April 2011 - Vol. 49
Countering the Vices with Virtues – Part III

 Attaining true greatness – humility versus pride
By Don Schwager

Seeking glory and greatness
Who doesn’t want to be admired and honored? Nearly everyone has a favorite star or hero they admire. It may be an athlete who has surpassed everyone else in his or her field, a performer whose talent outshines all others, an explorer who risks all to open new frontiers. We glory with them in their achievements and we mourn their passing with monuments. 

This appetite for glory is more fundamental than the appetite for pleasure. Nearly everyone cherishes the secret ambition to “be somebody” and shrinks more from being “a nobody,” than from suffering, pain, and material deprivation. God made the human race to be great and to have a share in his glory. He made each human being in his own image and likeness. He foreordained us to be his own adopted children, sharing the rights and privileges of his only begotten Son. The psalmist expresses this beautifully when describing God’s creation of humankind:

You have made him little less than God, and you have crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet (Psalm 8:5,6).
Since we are called to glory and greatness, it is not wrong to thirst after it. Where the human race errs and defeats its own end is when we satisfy this thirst in a mistaken manner. Sin, which is rebellion from God, keeps us from attaining the true greatness God has promised us. When men and women seek greatness for selfish gain and apart from God’s will we end up thwarting God’s plan for our lives and we suffer deterioration and ultimate defeat. Any kind of greatness apart from him is ultimately doomed to failure. 

The world of course measures greatness in terms of wealth and power, knowledge and achievement. The title of “great” is given to those who wield powerful influence over the lives of others – whose thought and speech impact the circles of world opinion. Powerful leaders can bend the will of others to their commands. They use their wealth and accumulated resources to expand their rule and control. Men and women who win the world’s attention and applause get to wear the crown of fame and success – for a time at least. The world’s view of greatness is measured by the degree of talent and genius one has to beat everyone else to the finishing line or to the top of the ladder of success. God, however, does not measure greatness by the sum of human knowledge and wisdom, the strength of human feats and talents, or the accumulation of scientific and technological achievements. 

True greatness surpasses the total of human strength and ability because its origin and power come from the source of creation itself. There is only one who is truly great – God the Lord and Creator of the universe. The universe displays the vastness and beauty of God’s handiwork. But, God most reveals his greatness in the unbounded love and merciful kindness which he displays in his dealings with a broken and sinful humanity. Human greatness apart from God is at least imperfect and incomplete, doomed to futility and emptiness. The Scriptures give ample warning to nations and individuals alike to seek the true greatness that comes from God alone rather than the empty glory that passes away. Here are only a few of the many passages that speak to us about this.

The nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales....All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Isaiah 40:15,17).

Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord (Jeremiah 9:23,24).

Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not (Jeremiah 45:5).

How can you believe, who receive glory from one another, and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God (John 5:44)?

The key to honor and glory
Scripture says the key to receiving true honor and glory, the honor and glory that come from God, is humility.
A man’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor (Proverbs 29:23).

Before destuction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor (Proverbs 18:12) (See also Proverbs 18:19).

The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life (Proverbs 22:4).

Why is humility so important to God and so crucial for our relationship with him? Humility is rooted in truth. It inclines the mind to seek after wisdom and understanding. It seeks freedom from illusions, prejudices, vanities. Humility inclines us to God who has revealed himself as a God of truth and goodness. There is no lie in him – no falsehood or deception. Jesus assured his disciples that they could believe in him because he spoke what was true –words which came from his Father in heaven (John 7:16-18).  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). 

Jesus called his disciples to be inseparably joined with him in his way of lowliness and meekness.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle (meek) and lowly in heart (humble) (Matthew 11:29-30).
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) described humility as a foundation for all of the other virtues. 

"You wish to be great, begin from the least. You are thinking to construct some mighty structure in height; first think of the foundation of humility….the greater the building is to be, the deeper does [a man] dig his foundation. The building, in the course of its erection, rises up on high, but he who digs its foundation must first go down very low. So then you see even a building is low before it is high, and the top is raised only after humiliation."

How can we grow in humility? A first step is to understand what humility is and isn’t – and how it differs from its counterfeit, false humility, and it’s opposite, pride. 

[See helpful chart > Distinguishing True Humility from Its Two Extremes: False Humility and Pride.]

False humility
Thinking poorly of oneself or feeling inferior to everyone else is not true humility. A self-defeating mindset results from evaluating oneself too negatively: I’m a failure, I’m worthless, I can’t  do anything right, no one is really interested in me. It may even mask itself as self-condemnation: I’m rotten, I’m the worst of offenders, nothing good can come of me, I can’t forgive myself. 

People with low self-esteem do often feel useless, unworthy, unwanted. They are prone to be preoccupied with anxious concern for themselves, and find it difficult to focus on the needs of others. There are a number of ills that flow from this self-focus about what others think of us. People pleasers will often do whatever others want regardless of whether it is the prudent or right thing to do. People who are overly dependent on what others think often fail to evaluate for themselves what might be the wise or sensible thing to do. And feeling timid or insecure can lead to a lack of confidence to act or to speak out when the situation calls for it. Timid people are often poor learners – they fear correction and feedback because of low self-worth or poor self-image. 

