There are many different virtues that a Christian needs to acquire during his earthly life, but no other virtue is as necessary to us as humility. St. Paisios the Hagiorite once said that the Lord will speak with you at the moment of your death if He finds that you are humble, but otherwise He won’t. Also, St. Isaac the Syrian states that deeds that are bereft of humility do not save, while humility can save even without deeds. This also only further shows that humility is that precious stone, that diamond that shines brighter than all the other stones in the crown prepared in Heaven for those that love God.
But our conversation will not be about the beauty of humility, but of the lessons that give us the chance to attain humility, the lessons that life offers, or rather, that the Lord offers throughout our lives.
Naked we came and naked shall we return
When during confession someone says: “Father, I understand that humility is necessary, but I don’t understand how to acquire it or how to learn it, which is the reason why I’ve made absolutely no progress in it,” then I believe that he is deceiving himself. If someone were to say, for example, that they don’t know how to learn to fly, then that would be understandable. People weren’t created to fly like birds; we don’t have wings or such functionality, so as for flying, we can indeed end up being stumped trying to accomplish such a task. Humility on the other hand is something absolutely natural to the soul, to the person that strives towards God, and exercises in it are offered to us in everyday life from as early on as childhood.
Or perhaps even earlier than that? Personally, I’m convinced that the first lesson in humility that is given to a man is his birth. Each of us born into this world receives the gift of existence absolutely not of our own free will. And before we humbly accept anything else in this life, we need to accept with humility the fact that we were born—accept and learn to thank God, who, having called us from non-existence into being gave us the possibility of living with Him.
It is not just chance that a man born into this world is helpless, much weaker and more vulnerable than the offspring of many other living things. And this is something worth thinking about—at some point in life none of us were strong, but were completely dependent upon those who brought us up and would have died if it weren’t for their care. But as a person grows up, he acquires a large amount of skills that determine his entire life; skills that, as it sometimes may seem, are what wholly equates to the person himself. And all of these skills, accomplishments and social statuses often lead to a great inflation of one’s ego. It then becomes especially useful to remember your early childhood, to look at old photos from which a swaddled baby stares back at you, realize that that’s you, and come to an understanding that on the one hand we were not of any great importance then and now aren’t either, while on the other, that the Lord has not and does not withhold His mercy from us.
Another “school of humility” is school itself, and any form of study in general, because when we start doing something and at first it turns out far from excellent, then we have to accept with humility that we are still just beginners and will become masters only with much diligence and time. Personally, one of my most vivid recollections of this kind is when I first saw cursive handwriting. I understood then that people learn to write in cursive and are successful at it almost one hundred percent of the time; but nonetheless I was convinced that I myself would never be able to draw all of those intricate scribbles correctly. The thought I had then seems funny to me when I remember it now, but still kind of humbles me nevertheless.
But even if one has already achieved much in his social and professional life and is already mature in age, the Lord still does not withhold His mercy and gives them the opportunity to follow the saving way of humility. We know that no matter how high a position a person achieves, no matter what he is the leader of, there will still be someone who is superior to him. And a person feels it: he has to bow his head before someone, listen to remarks and complaints and be dependent on someone when making decisions on issues at work, even if he does not want to depend on such a person at all. Furthermore, usually, the older we become—and, accordingly, acquire a more predominant and independent position in our social and professional lives—then all the more does one other factor of humility enter our life, and that is illness; and if a person has the choice of giving up his material position and his job just to be rid of the need of having to obey someone, then when in comes to physical ailments, he won’t be able to work out some kind of deal here. If it is God’s will that we accept our illness with humility, then, no matter how hard we try to get better, we won’t be fully cured.
