Each New Year naturally prompts reflection on the previous year and anticipation (resolve) regarding the year to come. My ponderings and reflections on the challenges of 2021 lead me to this conviction: humility has become the ugly duckling of Christian virtues. Humility is as old as religion. All major religions emphasize its importance, but that doesn’t mean humility is practiced or even valued. The virtue of humility is too often forgotten because it’s among the hardest of all virtues to practice. In Whatever Happened to Humility? Graham Standish states:

Humility is an “essential” virtue that too many of the faithful forget is essential. Perhaps this is because it is among the hardest of all virtues, requiring that we willingly put aside ego and pride to embrace meekness. Who wants to do that? Putting aside ego and pride means letting our faith be created in God’s image. It’s much easier to mold faith to fit our image of what God wants. But humility won’t let us do that.

During Advent, I was privileged to hear Amy Jill Levine speak at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. Oddly, Levine is a Jewish scholar who teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity, a Methodist seminary, in Nashville, Tennessee. Levine’s keen insight into New Testament context humbled me. Early in her presentation she said something that caught my ear: “We are so much better off when Christians and Jews read the Bible together.”

I loved hearing Levine interpret the birth narrative through her Jewish lenses. For example, she spent quite a bit of time talking about the manger, a prominent feature of our Christmas celebration each year. Levine says Christian romanticizing of the manger scene misses the point. Messiah is placed in a trough where animals feed. Luke doesn’t vividly describe this scene so we can reenact it each year in pageant form. Perhaps something much more significant is happening here. Does the feeding trough in which baby Jesus was laid possess deep theological meaning? Think about it, Messiah was placed in a feeding trough where animals ate and themes of humility and feeding are prevalent throughout Jesus’ ministry (feeding the 5,000…sharing table fellowship…banquet stories…and the Lord’s Supper). Jesus’ humble beginnings in a lowly feeding trough foreshadow important emphases of his life and ministry.  

One of Jesus’ powerful stories recorded in Luke 14:7-14 reveals how to act when a guest or a host at a banquet. While attending a dinner in the home of a rich religious leader, Jesus notices how guests are seating themselves—they all really want to be near the host in places of honor.  Jesus uses this occasion to teach important lessons for guests (don’t jockey to sit close to the host lest you are re-seated when someone more important shows up) and the host (don’t just invite those who can return the favor).

Luke also says this teaching is “a parable,” which tells us the story is pointing to something less obvious. Jesus ends his tale with a moral: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The moral seems a lot bigger than party etiquette, doesn’t it? This is the way God’s kingdom works: If you exalt yourself—lift yourself up, act like you’re important or “top of the heap,” deserve elevation—then you will be brought down. But if you humble yourself—assume you are not worthy to receive honor—then God lifts you up, shows you your value, confirms your status as loved and cherished. In other words, come to God without arrogance and the assumption you deserve honor and Jesus will call you friend. Why? Because you rightly understand the concept of grace—something you don’t deserve and can’t earn. This understanding is included in the core of the Christian message—we can’t ever deserve a place at God’s table. God graciously invites and includes all of us because of God’s great love!

Is there a connection between the best way to be a guest and the best way to be a host? To the same extent we understand we are included by God’s grace, we are to graciously include others. Read the rest of Jesus’ story to discover the reason we are instructed to include the excluded because that’s what God does! Jesus’ harshest words of reprimand were for those who insisted upon excluding others they considered unworthy and beneath them. Jesus teaches the way of humility, grace, and inclusion.

Jesus not only told stories about the essential quality of humility, he embodied humility:

  • he washed his disciples’ feet
  • he touched the untouchables
  • he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey
  •  he humbled himself and became obedient to death on the cross (Phil. 2).

As Jesus’ disciples, we, too, are called to become humble like children. Thinking of others as “better” than ourselves simply means we accept the truth God loves everyone. God does not refer to a worthiness scale when God relates to God’s creation.

Why talk about humility? Because the virtue of humility is not very popular in Christian circles these days. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. Recently, a well-known “political” figure had the audacity to say out loud: “We turned the other cheek…and it’s gotten us nothing.” This flawed understanding of “good news” is not the Gospel, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the teaching and modeling of Jesus. No wonder we frequently hear confused ultra-conservative Christians talking about wielding political, even military power on behalf of God. Too often these days we hear a certain faction of Christians imposing their way of seeing on others and demeaning those who understand their purpose differently.

Humility has become the ugly duckling of the Christian virtues because some see humility as weakness (see quote above). Leaders want to appear strong, powerful, and authoritative. The mystics, following Jesus’ pattern, showed us being humble is how we become strong in the way God is strong. Humility exposes self-interest and selfishness and purifies motives. Choosing to lead with a humble heart, we lay aside self-centered motivations and desires in favor of the Jesus Way. Our example creates context for others to do the same. Humble leadership is naturally tethered to love and justice because humility sees and cares for the forgotten.

Choosing the way of humility also keeps us from reducing Christianity to a set of beliefs and/or practices that make us falsely feel we have “arrived.” “Getting our beliefs right” fosters arrogance. When did we start assuming that holding “right beliefs” means we no longer need to grow or strive to embody Jesus’ ethical teachings? Arrogance about correctly stating our beliefs leads to certitude that shuts down our ability to stay open to the new things God wants to accomplish in and through us. Humility keeps us curious and ever open to Spirit nudges.