The eighth fruit of the Spirit is humility, or probably the least popular virtue of all. How many people would say that their life’s desire is to be meek? How many pray for their children to be meek? In a world where pride is the overarching sin of the age, we tell people to be proud! Yet the Bible lists meekness as a positive trait, and pride as wrong. Proverbs tells us that pride goes before the fall, but Jesus tells us that the meek will inherit the earth.
Why are we so allergic to meekness?
One reason is because we misunderstand the meaning of meekness. Meekness and weakness are not the same thing. If you are weak, you cannot be meek. Someone once defined meekness as strength under control. It voluntarily laying aside our rights and privileges for the sake of others. If you are weak, you have nothing to lay down. When a weak man submits to the will of others, he is just being a doormat. But when a strong man lays down his rights, he is doing so as a choice.
Moses and Jesus are the Bibles two examples of meekness. Psalm 37 11 tells us that Moses was the meekest man on the face of the earth. Zechariah 9 9 calls Jesus meek and lowly. Yet they are the two strongest characters in the Bible. Moses brought the whole nation of Egypt to its knees. Jesus was the Son of God who accepted the worship of others and gave claimed to be God. Yet both of them were praised for their meekness.
Meekness is a laying aside any honor and glory due to us rightfully due to us.
Philippians 2:1-2 is a hymn of praise to Christ’s meekness. In verses 1-4, Paul encourages the Christians in our day to be meek and humble. (and no, this wasn’t any more socially acceptable in Paul’s day than it is in ours!)
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Paul uses Christ as his example.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus was God, deserving equal honor to God. Every creature on earth should have bowed before Him. He could have claimed every crown and kingdom, but instead he laid aside his rights. He obeyed human authority, even to his harm. Every authority he ever submitted to was stupider, weaker, and less worthy than Himself. Every time he paid taxes or obeyed a public ordinance, he submitting to an authority that did not deserve it. His submission was not about their being worthy or even right, but a choice that revealed Jesus’ meekness. Christ submitted to authority because he was humble, not because they were right.
Perhaps the best way to understand humility is by recognizing its opposite. Humility has two opposites—pride and envy. These two vices are mirror images of each other.
First, let’s look at pride. Pride thinking, feeling, and acting as if our thoughts, ideas, purpose, feelings, and plans are much more important than anyone or anything else. It is the all-powerful “I”
Pride is a “stealth” sin. We never recognize it in ourselves. Even when we know we are feeling pride, we deny it is a sin. We always justify our pride. Pride is not how we feel about ourselves, but how we relate to others. But pride isn’t celebrating the good within us. It is thinking, feeling, and acting in a way that indicates we are better than everyone else. Pride is not inner strength, but a lack of outer boundaries. Pride isn’t thinking we are right, but insisting that everyone must think as we do. It isn’t just celebrating our own accomplishments, but insisting everyone else should celebrate them as well. It isn’t just knowing the importance of our divine calling, but insisting that our calling is the only calling we can have, and that everyone else must drop what they are doing and make way for us. It is the mistaken believe that our lives, needs, and accomplishments are bigger there most important. We insist on being honored, but we will not honor; others we demand to be loved, will not love; we insist on being forgiven but do not grant forgiveness.
The mirror image of pride is envy. Aquinas defined envy as sadness at the accomplishments of others. Envy is seeks to deny or belittle the accomplishments of others.
Envy was the second sin in the Bible—pride was the first. Cain killed his brother out of envy. Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him out of envy. Envy caused strife among the disciples, and almost sank the church at Corinth. It’s not the desire for more for us, but the desire for less for everyone else that brings destroying envy into life. Most people do not care how much they make, just as long as everyone else has less than they do. That is envy—the desire to look better than others, even if we are worse.
Humility has three dimensions—thinking, feeling, and doing.
Humility in our thinking means that we recognize that we are not the center of the universe. When we are proud, we forget that. We think that maintenance of the universe has somehow become our responsibility. If we don’t do them, things won’t get done, and when we do something, it’s more important than what everyone else is doing. If we think about it objectively, this makes no sense, but then pride keeps us from thinking clearly. The idea that we are indispensable is a prideful attitude. God does not need your help running the universe. The idea that the world cannot survive without us is incompatible with humility.
Emotionally, humility is appreciating the thoughts and accomplishments of others. A humble person is not worried about hurt feelings, because he realizes that it is not all about himself.
An athlete spends his life in fierce competition. He works hard to win. But when he loses, he can still appreciate the skill of the man who beat him. He truly respects his competitors, and sincerely hopes for the best for them. A prideful person is a sore loser, because the competition was all about egos.
Are you able to argue without losing your temper? Prideful people are seldom able to do this, because they are emotionally involved in being right. A humble person loves the truth more than he loves being smarter than others. He rejoices in losing an argument, since it results in deeper insight. Our feelings of hurt in being proven wrong is a good indicator of how deeply pride has infected our lives.
How does it make you feel when you see others who have more than you do? Do you feel threatened by the authority of others? Are you able to joyfully submit when called? A humble person is happy that he or she is no in charge of the universe.
In the area of behavior, humility means obedience. We willingly submit to legitimate authority.
We should not submit to illegitimate authority. Illegitimate authority is being bullied by those who demand that we can’t think or act for ourselves. Abusive husbands and nagging wives are not legitimate authority, and should not be obeyed. Bosses who tell us to break the law or cover up their wrongdoings are not to be obeyed. But those whom God has placed over us, who have not stepped outside of their rightful place of command should be obeyed, even if think they are making a mistake. Jesus obeyed worldly authorities, even when they were actually His inferiors. He did not challenge the priests, even though He could. He submitted and obeyed for God’s sake, not theirs.
One of the best descriptions of authority comes from the Rule of St. Benedict—one of the earliest rules for Christians living in community. In his section on humility, St. Benedict lists twelves steps to humility. Most of them have nothing to do with obeying God directly, but he inists that they only way to learn to obey God is by obeying those on earth that God has placed over us. We cannot obey God who we do not see if we will not obey God-given authority that we can see.
The last part of Philippians 2 shows through Christ’s example the benefits of humility.
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Because Jesus was humble, even submitting to the Cross, God lifted His name above all others. While it is true that Jesus was God, he also proved his worth. This put him in a much higher position that anyone else.
One of the stories of King Arthur and Camelot is the story of Sir Gareth. Arthur invited him to serve at Camelot. Gareth refused, unless Arthur would fulfill certain conditions. He insisted that he come to Camelot and serve in the kitchen for one year, in the lowest possible menial jobs. If at the end of the year, Arthur found him worthy, then he would take a seat with the knights. Gareth did not want Arthur to exalt him because of his name, but for his value. He wanted his humility to prove his nobility.
Jesus did the same thing. He voluntarily took on meekness to prove his love.
God not only asks the same from us, but he also promises the same reward. He who humbles himself will be exalted. When that happens, the meek will truly inherit the earth.