Humility is perhaps the least understood word in the English language. Because it shares a common root with the word humiliation, the two are often confused as if they were the same word and meant the same thing. Indeed, some dictionaries will even go so far as to say that humility is the quality of being humble, and that humble means, at least in part, “having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.” Small wonder, then, that despite the fact that so many people praise humility as a virtue, so few people actively seek it. Small wonder, too, that pride and vanity so often masquerade as humility. As Thomas Fuller wrote, “Pride perceiving humility honorable, often borrows her cloak.” The world abounds with examples of such false humility, from the church choir member to minimizes her own talent in order to elicit more protestations of praise from those around her to the politician who “humbly accepts” a nomination he has schemed for, connived at, campaigned for and lusted after for months or years.
True humility, as that term is used within 12-Step recovery circles, though, is not a matter of humiliation, insignificance, inferiority or subservience. Rather, it is a matter of being “right sized”, of seeing ourselves as we truly are in relationship to God and to the world, of thinking neither more of ourselves nor less of ourselves than we ought. From this perspective, as C.S. Lewis put it, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” Martin Luther, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint Francis of Assissi, Saint Augustine and many other great spiritual masters and theologians encourage this kind of humility. It is, according to Saint Paul, the humility Christ himself embodied,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 4:6-8)
This kind of humility is a key piece of the spirituality of recovery, and is at the heart of Step 7: “Humbly asked [God] to remove our shortcomings.” To be sure, humility has been a part of the process up to this point. The admission of powerlessness in Step 1, the acknowledgement that there is a power greater than ourselves in Step 2, the decision to turn one’s will and one’s life over to God in Step 3, the thorough moral inventory in Step 4, the sharing of that inventory in Step 5 and developing the willingness to let God remove our defects in Step 6 all call for a healthy dose of humility. Often, those steps of the process bring with them what Bill W. called “painful ego-puncturing”. Having gotten through those first six steps, however, recovering people are often able to begin to see the benefits that come with humility. The wisdom to see our own part in our resentments (and thus begin to be freed from them) and the relief that follows from sharing our story with a trusted friend or spiritual guide are but two examples. Where humility has been a necessity up to this point as a “means to an end”, in time we begin to see that humility can be a virtue worth pursuing in its own right.
True humility, seeing ourselves as we truly are in relationship to God and to our fellows, being right-sized and being able to think of ourselves less is, in fact, a pathway to freedom. No one wants to think themselves a braggart; no one wants to be so rigid that they have to have their own way; no one wants to be in continuous conflict with those around them. Humility is the preventative and the cure for these and many other distressing problems. When we see this, we move to a new plane of development, seeking humility as a goal in itself rather than as a forced necessity brought on by our difficulties. It is no longer the pressure of our need to recover that goads us into humility, but rather an earnest desire to live a virtuous, peaceful life. We begin to see the truth in Yogi Berra’s famous malapropism, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”
When we come to this point, the actual work of Step 7 becomes quite easy. Having made a daily habit of turning our will and our lives over to the care of God in Step 3, we now also ask that our defects of character be removed in order that we may be of better service to God and to our neighbors. We pray something along the lines of,
Dear God, I offer myself to you this day, to build with me and to do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do your will, and remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and to others. Grant me the grace to do as you would have me do. Amen
Of course, each person is encouraged to find the words that best fit for them; the important thing is the idea and the attitude of humility that the prayer entails. The prayer above has been my regular morning prayer for some time now, and I find that it is as meaningful and as powerful now as it was when I began. I’m far from perfect, and with some frequency fail to pray these things each morning. I’ve noticed two things about that: first, that the quality of my day often suffers when I forget, and second, that I can start my day over at any time. If I’m turning into a self-centered train wreck by 10 a.m., I can take a moment in prayer, recommit myself to these spiritual principles and humbly ask for help. Often just a few minutes of such prayer can totally transform my day (though of course, what is really being transformed is not my day but my attitudes and reactions to things).
A final thought on humility: There is a tongue-in-cheek saying that the two things you should never pray for are patience and humility, because God will often respond by giving you the opportunity to practice both. While this is good for a chuckle and there may even be some truth to it, I don’t know that it is the best advice for those seeking to grow spiritually. I believe is it both wise and helpful to pray for both of these things. After all, if patience and humility are virtues worthy of seeking for their own sake, how else shall we grow towards them without God’s help and plenty of practice?
[This post is the eleventh in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. Links to all articles in the series can be found by clicking here or by clicking the Humans Anonymous link under “Categories” on the right-hand side of this page.]