In general, any Christian that lives thoughtfully cannot help but humble himself before God, seeing how little he succeeds, if at all, in work upon his soul. And if we look deeper, what should humble us is that we often find ourselves completely alien to God. We become aware of this when we feel an inner dryness, when we feel that there is no love in us at all, no compassion, and that our soul is barren and empty. And all of these things are usually the result of vanity and pride, which close up our heart to Divine grace. Sometimes just a single moment of being proud is enough for one to stop feeling God’s presence the same as before. And if we remain in such a state, then there is reason to seriously reconsider the way we live and figure out what it is that we are not humble in that God, according to Holy Scripture, “resisteth” us (Ja. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5).
But, without doubt, the most powerful factor that helps us acquire humility is the inevitable fact that our earthly life will one day come to an end. There will come a time when we will have to leave behind all our earthly cares, everything that seemed to be an integral part of our life, and go where God calls us. Living with the understanding that we came into this world with nothing and will leave with nothing, and not being afraid of this, or trying to resist or hide ourselves from that fact, is another very important step towards humility. Once we realize that we will have to let go no matter how hard we hold onto something in life, then we finally give God the possibility to save us. But if we stubbornly demand that God let us live the way we want without having to change ourselves, then in the end, when all these things turn out to be of little or no importance, we may end up finding ourselves in a very difficult inner state. And the most painful thing about it will be the absolutely clear understanding of the fact that had we given way to God, had we let go of some of our earthly desires, some things that gave us comfort, or friendships that were not leading us to anything good, then the Lord would undoubtedly have given us something completely different in return, something that would have truly been of great value. Also, in fact, it’s not necessary of course to wait until death comes and completely humbles us; all we have to do is just try to think of these things more often, and that will humble us.
“Ι refuse to be humble!”
Sometimes when I end up talking about humility in a conversation with someone, I like to share one of my favorite stories about Nasreddin Hodja.1 Once upon a time, one of Hodja’s neighbors’ bulls trampled down some crops on his part of the land. Hodja of course ran after the bull, but it got away. Some time afterwards when he was walking down the road, he met his neighbor who was leading that same bull somewhere. Without a second thought, Hodja grabbed a cudgel and began hitting the bull with it in the head. His neighbor then asked, “Are you out of your mind? What are you doing?” But Hodja answered, “You might not understand what I’m doing, but he sure does—look at how he’s hung his head in shame!” Of course, it’s very doubtful that a bull, being hit in the head with a cudgel, would understand what he’s guilty of. But what is worthy of amazement is that animals, when overcome by external factors, do in fact humble themselves. For example, even wild beasts when sick do not attack people, but allow them to provide treatment. Or if you lock a dog up in a cage, it won’t endlessly keep dashing at its metal bars in attempt to escape; it will get tired of such a thing and settle down. Out of all living things, man is the only one that often cannot be humbled by any external factors and is capable of resisting to the point of absurdity even those things that are necessary for him.
Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov) relates the following story. Some time ago, when he was still a hieromonk, he asked his spiritual father to give him a blessing to take care of a disabled person. The man—his name was Ivan, I believe—had lost both arms in an accident and was, in other words, completely helpless but at the same time he had the most difficult attitude, and that didn’t make his situation any better. As for metropolitan Benjamin, living together with this person was truly a podvig. Before this he had lived a quiet life as a teacher at a theological academy, but now abusive language, complaints and demands awaited him each day upon returning home, and he would only get short periods of peace whenever he took the rebellious-natured man to his spiritual father, in whose presence he would calm down. I remember quite well how the elder would say, “Don’t you see how the Lord is humbling you? But you still don’t want to be humble…” Many of us who have endured woes and hardships, could, I think, say something similar about ourselves. We’ve deformed ourselves by sin even to the point of physical impairment, yet we still bawl out, quarrel and demand that we be treated specially. Meanwhile, the Lord seeks in us any little reason for Him to send His mercy upon us. By the way, the story with Ivan—by the Lord’s mercy and Vladyka Benjamin’s humility—ended quite happily: Ivan, unexpectedly, got married. Yes, that’s right—he met a woman who fell in love with him and ended up taking care of him for the rest of her life. This miraculous encounter with a loving woman humbled him, and with her he never quarreled again. As for us, I think, it’s not worth it to wait for God to send us some kind of miracle. What’s more important is to not let radical circumstances take place, the kind that the Lord sometimes sends to those who refuse to humble themselves at any cost.
