Is God humble?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 03, 2016

A few weeks ago, I jotted down a question I thought might be worth writing about: How can God be considered humble? I remember that the question occurred to me while I was reading Scripture, but if I had a blazing insight I wanted to share, I have completely lost it now. Still, the question remains on my list, and I am haunted by the certainty that there is something in it. Perhaps I should start a new series, “Answers to questions nobody asked.”

Here is the crux of the matter. As Christians, we are constantly enjoined to be humble. We learn that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6), and that “whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4). Our Lord also told us, point blank, that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:12, Lk 14:11, Lk 18:14). But at the same time we are enjoined to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), and it is just this that raises the question. After all, do we really think of our Father in Heaven as…humble?

Humility in Scripture

If you read the Old Testament quickly, you may receive the impression that humility is not part of the identity of God. A search of the Revised Standard Version for the words “humble” and “humility” suggests that these are used primarily to describe not who God is but what He does to others. He “humbles” those who oppose Him, those who are “uncircumcised in heart” (Lev 26:41). This active humiliation begins early, when God demands of Pharaoh (through Moses and Aaron): “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?” (Ex 10:3). And it runs through the Old Testament like a bright red thread.

But we do get hints of something fuller and deeper than this, even in the Old Testament. First, it is clear that God loves those who are humble, and takes care of them. As Isaiah says:

For thus says the high and lofty One
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
"I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite. [Is 57:15]

Before long we find Zechariah hinting at something which goes a good deal farther:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass. [Zech 9:9]

In the New Testament, we soon see that this kingly humility is really a Divine humility. It is more fully manifested in Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). God the Son, at least, exemplifies humility to the highest possible degree.

But apparently humility is not restricted to the Son. Consider:

Philip said to him, ‘’Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? [Jn 14:8-9]

Here Our Lord actually laments our thick-headedness in failing to see (among other things) that the Father Himself is humble—that humility really is an attribute of God.

Humility and Love

To understand how this is so, we need to notice the relationship between humility and love—for we have been thoroughly taught (and have little trouble recognizing) that God is Love. A person can be humble without love. For example, we can be convinced and perhaps even ashamed of our deficiencies, our lowliness, our lack of worth as compared with others. Both an unsparing recognition of our weaknesses and a pathologically negative self-image can produce a kind of unvarnished (and unhealthy) humility. (It is worth noting that humility in a person who does not recognize his own dignity is never attractive.)

The proper mark of a healthy humility, as has often been said, is that the person knows who he is and who God is. He knows, relative to God, that he is a comparatively lowly creature. He knows that this puts him on essentially the same plane as all other men and women. But he also knows that he and all others are beloved by God. Finally, he understands that all have faults, but that he does not really know the faults of others, whereas he is painfully aware of his own. Accordingly, he is quite willing to believe he is no better than others, and perhaps worse. Here we have a healthy person who refuses to be blinded by pride.

An unhealthy humility is unlikely to bear any significant fruit. It tends toward either despair or a kind of powerless contentment with one’s own baseness. But a healthy humility, which by its very nature regards both oneself and all others as precious, becomes a firm foundation for genuine service. It creates at least the ability to be sufficiently self-forgetful to make selfless decisions. Humility is therefore a harbinger of love, which is the will to put the good of another ahead of oneself.

It should now be clear that it is possible to have humility without love, but it is not possible to have love without humility. We can abandon our pride unconditionally without loving others. But we cannot love others unconditionally without abandoning our pride. Perfect love, in fact, requires perfect humility.

God is love, which means—great as He is—He is not proud. He is humble. And so must we be, if we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 06, 2016 1:34 PM ET USA

    When I think of humility, I think of a person who knows who and what he is, a man who deals with reality as it arrives, and does not try to sidestep it. The Wikipedia entry says, "having a clear perspective." In reference to self-knowledge as a base on which to commit moral acts and to exercise daily decision making, humility wears no masks, does not waiver, and abides in the cardinal virtues. Does humility befit God? St. Thomas says no, as regards His divine nature, but in His human nature, yes

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Feb. 05, 2016 1:23 PM ET USA

    Gen 1:26, "Let us make man in our...likeness." This tells us that any trait we humans think of as good is a trait that God Himself has, more or less, or else He would have done a bad job making us like Him, & we know that cannot be. Protestants miss this nuance with their me & Jesus idea of the kingdom. If we think it's good for a kingdom/govt to have order, to have minor officials for smooth governance, then God sees the good in that too, so His kingdom must work similarly, again more or less.