Humility: The Mother of Virtues

In the spiritual tradition of the ancient Church, humility was considered the most mysterious of the virtues; difficult to define and elusive to explain.  In this tradition humility is a subject principally and most poignantly treated in the monastic literature, especially in the teachings of the Desert Fathers (4th and 5th century monastics located principally in northern Egypt).  In the spiritual life we strive to be conformed to the likeness of Christ.  The ascetic challenge is to overcome the vices and passions that control us and prevent us from being conformed to the likeness of Christ.  When we are conformed we live in a specific way—traditionally we are said to be striving to acquire the virtues and to be living virtuously.  Humility was considered the mother of the virtues.

The pivotal role of humility in the spiritual life derives from the Lord’s teaching, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)  The Lord’s teaching is that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.  He commands all to learn from His divine humility and meekness as God’s only Son.

St. Dorotheos, abbot of a monastery in 6th Century Gaza began his teaching on the subject of humility by saying, “One of the Fathers used to say: Before anything else we need humility; a being ready to listen whenever a word is spoken to us, and to say, ‘I submit’, because through humility every device of the enemy, every kind of obstacle, is destroyed.”  A little later on he also says this:

Listen to what the Lord himself tells us: ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest for your souls.’  There you have it in a nutshell: he has taught us the root and cause of all evils and also the remedy for it, leading to all good.  He has shown us that pretensions to superiority (pride) cast us down and that it is impossible to obtain mercy except by the contrary, that is to say, by humility.  Self-elevation begets contempt, and disobedience begets perdition, whereas humility begets obedience and the saving of souls.  And I call that real humility which is not humble in word and outward appearance but is deeply planted in the heart for this is what He meant when He said that ‘I am meek and humble of heart’. [in Wheeler, 1977, p. 95]   


 Humility was understood as both a grace granted by God and as a virtue which the follower of Christ strives to acquire.  So, St. John Climacus could say, “Humility is a nameless grace in the soul, its name known only to those who have learned it by experience.  It is unspeakable wealth, a name and gift from God..” (in Luibheid, 1982, 25:2)  Abba Poemen, one of the Desert Fathers put it this way, “As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God” (in Ward, 1977, p. 95).


How then do we understand humility?  If the teachings can be adequately summarized, in the patristic mind it would probably be understood as the “safeguard of the soul.”  When we lose control, when we are swayed by the passions, then we are open to the power of the temptation.  Thus, as St. Dorotheos counsels, “humility protects the soul from all passions and also from every temptation.” (in Wheeler, p. 99)  Humility was understood as a remedy, an antidote, enabling progress in the spiritual life.


This perspective on humility is based on an understanding of the human condition which differs from the contemporary one.  As fallen humans, all of us, even those who are believers, are understood to be weak and subject to both outside spiritual forces and to the passions.  The term ‘the passions’ is common in the spiritual tradition of the ancient church, and perhaps the best contemporary English terms to describe it are habits, fixations or addictions—the things in our lives which really control us.  Thus the starting point was the understanding that we are spiritually weak and need to develop our spiritual capacity.  This is in marked contrast to the self-assured contemporary view which commonly dismisses the spiritual struggle and assumes that we are spiritually competent.  The modern Christian view somehow expects that the simple act of “becoming” a Christian automatically advances a person to spiritual maturity.  In contrast, the ancient church understood that we begin as spiritual babes, that advancement requires work on our part, and that because the body and soul are so inextricably linked, the work began with the body.  Thus Dorotheos’ maxim, “Let work humble the body, and when the body is humble the soul will be humble with it, so that it is truly said that bodily labors lead to humility” (in Wheeler, p. 102).


