When asked in the early fifth century what three graces a minister needs most, Augustine didn’t think twice before responding, “Humilitas; humilitas; humilitas.” When it came to pastoral graces, the great African bishop awarded humility with gold, silver, and bronze medals.
The more I grapple with the Scriptures and my own proud heart, the more I am convinced that Augustine was exactly right. Humility is the most needful of virtues, not merely for Christian pastors, but for all people. If pride is at the root of every vice, then humility must be at the root of every virtue. In a very real sense, it is the virtue of virtues.
That becomes clear when we understand its essential nature. What is humility? Simply put, it is the downward disposition of a Godward self-perception. Let’s unpack this definition so that we can see why Augustine would prize humility so highly and why we should as well.
Humility, first, is a downward disposition of the soul. The Scriptures refer to it as a lowly spirit. Proverbs 29:23 states, “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” God likewise declares through His prophet, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isa. 57:15). Sadly, the exact opposite was what characterized the nation of Israel in the wilderness. They perished under God’s judgment because “their [collective] heart was lifted up” (Hos. 13:6). The humble heart is one that is not lifted up with the illusion of self-sufficiency and the aim of self-glory. Humility is an internal disposition directed downward toward the self.
However, it is important to clarify what the Bible doesn’t mean by a lowly spirit. Sometimes humility is mistakenly confused with having a low view of oneself or perhaps with the debilitating feelings of incompetency, inferiority, and hypersensitivity that some people experience. But this is not the biblical understanding of humility. A low view of oneself is sometimes a manifestation of the same pride that fuels a high view of oneself. Whether our soul feels distraught with a low view of ourselves or delighted with a high view of ourselves, our problem could be the same, if we have a heart lifted up with self-consumption and the glory of man.
Therefore, not every lowly spirit can be equated with humility, for this vital virtue is a downward disposition produced by a Godward self-perception. The lowly spirit of humility is the reflex of seeing ourselves standing not before other people but before God. That is why the Scriptures inseparably bind humility and the fear of God together. Using synonymous parallelism, Solomon writes, “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor” (Prov. 15:33). Later he says, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Prov. 22:4). It is as our souls grow upward in fear toward God that they grow rooted downward in humility toward self. To fear God is to have a heart in the grip of His greatness and goodness. As we come to grasp His infinite greatness, we come to see ourselves in our finite creatureliness. As we reckon with His infinite goodness, we come to see ourselves in our fallen corruption.
A popular notion of humility is that it entails forgetting about ourselves. Instead, humility is the internal frame of heart that results from seeing ourselves as we really are. The problem of pride is not that it sees the self, but that it sees the self wrongly. Humility is a putting of the self in its proper place before the glory of God. As John Calvin famously argued in the opening of his Institutes, “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”
When we come to grasp our creatureliness and corruption before the self-revelation of God, it can only drive us one place: the grace of God in the gospel. Humility renounces the illusion of self-righteousness and repudiates all attempts at self-salvation. The humble soul recognizes that if it would be saved, God Himself must do the work. Furthermore, it marvels at the fact that God in His lovingkindness has done the work, for the Son of God as infinite Creator has taken to Himself our creaturely finitude. He did so in order to suffer the curse for our corrupt fallenness so that we might be restored to a loving bond with Him. The humble soul delights in the salvation God has wrought by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, unto the glory of God alone. Being served by God in the gospel, the humble soul cannot help but serve its fellow man in word and deed, hastening the day when God will be all in all.
Are you beginning to see why Augustine prized this virtue so highly and why you should as well? Humility is your great need, and it is mine too.
This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.