January 31, June 1, October 1
Chapter 7: On Humility
The third degree of humility is that a person for love of God submit himself to his Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says, “He became obedient even unto death.”
Very Revd Dr Christopher Hancock, Dean of Bradford
It is a very great pleasure to be invited to preach tonight. To be invited to Jesus [reference is to Jesus College, Cambridge University] once is generous, to be invited twice is stupendous, to be invited three times is positively miraculous! Some months ago I said I would speak on humility: it has seemed a poor idea ever since. For one virtue the church individually and corporately is reckoned by its critics to be most lacking is humility. As George Bernard Shaw declared, “The Church must learn humility, as well as teach it”. In this season of Lent a certain honesty before failure, hesitancy before mystery, reticence in the realm of public morality and care about institutional integrity, would to most critics of the Church be worthy expressions of Christian Lenten penitence.
But the Church’s difficulties don’t end here. For the issue of humility isn’t just about being humble; it’s being humble about the right things in the right way and at the right times. In G K Chesterton’s famous words of caution, “What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has settled on the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth. This has been exactly reversed.”
So what of genuine Christian humility? That virtue hidden in the heart of the Christian God of suffering love and self-giving forgiveness, that’s embodied in the life of His Son who, the ancient Christian hymn declares, “humbled himself and became obedient unto death even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). What can we say of this true humus in which the Christian virtues all take root and grow, this delightful aroma (to change the analogy) in a truly great person that sours when created artificially by the falsely ‘umble, and yet overpowers empty vanity when it meets its living opposite? For God, the Bible makes clear, “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). So the wise disciple “humbles himself under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6), and becomes the little child who is called “great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:4). For humility and the essence of Christian wisdom are close cousins in the spiritual life. As T S Eliot glimpsed, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility”.
So what of this strange virtue of Christian humility?
First, it is more difficult to define than to depict. Like musical notation, it’s better understood when performed than merely scored. It’s a done thing not a defined thing. For meekness, gentle self-denial, self- deprecation, self-sacrifice, forgetfulness, low self-regard, or a high regard for others, don’t really capture it. But see a great musician pause to enjoy a beginner’s poor efforts and pass an encouraging word, and you see and know humility. As one of the college staff said of one of Magdalene’s great members in recent years, “He always had time for us”. And of him how true G.K.Chesterton’s words once again, “It is always those who are secure who are humble”.
This leads to the second mark of Christian humility: it is always more interested in others than self. If genuine sympathy is clouded by the sin of self-centredness, how much more true humility. For humility acts to show that another matters more. It makes room, gives space, attends with care. It doesn’t take itself so seriously that it can’t admit others do things better and roars with laughter when its faults appear. ” Without humility, there can be no humanity”, it’s sometimes said. It’s true humility which opens its heart to others and unites others in that act. If pride dehumanises self and others: humility does the reverse. No wonder Charles Simeon, echoing Augustine, said the three essential virtues of the Christian ministry were “Humility, humility, humility”.
But if humility is more interested in others than self, it is also, thirdly, more committed to truth than convenience, to truthfulness than spin, we might say. For humility isn’t concerned to cover up. It takes the risk of honesty. It’s unvarnished authenticity, not
lacquered gilding. So some will always find it – or call it – naive and untutored, irresponsible and, condescendingly, ever-so-endearing or sweet – but with the implication that the humble deserve to be! St Vincent de Paul linked humility and truth, though, in a way that makes it supreme. As he wrote, “The reason why God is so great a lover of humility is because he is the great lover of truth. Now humility is nothing but truth, while pride is nothing but lying”. It’s why the great scholar bows for truth. Bows before a sense of the unknown and admits his own limitations and limited knowledge.
But humility is not just about attitude, it is, as we’ve begun to see already, also about orientation. Supremely, it’s more inclined to look up to others than down on them. It’s more comfortable with the lowly that the great. It is, like Jonny Wilkinson – or so he appears – genuinely amazed, if not embarrassed, by the plaudits and sits light to human praise. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “The humble man receives praise the way a clean window takes the light of the sun. The true and more intense the light is, the less you see of the glass”. Pride reflects praise: humility absorbs it appreciatively and passes it on to others. If pride was the first sin, not surprisingly humility (for it’s the most essential feature of wholesome and attractive living Christianity) is the last virtue to be sought, let alone won.
So what’s this genuine Christian humility? How does it express itself? In being seen at work not wondered at; in being more interested in others than self; in being more committed to truth than convenience, to truthfulness than spin; in being more inclined to look up to others than down on them, and, like the incarnate Son of God, being more comfortable with the lowly that the great. But if humility is a done thing more than a said thing: it is more often a silent thing than a loud thing. It listens more than speaks. Because it’s passionate for truth it doesn’t need to be defensive, seek self-justification, or win every argument no matter what. And because the humble can never know they are (for in the act of self-refection humility evaporates, like the shadow lost by turning), humility makes no attempt to project itself. It certainly makes no pretence of being humble, and, as St Francis de Sales said, it “scarcely ever utters words of humility”. No, humility is Christian silence ennobled, and Christian presence embodied in all the glory of Christ-like servanthood and strength.
And, in this Lenten season, it’s well to recall that humility is, lastly, more akin to sacrifice than self-indulgence. We know it by its opposites. We see it in self-giving and promote, or preserve, it in humble prayer, energetic praise, and hard-working service. For Christian humility doesn’t just happen, we affect it. In New Testament Greek it’s expressed as much by an active verb as a passive noun. We work to be humble by humbling ourselves. We grow in humility by deliberate humiliation. We radiate humility when the cost is unimportant and the good brought to others all that matters. But that is no more than saying, “If you really want to know what humility is, look at Jesus Christ”.
Humility. It’s what gives a distinctive flavour to Christian religion and philosophy. As William Law’s Serious Call to Devout and Holy Life concluded, “We may as well try to see without eyes or live without breath, as to live in the spirit of religion without humility.” So, as he wrote,
“Let every day be a day of humility; condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of your fellow-creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellences, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowliest of offices to the lowest of mankind.”
That is Christian humility.