by Joseph Barabbas Theophorus
True humility does not say humble words, nor does it assume humble looks, it does not force oneself either to think humbly of oneself, or to abuse oneself in self-belittlement. -St. Gregory of Sinai
There seems to be a misconception among many, even inside the Orthodox Church, that humility is indeed composed merely of self-belittlement and passive living. However, this is a deadly lie; as St. Gregory says, this is not true humility. Rather, these behaviors often constitute something called "false humility".
What is false humility? Just as the name implies, it is something that is not true humility, even though it may have the same appearance. Whereas true humility lies in the denial of self, false humility uses outward actions to draw attention to the self. Instead of fasting for the love of God, false humility fasts, even very severely, to win the approval of others. Likewise, while true humility gives money in secret, false humility only gives, even generously, when others are watching. False humility may even talk about its secret giving, but it has no intention of keeping its giving a secret. Instead, it only takes the appearance of humility to win the approval of others.
But there is another side to false humility: it not only seeks to win earthly glory, but to so thoroughly destroy the soul of the person that he cannot spiritually fight back. Instead of getting advice from a priest, false humility may lead a person to think that he must keep quiet. The demon whispers,
Aren't humble people quiet? Don't you know you're supposed to be less than all men? Why, then, are you bothering your priest with this? At work, the person may also suffer because he doesn't speak up. When his boss asks what his preference on this or that is, he may not even respond.
Real Christians don't have opinions! Be humble and let him walk all over you; that is humility, says the demon. The real goal of the demons, of course, is not to teach us humility! Listening to these thoughts leads not to the salvation of a person's God-created soul, but rather to the destruction of it. These behaviors have no purpose but to weaken a person spiritually, removing not his will to sin, but his will to follow God and stand up for the truth.
Certainly, it must be understood, and stressed, that things such as fasting, giving, and silence really are good; these are virtues highly praised by the Fathers of the Church. However, false humility takes these very good, spiritual works and turns them into the works of death. False humility twists a person's motivation inward to the self, turning even great virtues into self-serving tools, tools used only to draw the attention of others. And internally, false humility takes away man's God-given will and personality, turning him not into a living and active servant of Christ, but into a walking zombie who often enables and encourages others to sin through lifeless inaction.
So, what is true humility? It is the acknowledgment of God. There is no secret formula; this is the fullness of humility. All the services of the Church, all the Scripture readings, all the fasting and self denial, all the asceticism, and every single repetition of the Jesus prayer work toward this end. Humility is the beginning of theoria, and the only thing higher than this is theosis: love.
Now false humility has been exposed for the evil that it is, and true humility has been revealed. But what does it mean to acknowledge God? It means to ascribe everything to Him: every good thing, every breath, every moment of existence. True humility says,
I can do nothing, but through You, God, I can do everything. It sings,
How great are Your works! Have mercy on me. It cries out,
I am a sinner, but Your love, God, is greater than my sin. It rejoices,
I have nothing of my own, but by Your grace, You have richly given these things to me.
But, be warned! Acknowledgment of God does not begin externally, but in the heart. If it does not proceed from the heart, it is again false humility. In time, true humility may manifest itself outwardly and become noticeable, too; however, it never begins in this way.
What, then, does this humility look like? In the Book of Job it is written,
Then was kindled the wrath of Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the kindred of Ram: against Job was his wrath kindled, because he justified himself rather than God. And this is the meaning of true humility: to justify God, and not one's own self.
Judith, in the book that bears her name, also speaks humbly. She says,
Hear me now, O ye governors of the inhabitants of Bethulia: for your words that ye have spoken before the people this day are not right, touching this oath which ye made and pronounced between God and you, and have promised to deliver the city to our enemies, unless within these days the Lord turn to help you. And now who are ye that have tempted God this day, and stand instead of God among the children of men? And now try the Lord Almighty, but ye shall never know any thing. For ye cannot find the depth of the heart of man, neither can ye perceive the things that he thinketh: then how can ye search out God, that hath made all these things, and know His mind, or comprehend His purpose? Nay, my brethren, provoke not the Lord our God to anger. For if He will not help us within these five days, He hath power to defend us when He will, even every day, or to destroy us before our enemies. Do not bind the counsels of the Lord our God: for God is not as man, that He may be threatened; neither is He as the son of man, that He should be wavering. Therefore let us wait for salvation of Him, and call upon Him to help us, and He will hear our voice, if it please Him.
In these instances, both Elihu and Judith are humble in their speech, their rebuke, and their anger. These things are not opposed to humility; rather, because they cry out with a spirit of humility, speaking the truth in love, their words are sanctified. It is humility itself which gives their faith these works. St. James says that faith without works is the faith of demons; in fact, the demons know all the services of the Church and every verse of Scripture by heart. They fast from food and work tirelessly, but they do not have good works. Why is this? It is because they do not have true humility, which hammers out raw faith in the foundry of the soul, creating fine works to adorn the heart and prepare the way for love. But here is a great mystery:
In the history of the Church, there have been saints who attacked heretics and those who suffered silently. There have been saints who fasted for weeks at a time and those who ate everyday. There have been saints who were kings, bishops, and generals, and saints who were slaves, laymen, and soldiers. There have been saints who suffered martyrdom, and saints who died of natural causes. There have been saints who lived in the desert, and saints who lived in great cities. There have been saints who took vows of silence, and saints who laughed with friends. There have been saints who gave up marriage for the kingdom, and saints who had many children. There have been saints who were gentle, and saints who were fiery. There have been saints who did works uncountable, and saints who merely believed. But there have only been humble saints, saints who acknowledged God.
Yet this mystery is no mystery at all for those who know God, for true humility takes many forms. It is not an external series of actions, but an internal turning of the heart toward God. Humility comes in both speech and silence, giving and receiving, commanding and submitting, fasting and feasting, mourning and joy. It can be found in both the city and the desert, in church and home, in marriage and monasticism. True humility does not just show man how to live, but Who to live for: God. It wells up inside him with heavenly conviction. This grand vision then leads to love, to God.
To those in the world, live with courage! Do not speak highly of yourselves in pride, but do not belittle yourself in false humility. Do not speak to others in pride, but do not keep silent in false humility. Do not demand your desires out of pride, but do not hide your wants and opinions out of false humility. Do not live greedily in pride, but do not deprive yourself of material possessions out of false humility. Do not forsake the commandments of Christ out of pride, but do not become legalistic out of false humility. Do not judge others in pride, but do not destroy your soul in false humility. Whatever you do, do for God, in the spirit of true humility.
To those in the monasteries, keep your eyes on Christ's reward! Do not lighten your asceticism out of pride, but do not increase it out of false humility. Do not forsake your obediences out of pride, but do not go beyond them in false humility. Do not exalt yourselves among the brethren out of pride, but do not lower yourselves in false humility. Live without drawing special attention to yourselves, for your reward will not be found on the earth.
Let everyone have desires, let everyone have dreams. But let everyone be willing to submit those things to God and say,
These are my desires and my dreams. But if You tell me otherwise, then Thy will be done; not as I will, but as You will. Amen.