When we hear the word “humility,” many of us think of low self-esteem and self-deprecation: I for one used to envision the ideal as making a concerted effort to disavow the truth of any compliment ever received.
The Christian tradition, however, has never quite seen humility this way. In fact, the above is something of a caricature. For St. Thomas Aquinas, humility is about recognizing the truth about oneself, which entails recognizing both our limitations and our gifts. For example, if someone told Lebron James that he is one of the greatest basketball players ever to play—and if Lebron gave credit to his coaches and those who have helped him along the way and ultimately to God—then Lebron could say in all humility, “Thank you” and simply acknowledge the truth of the statement.
Building upon this framework, C. S. Lewis captures the essence of humility in his Screwtape Letters, writing: “By this virtue, as by all others, [God] wants to turn [our] attention away from self, to Him and [to our] neighbors.” For Lewis, humility is not a matter of thinking less of ourselves—but less about ourselves, forgetting ourselves and turning outward in love.
“[God] wants to bring [us] to a state of mind in which [we] could design the best cathedral in the world and know it to be the best and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than [we] would be if it had been done by another. [God] wants [us], in the end, to be so free from any bias in [our] own favor that we can rejoice in our own talents as frankly and gratefully as in our neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. [God] wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even ourselves) as glorious and excellent things…. He would rather [us] think ourselves a great architect or a great poet and then forget about it, than that [we] should spend much time and pains trying to think [ourselves] a bad one.”
Have you ever been in a conversation where it seemed like the other person couldn’t get past what they had going on that day (their tasks, their worries)—where they really weren’t “available,” even though they were right in front of us?
Or, have you ever been in conversation where it almost felt as if you were “watching” yourself have the conversation—wondering almost audibly to yourself: “How did I sound just there? How did they take that? Am I making a good impression?”
Compare this to those wonderful free-flowing conversations, where you really lost yourself in the ebb and flow of the discussion. In these wonderful encounters, we’re not thinking about ourselves—we’re not worried about how we look. Rather, we are truly entering into the world of the other—and this is what humility enables us to do. Humility enables us to forget ourselves and turn outward in love. In this sense, humility liberates us from the self-absorption of our ego, opening up space for a greater communion with God and others.
Pride and vanity are restrictive, turning us inward—ultimately making us sad, insecure, and restless. Humility, on the other hand, is expansive—turning us outward, and making possible an encounter with true joy.
Even of Our Sins
Paradoxically, the “I’m so terrible” attitude can actually undermine humility. Lewis hints at this when he writes: “Even of [our] sins [God] does not want us to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner [we] turn our attention outward, the better [God] is pleased.”
Of course, we must treat sin with utmost seriousness. But when we fall and we’re distraught, we have to ask ourselves why we are so upset. Is it merely because we have offended God, or is it perhaps partly due to the fracturing of the idealized version of ourselves? This is what Lewis is getting at. Jacques Philippe teaches likewise in Searching for and Maintaining Peace:
“[The sadness and discouragement that we feel regarding our failures and our faults are rarely pure; they are not very often the simple pain of having offended God. They are in good part mixed with pride. We are not sad and discouraged so much because God was offended, but because the ideal image that we have of ourselves has been brutally shaken. Our pain is very often that of wounded pride” (for more here, see chapter 7 of my Spiritual Survival in the Modern World: Insights from C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters).
How can we come to God as we are—acknowledging our brokenness and our gifts—trusting confidently in his mercy? How can humility as self-forgetfulness help us grow in communion with God and neighbor?