A knotty virtue

Imagine these questions in a worthiness interview: Are you honest? Yes. – Do you keep the Word of Wisdom? Yes. – Are you humble? …

Humility, “the state of being humble”, seems to be a virtue we cannot cultivate intentionally. We can never say that we have developed it, perhaps not even that we are working on it, like honesty or moral cleanliness. Still we think we recognize humility in others – usually in the quiet, unassuming, moderate, unpretentious, patient person. An often quoted Scripture on the topic is:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord sees fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)

The descriptors seem unequivocal. But what if persons strive to be humble and somehow play the role to earn the recognition of being humble? That would exclude them from humility.

Next, does this call to humility as meekness and submissiveness not clash with the encouragement to excel, and even to compete – in games, sports, academics, career? Impressing the public. Being stronger than others. Asserting oneself. Collecting rewards and trophees. To what extent can even the belief in the religious promise of glory and exaltation, the ultimate reward distinguishing the winner from the failed, square with humility? Can there be acceptable ambition in the realm of humility?

There is also an intercultural dimension at play. In certain cultures the call to stand out and excel as an individual, like some Church programs encourage us to do, may run counter to the social requirement to blend in and serve the common good. Stories in Church magazines and conference talks often hail individual achievement. Personal success is acclaimed. Praise and tributes are common from our pulpits. That sphere is extended to Church units abroad where it may perturb ingrained traditions and disturb relations.

Can a humble person voice a critical opinion? In certain contexts, perhaps more in the Church than out, one may be suspected of pride – and eventually rebuked.

Finally, as history shows, the emphasis on humility can be abused, to keep the poor submissive, the exploited compliant, the subordinate obedient. But humility does not seem to require humiliation, nor self-abasement, nor spineless docility.

So, how to achieve humility, if feasible to work on? Or who can help with a simple, but illuminating definition? Humility is …

33 comments for “A knotty virtue

  1. stephenchardy
    January 11, 2007 at 10:36 am

    The question of whether a humble person can voice a critical opinion is a great issue. Raising doubts and questions can be important both in and out of a faithful context. However, within the faith, if one is deemed to be prideful, then ad hominem attacks may follow, the questioner loses credibility, and the question is never really considered. It seems that we are encouraged to question many assumptions made in “the world” but cautioned that questioning church assumptions comes at great spiritual peril.

  2. D-Train
    January 11, 2007 at 10:37 am

    Wilifried, nice thoughts. I believe that humility is mostly an attitude about the things that you mentioned. Being a dominant post player, a renowned scholar, or a passionate voice for change all involve your ideas, talents, and skills being better than those of others within certain areas. But, of course, humility and false modesty are different. Belittling one’s own talents isn’t humility, but seeing them in a proper perspective that recognizes the worth of others is.

  3. njensen
    January 11, 2007 at 10:47 am

    As once pointed out to me, humility is the ability to be a king coupled with the willingness to be a peasant. Humility is less black and white than honesty or a host of other virtues. Humility brings out a contradiction in most. We tend to see a positive connotation of humility but a negative view of its substantive counterpart humiliation. I would say humility doesn’t require embarrassment (which we seem to synonymize with humiliation) but it does require a self-recognition (self-humiliation) of our nothingness before God. God doesn’t humiliate, he humbles. Only we humiliate ourselves and sometimes (unfortunately) others.

  4. Matt W.
    January 11, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Humility is treating others as people with thoughts, feelings and ideas which are just as valid as your own. One can definitely offer a critical opinion in a humble way, but it will only be received by a person who is equally humble. It may not be agreed upon, but it will be considered at least.

    As an example, I once went to my Bishop and told him more people were needed to help in Nursary in a very direct manner, which my wife didn’t like because I wasn’t in any sort of calling with “authority” to make the claim, but he being a very Humble man, took it in stride and made some changes in Nursary almost immediately.