Insisting on getting your way vs. insisting on what is right
Often times, when one tries to perceive life as a “school of humility”, they come to the thought that the essence of all of these lessons is as follows: One should never insist on getting their way. But that’s not exactly right. On the one hand, life shows that often times we can have things go our way if we’re stubborn enough, thinking that we’re the only ones who are right. But the result is that everything ends up quite far from good. However, when we concede, then contrary to our expectations everything at the very minimum goes not as bad as it would have had we insisted on getting our way. And this seems to be more of a spiritual law than just a rule of thumb.
On the other hand, humility as a spiritual quality does not mean one must concede to everyone and everything. Sometimes humility actually means striving to get things done in accord with common sense, and often times this has to be done in situations where it would be much more comfortable for us to concede and thus avoid conflicts and difficult circumstances. However, in such cases our mind and conscience tell us that we have to insist on what’s right, and in such cases we have to end up humbling ourselves not with whatever it is that needs to get done, but with the consequences—our interests or even we ourselves potentially ending up suffering.
Insisting on getting your way and insisting on what is right—it seems these two things are the same, but the inner difference between them is colossal. Two different people could be talking about the same thing, but one could be motived by obstinacy, while the other by honesty and a sense of duty. The whole question lies in what one has in his heart.
Naturally, the following question may arise: How do you distinguish what is right from what you desire? The answer is very short: only from experience. To gain it, it’s important to make it a habit to submit and humble yourself when what we desire is not really necessary. Sometimes, nothing fundamentally important is put at stake whether we choose to submit or choose to get our way. If we notice these kinds of cases and use them as practice to work out a habit, then in more significant things we will have enough wisdom to first of all try differentiating our personal desires from what is right; and it’s highly possible that we’ll be successful and will either find enough strength to submit if it turns out that what we’re insisting on is based on our own subjective perception, or won’t submit but will at least clearly understand that at that moment we are being driven by pride and self-love.
But what if we’re unable to submit even in less significant things? In such a case it’s important to remember that our spiritual growth happens gradually. One first learns to at least remember such situations and understand that nothing bad would’ve happened if he had humbled himself. Then he begins to see these alternative courses of action right in the middle of conversations or arguments, though he still might act the same as he did before. Then eventually comes the first and perhaps not so pleasant experience of actually giving up something desirable but not so important in favor of what someone else wants. And then things get easier. The only thing about this process is that you can’t let yourself stop, because if you let yourself slip after you’ve started changing for the better, then all your progress falls apart, and, unfortunately, you return to square one.
But in some situations it’s necessary to humble yourself even when things are contrary to common sense. You have to remember that you can insist on trying to change things, but only up until a certain point. Sometimes, figuratively speaking, we’re faced with a locked door that we nonetheless somehow try to get through, at other times—an impenetrable wall that will only get us hurt if we try breaking through it. On the one hand, we have to stop ourselves from getting hurt trying to break through these “walls”, while on the other hand, we mustn’t beat ourselves up either for being unable to succeed; but have to come to terms with ourselves and understand there’s a reason behind all this, for the Lord doesn’t do anything in our lives without a reason. And by the way, sometimes in such cases, if you humble yourself yet again, something seemingly miraculous happens: the said “wall” just disappears on its own.
When we desire to teach ourselves humility through our current circumstances in life it’s important to bear in mind that the main work here is done not by us, but by God. The Lord does absolutely everything for us in our life that we may acquire humility, and our job is to simply take action when God calls us to humility, which He constantly does. We must also understand that the more we humble ourselves, the more we take up the “easy yoke” of the will of God, the easier it will be for us to live, and the brighter and happier our lives will become. And most importantly, as a result, we will not become more weak or helpless, but rather stronger and much more courageous, and will be of much more benefit in life to others around us.