It’s hard not to fake humility; yet, seemingly, we need to do just that.
For instance, some of the sayings of Jesus on humility seem to raise more questions than they answer. For example, in the parable of taking seats at the table, Jesus suggests that we should not move towards the highest place, lest somebody more important comes along and we will be humiliated by being asked to move lower. Rather, he says, move towards the lowest place so that the host might come and ask us to move higher, and in this way our very humility will be showcased before the other guests. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, and whoever exalts himself will be humbled. On the surface, this would seem like little more than a strategy to get honored while all the while looking humble.
The biblical invitation to not consider oneself better than others begs the question: Can someone who is living an essentially moral and generous life really believe that he or she is no better than someone who is uncaring, selfish, or even malicious in how he or she relates to God, others, and the world? Do we really believe that we are no better than others? Did Mother Teresa really believe in her heart that she was no better than anyone else? Could she really look at herself and say: “I’m just as great a sinner as there is on this planet?” Or, did she, and must we, in the end, feign humility because we don’t really believe that we’re no better than what’s worst on this planet?
And so we can ask ourselves: Is our belief that we are no better than others, often times, really only a pose, something we have to affirm about ourselves but which doesn’t stand the full test of honesty? Further, isn’t our humility, in the end, really not just a subtle strategy to be honored in a deeper, more-respected way? Who wants to be seen as proud and full of himself? And, can we ever be humble without then taking pride in that? Do we really believe that we are no better than anyone else?
I’m partial to an insight John Shea once offered in trying to answer this. Looking at some diary entries by Bede Griffiths, where Griffiths openly confesses that he is no better than anyone else, Shea asks whether given the quality of Griffiths’ moral and spiritual life and given the depth and compassion he developed through years of prayer and discipline could Griffiths really have believed that he was no better than anyone else? Could he really not compare himself with others? Is it really possible for any of us not to compare ourselves with others?
Shea suggests that the key to those questions lies in looking closely at what Griffiths means when he asserts that he is no better than anyone else. When Griffiths makes those assertions he is not focused on his, or anyone else’s, moral actions. At the level of moral actions, it is humanly impossible not to make comparisons. We all make comparisons, even when we deny that we do so. But the roots of humility do not lie in where we stand, above or below, others in terms of our moral actions.
When Griffiths sincerely sees himself and believes himself to be no better than anyone else in this world, he is looking rather at his core, at the depth of his heart, where he sees that he, like everyone else in this world, is vulnerable, alone, fearful, naked, self-centered, inadequate, helpless, contingent, just as much in need of God and others as absolutely every other person on this earth, and, thus, no better than anyone else.
Nobody gives himself life, sustains himself in life, or gives himself salvation. We are all equally inadequate and helpless here. Our contingency levels us all, from Mother Teresa to Hitler, and the key to genuine humility lies in recognizing that. Indeed, the more morally and psychologically sensitive we are, the more likely we are to recognize our neediness and our solidarity in weakness with everyone else. When a Bede Griffiths makes the claim that he is no better than anyone else and that he stands in need of God’s mercy just as much as every sinner on earth, he is not faking humility, but he is not making moral comparisons either. He is speaking out of something deeper, namely, the fact that ultimately we are all equally helpless to give ourselves life.
The invitation to humility is a clear and constant echo inside of Christian spirituality, from Jesus, through Bede Griffiths, through Mother Teresa, through every spiritual guide worthy of the name: Become like a little child. Take the lowest place. Never consider yourself better than anyone else. Know that you need God’s mercy as much as the greatest sinner on earth. However we don’t come to this by comparing ourselves to others, but by recognizing how utterly naked we all stand outside of God’s mercy.