What is Humility?

Biblically, what is humility? As Pilch and Malina note in the Handbook of Biblical Social Values [118f], in the culture of the individual like we have, we emphasize achievement, and humility is not practiced (indeed, one notes that calls for “humility” usually come from those who lack achievement and feel persecuted about it).

Biblical humility, however, is as we would expect in a collective society, where the good of the group is placed over that of the individual. In a world like this where one is assumed to be assigned to one’s place by the gods, fate, or providence, humility means:

  • Not “presuming on others and avoiding even the appearance of lording it over another.”
  • Not threatening or challenging another’s rights, or claiming more for yourself than has been allotted to you in life. In other words, it is “a socially acknowledged claim to neutrality in the competition of life.”

    In this light think of the servant/slave who says to Jesus, “I have only done my duty,” and Paul’s admonition to be content with your station. Despite critical claims, this is not a “keep them downtrodden down” mentality, but an encouragement to humility.

In contrast, the non-humble person is one who:

  • Attempts to better himself at the expense of others (note that this is not a matter of public discourse of ideas, as in challenge and riposte, but personal interaction and value)
  • Tries to acquire more than others (money, honor, power)

In the Bible, the humble person was one who acknowledged their place, like John the Baptist calling himself “unworthy” compared to the Messiah (Mark 1:7). Note that there is a distinction to be made between being humble becoming humble (or “humbling oneself,” i.e. stooping to less than you deserve).

That said, what is the application for today? We live in a society in America and the West that, again, encourages achievement and honors social stratification and climbing. Our best course for Biblical humility is an informed and realistic picture of who we are and what we are capable of. In that small sense, it is not too different from “humility” as we know it today, but it diverges in that some insist that to be “humble” we actually need to distance ourselves from our abilities and pretend not to have them, or that they are not that great after all.

This is a reactionary practice that has morphed true humility into a bludgeon for the easily offended who are envious because of their own lack of skills and abilities. It is little wonder we are “schizophrenic” in this matter: we have lost the true meaning of Biblical humility.

The true meaning — referenced in Phil. 2 — calls for us to be like Christ and humble ourselves, and this is done by becoming servants to others with our abilities, not denying our abilities. One gives honor to others rather than drawing attention to one’s self (though in today’s “advertisement”-oriented society, this can be a hard tightrope to walk).

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