By all accounts, humility ranks as one of the most important virtues of the Christian life. Andrew Murray, in his classic Humility: The Beauty of Holiness famously referred to it as “the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature, and the root of every virtue.” As one scholar puts it “The importance of this virtue springs from the fact that it is found as a part of the character of God.” Stunningly, humility is an attribute of the biblical God himself.
But what exactly is humility? There are some great definitions out there. Some of my favorites include C.S. Lewis’s, who said “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Tim Keller builds on this when he writes “True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness.” Or more recently, David Brooks in his book How to Know a Person, quotes a biographer of E.M. Forster who wrote that “To speak with him [Forster] was to be seduced by an inverse charisma, a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self.” “Inverse charisma” seems like a great description of what humility feels like when we encounter it in someone else. But do these definitions, wonderful as they are, capture the full essence of humility as we see it in the Bible?
But the best definition of humility I have heard — one that has haunted me for years— was one I heard from a pastor years ago. He said something like: “Humility in the Bible is not primarily an inward posture of the heart; it has an outward look-and-feel to it. The humble in the Bible are those who are willing to embrace humble circumstances and to be associated with those of low estate.” This was striking to me because unlike any other definition I’d heard, it took humility out of the inward realm of personal self-regard and placed it in the observable world of concrete, daily circumstance. It had visibly identifiable traits. It entailed the embracing of humble circumstances and a willingness to be associated with those of low regard. Humility took on an earthy, tangible quality. It became a textured virtue. All of that rang true with what I knew to be the earthy quality of the Hebrew language.
If this was in fact the way the Bible defined humility, it felt like it would have radical implications for how we think about this “virtue that is at the root of every virtue.” So I decided to do some digging.
Humility in the Bible
The words “humble” or “humility” occur in the Bible around 80 times (depending on the translation), roughly 60 times in the Old Testament and 20 in the New. Four words (three Hebrew, one Greek) account for 90% of these English occurrences. The three Hebrew words (word groups, really) are ani, kana, and shahah. The Greek word is tapeinos. A quick study of these four words is fascinating.
Ani: The Poor and Afflicted
By far the most common word group that gets translated as “humility” or “humble” comes from the Hebrew root ani. Its most straightforward definition is simply “poor, wretched, needy, afflicted.” The word we translate “humble” actually primarily means “poor.” According to one lexicon, it has four definitions. The first is simply “one who is poor or in need.” The second refers to the experience of weakness that comes with being poor. The third refers to the circumstances that led to ones poverty. It is only in the fourth definition that we have a reference to humility or any form of inner self-regard: “one who is humble, lowly, or meek.” So while the word does eventually reach into the inner realm of self-regard, its primary meanings all refer to the outward situation of poverty.
This all makes sense when we notice that ani is far more often translated in the Bible as “the poor” than as “the humble.” For example, Exodus 22:25 states “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor (ani), you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.” Or Psalm 72:4: “May he defend the cause of the poor (ani) of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!” In both, ani clearly refers to those who are materially poor and not those who have an inner posture of meekness.
In fact, ani is routinely translated “the poor” unless context demands otherwise. Psalm 18:27 states “For you save a humble (ani) people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.” Ani is translated “humble” here because of the contrast with “the haughty.” Yet, even here, the word for “haughty” simply means “high” or “exalted,” which could refer just as easily to a high social status is it does to a high self-regard. In fact, the New American Standard Bible (notorious as a very literal translation) translates ani as “afflicted”: "For You save an afflicted people, But haughty eyes You abase.”
The Hebrew word group ani refers first to the humble (and humbling) conditions of poverty and only secondarily (and more rarely) to the kind of inner self-regard that is often formed by those conditions. This, by the way, is why Moses could be said to be “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). This wasn't a boast about the subjective state of his inner self-regard. It was a statement about the objective change in circumstances that Moses chose when he willingly left the place of highest regard as Prince of Egypt and chose to embrace the circumstances of a slave and be identified with a nation of slaves.
