Be Humble. Humility is the foundation of the spiritual life. In our readings for this weekend, we are reminded that there is no way for God to be alive in us, if we are not humble. However, humility is not, as we might expect, an attitude of poor self-image or a denial of the gifts and abilities that God has given us. Humility is not diminishing who we are as a person made in the image and likeness of God. Humility is not the virtue of the insecure.
Rather, at the heart of humility is the ability to see ourselves as God sees us. Only when we can identify our God-given gifts can we truly be humble. We are loved, gifted, and called to be witnesses of God’s love. Humility is the ability to both recognize this and to act upon it. Without God we are nothing, but with God we are transformed and can transform the world through God’s love in our lives.
Humility is divine. Christianity is unique in identifying humility as a core virtue. This idea comes not from what God says, but from what God does. Our God is a humble God. In the first reading, the letter to the Hebrews reveals that Jesus’ power to save is rooted in his humility. He took on our human nature and entered into the fullness of our human experience. St Paul says: “Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave being born in human likeness.” When we imitate this divine humility, the very life of God grows in us. What does this look divine humility look like in practice? Classically, there are three hallmarks of a humble heart which promote spiritual health.
Humility vanquishes pride. Pride is a spiritual killer. Pride puts ourselves and talents at the center of our life. Pride narrows our ability to both receive and give love. St. Augustine says in one of his letters, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels. The way to Christ is first through humility, second through humility, third through humility.” In our Gospel, the apostles James and John approach Jesus with a bold request to sit in the places of honor in His Kingdom. No doubt the apostles had been successful in teaching and preaching, but in this moment, their accomplishments went straight to their heads. This is a lesson for us. Just as Christ was exalted by humbling himself when he took on our human nature, so too, we will be filled with the glory of Christ’s Spirit when we empty ourselves of self-centered pride. It is pride, more than anything, that tempts us to see ourselves through the eyes of the world and through the lens of others’ opinions. If you want to see yourself in the light of truth, you must humbly seek to see yourself only as God sees you. His understanding of your soul is all that matters.
Humility helps us avoid the pitfall of comparison. Comparing ourselves with others can be a dangerous habit. Either we think ourselves better than others and we fall into pride or we consider others better than us and we are prone to despair. In the Gospel, the poison of comparison rears its head. Indignant that Zebedee’s sons would have the presumptive pride to ask for pride of place in God’s Kingdom, the other apostles begin to debate who is the greatest. This acrimony leads Jesus to admonish them for their rancorous repartee and call them back to focus on the humility of service: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is humility in action. St. Mother Theresa says: “Humility is the mother of all virtues: purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.” When we humbly shift our daily focus and sense of self squarely on Christ and his will for us, comparison loses its illusory power over us.
Humility frees us from the tyranny of expectations. Often unhappiness in life arises not from the reality of the situation, but from unmet expectations. As the noted philosopher, poet laments at the beginning of his aspirational ode to humility: “Nobody pray for me, even a day for me.” Yet, humility helps us to recalibrate our expectations not according to what we think we deserve or what others think about us, but rather upon the gifts and graces that God knows that we need in order to flourish. Thomas Merton puts it this way: “In humility is the greatest freedom. As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart. As soon as you compare that shadow with the shadows of other people, you lose all joy, because you have begun to trade in unrealities and there is no joy in things that do not exist.” On this weekend when we are reminded of the power of humility, we ask for the grace to see ourselves as God sees us, to recognize God as the source of our giftedness and to be witnesses of His love. A humble heart is the strength of our joy!