What is Humility?

In the winter of 1863 General Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant-general, a permanent promotion that had previously been given only to George Washington. Grant’s military success in the Mississippi River valley during the Civil War had earned him this distinct promotion. Through the early years of the war he had never been to Washington D.C. nor met President Lincoln, but in December he was called to Washington to receive his promotion and to command the entire Union Army. Grant had reached the top of the military ladder and a splendid reception was planned.

When Grant arrived in Washington that morning, no one was there to greet him at the train station. He and his son walked to a nearby hotel to book a room. The hotel clerk looked at the dusty, unkempt military officer before him and said he might have small upstairs room in the back of the hotel. Grant said this would be acceptable and signed the guest register. When the hotel clerk saw the signature, “Ulysses S. Grant,” he was aghast and tried to change the hotel arrangements. Grant didn’t care.

I offer this story because it demonstrates that humility is not so much an emotion as the absence of an emotion. Grant did not feel slighted or peeved that he did not receive instant recognition and respect from the hotel clerk. He did not see himself superior to the hotel clerk or look down on him with contempt. Grant was obviously a “superior” general to the hotel clerk (to be fair, the clerk probably never competed to be a “superior” general), but that “superiority” did not dictate how he treated the clerk in their daily affairs.

As Robert C. Roberts writes in Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues,

Humility is not itself an emotion, like joy or gratitude or contrition. A person could be a wonderful exemplar of humility without ever feeling humble; in fact, one who frequently feels humble is probably not very humble. But humility is an emotion-disposition – primarily a negative one, a disposition not to feel the emotions associated with caring a lot about one’s status. As an inclination to construe as my equal every person who is presented to me, humility is a disposition not to be downcast by the fact that someone is clearly ahead of me in the games of the world nor to find any satisfaction in noting that I am ahead of someone in those games.

It is the ability to have my self-comfort quite apart from any question about my place in the social pecking order (whether the criterion is accomplishments, education, beauty, money, power, fame, or position). . . . It is thus a self-confidence, one that runs far deeper than the tenuous self-confidence of the person who believes in himself because others look up to him. (Kindle Locations 1186-1196)

The best example of humility is Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians

Jesus had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion (The Message: Phil 2:6-8)

Just prior to this humble description of Christ, Paul encourages us to “think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.” Our thinking and our judgments effects how we respond to others and their comments. Even when one is the Commanding General of the Army.

Lord Jesus, thank you for your humble service. May I reflect you in my life today.

3 thoughts on “What is Humility?

  1. William J. Gibson

    somewhere a long time ago in University I was told “The wisdom of humility is endless” which if my memory serves comes from T.S. Eliot, but I may be a little off on that attributation. the professor who gave that to me to conjure with was the late Fr. David Belyea at the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in the 1970s I printed that quote out and put it in a small desk frame to remind me to consider it on a daily basis.

    1. Pastor John Keller Post author

      William, I was googling your quote from T. S. Eliot and found this from Four Quartets: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
      Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Your summary statement that the “wisdpm of humility is endless” captures Eliot’s idea well. IMHO 😉


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