Tools for Living

Humility and Religious Faith

“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.” ~William Temple

 

The world’s great religious traditions all recognize humility as one of the essential virtues needed for spiritual growth. For instance, in the Hindu text called the Bhagavad Gita (or Song of God), Lord Krishna (God incarnate) instructs Arjuna to “Be humble, be harmless, have no pretension.” (13:7-8)

In the Islamic Qur’an, Surah 23:1-3, Mohammed writes, “Successful indeed are the believers who humble themselves in their prayers and who shun vain conversation.” And in Surah 18: 23-24 he says, “Never say that you are going to do anything without adding Insha’Allah (if God wills).”

And in the seminal Taoist text known as Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains Tao as the fundamental principle of existence that creates and governs all things. He describes it in very humble terms: as a small mountain stream that feeds mighty rivers and seas, or as a plain, unadorned block of wood. Yet he also says it’s the divine mother of heaven and earth, selflessly nourishing all that exists. The Taoist Sage learns to live in harmony with this fundamental principle, of which humble service is a primary attribute.

In Chapter 67, Lao Tzu describes “three treasures” regarded as essential Taoist virtues: compassion, frugality, and “not presuming to be first in the world”-in other words, humility. Later in the same chapter he states that humility is the source of true leadership, returning to the idea previously expressed in Chapter 66:

The wise ruler’s desire to be above the people
Means that he must speak from beneath them,
And his desire to be at the head of the people
Means that he must put himself after them.

Jesus likewise taught that humble service is essential to leadership, saying that “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44) Similarly, in Luke 18:14, He says, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And in Matthew 18:4, He states that “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents the famous beatitude usually translated as, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Meekness, like humility, is often misunderstood as timidity or a sort of cowering submissiveness. But in this context it means nothing more nor less than humble submission to the will of God:

The Greek word praus (πραΰς), usually translated as “meek,” describes someone assertive rather than aggressive, god-controlled rather than willful, and teachable rather than full of pride. In other words, someone who is humble.¹ Was there anything meek about Jesus’s overturning the money-changers’ tables and driving them from the Temple grounds? Yet he described himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” (Matthew 11:29)

Of course Jesus did not just recommend humility as a virtue for others, but exemplified it in his ministry and his life. “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me,” he said, crediting God rather than glorifying himself and stating that he sought to do only God’s will, not his own. (John 5:30) And far more telling than his words, of course, and far more challenging for us to realize in our own lives, is the example of complete devotion to God’s will shown by choosing to surrender his own life in the Garden of Gethsemane.²

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¹ See William Barkley’s, at “The Sermon on the Mount”

² See Matthew 26:36-50

Quotes about Humility:

Psalms 25:9 “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”

Psalms 45:4 “In your majesty ride forth victoriously on behalf of truth, humility, and righteousness.”

Proverbs 11:2 “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”

Matthew 11:29 “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”

“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” ~Confucious

“Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” ~St. Augustine

“Humility is the proper estimate of oneself.” ~Charles Spurgeon

“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.” ~William Temple

“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” ~Thomas Merton

“True humility is intelligent self respect which keeps us from thinking too highly or too meanly of ourselves. It makes us modest by reminding us how far we have come short of what we can be.” ~Ralph W. Sockman

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all. ~Thomas Szasz

Links to additional reading about Humility:

A selection of passages about Humilitytaken from the scriptures of world religions

W. Gregory Pope on “Climbing Benedict’s Ladder of Humility”

From tektonics.org, “What Is Humility?”

Kenneth Boa on “Humility,” from bible.org

Grady Scott, “Blessed Are the Meek”

“Step 7 Scriptures,” from 12Step.org

Recommended Books:

C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness
Pastor Mahaney draws on Biblical texts to explain the virtues of humility and the liabilities of pride, and suggests several helpful ways for us to seek humility in our own lives.

Thomas Jones & Michael Fontenot, the prideful soul’s guide to humility
An inspirational book about developing and practicing humility, drawn from examples in the life and teaching of Jesus.

Mary Margaret Funk, Humility Matters for Practicing the Spiritual Life
A Benedictine abbess, Funk writes about the importance of humility in practicing a spiritually centered life, saying that “Humility for a disciple of Jesus Christ is what enlightenment is for a Buddhist, surrender for a Muslim, realization for a Hindu, and sincerity for a Confucian.”

Andrew Murray, Humility: The Journey toward Holiness
A short but dense exploration of humility as the essence of Christianity.