Why, oh why, oh why is humility so difficult and painful to learn? If you’re like me, this is one of the first thoughts that comes to mind during an examination of conscience. Each day, despite admittedly modest, yet sincere, efforts to rein in pride and its offspring (i.e., vainglory, ambition, and presumption), we end up falling a thousand times. Once we recognize the fault—and we typically do so only after our pride issues in some external action, involving more than merely a vain thought—we usually proceed to rationalize it in some way. We say to ourselves that we only acted in the most practical manner, even if it wasn’t the most charitable; or we say that the matter was really out of our control, that we were only “victims of circumstance;” or perhaps we think, “Sure, if this was an ideal world, I would probably have acted differently, but I am who I am, and I can’t help how I was brought up.”
Such excuses are the low-hanging fruit on the tree called “The Real Reason Why”—easy grabs in a world of convenience and entitlement. Like Eve, we are seduced by clever arguments, mixtures of truths and half-truths. The apple is so easy to pick and so pleasing to the eye. But we only have ourselves to blame when, through pride, we come to believe that we are entitled to privilege, convenience, honors, knowledge, abilities, and so on. As we grow in the Christian life, it can feel like hitting a brick wall when we realize that the way that we’ve been acting or thinking our whole lives, which is so ingrained in us, is what leads us most often into sin.
In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas points out that “man arrives at humility in two ways. First and chiefly by a gift of grace, and in this way the inner man precedes the outward man. The other way is by human effort, whereby he first of all restrains the outward man, and afterwards succeeds in plucking out the inward root.” Thus we can see that one reason why humility is so difficult is that it must be approached from two different angles: the restraint of the outer man and the cooperation with God’s grace within.
The Letter of James highlights another source of difficulty regarding humility:
Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (4:1–3).
Our lives are a constant struggle against our passions. Often what we desire is not what God has in mind. We would like ease, convenience, comfort, respect, and honor, and what we very often deserve is poverty, persecution, pestilence, and death, because of our misuse of God’s gifts, our putting other “gods” before Him, and our desire to be equal to Him. Perhaps at times we catch ourselves thinking, “God loves me, so He’ll do this (or get this) for me”? Our culture’s attitude of entitlement, which disposes us to think that God owes us or that we deserve some kind of special treatment, plants roots early and deep.
St. Thomas explains, “Humility is reckoned a virtue, because virtue does not consist in externals, but chiefly in the inward choice of the mind . . . Humility restrains the appetite from aiming at great things against right reason.” So it is the role of humility to regulate our choice-making faculty and help our reason to operate properly. Blessed John Paul II described humility as “creative submission to the power of truth and love.” “Humility,” he said, “is rejection of appearances and superficiality; it is the expression of the depth of the human spirit; it is the condition of its greatness.”
We can easily see that humility is a difficult good, painful to procure, but valuable to retain. Proverbs tells us, “The result of humility and fear of the LORD is riches, honor and life” (22:4). We see the fruits of humility in Christ, in Mary, and in all the saints, whom we are called to imitate. Humility cannot be learned in a single night, nor can it be attained without struggle, error, and falls. Like St. Paul, we must strive for virtue in order to win an imperishable crown: “I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). It is up to us to use all of the tools at our disposal, especially the sacraments and meditation on the life of Christ, to restrain the outer man and to ready the inner man for the operation of God’s grace.