  5. Doc
    January 11, 2007 at 11:53 am

    To be humble is to be teachable. Humility allows us to suspend our preconceptions, our judgements, our prejudices, and our self importance and learn what we can from any situation and from anyone. Rather than lecturing, judging, patronizing we seek to understand, empathize, validate the other person and thus communicate better. Humility is a godlike attribute, so seeking glory is not antithetical to it. It also obviously means that the definition has to be somewhat different than the one you describe. You can be both humble and assertive. D&C 121 holds the key I believe.

  6. Doc
    January 11, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Oh and yes, humility actually removes barriers to productive communication, so you can voice a dissenting opinion perhaps even more effectively because you do so in a manner that removes barriers from discussing the issue.

  7. manaen
    January 11, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    As a measure of the size of the gulf in Lehi’s/Nephi’s vision, walk into the the self-improvement section of Borders or Barnes & Noble and ask to see the books on Humility.

    In my own experience, attaining conversion/mighty change of heart/change of nature that is a key part of our foreordained progression in this life brings humility because it awakens awareness of how little I am and how great is God in His plan of salvation. As I noted elsewhere,

    as many know, my own sins brought me to the brink of suicide a while ago. Instead, I managed to confess and start repenting. My SP’s, bishop’s, and the Lord’s love softened my heart so I could enjoy the mighty change / conversion God wants all to have. Feeling God’s love and forgiveness was more than I’d expected; I just wanted to be freed from the sins!

    A few weeks later, my bishop asked, “Now that you’re here, how do we keep you from falling back?” I soon found the answer in the second verse you cited and in it’s companion. The complete text is:

    11 And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.
    12 And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.” (Msh 4:11-12)

    I have found that by thanking God for his greatness in granting the atonement and by acknowledging my nothingness every day in my prayers, that I keep fresh that wonderful feeling of liberation and love that I felt when I first felt His forgiveness upon confessing.

    Humility has been a key to peace since my confession.

  8. January 11, 2007 at 1:36 pm


    True story: While interviewing at a well-known medical school, i was told, “please rate your humility on a scale from one to ten” (not to jack the thread, but does anyone think he knows the most correct answer to that question?).

    Humility is the ability to view life–always–from a perspective of abundance. It is the knowledge that no “resource’ which ultimately matters is limited–most importantly, there is no end to God’s love and so my having it does not diminish, but actually increases, your ability to have it. Where a proud man gets no satisfaction from having something but only from having more of it than his neighbor, the humble man gets no satisfaction from having something but only from assuring that his neighbor, too, is so blessed. Our humility or pride, of course, do not actually change the abundance of God’s love (or of anything else), but humility liberates us and allows us to find ourselves “under freer skies, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

  9. Just dropping by
    January 11, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    Paraphrasing David Isaacs, in his book “Character Building”:

    Humble people recognize their own inadequacies, without ignoring or demeaning their good qualities and abilities, which they seek to press into service without attracting attention or expecting the applause of others.

  10. JKS
    January 11, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Humility is knowing that you are nothing without God.
    Without God I could not accomplish all that I do, I could not have what I have, I could not be who I am, I would not exist. I am nothing without him. I put my faith in him. I try to give him the only thing that is actually mine to give….my will.
    That is what I think humility is about.

  11. January 11, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Can a humble person make criticisms? Yes, although I suspect for some the dynamics of communication is such that they don’t listen to the humble.

  12. Wilfried
    January 11, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Thank you all for enlightening and upbuilding comments.

    The topic remains multi-faceted and may deserve more analysis on some aspects. E.g. the tension between on the one hand individual success, encouraged by a Western culture of personal achievement and (therefore?) also found within the Church (at least in the U.S. and partially in Europe), and on the other hand humility as submissiveness and meekness, or as subservience to the community in other cultures. I have no immediate answer to this seemingly problemsome tension.

