that when God commands “Bow down and worship,” He does so because that is the respect automatically due to Him as Creator and Master of the universe.
His desire for worship is not caused by megalomania (again, God is wholly good and there is no evil in Him), but desire that there be proper order in the universe He created. He chose to create in order that His creations might give Him greater glory; thus, when we worship, we are not pandering to the selfish whims of someone who happens to be stronger than we, as certain atheists might see religion. The created worshiping their Creator and Lord is simply the right order of things. In addition to obeying Him, by worshiping Him we become more like Him. In our fallen world we need some measure of human humility to be able to worship, rather than trying to set ourselves up as gods in His place, as though we are the only masters of our fates.
The Incarnation Was The Ultimate Act of Humility
This is also a timely season to reflect on the humility of God, since Advent is the season in which we prepare for the Incarnation, and soon we will celebrate it at Christmas. Though God’s humility never changes, the Incarnation could be called the greatest display of His humility in human history up to that point. God’s own Son became man in order that He might save us. Paul said of Christ, “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
In the first place, for the Second Person of the Trinity to become human at all, much less a helpless baby and a vulnerable child, was an incredible lowering of Himself. Then, too, as we are reminded countless times in the Gospels, He did not come as an earthly king, but as a plain beggar, not merely as a man, but as a scorned man. C.S. Lewis wrote of Him in Mere Christianity:
The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.
The result of this was that you now had one man who really was what all men were intended to be: one man in whom the created life, derived from His Mother, allowed itself to be completely and perfectly turned into the begotten life. The natural human creature in Him was taken up fully into the divine Son. Thus in one instance humanity had, so to speak, arrived: had passed into the life of Christ. And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed’, He chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn—poverty, misunderstanding from His own family, betrayal by one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture.
Lewis’ main point here is that the Son of God became man in order to give us an example of what all men should be. Christ certainly did as Lewis says here. But, to get a better idea of His humility, let us go further back, to the Fall. God has just been betrayed by His greatest creation, the one He made in His own image, man. First, He forgives man, which by nature requires humility, in order that the injured party not be too proud to forgive. Then, He promises His broken creation a Redeemer, but who among His followers would have guessed that He would go so far as to come Himself under the form of one of us?
The Incarnation was, at least in some sense, the ultimate act of humility, as well as the ultimate act of love. Of course, God would do anything to save us, but Christ becoming Man helps showcase how His great humility only makes His great love more evident. After all, is there a much greater lowering than He, the Lord of the Universe, turning into an ordinary, poor, hated man? If there is a lower level to which Our Lord could have stooped while still showing us the same amount of love, I admit I cannot imagine it.
The Incarnation Introduced Human Humility
This becomes all the more interesting when we consider the place of mankind in relation to God. He made us to have the human perfection of all virtues as He has the Godly perfection, but because of our fallen natures we have work to attain them in a way that Adam and Eve, in the state of original innocence, did not. If we let our pride become too great, then it could get to the point where we think ourselves too great to worship Him as He deserves. Through His humility, God knows worship is due to Him by His very nature, but for most of us fallen men this kind of humility would not apply; thus, we do not have an immanent need to understand it. Therefore, the Incarnation taught the human race a different kind of humility, though one equally present in God, the humility of worshiping rather than being worshiped. Christ prayed often to His Father in Heaven, often in front of others, and one reason He did not always pray alone was in order that He might show us how to pray.
Christ’s humility also serves as a proof for His claim to be the Son of God. Throughout history, there have been other claims by men to have varying degrees of divinity. However, based on what I know of some of those claimants, they did not act very humble at all. Rather, instead of showing their followers the example of a virtuous life as the key to happiness, at least outwardly they seemed to desire worship or veneration without putting it into a larger context. I recall that one of them, Sri Chinmoy, mentioned that following him was good and the way that life should be lived, but, if what I read is correct, he himself did not exemplify the virtues he expected of his followers.
We Should Follow the Example of Christ
Then, too, when Christ showed us just how humble He is, He emphasized that we, too, must be humble like Him. A prime example of this is after the washing of the feet, when He said, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
God, Who is perfect in virtue, contains within Himself all humility, whether it be the humility of understanding that as the Ruler of all the universe, all worship is due to Him, or the humility of performing worship or enduring earthly degradation in the Person of Christ. He also wants us to be perfectly humble like Him. In Heaven we will all have attained this goal, because we will never sin and will follow the proper order of the universe. That being said, no one should wait for Heaven to attain humility. The more humble we are now, the more pleasing we are to God, and the closer to Him we can come, even while still on earth.
For what remains of Advent, and as we enter into Christmas, we should all remember how Christ humbled Himself to save us all, and, in every season of the year, strive for the perfection of humility that He has.