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The Elusive Virtue: Humility in Scripture, Sin, and Salvation

Stephen Pardue

A few years ago, a team of scientists in Switzerland made worldwide news: After several years of crashing beams of particles into each other in a purpose-built underground superhighway (the Large Hadron Collider), they documented evidence of the Higgs boson particle. This was big news because, while scientists had posited for over fifty years that such a particle must exist, it had never actually been observed in real life. This was exciting—and would lead to a Nobel prize the following year—because it suddenly allowed a glimpse, though it was exceedingly brief, into the smallest parts of our universe. What we knew to be true only in the most general, theoretical terms was suddenly not only confirmed, but it was also available for further analysis.

Humility: The Higgs Boson of the Virtues

I claim exactly the amount of knowledge of physics one can gain from listening to Radiolab and watching PBS (which is to say, very very little), but I want to suggest that humility is kind of like the Higgs boson of the virtues. That is, I think it’s exceedingly slippery and hard to detect, though we all have an intuition that it is a pervasive and important part of the flourishing life. Moreover, like all very small particles, the very observation of humility tends to affect its presence (or absence). Psychologists have struggled to create tools to measure humility, for example, because to claim to be humble on a survey may suggest that you’re actually quite proud, and genuinely humble people may not be willing to admit to their own virtuousness. In addition to being tough to catch “in the wild”—and perhaps because of this characteristic—humility is also notoriously difficult to define. When we say that someone is humble, do we mean that they have a low estimation of themselves? That they are other-directed in important ways, having little concern for themselves? That they accept their limitations? Psychologists and philosophers, including many of the fine CCT Fellows working on humility this year, each have important contributions to make to this discussion, which means it’s an exciting time to be studying humility. The ground I’m hoping to cover is a bit less trodden, and focuses on precisely how the Bible describes humility as a part of the pursuit to be a faithful follower of Christ. To put it differently, I am interested in examining how the Christian Scriptures make the Higgs boson of the virtues available for analysis. This is by no means the only tool available to us—the study of human behavior, and the philosophical exploration of the concepts at work here are by no means to be ignored—but it is one available window into what humility is and how it works in our lives.

Tracking it Down: Humility in the Christian Scriptures

Humility is of central significance to every major element in Scripture’s grand narrative. It is critical to understanding humans’ place in the universe that God created, both before and after the Fall into sin. It shapes the way in which Israel is redeemed from the land of Egypt, and prescribes its national character in and out of exile; and it is a critical element in the redeeming love that is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Interwoven with this grand story are three overlapping but distinct conceptions of humility, which I will examine in turn.

Creational Humility

We humans have a history of placing ourselves at the center of things. A point in case is the way we tend to treat animals, especially pets, as little more than smaller, furrier human beings, projecting our desires and interests onto them, and even sometimes (disturbingly, in my own view) dressing them like ourselves. Of course, our pets are no more humanoid in their desires and appetites than the earth is the center of the universe, but like our anti-Copernican forebears, we do not typically let that stop us.A key part of the biblical story is not only that we as humans have limits, but also that we are broken and fallen.This anthropocentrism is an understandable, if regrettable feature of the human condition. After all, we are incredible creatures, capable of remarkable things in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom. Psalm 8 sums up this tension of being human. In the span of only a few verses, the psalmist goes from lamenting the smallness of humanity, not only in relation to God but also in relation to the vast creation—“when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers…what is man that you are mindful of him?”—to remarking at how highly exalted we are above just about every aspect of creation—“you have…crowned him with glory and honor…you have put all things under his feet.” Interestingly, the psalm begins and ends with a description of divine majesty, which is a key aspect of Scripture’s view of humility. Only when we examine ourselves in light of our creator can we cultivate creational humility, the tendency to look past the great accomplishments of our hands, or of our nation, or even our species, and to see infinitesimal smallness before our creator.

