Lenten Reflection: What is humility?

by Jeff Papia

During the season of Lent, we are consistently reminded of our need for humility. Not only are we encouraged to become more humble by the traditions of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we are strongly challenged to do so by the Gospel readings we hear as well. In Matthew 23, Jesus admonishes the scribes and Pharisees for being hypocrites that seek honors and titles. These readings are a warning against self-seeking pride, which tempts us to put ourselves before others and before God. Instead, we are called to become more like Jesus, whose paradoxical wisdom flips worldly values on their head when he tells us that “whoever wishes to be great among you, will be your servant” (Mark 10:43).

So what is true humility? Certainly, humility means that we are not preoccupied with self-promotion, honor, reputation, or success. However, this does not mean that we must be self-demeaning. We can easily make the mistake of thinking that being humble involves feeling bad about ourselves or having low self-esteem, but this is far from the truth! A low self-opinion, much like an over-inflated sense of self, still tends to make us focus on ourselves. True humility frees us from self-preoccupation and allows us to live for others.

Humility is truth in self-understanding or viewing ourselves honestly. In other words, being humble means to see ourselves as God sees us, neither touting our successes, nor mulling over our failures. We are defined neither by our honors and titles, nor by our mistakes and shortcomings. Instead, our entire self-image can be understood in reference to God. Although it seems counterintuitive to think of another, when considering ourselves, this is precisely the challenge of Christian ethics and living. When we attempt to understand who we are, we must think first of God’s love, strength, mercy, and wisdom, not our own. Who we are and what we are capable of is entirely dependent upon who God is and what God is capable of doing in and through us.

So as we journey through Lent, let us seek to be humble by avoiding selfish pride as well as self-concern, keeping our eyes fixed on others: people who need us and a God who loves us.

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