In the process of teaching a course on Christian Spirituality, I came across some writings on humility from Jeremy Taylor, 17th century writer and cleric in the Church of England. This happened to be in the Social Justice section of the textbook and it made me ask: what does humility have to do with social justice? Turns out that the two have quite a lot to say to each other.
First, let me offer a few definitions of humility. A contemporary dictionary provides us with these helpful descriptions: not proud or arrogant, modest, having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.; low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly, courteously respectful; low in height or level, small in size. The Old Testament word for humility contains these ideas: to be depressed in mind or circumstance, afflicted, humble, needy, poor, looking down, to prostrate, to submit, sink, abase, be low, to bend the knee. In case you weren't feeling quite enough lowliness, here is what the Greek word for humility in the New Testament means: to level a mountain, to bow down beneath the hand of God, limitations placed on the worth or wealth of a person.
Perhaps addressing a few more basic questions will be helpful when talking about humility. 1. What is it? 2. Why do I need it? 3. How do I know if I have it? and 4. How do I get it?
First, what is humility? For me, the heart of the matter has to do with "source." Romans 12:3 says: Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it's important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. (The Message). Humility means that I am not my own source. Whatever good I have, whatever good I can produce, it is not something that I have been able to conjure up within myself. Humility is living in grace. Humility is a gift.
Second, why do I need humility? 1 Peter 5:5-6 in the Good News Translation tells us this: And all of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another; for the scripture says, God resists the proud, but shows favor to the humble. Humble yourselves, then, under God's mighty hand, so that he will lift you up in his own good time. We need humility because without it, we are in opposition to God. Jeremy Taylor puts it this way: Humility teaches us to submit ourselves and all our facilities to God, to 'believe all things, hope all things, endure all things' to which His will directs us, to be content in every situation or change; to adore His goodness, to fear His greatness, to worship His eternal and infinite excellence, and to submit ourselves to all our superiors in all things according to godliness, and to be humble and gentle in our conduct towards others. Humility is necessary if I want to follow Jesus. Without it, I am following myself.
Third, how do I know if I have humility? 1 Peter 3:8-12 tells us: Summing up: be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless - that's your job, to bless. You'll be a blessing and also get a blessing. Whoever wants to embrace life and see the day fill up with good, here's what you do: say nothing evil or hurtful; snub evil and cultivate good; run after peace for all you're worth. God looks on all this with approval, listening and responding well to what he's asked; but he turns his back on those who do evil things. (The Message). If I have humility, I will be a person focused on blessing others instead of climbing the ladder to success. My job will be to bless, not to garner praise or be valued by others. My value comes from God, not from how highly others esteem me. If I have humility, I will be indifferent to lowliness or greatness.
Fourth, how do I get or develop humility in my life? In reading through the Bible, I found several situations that went hand in hand with humility. It appears that when we practice the following acts, humility is never far away. a) Worship is not possible without humility, because in worship we choose to place the highest value and worth on God instead of on ourselves. See Numbers 29:7. b) Confessing our evil intentions and repenting requires great humility. It is easy to excuse and defend our mistakes or failings, but humility acknowledges our shortcomings and intentionally turns away from self-serving actions. See 2 Kings 22:18-20. c) Asking for guidance and directions is another way that we embrace humility. Not only are we inviting others (especially God) to help us, we are inserting ourselves into a communal situation where we depend on each other. See Ezra 8:21-22. d) Recognizing that we don't know everything and saying 'I don't know' does not always come naturally. We want to be looked up to, admired, commended. Instead, Jeremy Taylor insists: Never say anything that would directly lead to your praise or glory, whose only purpose is to commend yourself. He also notes that it is unhelpful to compare ourselves with others, for this leads to distorted valuations of ourselves and others.
How does all of this relate to social justice? Humility, first of all, is a gift of grace, an acknowledgement that we are not our own source. Humility is meant to be a foundational force guiding our lives into agreement with God's valuation of all things. Humility necessarily leads to actions that reflect courageous and compassionate service because we value what God values. Social justice, which concerns itself with equity and responsibility within community, is thus only possible through the grace of humility. Cool, isn't it?
One final note from Jeremy Taylor: Humility begins as a gift from God, but it is increased as a habit we develop.
The quotes used here and other thoughts from Jeremy Taylor on humility can be found at: http://www.semanticbible.com/blogos/stories/2003/06/08/exercisingHumility.html
This was taken from a talk I gave in our faith community on Sunday.
the photo: taken in Idyllwild, California, high up in the mountains. Not low.