    To give a concrete example: the refusal or malaise of young women or young men to participate in a program leading to an award which will be publicly given, because such an award would make the individual “better” in relation to peers and might lead to social isolation.

  13. Ryan
    January 11, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    would make the individual “better” in relation to peers

    Well, it’s a fact that some people are better than others. The problems start when people try to internalize this information.

    My humility allows me to accept the superiority of another and likely motivates me to strive to excel as they do.

    My pride motivates me to find ways to pull that person down and minimize their accomplishments when compared to my own. It eventually diminishes the success of the whole by nurturing mediocrity.

    A part of humility is not shunning accomplishments and recognition but encouraging others to accomplish.

    “IIf you can’t win, make the fellow ahead of you break the record.”

  14. Chris Brower
    January 11, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    I never liked the idea that some (apparently most here) hold that you can’t know or say that you are humble, or you prove that you are not.

    Joseph Smith certainly didn’t agree with that, though I can’t seem to find my favorie quote from him on the topic.

  15. greenfrog
    January 11, 2007 at 7:30 pm


    While the difficulty with seeking humility that you articulate does exist in some worldviews, it is resolved via others. The Bhagavad Gita and those who have followed its teachings stand as witnesses to the possibility of action without ego-based attachment to the anticipated fruits of the action. I think Jesus got at the same idea on several different occasions. My favorite one was when he washed the feet of his disciples. Though we’ve ritualized the practice and that ritual now colors the way we read the story, I suspect that in the first instance, Jesus washed their feet because their feet were in need of washing, and he loved them and desired to care for their needs.

    Obviously, I’m not in a position to evaluate the specific situations you’ve experienced, but when I’ve seen people limit themselves to avoid causing others to feel bad, what I’ve perceived is more more of a self-limiting fear than of self-sacrificing compassion.

    I’m perfectly comfortable with youth (and adults, for that matter) deciding that they’re not interested in competing for brass rings set up on the wall by others as a kind of artificial mechanism for engendering fame and self-congratulation. I personally find those mechanisms vagely deceitful, and I often go out of my way to refuse them.

    But if I found someone avoiding developing herself or himself because s/he thought that developing would make others feel bad, I’d work to help her/him see things differently.

  16. manaen
    January 11, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    I’ll ring one of my favorite bells again: Confronting the Myth of Self-Esteem: 12 Keys to Finding Peace by Sis. Ester Rasband. It helped me understand how just dropping Self-esteem — actually a modern synonym for Pride, which is the opposite of Humility — opened a new world of peace through the Spirit and communion with others. Pls see my review at the foregoing link.

  17. January 11, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    I’ve just finished re-reading C.S. Lewis’s _The Great Divorce_, which has humility as a major theme. This morning, my husband and I had a chat about who we most resembled among the ghosts of that work. I asked who I was most like. Bruce, in his wonderful honesty, said I had some of the tragedian in me, quite a bit of the Episcopal Bishop, and a good dose of Sarah Smith (that last one was a compliment; the other two are true).
    I love books that reveal my own faults to me. The scriptures do it, and Lewis often manages to.
    One other comment on this fine post: When my husband was given counsel prior to his being set apart in our stake presidency, Elder Uchdorf cautioned that when a man is called to a position of authority, others might treat him as something special. “Don’t inhale,” he said.

  18. Barb
    January 11, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    I wonder if it would help for countries who do not like individual awards to think about how the award system for Eagle Scout or Young Women is not one to recognize first place. They are like a graduation for those who finish. Do they not have graduation ceremonies when they complete their schooling?

    I read a good talk by Elder Maxwell just this week where he said that a meek person thinks of a lot more clever things than they say. It also showed how a person can be very strong but when an occassion might call for it need to be meek.

  19. Carol F.
    January 12, 2007 at 1:59 am

    …feeling powerless before God. I am with manaen and JKS although all are great points.

