The Bible says that "the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth." Num. 12:3 (NRSV). The man who spoke to God, confronted and defied the pharaoh of Egypt, and led an entire people into the wilderness towards an unseen promised land was "very humble"? What kind of humility is that?
When I think of humility, I often think of submissiveness, which suggests weakness, but humility in the Bible suggests a kind of quiet strength.
This is explicit in one of the commentaries to "the Lost Gospel Q" (Marcus Borg, Consulting Ed.), which translates the beatitude "blessed are the meek" as "fortunate are the gentle." A footnote explains that the original Greek word was "proates" which is more accurately translated as "gentle but strong" and "connotes strength that is gentle and tinged with of caring."
All those thoughts were jumbled up in my head when I read this passage by William O. Brown (1978): "Humility is a form of inner strength, a kind of dignity that makes it less necessary for a person to pretend." (Daily Readings from Quaker Writings Ancient & Modern, Linda Hill Renfer, Ed., Serenity Press)
Mr. Brown pretty much nailed it there. Humility is an expression of confidence, because a person who is truly confident does not need to brag or boast. And when you combine that kind of confidence with compassion for others, you get the "gentle strength" that Jesus was talking about.
And I have thought of at least two ways in which humility can bring power:
- Humility gives us the power to see more clearly. All too often, our perceptions of the world and ourselves are clouded by our own egos. When we see ourselves as "right" and others as "wrong," it prevents us from seeing the truth in others and prevents us from learning new truths. And seeing more clearly gives us the power to act more clearly.
- Humility also gives us power because people are more likely to listen to a voice of humility than a voice of pride or arrogance. The Tao Te Ching says that "All waters are drawn to the sea; it is its lowness that gives it power." People are actually more likely to trust the judgment of a person who expresses occasional uncertainty than the "know it all" who always claims to have all the answers.
Finally, and most importantly of all, humility reflects our right relationship with God. Our faith in God give us confidence and strength. But that confidence and strength is tempered by our understanding of our human weaknesses, by our inability to understand God's plans, and by our knowledge that our salvation comes from God's grace and not because we can earn it or deserve it.
Which helps my understand a little better my favorite passage from the old testament:
"And what does the Lord required of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)