Humility, the state of being humble or lowly, is a Christian virtue that we are all called to embrace. One thing I know about Christian humility is that it is not what the world seems to think it is: being a “doormat”. Jesus was humble, and he was no “doormat”. But what does it mean to be humble as Jesus was?
Let’s look at what Jesus did and said. He described himself as “humble in heart” [Matthew 11:29]. He counseled his followers to be humble too. At the last supper, when Jesus and the apostles had finished the meal together, Jesus got up and washed all their feet. Washing feet was an unpleasant job that would normally go to the lowliest slave. Feet in the ancient world could get quite dirty; footwear was often open-toed, and since homes had no indoor plumbing, chamber pots were typically emptied onto the dirt streets where people would walk. So it was remarkable that Jesus, being the apostles’ leader and teacher, would wash his apostles’ feet. He did it to teach them humility, through his own example:
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” [John 13:12-15]
Jesus took humility pretty far. For instance, we all know of human situations where someone takes advantage of someone else’s generosity. For example, to ask for favors and never reciprocate, to insult people and yet expect them to be nice to you, to claim peoples’ time and yet never do anything for them, to borrow and never repay, these are things that are undesirable, behavior that gets people hated. Nobody likes being taken advantage of. But Jesus says that it’s a good thing to invite someone who cannot invite you back:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” [Luke 14:12-14]
Jesus even advocated being willing to accept insult and loss of property:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. [Luke 6:27-31]
This is pretty difficult advice to follow. Yet it isn’t about being a “doormat”. Jesus explains, using the illustration of seating at a banquet:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 14:8-11]
What Jesus is saying here is that it is not humiliation that is the end goal. While we are to embrace humility for the sake of others, we are meant to be raised up in the end, not raised by our own efforts to the place we have chosen for ourselves, but rather, raised by one who judges impartially, raised to the place we most properly belong.
Jesus illustrated this in his own life and ministry. As God, he gave up everything he had, his divine power and state, to become a human being for our sake, making himself accessible to insult, injury and much worse: unjust execution by torture on a cross. That’s humility indeed. But God the Father raised him up. St Paul writes about this in his letter to the Philippians:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:3-11]
What are we to make of all this? I think one thing is clear. We are not to rely on our own efforts to raise ourselves up. That’s God’s business, not ours. We need to trust that he will raise us to wherever we belong. Our part is to be humble, focusing not on ourselves but on what God wants us to do. What he asks of us is to love, even our enemies, and do good, even to those who hate us. Jesus himself did these things humbly, and suffered for it, and he was raised up. So we too will be raised up, not by our own efforts, but by the gracious power and generosity of God.