What Is Humility?
humility : the condition or quality of being humble. A noun form of the adjective "humble"; also "humbleness". [ < Old French, < Latin humilis (lowly, low to the ground), < humus (ground, dirt)] Humble: characterized by modesty in behavior, spirit, or attitude; showing deference or reverence or submission; low in rank, quality, or social position. In most religious and self-help contexts, it means having a sense of perspective about oneself and one's real value instead of a perceived, fantasy, or promotion-based value. The word-field of this side of 'humble' includes lowly, meek, meekness, modest, modesty, well-grounded, unpretentious, restrained, unassuming. The Greek word in Colossians 3:12 is tapeinophrosune, a compound word (tapein (low to the ground) + phren (gut, diaphragm; the mind was thought to be located there) ). It implies a solid sense of proportion and self-smallness, and relates to how one thinks of oneself.
The Verb Is Not Nice
The verb form 'to humble' is less salutary. It means that someone/thing makes someone else humble, especially someone who had been proud or of high rank. Unlike the adjective, the verb form implies "power over". The noun form which comes from this verb is "humiliation", which in turn led to another verb form "to humiliate". If you're someone who humiliates, God will humble you. Other verbs in the verb's word-field include abase, debase, degrade, demean, disgrace, and shame.
Both thrusts of the word are amply found in the Bible.
According to the Bible, humility can be caused by an awareness of
- God's holiness
- God's justice
- lowliness of mind
- destituteness in spirit.
God seeks from us a life of humility. God is most often at the side of those who have been humiliated or brought down low, and will not despise a contrite heart.
In Colossians 2:18-23, Paul speaks of what humility is really about, and warns about false or artificial humility.
A proverb notes what God's justice does in making the proud humble.
Humility and Being Humble
In Christian terms, to be humble is to have an honest perspective on yourself. It comes from the same root as 'humility', but also the same root as 'humiliation'. Being humble is not about being humiliated. Christian humility is understanding that you are not more important or more valuable or more loved by God than anyone else, that the God who far surpasses all of us has given each of them something special. Christian pride is based on the understanding that you are not at all less important or valuable or totally loved by God than anyone else, that the Spirit has given you something special, too. Humble people have the right frame of mind for putting to use the gifts God has given them. If you think yourself 'better than', you aren't likely to use the gifts to serve others. If you think yourself 'better than', you harbor the desire or hope that you can get others to serve you. If you follow Jesus, you follow a God who dined with tax collectors and traitors, washed his followers' feet, and died like a criminal with criminals. There is no 'better than' in this. This is the heart of being humble: serving a God who is greater than us.
There's another angle to being humble: a humble intelligence. We tend to think that the way we think things are is the way they actually are. This is true in all walks of life, but it is usually seen as most common in religious thinking. While I myself can think of other endeavors where I've found as much hubris of knowledge as in religion (academia and politics, for instance - I've been there), it is in religion that it is at its most dangerous. That's because it's so close to what life and existence are really all about. It is the biggest of lies to think that you (or the group you belong to) can ever be able to fully know the way things are. This is especially so when there's One who's infinitely bigger than you, who has an intent that is just as infinitely big. Hubris makes you think you're better than you are and better than everyone else, and thus you should rule over them. Hubris kills any spiritual goodness within you, and any openness to God or others.
What is needed is 'epistemic humility' - being wise enough, and having enough self-perspective, to know that you don't ultimately know. Epistemic humility doesn't mean that you don't aim high. It means you don't pretend you've reached it. You are not God. You are in the same boat as everyone else. They might have a different angle on it; at least listen and fairly consider what they see. Or, no one has a clear idea, and each is checking out a different part of it. Keep your own limitations clearly in view so that you don't pretend them away. This is one of many good reasons not to judge or condemn your neighbor -- you're really in no position to do so. You can learn, you can trust that what you've learned is true, and it does matter that you learn more. But there's always something partial or broken or incomplete about it. You can't escape that. There are some things that come from understanding this: tolerance, an open heart, and a listening ear. And due to those, increased wisdom.
"Humility makes us real."
-- Thomas Merton
"One way to bear necessary pain is to be humble. If we are humble, we will be willing to allow something uncomfortable to happen to us if it is the right thing to do. This is because part of being humble means not perceiving ourselves to have rights or privileges that we do not possess."
-- Henry Cloud & John Townsend
"Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
-- 1 Peter 5:5b
"Humility does not mean I grovel before God, like the Asian court officials who used to wriggle along the ground like worms in the presence of their emperor. It means, rather, that in the presence of God I gain a glimpse of my true state in the universe, which exposes my smallness at the same time it reveals God's greatness."
-- Philip Yancey, *Prayer* (Zondervan, 2006), p.37
"Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less."
-- C. S. Lewis
You can also check humble and humility in the dictionary.