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A closer look at virtue: humility

Molly Carman
Courtesy of Family Research Council

The first virtue that we discussed, kindness, is concerned with seeing and treating others rightly. The second virtue, humility, is concerned with seeing ourselves rightly.

Humility is a difficult virtue to cultivate and maintain because as soon as someone thinks they have become humble, they likely no longer are. However, Scripture speaks of humility as a disposition that is essential to a righteous and holy life. James 4:10 says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Furthermore, Proverbs speaks frequently about the virtue of humility: “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life” (22:4), and “Humility comes before honor” (18:12b).

Christ Himself was characterized as the humble servant who denied Himself to the point of death (Phil. 2:8). As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ’s example of humility (Matt. 16:24).

If humility is the practice of rightly ordered perception of oneself in relation to others and before God, how then should we perceive ourselves?

As in everything, we ought to take our cues from God’s Word. First of all, the Bible tells us that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Therefore, everyone — including ourselves — possesses great dignity and worth on account of our Creator (Ps. 139:14, Mat. 22:20-21).

Elsewhere, the Bible says that mankind is created “a little lower than the heavenly beings” and “crowned with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). This high view of humanity is tempered by the reminder that we are made of dust (Gen. 2:7, 3:19; Ps. 103:14; Ecc. 3:30) and are mortal, our lives are like a vapor (Gen. 6:3; Ps. 39:5, 78:39, 144:3; James 4:14).

Furthermore, all humans have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23, Is. 53:6). Not one of us is righteous — we all need a savior (Rom. 3:10-11, 6:23). This knowledge should shape the way we think about ourselves, others, and our standing before God.

In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explained a common misconception about humility: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” In other words, humility is not a feeling of low self-esteem. Such thoughts lead to ungodly habits of self-degradation and idolization of others. True humility courageously decides to consider others' well-being before your own and acknowledges God’s holiness and authority.

Unfortunately, humility is often torpedoed by the vice of vainglory. Vainglory is not simply vanity (i.e., the obsession with physical looks, beauty, or fashion). Rather, Rebecca DeYoung describes vainglory as being concerned with the display or manifestation of excellence. Everything that a vainglorious person does is for the purpose of being noticed, recognized and admired. In other words, the world is their stage, their reputation is everything, and everything they do caters to their reputation. Some people struggle with vainglory more than others, but it plagues us all.

Social media entices our appetite for vainglory. Every post, comment, like, and share of our perfectly arranged and photoshopped lives encourages this vice. Vainglory wants others to be impressed and admire our “good” deeds. The temptation takes shape when we embellish our stories, do a good deed so that others will see, or lie about our abilities to get flattery and attention.

When we are vainglorious, we frivolously strive after man’s approval while neglecting to give glory to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Vainglory seeks to satisfy our deepest desire — to be known and loved. But unfortunately, this vice will leave us more desperate and confused in the end, because it cannot quench a desire that only God Himself is capable of satisfying.

Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Let us not become desirous for vainglory, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:26). The remedy for vainglory is humility. When we step back from our own reflection in the mirror and instead seek to reflect Christ to others, the seeds of humility can begin to take root in our lives. While vainglory shouts to the world, “here am I, look at me,” humility cries to God, “here am I, send me.”

The habits of vainglory and the habits of humility do not occur overnight. Both grow out of small decisions that we make about how we will live our lives.

Humility is a conscious decision to choose habits of servanthood, selflessness and stewardship. This virtue begins by honestly assessing our habits of life and how we are hindering ourselves from virtuous living. Humility begins with asking the Lord to search and know us, examining our hearts, and practicing giving glory to God alone (Ps. 139:3-4). Humility teaches us to see ourselves rightly before God and in relation to others. When we see ourselves rightly, we live more peaceably with all, especially with ourselves.


Originally published at the Family Research Council

Molly Carman is a Research Assistant with the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council. 

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