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Donald McKim on Humility

We know humility or humbleness can be mischaracterized today as being wishy-washy or having no strength or “backbone.” But biblical prescriptions to humility (Col. 3:12; Eph. 4:2; 1 Pet. 5:5) urge this attitude out of seeing ourselves for who we are. If humility is “freedom from pride; modesty; not arrogance” (Samuel Johnson, Dictionary [1756]), then “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Rom. 12:3) is realism. We are not God; we are not Jesus. We are “us,”—“rag-tag bunch” that we are! In Lent, the haunting realities of sin evoke this realism.

Jesus is our model of humility. In pre-Christian and Greek writing, the word for “humbleness” (Gr. tapeinophrosyne) meant lack of self-respect. It “expresses the temper of a crouching slave,” says Markus Barth. But, he continues: “Paul, however, does not degrade humbleness. On the ground of Jesus Christ’s example (Philip 2:3-11), the NT points out that humility distinguishes the saints from people who ‘think highly of themselves’” (Ephesians, Anchor Bible, 34A: 458).

When Augustine was asked the way to true life, he replied the steps were: First, humility; second, humility; third humility. Calvin said of true humility that “if anything in our whole life is difficult, this is the worst.” Humility is rare, “for there is no one that is not eager to be on top.” (Commentary on Philippians 2:3)….

Yet even in “humility,” we can be tempted to seek the spotlight and turn in upon ourselves (Luther’s definition of sin). We need to heed St. Jerome who wrote: “Beware of the pride of humility; and having renounced the desire to attract by thy fine raiment, seek not to call forth attention by thy rags.” We can always find ways to reverse the movement of Jesus’ “descent” in humility—from heaven to earth; from master to servant, even as he washes disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20).

Our hope is in Christ who can help us come to a “right estimate of God’s gifts and our own infirmities” (Calvin). Whoever we are and whatever we have comes as God’s gracious gift to us. We don’t seek self-exaltation or esteem of self. As Calvin points out, if we correct and detect our faults, we will “have abundant cause for humility.”

- Donald McKim, Gathering Voices (The Thoughtful Christian blog)
March 12, 2011