“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6.
It is not uncommon for aspects of the religious life to clash with the secular world. One area where this occurs is in the subject of humility. Catholic tradition, as well as every saint, extols the virtues of humility. In contrast, humility is not highly regarded in the secular world, often taking a backseat to self-confidence and boasting.
Why does humility take such a prominent place in the spiritual life while being considered of little value or even a hindrance in the secular world? I would suggest that the cause of this very different view of humility lies in very different views of human nature.
In a secular context, humility connotes a low self-regard. In an age influenced by the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (will to power) and Jean-Paul Sartre (existence precedes essence), the concept that one should be humble is not considered highly. Besides, from the perspective of humanism or atheism, the individual decides for himself his nature (which is what Sartre’s existentialism essentially posits). There is no need for humility.
Why, then, do the saints and the Catholic tradition consider humility essential to spiritual growth? The answer is that Catholicism asserts that human nature is not something man-made, but rather God creates human nature. If human nature is created by God, then it must have a purpose. To paraphrase Aristotle, God does nothing in vain. That purpose is communion with God. And communion with God requires that we recognize our dependence upon God. To acknowledge our dependence upon God requires humility.
Moreover, humility allows the proper ordering of one’s life. At the level of the individual, that includes the bodily passions being subordinated to the soul and the soul being subordinated to God. It is within this context that humility finds its place as a virtue.
Specifically, humility is that moral virtue that keeps a person from reaching beyond himself. The virtue restrains the desire for personal greatness for its sake (which is vanity). It leads people to an orderly love of themselves based on truly appreciating their position concerning God and their neighbors.
Religious humility recognizes one’s total dependence on God; moral humility recognizes one’s creaturely equality with others. Furthermore, humility is opposed to pride and immoderate self-abjection, which would fail to recognize God’s gifts and use them according to his will. (Hardon, John. Catholic Dictionary). Religious humility, therefore, is intended to place the individual in his proper relationship vis-a-vis God.
Significantly, humility has a critical role to play regarding sin and repentance. There are two aspects that I shall like to examine this claim under. First, it is helpful to view sin as any action that is contrary to the will of God. Therefore, sin is essentially an act of disobedience against the Divine authority of God. An example of this can be drawn from the Tree of Knowledge story depicted in the third chapter of Genesis.
We are told that after God had placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, He instructed Adam that he must not eat fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The tree may be understood as a symbol of objective morality. By “eating the fruit” of the tree, human beings sought to arrogate for themselves what is properly the domain of God. Put differently; humans sought to determine for themselves what is moral and immoral. One need not spend much time watching the news or studying history to see the consequences of this arrogance.
The attempt for human beings to procure for themselves what properly belongs to God is born, to some extent, by the prideful claim made by the serpent (i.e., Satan) that human beings can become God-like. (See Genesis 3:5). The virtue of humility, therefore, can be seen as an antidote to the sin of pride.
The second aspect of humility I want to touch upon is its importance in repentance. Its significance lies in humility’s capacity to allow one to recognize that one has sinned and, therefore, is in need of repentance. A certain level of humility is necessary to admit to oneself – and, more importantly, to God – that one has sinned. Indeed, Scripture suggests that humility is essential to our salvation. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt [save] you.” (James 4:10).
In light of this, it should come as no surprise that the Catholic saints sing the praises of the virtue of humility. While the saints have very different backgrounds and personalities, the one trait they all seem to share is humility.
If pride (or arrogance) is the foundation for all sin, then humility is the beginning of holiness. Saint Augustine writes, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
Additionally, humility affords the individual with a kind of clarity. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the humble person sees himself as God sees him. This includes realizing that human beings (and all of creation) depend entirely on God for their existence and salvation. For this reason, Saint Faustina thought that only a genuinely humble soul was entirely pleasing to God.
Scripture tells us that pride goes before a disaster and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Catholicism considers pride to be the root of evil. It was pride that led Satan to rebel against God, and it was pride that allowed Adam and Eve to be influenced by Satan.
The remedy for the deadly sin of pride is the virtue of humility. It is humility that strips away our pretenses and exposes us as sinners in need of a Savior. Only then can we hope to “Repent and believe the Good News.”