  20. January 12, 2007 at 5:33 am

    “Humility, “the state of being humble”, seems to be a virtue we cannot cultivate intentionally. We can never say that we have developed it, perhaps not even that we are working on it, like honesty or moral cleanliness.”

    I think it’s very possible to do so. Why not?

  21. Wilfried
    January 12, 2007 at 7:48 am

    Valuable thoughts, all. Thank you so much. And some light controversy, which is good, because we deal with a knotty virtue.

    One aspect deals with the conscious or intentional working on humility. Marlin K. Jensen said (Ensign, May 2001):

    “Consciously trying to acquire humility is also problematic. I remember once hearing one of my colleagues in the Seventy say about humility that “if you think you have it, you don’t.” He suggested we should try to develop humility and be sure we didn’t know when we got it, and then we would have it. But if we ever thought we had it, we wouldn’t.”

    I presume that “try to develop humility” has to include self-analysis and the intentional elimination of certain behavior. But a “Now I am finally humble!” could not be one’s final overt assessment. Still, there seem to be facets of humility, like confession and repentance, that are conscious processes without any pride of having attained them. We saw touching examples of this in previous comments.

    Another aspect concerns the cultural aspect of individual awards and trophees. How this could be a problem may be difficult to understand for those whose worldview includes these things as “natural”. In other cultures it may be disturbing, especially if “winning” includes “beating” someone. Barb (18) mentioned simple “graduation” as an alternative to awards. Yes, I concur!

  22. sinema
    January 12, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    I believe that any effort specifically to develop humility will fail. However, if you merely focus on becoming \”selfless,\” that is, being concerned with others like Jesus did, the a natural byproduct is the humility that Jesus had. It is only by doing the things that Jesus did, adopting his behavior and attitudes, can we ever attain the humility he had. It comes naturally.

  23. January 12, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    “Humility, “the state of being humble”, seems to be a virtue we cannot cultivate intentionally. We can never say that we have developed it,”

    this reminds me of a funny story. One day, my non-member mom was visited by the missionaries and we were there. Near the end, one Elder read a scripture and bore testimony including “I am so humble. I really am- I’ve been told that by everybody I know…” and then he prayed. my husband and I still giggle about the oh-so-humble Elder :)

  24. Visorstuff
    January 12, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    I disagree – Humility is recognizing that you are nothing with out others and more specifically, nothing without God. You can know whether or not you are humble. And with this, you can develop a dependence and recognition of your dependence upon God.

    For support of my opinion see Benson’s “Beware of Pride.”

    That said, as with all of the virtues and attributes associated with humility, it is a process, not a destination in this life.

  25. Ardis Parshall
    January 12, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Like those other things this statement applies to, I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.

    I went to the baptism of a friend who had been excommunicated, then worked his way back out of a terribly black pit. He walked down into the font, grasped the arms of the much younger man, was baptized, and climbed out of the font a new man. I’ve never seen such humility or meekness, and I can only describe it by saying what was absent: there was no embarrassment or shame at going through this ritual in front of quite a large group of people; no smugness that “now I’ve made it”; no self-consciousness; no apparent sense that he had anything to prove to himself or anyone else; no sense of triumph; no false modesty that “I’m just a sinfull worm that the Lord has taken pity on and forgiven.” There was simply a calmness and simpleness, and the sense that he was on the right path and would submit to any requirement that kept him there.

  26. Melinda
    January 12, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    Ardis, that’s a beatiful description.

    I believe one aspect of humility is the acknowledgment of weaknesses and the willingness to change. The quote in #9 sums it up nicely. Getting started on that process means ignoring the abundant praises heaped upon us in the name of building our self-esteem. I was quite conceited as a teenager because everyone at church and school just couldn’t say enough about how smart, talented, spiritual and nice I was. I was well into my twenties before I realized I had some serious changes in my personality to make. Now, I do try to “not inhale” compliments, while still appreciating them.

