Understanding what humility is — and what it’s not

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19). These words, often heard on Ash Wednesday, were originally spoken by God to Adam after Adam ate the forbidden fruit and was banished from the Garden of Eden. Later in Genesis, Abraham repeats the phrase when he pleads with God to spare the city of Sodom: “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am only dust and ashes!” (Gn 18:27). Ever since humanity’s earliest days, we have been associated with the dust of the earth. The connection is not only Biblical or spiritual. Even linguistically, “human” and “humility” both derive from the Latin humus — meaning “earth” or “dirt.” St. Isidore calls the humble man humo acclinis — literally, “bent to the ground.”

Indeed, a recognition of one’s own lowliness and sinfulness is necessary in removing obstacles to the Faith. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius dedicate the entire first week for meditation upon one’s own sin and the sin of humanity. However, it would be a great mistake to stop the meditations there. The following three weeks of the Spiritual Exercises are reserved for meditations on Christ himself: his ministry, passion and resurrection. The entire purpose of the first week is to properly orient the heart for the remaining three weeks. Recognition of our earthliness and lowliness is not an end but a means — a means for opening ourselves up to the glory of Christ.

False humility

To use an analogy, I like to trail run and hike. When I do, my gaze is often on my feet. Can I avoid that root? Is that rock firmly planted? How deep is the snow? Entirely fixated with the ground, I can miss the beautiful mountain views or sunset skies. Humility certainly requires an awareness of the ground, but its whole purpose is to enable a looking up.

Want more Radiant? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!

Despite this, humility is often perceived in a looking-in sort of way. The virtue is commonly mistaken with lack of confidence or lack of magnanimity. One example is when a person receives a genuine compliment but bashfully looks away and murmurs something along the lines of, “No, I’m not that good at it …”; or when conversations are plagued with self-absorbed thoughts (“Are they enjoying talking to me? Am I boring them? How am I presenting myself?”) that entirely detract from the other person and conversation at hand. Another example is when a person hides away her talents for fear of gloating, even when those around her would much prefer to hear her beautiful singing voice or see her artwork on display; or when a person plays down her intelligence or neglects her ambition. These actions are not humble in nature.

Confidence and humility are compatible

Consider the question: How much time in the day is spent subconsciously thinking about the self? Those subconscious thoughts may be prideful and vain, or they may be insecure and absorbed; regardless, they are self-oriented. I once heard it succinctly said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” This is a fundamental aspect of humility, and C.S. Lewis capitalizes on it in an excerpt from “Mere Christianity”:

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

Indeed, as Lewis observes, the humble person is apt to think beyond himself, and this is necessary for Lewis’s other inference: confidence and humility are compatible. The humble person is a “cheerful, intelligent chap” rather than a “greasy, smarmy … nobody.” Humility is not a lack of confidence.

Embracing magnanimity

Furthermore, humility welcomes great pursuits, given they are rightly oriented. A person should not avoid striving for success in the name of humility. St. Thomas Aquinas originally defined this, explaining that magnanimity (a greatness of soul that calls persons to strive for honor) “is not opposed to humility … [so long as] each is according to right reason.” In order for the humble person to be magnanimous, she must discern and follow God’s will and wholeheartedly give the glory of her actions to God.

Our call as Christians is not to hide our light under a bushel basket but rather to let it shine, while recognizing — and this is the essential point — the light is of God and not our own. Aquinas repeatedly asserts this in his Summa Theologica: “Humility is caused by reverence to God … It is contrary to humility to aim at greater things through confiding in one’s own powers: but to aim at greater things through confidence in God’s help … [Humility] regards chiefly the subjection of man to God, for Whose sake he humbles himself by subjecting himself to others” (Question 161). As Aquinas asserts, humility is not a lack of magnanimity. Rather, it entails recognizing one’s dependence on God and subjecting oneself to others and God.

Lent is a season to grow in humility. This begins with remembrance that we are, indeed, dust, and to dust we shall return. Denial of the self — through fasting, through giving up social media or TV, through penance — in order to humble ourselves is necessary. Yet, all of these things are the means and not the ends. Sacrifices in Lent should also include looking beyond the self: more time spent in prayer, more volunteering, more discerning, more doing the house’s dishes that have been sitting in the sink all week. Grow in confidence and magnanimity. Guide your thoughts toward others. Use your gifts for the glory of God. The mountain views and sunset skies are far more splendid than the mud beneath our feet.

@Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.