I’ve examined the virtue of humility in previous posts here and here. But the difficulty of achieving true humility has been on my mind again lately. I’ve noticed that when I’m humbled by difficult circumstances, my attitude can quickly turn into passive aggressiveness or false humility. While I might be stripped of pride for a moment, it doesn’t take long to realize that the appearance of humility can give me social benefits.
In a situation like this, we may be like the family member who learns that he can drum up sympathy and get what he wants by letting everyone know that he’s feeling particularly worthless or unhappy. Or like the obsequious waiter who meekly bows to his customer’s every wish, hoping to get a more generous tip. Or the comedian who knows she’s more likely to please her audience with self-effacing humor. Or the passive-aggressive spouse who practices the “woe is me” silent treatment as a way to punish his partner.
Of course, genuine humility exists in rare individuals who’ve learned to achieve balance in their lives, becoming confident but not overconfident, grateful for the gifts possessed by others but aware of their own abilities. Most of us know at least someone who’s discovered lasting joy by spending more time thinking about other people than themselves.
But the tendency of humility to morph into false humility is perhaps the main reason this virtue is so elusive. It’s also why humility seems to make more sense as a religious attitude toward God, who can’t be deceived by false appearances.
In the Book of Mormon, a small group of true Christian believers is mistreated by their neighbors “who profess to belong to the church of God.” In Helaman 3:35, we read about how they managed to endure “great persecutions” and “much affliction”:
“Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.”
By submitting their wills to God, these people were able to avoid the more typical path that leads from humility to false humility. In the midst of severe trials, their hearts were purified and they were filled with joy.
My own failure to achieve anything but a fleeting grasp on humility leads me more and more to categorize it as a theological virtue. Like faith, hope, and love, an enduring sense of humility might simply be a divine gift, maintained through consistent acts of devotion to God.