In the teaching on humility, much of the emphasis is on the most severe vice which hinders spiritual growth, namely pride or pretensions to superiority.  We are all aware of the saying “Pride goeth before the fall (Proverbs 16:18),” and there is a solid spiritual foundation for it: pride blinds one to the truth.  In fact, St Dorotheos describes two types of pride: pride of self and pride of this world.  Pride of self is the condition wherein a person places great value on himself, and considers others (his brothers and sisters) worth little or nothing.  Pride of this world is the condition wherein one considers himself above another because he is richer or more handsome or has more possessions; in other words, he is vainglorious.  Remember, he is not describing the heathens here, he is talking to Christians about their shortcomings; in fact, he is talking to monks in the monastery of which he is the abbot!  In his spiritual counsels he describes two types of humility which are antidotes for these types of pride.  The antidote for the first is to hold one’s brother or sister to be wiser than you are, in all things to rate them higher, to put oneself below all others, and to attribute to God all virtuous actions.  The antidote for the second type of pride is to pray unceasingly, recognizing that nothing good and sure happens in the soul without the help and supervision of God.  The person “does not rely on his own abilities but attributes to God everything he does right and always gives thanks to Him.  He is always calling on God for fear that God may stop helping him, and so let his native weakness and powerlessness appear.  So through his act of humility he prays, and through his prayer he is made humble.” (in Wheeler, p. 101)


Of great practical interest for us in modern times and especially in the marketplace, is the thesis that St. Dorotheos puts forward: that humility as a virtue stands between the two extremes of the vices: “Therefore, we say that virtue stands in the middle: and so courage stands in the middle between cowardice and fool-hardiness; humility in the middle between arrogance and obsequiousness.  Modesty is a mean between bashfulness and boldness—and so on with the other virtues” (in Wheeler, p. 166).  In other words, humility is the divine middle ground that can keep help us attain balance and stay centered; in the middle between self-hate and self-love.


These ancient Christian teachings can begin to illuminate for us the most common problem with the subject of humility—the tension between the extremes of self-centered arrogance and self-loathing.  On the one hand we are generally repelled by people who are self-centered, selfish, arrogant or who have pretensions to superiority.  In the “class-less” Democratic society in which we live, there are few left who can claim a position of superiority.  Democracy has taught most of Western society and much of the rest of the world the Biblical principle that all persons are created equal and have intrinsic value, and that there is really no distinction to be made on the basis of creed, color, gender, wealth or class.  Those who make such distinctions almost always are arrogant.  Regardless of the basis for their claims, they are selfish and self-centered, and worst of all they believe themselves and those like them to be superior to others.  As we consider the role and practice of faith in leadership, it is clear at the outset that a leader (or follower for that matter), who exhibits these attitudes and behaviors either has no faith or possesses a very shallow one.  The Lord told us “you are my friends if you do the things which I command you,” (John 15:14), and among His commands was to be humble like a child.


The practical tension that leaders and all persons in authority must deal with is that between ability and pride.  To be able, to have the requisite skills, gifts and talents,  should be the basis for being placed in positions of authority and influence.  As obvious as this may seem, the Peter principle (people rise to their level of incompetence) demonstrates that this is not always so.  On the other hand, advancement into leadership and authority positions often leads to pride.  So shouldn’t humility be an equally important qualification?  Interestingly, the Lord’s teaching about the need for being “humble like a child” is linked directly with a consequence: “whosoever shall cause one of these little stumble, it is better for him that a great millstone should be hung around his neck and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).  If we put people who lack humility in positions of authority, who is responsible?   For without humility, not only may people become prideful, arrogant and abusive of others, but those who put them in the positions of authority do so at the peril of their souls!  Who is more guilty?  The person who is weak and controlled by the passion of pride, or the one(s) who put that person in a position from which they can do damage to others and to themselves?


The practical tension is apparent on the other end of the humility continuum: self-loathing.  Most often humility is dismissed as an undesirable virtue in the marketplace because it is understood as being mealy mouthed and soft, or worse yet, as not having a positive self-image.  In our society, image, and especially self-image, is everything.  We rarely worry about being humble in the Biblical sense of the word, but rather emphasize the need for self-esteem, assertiveness, and a strong and positive self-image.  The problem is simply that this emphasis on self-esteem is frequently not tempered with humility, and the outcome is often the types of pride that St. Dorotheos described: self-centeredness and vainglory.


