Here’s the deal with humility: we’re not going anywhere spiritually without it. It’s indispensable. Humility does not frame your virtue it is the foundation of all the other virtues. If you are really proud of your spiritual life then you may not have one. Pride goes with Christlikeness like, well like nothing. They just don’t go together. Pride projects upward mobility, Christ projected downward servitude. Humility is essential. However, it’s more than that. It’s not just an essential virtue it is the first virtue. Augustine would say it this way,
If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are meaningless.
Humility is the portal to the other virtues for the very simple reason that without humility we would not have the spiritual sensitivity to pursue other virtues. Not to puff you up but, if you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that a person who is not humble would not read this. The prideful person doesn’t read blogs on humility, they recommend blogs on humility to others. They are virtuous enough. Their friends on the other hand… It’s for this reason that I stopped mentoring in the traditional way.
Not long after I became a professor a student asked to be mentored. I was honored and we met. While I enjoyed the conversation, it became pretty clear over time that this is really all it was, a conversation. He did not have the humility to want to change and, to be brutally honest, I did not have the social skills to keep pretending this was profitable for either of us. Through that experience I stopped mentoring guys if mentoring is understood as sitting over coffee and staring at each other. Im happy to hang out, but not under the pretense that we are making real progress. Now when a guy asks me to mentor him we just get together. I’m happy to meet and talk about anything. If he does not have a topic we pick one. I give him something to read or do and then send him off. If our time was profitable, he will reach out to meet again which I am always glad to do. His desire to get together again is evidence that he has the humble-hunger; he wants something he does not have. It’s been my joy to encourage many guys in this one-at-a-time fashion.
Maybe this is a definition of humility: wanting virtue we do not have. Desiring the other virtues is not the source of humility, but it’s the greatest evidence. Perhaps this is why that, according to Jesus, being poor in spirit is the first virtue that causes you to be congratulated in the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:3).
The poor know they have a need. The first beatitude is really “Blessed are the discontent.” And Jesus can meet each need. That’s no problem. Jesus never had a problem with the needy, it’s the self-sufficient who are hopeless. They are hopeless because they don’t see the truth that we are all needy. We don’t criticize someone for being poor, but if someone who is poor spends money as if they were rich, then there’s a problem. In the same way wisdom is rooted in knowing that we are not inherently wise.
When you are poor you can’t have what you want. The poor in spirit understand that there are blessings in life they cannot have because of their sinful condition. That’s true of all of us. It’s just that the humble get it. They see the landscape of their condition very well. Therefore the humble are blessed because of their self-awareness. They know they are needy. They want what they know they do not have. The knowledge of insufficiency is the soil in which God plants Himself. It’s the seedbed for all other virtue. It’s the mustard seed that becomes massive. It’s the tiny portal that opens up the wardrobe where we can put on virtue.
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