What is humility?

 Does humility have a place in our world?


Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.    – William Temple

In my study of virtues, the next concept of discussion is humility. Everett L. Worthington, Jr. wrote an excellent little book about humility titled Humility: The Quiet Virtue (2007: Templeton Foundation Press). Although the author is hesitant to clearly define humility, his overall premise is that an individual most demonstrates or characterizes humility in their service to others.

I like this definition – humility is service to others. It demonstrates clearly what Christ did here on earth. He served all of mankind. Humility recognizes that the needs of others exceeds ones own needs and then takes action to do something about it. Alleviate the need. Care for the sick and downtrodden. Show compassion for our fellow man.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The Beatitudes is the first major, recorded teaching of Jesus, and here Jesus begins with this statement, implying its importance. Those in humble circumstance possess the blessings of the Kingdom. The poor in spirit are people who are humble. They recognize that they are not rich in spirit, but poor. They recognize a need in their life – a need for God’s spirit. The humble recognize they don’t have all the answers or resources. They recognize that there is something more than their mere human, physical existence – that there is a greater power at work in the universe.

The poor in spirit are not necessarily downtrodden or in despair, but rather, they humbly recognize their position in the world. They are poor – they don’t have all the “spirit” they should or could have. They humbly seek that spirit from God’s Kingdom, and thus the humble are rewarded with what they seek.

Humility goes hand in hand with reverence, a virtue that I have previously written about. Humility is the starting place for developing a capacity for reverence. Reverence includes the feeling of awe – the respect and wonder towards things that are outside and beyond human control, such as a majestic mountain, the deep ocean, or the “ideal” of freedom. Spirit is something outside our physical limitations. Spirit can not be created by man. It can not be adequately explained by science. Spirit is something that deserves our awe and respect – reverence. God’s spirit is something beyond our comprehension, and yet the poor in spirit are blessed with a tremendous promise – the reward of God’s Kingdom.

So how does one carry this out in day to day life? Do we live with our heads in the clouds hoping to be lifted up to the “spirits”? Do we walk about with beaten breast and a humble demeanor to demonstrate how poor in spirit with are? No. Rather humility recognizes our position in this great world. Humility is grateful for each and every breath we take, every moment we are alive. We see the needs of our neighbors and friends and family and even our enemies. Humility takes action. Humility is demonstrated in service. Humility recognizes the shortness and frailty of our human life. Humility then gets about to the business of serving the needs of others.

The Apostle Paul expresses this concept well when he said “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Paul did not fear death because he was certain of the final outcome of his life – God’s Kingdom. Yet knowing his life was always at risk, Paul humbly strived to live for his purpose and greater calling – to serve Christ and bring the good news of salvation to all people throughout the Roman Empire – both Jews and Greeks. He saw the needs of others – the need for salvation. His life was dedicated to that service – speak and make a case for the resurrected Christ, despite the toil and risk to his own life.

This is humility – a tremendous and necessary virtue. It brings service to others without demand for recognition or reward. When accompanied by reverence, humility knows that there is a greater purpose to our lives here on earth, and steps out in faith to serve our fellow man.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless. – T. S. Eliot

What do you think about the definition of humility? Can one serve and not be humble? Is it against American principles to be humble?

About John Forrest