A Deep Dive Into Humility, Part 2: A Definition
April 28, 2022 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
Say my name and I disappear? What am I?
My kids love to riddle one another with questions like this. As with all riddles, there is some play on words. I can’t help but think that trying to define humility is just like this riddle. The more we try to define and think about humility the more we miss the mark.
C.S. Lewis implies the challenge of identifying humility when he wrote, “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… He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Looking to dictionaries do not help much either. The Oxford Dictionary defines humility as “a modest or low view of one’s own importance.” The Cambridge Dictionary says, “humility is the quality of not being proud because you are aware of your bad qualities.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “freedom from pride or arrogance.” And Christianity.com states, “True humility is to see ourselves as we actually are, fallen in sin and helpless without God.”
What is wrong with these definitions? At least three of them, if not all four of them, cannot apply to Jesus. Paul puts forward Jesus as the model example of humility in Philippians 2:5-8. Certainly, when Paul states that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (v. 6), Jesus has a “modest or low view of his own importance.” But Paul doesn’t stop there. Out of humility, Jesus emptied himself, was born in human form, and became obedient to the point of death. Jesus did not merely have a low view of himself (if that is what we want to call it, which is debatable), he actively sacrificed his well-being for others.
Cambridge’s definition is even more problematic, because it roots humility in the awareness of one’s bad qualities. Jesus has no “bad qualities.” Therefore, how could he be humble? Christianity.com is similar, emphasizing that humility is an honest assessment of who we are as sinful people. Jesus never sinned; does that mean he could not be humble?
Merriam-Webster’s definition, perhaps, could work. Jesus surely was free of pride and arrogance. But this definition falls short of the picture of Christ’s humility we see in Philippians 2. It is not merely absence of arrogance that leads someone to empty himself and die for others.
The problem with these definitions of humility, from a biblical perspective, is that they are solely performance centered. If humility only comes from awareness of our poor performance, whether our “bad qualities” or sinfulness, we are susceptible of killing humility with good performance. While an honest assessment of our sin and need will help cultivate humility, humility cannot be defined solely in reference to our performance.
I propose this definition of humility: living in light of God’s assessment of our nature, position, abilities, and calling. This definition honors Christ’s example of humility, who submitted himself to the Father’s will by laying aside his heavenly glory, taking on human flesh, and becoming the Redeemer of God’s elect. He lived in light of God’s assessment of his position and calling. He submitted to it.
We will unpack this definition more in the weeks to come as we consider examples of humility and attributes of humble people. Then we will discuss why humility is so important, the dangers of pride, and ways to grow in humility.
BTW: The answer to the riddle above is silence.