Humility: True and False
One of the Beatitudes that we have most trouble with is: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5). In some versions, “meek” is translated as “gentle” or “humble.” Either way, in an age when women continue to fight for their rights to equal pay and promotion for equal work and achievement, laborers strike for fair working conditions, and people of every age, race, and economic level demand to be treated with dignity, equality, and opportunity, the words “meekness” and “humility” seem like throwbacks to a darker age of repression, submission, sexism, and racism.
Humility will get you nowhere, right?
Wrong. At least Julian of Norwich thinks so. And not because she wasn’t a brave, oustpoken woman of her own time – risking censure, excommunication, imprisonment, or death for daring to write in the vernacular about theological and moral issues. Julian is keenly aware that true humility is the foundation of all true self-respect. But humility must be “true” and not “false.”
What’s the difference?
True humility acknowledges that our personal dignity is given to us by our Creator. We are created in the “image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26-27). Therefore, we are noble creatures, worthy of being treated with the utmost respect. Our value does not come from who our parents were, where we were born, what kind of education we received, what kind of work we do, how much money we earn, how successful we become, but from who we are as individuals. Each one of us is a unique and irreplaceable “image of God,” even when we make wrong choices and sin. Julian insists that within each one of us is a “godly will” that can never completely assent to sin.
Thus, all our strivings for better education, greater opportunities, self-respect, financial security, creativity, a measure of success, loving relationships, and personal satisfaction – “the pursuit of happiness” – derive from our innate rights as children of God.
At the same time, true humility acknowledges our utter dependence on God for every breath, every heartbeat, every aspect of the functioning of our body and mind. We are born to recognize – and rejoice in! -- our essential need for God. We believe this need is not only for the gift of life itself, but extends to the daily graces we count on to become loving, compassionate human beings, to make a contribution to society, to bear with setbacks and suffering, and -- when we sin – to feel ourselves forgiven by God and given the strength to begin again. This recognition is not slavish; it is an “empowering” humility. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom 8:31)
False humility, on the other hand, is a lie.
“When we doubt God’s love for us under the guise of our unworthiness to be loved, it is a terrible temptation . . . even though it may not be numbered among the better-known seven deadly sins. Julian admits that self-doubt arises because, no matter how much we try to amend our lives, some of us look into our souls and see only our failings . . . Julian includes herself among those who feel such sorrow and shame that the soul is left barren of any spiritual consolation. And the worst thing of all is that such souls think this self-inflicted misery is the virtue of humility, whereas it is a state of wretchedness that alienates good people from God and leads souls into despair.” (See page 572 of Julian’s Gospel.)
For of all the properties of the blissful trinity, it is God’s will that we have the most secureness and delight in love. For love makes might and wisdom very humble to us. For just as by the courtesy of God he forgets our sin from the moment that we repent, exactly so he wills that we forget our sin, as regards our unskillfull heaviness and our doubtful dreads.
So true humility affirms our rightful freedom and dignity as children of a loving God, while false humility makes our minds fearful and slavish, dragging us down into the depths of despair over our sins. Yes, we must feel deeply sorry for wrongdoing and promise to make amends in whatever way we can. But we must also trust that "in falling and in rising we are ever preciously kept in one love." (See page 586 of Julian's Gospel.)
So the humble are blessed precisely because they know how much they need God, and how much they are continually loved and forgiven and healed by God. And as God’s true images, they shall inherit the "new" earth in the eternal kingdom of heaven.
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