What is humility? What does it mean to be humble? What does Bible say about humility?
There are a lot of definitions. Let’s try to start with something simple first. If you Google the word, the definition coming up front is “a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.”. Whereas Merriam-Webster defines it as “freedom from pride or arrogance”
Simply put, it is the notion that one should defer himself or herself before others – to submit before somebody – to not be arrogant. One good example would be this story from the book I am reading now – The Call by Os Guinness. This is a very good book and I really recommend you to read it – especially when you’re still looking for His Will. The story was quoted here in a verbatim manner:
Few are more moving than the burial ceremony of the Habsburg emperors, who were laid to rest in the vaults of the Capuchin monastery in Vienna. When Emperor Frans Josef died, the grand cortege arrived at the closed doors of the monastery and a herald knocked at the gate. From within the voice of the Abbot could be heard asking:
“Who are you, who knocks?”
“I am Frans Josef, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary,” the Herald replied.
“I don’t know you. Tell me again who you are.”
“I am Frans Josef, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Bohemia, Galicia, Lodomeria, and Dalmatia, Grand Duke of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Styria and Corinthia . . . ”
“We still don’t know you. Who are you?” the sepulchral voice reiterated. Whereupon the herald knelt down and said:
“I am Frans Josef, a poor sinner humbly begging for God’s mercy.”
“Thou mayest enter then,” the Abbot said and the gates were flung open.
For me, the story above is reminiscent of a particular passage from the Bible. It was when Elijah the man of God was called by Israelite King Ahaziah. Ahaziah was an evil king and as such, he would like to account Elijah for his portents against him. The story was quoted from 2 Kings 1:9-15 (ESV) :
Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty men with his fifty. He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.
Again the king sent to him another captain of fifty men with his fifty. And he answered and said to him, “O man of God, this is the king’s order, ‘Come down quickly!’” But Elijah answered them, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.
Again the king sent the captain of a third fifty with his fifty. And the third captain of fifty went up and came and fell on his knees before Elijah and entreated him, “O man of God, please let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight. Behold, fire came down from heaven and consumed the two former captains of fifty men with their fifties, but now let my life be precious in your sight.” Then the angel of the Lord said to Elijah, “Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.” So he arose and went down with him to the king
You can see that in those two coinciding stories, there are similarities. Three tries with two failures and one success. The successful one was simply due to humility alone. Frans Josef admits that he is a sinner in need of God’s mercy while the third captain humbly begs for his and his fifty servant’s life. Both know that they are not having the upper hand. They have no bargaining power no matter what they say or what they do.
Reflecting on that, I would like to go on a bit of etymology here. The word humility in Ancient Greek is ταπεινοφροσύνη or tapeinophrosune. Strong’s Greek defines it as “moderation as regulated by inner perspective”. I think the definition here also strikes to the heart of its meaning. One who is humble moderate/regulate him/herself to a relative position, depending on contextual elements. It’s a matter of reorientation.
It’s about reorienting yourself below someone who is indeed superior to you in a certain aspect (in two study cases above, God) while also reorienting yourself above someone who is indeed below you, so you can help them or teach them. That is not to say that you’re being arrogant – it’s just to be in a level where it’s proper. Humility doesn’t mean that we have to stand idle while someone with ill intent berates us. There are people in this world who are experts at abusing our naive meekness, selfishly establishing themselves above us while if we are to objectively evaluate their position, they are supposedly below us.
Humility is a constant introspection of our relative position so we can avoid being arrogant or being inferior. Arrogance is a state of thought where we consider ourselves higher than we are supposed to be. Inferiority is a state of thought where we consider ourselves lower than we are supposed to be. We are to be humble before our President who, if they are following God is worthy of submission. At the same time, we are humble when we are being firm at dispensing justice to hypocrites and other evildoers who corrupt the society through their inflated-self ego.
Our greatest role model in this context is, of course, Jesus Christ. While ministering to the sinners or society’s outcasts, Jesus Christ stoops to their level by eating or communing with them, while also raising them up through His miracles and teachings. He does not condescend them like the Pharisees who abuse their religious standing by showing how superior they are compared to the sinners.
We can also see the contrast when Jesus Christ face the Pharisees or the Sadducees. Regardless of your opinion of Him, whether He is God, Man, or God-Man, He is a paragon of highest form of virtue there is. Yet, if you read the Gospel thoroughly, never did Jesus being courteous or polite to those religious leaders. He constantly mocks, jeers, and even embarrasses them in front of all people. He throws diatribes against them – calling them Leavens, Unmarked Graves, Lovers of Money, and even Brood of Vipers! One can even say that Jesus was being fully sarcastic to those hypocrites. How is it that this discourteousness considered as humility? Because Jesus is simply establishing themselves above them, which is the order of things. He is being humble in the sense that He is putting himself above those stiff-necked ecclesiastical abusers, who are too sure of their false conception of salvation.
You see the contrast? He is meek in accompanying the sinners who are in need of His ministry. He is forthright, sarcastic, and even rude to the Pharisees who really need to be bruised and floored to where they truly belong – the lowest position there is.
What Jesus is doing is the foretaste of the Kingdom of God – a place/state where people no longer see each other higher or lower according to their carnal eyes, but a place/state where everyone spiritually deems themselves as equal sinners before God – where they defer wholly before God’s redeeming grace.
True humility will not be attained without knowing Christ.
I would like to close this post with this short quotation from Scripture:
James 4: 6b-7, ESV
“God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.”
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.