Kana: The Lowly and Subjected
The second most common word group translated “humble” are those connected to the root kana. This word group is used mostly in military contexts and refers to the state of subjugation that results from defeat in battle. As a verb, it is most often translated “submit”, “subject,” or “subdue.” So, Deuteronomy 9:3 states “Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue (kana) them before you.” Or 1 Chronicles 18:1 “After this David defeated the Philistines and subdued (kana) them, and he took Gath and its villages out of the hand of the Philistines.” Note again the primary meaning of an external state or condition.
Kana is also used to refer to the posture of submission that a defeated soldier or magistrate owes to a victorious ruler, or more generally the submission that anyone of lower status owed to a person of higher rank. So throughout Kings and Chronicles it is used to describe the kings who knew that, though they are of exalted rank in Israel, they nevertheless held a low position before God (e.g. 1 Kings 21:29, 2 Chronicles 33:12). The kings who did this were said to have “subdued” or “humbled (kana) themselves” before God.
While kana, like ani, primarily refers to the external condition of being subjected, it does carry a bit more of a sense of that inward posture of submission than the other biblical words do. Yet the primary meaning is still refers to the outward state of subjection and defeat.
Shahah: The Cowering and Bent Over
The third word group comes from the root shahah and refers to physical posture of cowering or being bowed down. Its various definitions include “to cower, crouch, bow down, be bent over.” Isaiah 60:14 is a good example: “The sons of those who afflicted you shall come bending low (shahah) to you, and all who despised you shall bow down (shahah) at your feet.” Or Psalm 38:6 “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate (shahah); all the day I go about mourning.”
Of its 17 occurrences, only five are translated “humbled” where the external stance of being bent over is used as a metaphor for an inward posture of lowliness or pliancy of heart. Yet, as with the other words, it retains an accent on the outward, visible characteristic of a person doubled over under the weight of a burden or prostrate before a person of great worth.
Tapeinos: Those of No Account
Our brief overview so far might lead one to wonder whether the emphasis on the outward circumstances was just an idiosyncrasy of the Hebrew language. But when we turn the page to the New Testament, the Greek word tapeinos retains this emphasis.
According to the Bauer’s lexicon, tapeinos primarily means “pertaining to or being of low social status” and “undistinguished, of no account.” It is primarily referring to one’s social status or appearance. Bauer’s lexicon does list as a second definition “being servile in manner” and “unpretentious, humble” as a third, but again the primary definition remains external.
We see this in Romans 12:16 where Pauls states “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position (tapeinos). Do not be conceited.” For Paul, the tapeinos were those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. What is perhaps more telling is that his antidote to pride and conceit is not redoubled spiritual effort to maintain a particular kind of inner self-regard. His prescription is actually social. If a Christian wants to combat pride and conceit in the heart, he or she should begin associating publicly with those of low social status. In context, Paul apparently saw this kind of association as being available to the Roman Christian in the local church in Rome.
More personally, Paul also states in Philippians 4:11-13:
“ … I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need (tapeinos), and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation … ”
The opposite of being tapeinos (i.e. “humble”) here was not “being proud”; it was “having plenty.” The translator rightly translate tapeinos not as “humble” but as “in need.” His outward experience of embracing humble circumstances had forged a particular inward posture of the heart.
Dane Ortlund in his book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers sums up the meaning of tapeinos succinctly: “typically throughout the New Testament this Greek word refers not to humility as a virtue but to humility in the sense of destitution or being thrust downward by life circumstances.”
The Outward Look-And-Feel of Humility
With all this in mind, let’s revisit that initial definition of humility I heard years ago: “Humility in the Bible is not primarily an inward posture of the heart; it has an outward look-and-feel to it. The humble in the Bible are those who are willing to embrace humble circumstances and to be associated with those of low estate.” This definition seems to ring even more true in light of all the biblical data we have surveyed.
