The First Two Degrees of Humility

By Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ

From Making Choices in Christ

True humility does not attract many in this new age of self-realization. We tend to equate humility with self-abasement, but such “humility” would attract only the mentally ill, and it is not Christian humility.

If you cling to a negative self-image and have no great respect for your gifts, you are not being humble. You are showing no gratitude to God, who gave you the gifts, and this sin of ingratitude provides the deepest wellspring of every other sin. You hate yourself, whom God loves. This fake humility masks a flinty pride: you refuse to love the gifts and even the self that God is giving you. This is a self-deceiving way of telling God, “I will not serve.”

Christian Humility Requires a Strong Sense of Self

Christian humility, properly understood, requires a strong sense of self, and the greater the humility, the stronger the sense of self. For as more than one saint has remarked, humility is seeing and acknowledging the truth about yourself and your world. If you are smart, you are lying—not being humble—if you act as though you are not. Consider this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, said that he was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and all four Gospels tell of a man who knew perfectly well who he was, a man with an unshakably strong sense of self.

All spiritualities describe humility and, since spirituality guides life, explain how it is lived. Ignatian spirituality describes humility in terms of loving Jesus Christ and notes that it can be lived in three ways. Each way leads you to Jesus Christ and to live progressively more as he lived. God our Creator and Lord calls each person to one of these ways—though you are always free to beg the Lord to move you along in love.

The First Degree of Humility

The first way is fundamental. You love Jesus Christ so much that nothing and no one on earth could persuade you to do what you know would cut you off from him. The celebrant at Mass begs Jesus Christ just before communion, “Never let me be separated from you.” Doing what the love of Christ requires, you become a lover, for love is what you do, not merely how you feel or what you proclaim. So you are a lover, perhaps not a very passionate one, but at the least one who says, “I would never do what you don’t want.” If you live that way in the church, you live like a good citizen who loves his country and keeps its laws but does not vote or take much interest in its affairs. When you follow this first way of humility, you will certainly have to act courageously in your life world.

The Second Degree of Humility

Or you can be another kind of lover and live humbly in a second way. You love Jesus Christ so much that you want to remain loyal even to his great redemptive vision. You want to understand what Christ hopes for in the world and particularly in the church. You find real meaning in the Beatitudes. You refuse to hate your nation’s enemies and you forgive those who hurt you, as he forgave even those who nailed him to the cross. You reject the infidelities in the church but not the faithful men and women whom God has chosen—none of whom are any better than you.

To those of us who live humility in this second way, Jesus is important in the way that great, charismatic leaders are important. We follow great leaders passionately but at a distance, because their greatness and their charisms stand between us and them. We love them as people loved Napoléon or Winston Churchill: as a persona rather than an intimately known person.

If you follow Jesus in this second way, you are the kind of lover who says, “I want to do whatever you want.” Make no mistake about it: doing all of what Jesus wants demands a strong sense of self. You are proclaiming a desire to be a close follower of Jesus Christ, who asks us all to take up our cross daily.

Excerpt from Making Choices in Christ by Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ.


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The Third Degree of Humility by Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ

The Language of the Cross by Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