Our challenge in the arena of faith in leadership is to achieve the balance between these two extremes of self-centeredness and self-loathing.  Of course a healthy and positive self-image is desirable, and in fact good!  But from whence does it come?  From being the most powerful person around, or from being created in the image of God?  From being the most beautiful, or being in submission to the One in which we have faith?  What kinds of things make us “feel good” about ourselves?  Our achievements and possessions, or the cultivation of the virtues and progress in the spiritual life?  Our leadership accomplishments, or being conformed to the will of God?  We live in an age that is still busy casting off the draconian self-loathing of our puritanical ancestors.  But we risk throwing out the baby with the bath water.  Yes, many people are riddled with guilt and saddled with a lousy self-image.  But more often than not it is the result of only receiving one half of the teaching.  If you are constantly told that you can do nothing good apart from God, and are not told that God loves you and that you are essentially good, you could easily begin to believe that you are a bad person.  Thus begins the fruitless cycle of being whipsawed by the passions and of pursuing fulfillment and personal satisfaction wherever they can be found.  And, of course, it appears easier to find that satisfaction in food or drugs or alcohol or sex or money or power than it does in communion with God.  Just turn on the television, they’ll tell you it’s so.


Why are these understandings of humility, of vices and virtues, of passions and self-discipline, so foreign to us?  Because like the Prodigal Son we have forgotten our true home and gone wandering off to a foreign land where we have squandered our inheritance and have resigned ourselves to living and feeding with the swine.  As modern Christians we are so influenced and shaped by our culture and its values that we have pretty much lost the understanding that the basis of true personal worth is being created in the image of God.  We have forgotten that our true home is the Kingdom of God, and have settled for this world.  We have forsaken the path of spiritual discipline and fulfillment, and settled for the values and means of personal fulfillment that our society proffers.


Is it any wonder that humility is misunderstood and therefore rejected?  Though that may be the fact of the matter, rejecting humility is not an option.  It is a command of the Lord, and is especially critical for leaders.  Humility is the divine middle ground between arrogance and self-loathing.  The word comes from the Latin humus which means “soil” or “earth.”  A humble person, therefore, has his feet on the ground and is down to earth.  A humble person is centered, balanced, integrated, whole and healthy—physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Humility is the soil out of which grow faith, hope, love and all the positive qualities of the spirit, as well as congruent and high quality leadership.  As Hopko sums it up, “God-given humility is the ability to live by the fact that everything is from God, and through this heartfelt conviction to become an organ of divine powers who performs the inscrutable works of God” (1983, p. 99).


Humility includes honesty.  Honesty about our relationship to and dependence upon God, and honesty about ourselves.  In the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Pharisee was honest in his declaration that “I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”  However, the Pharisee was dishonest in that he didn’t acknowledge his own sin.  The Publican was humble and saw his own sin and confessed it.  Humble people are completely self-honest.  They understand their strengths and weaknesses.  They know their abilities and talents, recognize that those gifts come from God, and thus do not fall prey to pride.  In fact the humble person may even sound boastful in speaking the truth.  But it is not pride-induced boasting if it is truth.  On the other hand, the humble person may demur from the truth about themselves because they fear it will result in pride.  And in fact, within the spiritual tradition of the ancient Church, the humble person will flee from such a circumstance which creates an opportunity for pride.  Thus Abba Titheos says, “The way of humility is this: self-control, prayer, and thinking yourself inferior to all creatures” (in Ward, 1975, p. 237).  Why thinking myself inferior to all?  To avoid pride.  Is this self-loathing?  No.  It is simply attempting to live out the Lord’s statement that unless we become humble like children we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.


Excerpted from the essay FAITH IN LEADERSHIP: Humility and Vision as correlates of Faith by Benjamin D Williams



Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings.  Translated by Wheeler, E.P.  Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977.



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