But what difference does all this make? Why did this definition haunt me for all those years? Why does it continue to prod me even as I write this? I think the answer is this. As someone who has come to believe in a gospel that was forged in the context of American, middle-class sensibilities, I want to be able to claim an inner posture of humility that doesn’t require me to take on the outer circumstance of the “poor, wretched, needy, afflicted.” It makes me uncomfortable to think that biblical humility might require me to take a downwardly mobile path toward those of low estate. I don’t want the biblical antidote for my pride and conceit to be social — that I need to be socialized into the ways of the poor and overlooked. I want the American Dream to rule my (and my children’s) external circumstances and social circles while Jesus rules everything else in my heart. Humility is so important that it feels to me that it should be available to me spiritually without my having to change my position socially.
But what if the primary virtue of the self-emptying One in Philippians 2 requires more of me than a metaphorical, inward journey of emptying my heart? What if it requires the choice to follow Christ into humble economic circumstances and humble social associations? What if genuine biblical humility resists our impulse to spiritualize it?
A Faith and Work Application
I see important applications of these insights in so many places. I think our churches are far too segregated by socio-economic class due to the infiltration of church growth techniques and market principles. I think we plant churches along these fault lines because it works in our social worlds (read: the homogenous unit principle) without wrestling deeply with the social world of the Kingdom of God. I think we expend a lot of time, money, and energy, both personally and as a society, to ensure that we never have to interact with the poor in our daily lives. But one place where I see the need for more reflection on these themes is in our conversations about cultural engagement and faith and work integration.
For example, James Davison Hunter in his outstanding book To Change the World, wrestles with a question that he calls a “central dilemma” to his entire thesis about Christian cultural engagement and the importance of Christians exercising faithful presence within tight networks of elites within our social institutions. He writes “This brings us to a central dilemma … Is it possible to pursue excellence and, under God’s sovereignty, be in a position of influence and privilege and not be ensnared by the trappings of elitism?” I hear him asking “Can Christians enter these elite institutions of great social power and not be co-opted and socialized by the elitism inherent to them?” Or put differently “What can effectively socialize Christians into an alternate way of being such that when they enter into these elite institutions, they will not be co-opted by the powerful socializing forces within?”
As you might be able to guess, my best answer to that question is that Christians must be socialized into an upside-down community that, together, is seeking to actively embrace the humble circumstances of the poor (i.e. pursuing the ideal of downward mobility) and intentionally associate themselves with those of low estate. I think this is what the local church is meant to be. Remember Romans 12:16 where the Apostle Paul’s appeals to the cosmopolitan Roman Christians to find their primary place of belonging in the local church: “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position (tapeinos). Do not be conceited.” It is only when the educated professional Christian finds herself in deep, mutual community with the poor that she will be socialized sufficiently in the ways of the kingdom such that it will be safe for her to enter into the halls of power.
Following the Gentle and Lowly One
I have grown increasingly skeptical that this formation can happen through the imparting of theological concepts alone — beautiful concepts like creation mandates and cultural dominion and human flourishing — as biblical as those concepts might be. I don’t think it can happen by equipping people with spiritual practices that help them redouble their efforts to maintain a particular kind of inner self-regard. More and more I am convinced that biblical humility can only be forged when we decide to embrace humble circumstances and keep company with the poor.
Jesus Christ was the one who “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8) He alone was worthy of an exalted status. He alone could handle that status and not be co-opted by the powers and principalities. Yet to save the world, he chose to embrace the humble circumstances of a manger, a carpenter’s bench, a subjected and defeated people. He became the man of sorrows, familiar with affliction, the one who had nowhere to lay his head. He chose to keep company with those of no account — you and me — even to the point of dying the humiliating death that was reserved only for the lowest of the low.
If biblical humility has an outward look and feel, we see it and feel it most clearly in Jesus. His life will be formed in us not primarily through intellectual concepts and right thinking (as important as that is) but by our staying near unto him wherever he goes. He invites us: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly (tapeinos) in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29) If we would have the gentle and lowly life of Christ formed in us, we would do well to leave our nets behind, take up our cross and follow him into humble circumstances and the company of the poor.