False-humility is the counterfeit of the virtue of humility. The opposite of humility is the vice pride. Pride can take many forms, such as self-conceit, having an exaggerated opinion of oneself, and vainglory, boasting in one’s appearance, qualities, and achievements. The proud are arrogant and condescending towards anyone they consider to be inferior.

Pride is self-seeking, self-centered, and, well, selfish – being concerned chiefly with oneself and one’s advantage to the exclusion of others. It can also manifest itself as selfish ambition, the drive to get ahead of others at their expense.

The proud are often opinionated, outspoken, and domineering. They treat others as unworthy of their concern or care. The proud are not easily teachable, and often resist correction or feedback about how they behave.

True humility
The scriptures describe humility as a virtue of the heart and mind which is receptive to learning, and ready to serve.  Humility is the opposite of boasting and arrogance. 

A key characteristic of the humble is their self-forgetfulness. They are typically selfless, not self-centered. They are not fearful about what others might think of them, or pre-occupied with concern for themselves. The truly humble have a balanced, accurate view of themselves, and good understanding of their personal strengths and weaknesses, and of their role and position in the wider community and society.

The humble are self-giving and self-sacrificing for the sake of others in order to encourage and serve them. They are other-focused, mindful of others’ interests and concerns, and ready to put aside personal preferences to serve others. 

The “lowly of heart,” as Jesus describes himself, treat others with respect and concern, regardless of the others’ status, low or high. They avoid playing favourites. They are servant-hearted – ready to serve others wholly for the others’ good, without seeking personal gain.

The humble are receptive to learning and improving, and to receiving correction, training, and feedback.

Augustine of Hippo contrasts a lowly, humble person with the powerful, prestigious person who is vain and arrogant:

"The good person, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but – what is worse – the slave of as many masters as he has vices."
Prudent, teachable, and meek
The companion virtues of humility are prudence (moral wisdom), docility (teachableness), and meekness (strength under control, not driven or blinded by anger). 

Prudence is moral wisdom – the ability to handle the situations of life in a morally good way, understanding how to act based on moral truth. Docility is related to the words “doctor” and “doctrine.” A doctor in an older sense meant someone who taught doctrine. We still use the term today as a title for qualified professors who teach law, science, philosophy, and other fields of learning. Humility is related to prudence because it allows us to acquire knowledge and practical wisdom from another. The mark of a docile person is his or her willingness to be taught. Docility is rooted in humility and meekness. “Receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21) . 

Docility is an attitude of the mind and heart that wants to learn, to receive correction and direction. The virtue of docility (teachableness) enables the mind to be teachable and receptive to the wisdom and direction of Christ’s will for our lives.

Meekness is not weakness or timidity – it is moral strength under control. A meek person knows how to moderate anger – being angry at the right time, in the right measure, for the right cause, and restraining one’s anger when exercising it would be wrong, hurtful, or unnecessary. Anger that is out of control and not ruled by what is just and prudence blinds us to good moral judgment and leads to rash and hurtful behavior. That is why meekness is linked with humility, placing us in the right disposition to receive God’s help and wisdom. 

Prepared to do great deeds
The virtue of humility enables us to view and judge ourselves correctly. Viewing ourselves truthfully, with sober judgment, means seeing ourselves the way God sees us (Psalm 139:1-4). A humble person makes a realistic assessment of himself or herself without the illusion or pretence of being something he or she is not. The humble regard themselves neither smaller nor larger than they truly are. True humility frees us to be our true selves. A humble person does not have to wear a mask or put on a facade in order to look good to others. The humble are not swayed by fame or fortune, failure or loss.

Humility leads to true self-knowledge, honesty, and realism, and it frees us to give ourselves to something greater than ourselves. Humility frees us to love and serve others for their sake, rather than our own. The Apostle Paul gives us the  greatest example of humility in the person of Jesus Christ, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant ...who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

Role of the Holy Spirit
The virtue of humility is a gift and working of the Holy Spirit within us – who changes our hearts and transforms our minds, forming in us the character of the Lord Jesus. If we hunger for God’s word and submit to his training and discipline, we will grow not only in greater personal freedom from sin and hurtful desires, but in the strength of character we need to live as disciples of the Lord Jesus. Jesus not only shows us the way – he is also there with us every step of the way – directing, empowering, and encouraging us, and supplying every gift we need. 

For previous articles in the series, Countering the Deadly Vices with Godly Virtues, see:
> Part I: Faith and Virtue
> Part II: Character Conformed to the Image of God

                    of Jesus Christ book cover
Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website.

His recent book, Servants of Jesus Christ: What can the New Testament teach us about the transforming power of Christ's love and the way servanthood? is available from Tabor House Books.

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