Humility and the Fall into Sin

But humility must be more than simply reckoning with our finitude as creatures before an exalted and infinite God. A key part of the biblical story is not only that we as humans have limits, but also that we are broken and fallen. We are creatures crafted for glory, and while that splendor is still visible in glimpses, it is often obscured by sin and its diverse perversions of the human condition. Both as individuals and as communities, we have pursued a greatness buried in our souls, but in our quest to be exalted we have fallen from the heights for which we were created; we have been “humbled.”  
Scripture consistently depicts this movement in terms of spatial imagery. The Hebrew and Greek words for humility both carry the connotation of lowliness, and the language of pride, conversely, is associated with height. The notion that “pride comes before a fall” (Prov 16:18) is a consistent theme; “One’s pride will bring him low,” we are told in Proverbs, “but he who is lowly will obtain honor” (Prov 29:23). This reversal of fortunes is sometimes described as a fact of life—like gravity, a result of how the universe is structured—but it is also sometimes attributed directly to divine intervention: Yahweh himself is the one who abases the proud (2 Sam 22:28, Ps 18:27).When Paul wants to describe the clearest revelation of God—the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—the trait that comes to mind is humility.Being brought low is not in itself humility; rather, humility is depicted in Scripture as that brokenness of spirit which acknowledges that we have brought ourselves low through our entanglement with sin and vice. This is the kind of humility that is symbolized in so many rich ways in Scripture—tearing one’s garments, sitting in ashes, wearing sackcloth—all of which are designed to communicate externally the internal brokenness that comes with assessing oneself with honesty. It is the narrow door through which all must enter into a life of submission and fidelity to the Triune God.

Humility as the Way of Salvation

It is here that we arrive at the third and most important way that the Christian Scriptures talk about humility. Humility not only involves accepting our finitude—our smallness in the scope of God’s creation—and our fallenness—the brokenness that we inherit and then perpetuate as we aspire to the greatness for which we were created—but ultimately it involves our salvation from those things, as an infinite and perfect God descends to our rescue. You are probably familiar with the most famous description of Jesus’s unique example of humility. In Philippians 2:1-11, the Apostle Paul seeks to bring the Philippian church together in spite of persistent division, and at the center of his appeal is a description of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. It is here that humility is vaulted from the periphery of the biblical story to its very center. When Paul wants to describe the clearest revelation of God—the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—the trait that comes to mind is humility. But we should recognize a problem here. If the Son of God can be described as humble, the word must mean something different from what we have highlighted so far. Namely, the rightful acknowledgment of one’s finitude and fallenness, since the Son of God has no limitations or sin with which he must grapple. Instead, we encounter here a third, but related way of understanding humility, in which we are called to lay aside our rights and privileges in the interest of loving our neighbors. We can see the lineaments connecting these three concepts if we are careful. To draw the line as straight as possible, we can say that Israel and then the Church are called in the Old and New Testaments to be humble—to honestly confess their creaturely limits and their sinful habits—not only because this is what will put them in right relationship with their creator, but precisely so that they can be instruments of God’s love to the nations. The connections between these three types of humility are also evident with a little reflection on the practicalities of life. Becoming the kind of person who will, when appropriate, lay aside your privileges on behalf of others, requires—or at least is catalyzed by—a willing embrace of your creaturely limitations as well as an acknowledgment of your entanglement with sin. Only a person who is comfortable admitting that they are not infinite can, for example, give up leadership responsibilities that need to be shared; only a person who grasps the power of sin in their life can accept that they may be on the wrong side of an argument and so reconcile with their spouse.

Conclusion: Cultivating the Elusive Virtue

It can be tempting to make one of these aspects of humility dominant and ignore the others. But taken together, these ways of thinking about the elusive virtue have advantages. In addition to helping us make sense of the variety of ways that humility is used in Scripture, as well as in contemporary grammar, having a richer view of humility can help address some of the special challenges associated with the virtue. For example, I think it can help us address the puzzle of what it means to cultivate both humility and self-esteem, and it promises to help inform the challenge of speaking with our neighbors of other faiths with both humility and conviction. It even holds promise with regard to participating in political life. In future posts, I’ll be working to demonstrate exactly how this is true. But to put it as briefly as possible, I will argue that embracing the rich conception of the virtue that appears in Christian Scripture is what leads us beyond simple platitudes and into life with the Triune God who is revealed most clearly in a manger and on a cross.