Humility is a compelling virtue. It is also often misunderstood and described negatively. Even its dictionary definition is somewhat elusive. Webster says that humility is “freedom from pride or arrogance . . . absence of self-assertion.” If that is true, it would seem that any understanding of humility would require coming to grips with an examination of pride. That task is both easy and difficult. It is easy because we are, all of us, proud people. It is difficult because pride takes on so many guises—and disguises.
We are proud people. Is that too harsh a statement? Do we want quickly to deny or refute it with examples of goodness and “humility”? If so, perhaps our rapid defense is the most telling indication of its piercing truth. Human beings, as a whole, are filled with pride. Each of us maintains a degree of pride, borne as part and parcel of our personal sinfulness.
Pride crept into the Garden of Eden, causing our first parents to focus on themselves rather than God. Pride climbed into the sky with the tower of Babel, scattering all into divisions and divisiveness. Pride entered the hearts of Joseph’s brothers; taking the form of envy and greed, it resulted in Joseph’s being sold into slavery for 20 pieces of silver.
Pride joined the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt. It ate away at their trust and fidelity, causing them to mock the God who had rescued them. It encouraged and empowered them to worship a golden calf constructed from their own possessions.
Pride poisoned David with a lust-filled desire for Bathsheba—festering, pestering, and pursuing him until he finally secured the death of her husband Uriah. In each generation, pride gives impetus to a collective urge to make a name for ourselves any way we can.
Pride prevents us from looking into humility’s mirror to see Christ
From the beginning of time, pride has plagued our footsteps as we search for holiness. Because of pride, we rush to cover up our nakedness. We seek to hide our deep truthfulness in shallow conversations and superficial comments.
Pride inserts fear into faithfulness. We become afraid to be insufficient in the eyes of others. As a result, we refuse to be vulnerable. Nor are we open to our own human needs, much less those of our brothers and sisters. Instead, we build walls of mistrust and gates of guardedness. We make them so high, wide, and deep that no one is able to know us. Who we really are remains a secret rather than a treasure.
At the same time, we are not able to understand others. Our time and energy are depleted in fearful hiding, placing blame for our behavior on others, rejecting responsibility and making excuses. Ultimately, we deny reality, refusing to look into our mirror to see Christ.
Pride prevents us from trusting truth. “I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of humanity—grasping, crooked, adulterous . . . I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess” (Luke 18:10). The prayer belies our authenticity. We protest too much. We concentrate on all that we do—losing all sense of gift and giftedness.
Beauty is now confined to the “I” of the beholder—rather than the eye of the Upholder
So imprisoned, we are rendered impotent. Powerfully bound and blinded, we are powerless to see that we are good and graced. Unable to view our goodness, we are insensible to the true beauty of our sisters and brothers. Tied pridefully to our pain and sorrow, constrained by the tallying of our good works, we evaluate others by false standards, with the criteria of human judgment instead of divinely loving kindness. We “believe in our own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt” (Luke 18:9).
Humility looks into the mirror and sees Christ; pride stands alone and aloof, narrowing vision into hopelessness
When God is no longer the focus of our lives, we lose faith. We become disheartened, angry, mistrustful, and unloving. When we are not God-centered, we are self-centered. There is no other perspective. We cannot pray, for prayer is God-centered. We cannot give, for giving is outreach. We cannot serve, for service means assistance and kindness rendered to others.
Our world diminishes until it becomes the tiny universe of one. Unhappiness and resentment torment our days and nights. Sadly, we cannot understand the reason for such dismay. Burdened, contemptuous, negatively critical, continually complaining and finding fault with everything and everyone around us, we are miserable. Worse yet, we seem unable to pull ourselves away from the misery. We would rather break the mirror of humility than look into it.
Pride has made us an oppressed people, and we do not even realize that we are prisoners of our own making. What are we to do? How do we break pride’s vicious cycle?
There is no formula for instant success. There is only the painful process of turning around—to look into humility’s mirror and see Christ. It means listening more often than speaking, seeing beauty in the presence of ugliness, recognizing goodness instead of imperfection. It calls for acceptance, beginning with accepting ourselves as saved sinners, forgiven while flawed.
Ours is a pilgrimage into humility—a trip into our deepest truth. The difference between humility and pride is identical to the difference between centering on me and concentrating on we. Humility does not guarantee sanctity. It heightens our awareness of salvation. Humility sensitizes us to the presence of Emmanuel, God-within-us.
Humility allows us to pronounce our truth: “I am already being poured out like a libation” (2 Tim 4:6). It allows us to rejoice because God is holding the cup of our salvation. Humility graces us with power and gives us the persistence of the lowly ones whose prayer “pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal” (Sir 35:17).
It is said that pride goes before the fall. If that be true, then humility precedes resurrection.
Humbly, carefully, prayerfully reflect on life. Know and believe . . . humility is looking into the mirror—and seeing Christ. ♦
Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, from which this essay is adapted. She is also a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.