What Is Humility?

What Is Humility?

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. 

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.

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