  27. Rand
    January 13, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Great post Wilfried. \”Humility is the recognition of reality.\” This was written by my mother, who had lived with quadraplegia for twelve years, just before she transitioned. I believe humilty is a virtue that must be a branch on the tree of charity to be complete. To acquire humility as a stand alone virtue is a diffucult task. When we come to love the Savior and our Father purely, humility is one of the natural consequences of this type of life. It\’s countenance was well described by Ardis. The soul of virtue is an offshoot of the tree of charity. We know, we trust, we submit our will to His.

  28. Wilfried
    January 13, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    Thank you all for adding your thoughts and insights, and some touching definitions, showing again the various facets of this virtue, tied to varied situations. I do appreciate the input and I am confident readers have found renewed inspiration.

  29. Barb
    January 14, 2007 at 12:19 am

    I am glad you concur with the graduating idea.

    I really think about humility so much. This is a little personal to reveal, but I used to be so reverent at Church. I really was trying to be sincere, but I also have this state mentallity and believed people would take note of how very devout I was. A sister asking me what I thought about during Sacrament for her Relief Society talk affirms to me that was the case. But that was young and my eyes have been opened.

    I think the underlying theme of humility is that none of us will master it in this life. And I worry about the balance between ambition and humility.

    For instance, I have found writing poetry very gratifying. It is a way to share something about myself and I like doing it my own way and having my own originality. Yet, people tell me to be published. I think I will try to write a book for my mom because that is what she wants. She is very supportive.

    Feedback is important as people telling me that they liked my poetry has encouraged me to keep going. Yet, I know how people can be polite too. I guess what I am saying is that I sometimes wonder about complimenting.

    However, I do think complimenting people is so important in shaping identity. But if you compliment them on humility, then you may be making them less humble. Eeek, I really should think about what I am going to say before I type things out.

    But if you people never received praise in areas where their abilities lie, I would be hard pressed to believe that people would ever excel in anything.

    Well, here go some comments that I hope to stand up to the light of day.

  30. Barb
    January 14, 2007 at 12:35 am

    typo should read “stage” mentality

    Some common metaphors show how hard humility is.

    Swallow your pride, Eat crow.(not sure exactly what that means)

  31. January 14, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    When I was old enough to distinguish the different prayer styles at church, I noticed that almost everyone closed the prayer, “We say this, humbly, in the name…”

    I asked my dad why he and my mom never said that. He hesitated and then said, “Well, I just never felt it was very humble to call myself that.”

    That probably holds true by many definitions such as “modest” or “not proud.” Perhaps we can philosophically understand that we’ve achieved some level of meekness–and even discuss it–but does a humble person need to publicly proclaim themselves humble?

    OTOH, perhaps the phrase is just intended to inform God that we are humble–or that we understand our lowly position in comparison. The venue might be part of the problem.

  32. Wilfried
    January 15, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you, Barb & Allison! Just wanted to confirm that your contributions did not go unnoticed. You both raise interesting and valid points dealing with our Church rhetoric. Sometimes we have become so formulaic in our compliments, feedback or prayers, that we do not realize anymore the deeper semantics. It’s certainly helpful to be reminded.

  33. Barb
    January 16, 2007 at 1:30 am

    Wilfried, thank you for treating me with respect. I can happily resume my lurking status. But as I have some emotional problems as you may have noticed, I will not be checking back to see if you respond to what I will be saying. It helps to protect myself from possible hurt. Not that you would intentionally hurt anyone as you seem so nice. What I want to say is that I have thought of sending you an email to tell you how much I appreciated some of your posts this year and last year. Some of them hit home in such personal ways. I cannot relate as that may open floodgates that I may not be able to close again if I let it all out. But I have had many people be good and kind to me as well. Just consider this a whole-hearted thank you and know that when I try to remember if there are good and decent people, I do think of you. Now don’t go getting all big headed though. After all, this is the humility thread. :) Lots of love to you and all, Barb

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