A Reflection on Pride and Humility

Two of Jesus’ parables give special emphasis to humility. The Parable of the Guests (Luke 14) explains how being humble would spare a guest embarrassment. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18), explains that a humbler penitent is more pleasing to God than a proud one. Both parables end with the very same sentence—“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

These parables and other biblical passages make clear that humility is a virtue, but it is still difficult to define. Is humility an idea? A feeling? A state of mind? A way of responding to situations? Some combination of these? Before we can effectively practice this virtue, we need to understand its nature.

Both humility and its opposite, pride, derive from our attitude toward ourselves. If we regard ourselves as fundamentally imperfect and therefore dependent on God, we will think, speak, and act humbly. In contrast, if we regard ourselves as perfect and self-sufficient, we will think, speak, and act pridefully.

The difference in attitude is obvious in the behavior of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The former filled his prayer with self-congratulation: “I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” The latter focused on his imperfection: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In contemporary culture, with its emphasis on self-esteem and self-admiration, often to the point of narcissism, we may be tempted to see the Pharisee as normal and the tax collector as psychologically challenged. Also, to believe we should take unqualified pride in our accomplishments, including our educational and professional achievements and our successes as spouses and parents. But if we examine that view closely, we will see that it is flawed.

The main components of success of any kind are talent and effort. The former is not something we create—it is a gift bestowed by God. The latter is partly a matter of our choosing and partly a result of the training, encouragement, and example of parents, teachers, and others. We should therefore feel good about ourselves for choosing wisely, but even more importantly, grateful to God for our talent and to the influential people in our lives for their guidance.

The key to replacing pride with humility is understanding the role of others, first and foremost God, in our accomplishments. The reward for doing so is stated in the two parables—“everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” The supernatural sense of those words is obvious. Not so obvious is the natural sense:

Everyone who is humbled will appreciate the limitations of his knowledge and be motivated to overcome them.

Everyone who is humbled will be more open to the insights of other people and more likely to grow in wisdom.

Everyone who is humbled will be more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and more likely to heed them.

Everyone who is humbled will be more aware of his own weaknesses, errors, and failings, and thus more likely to forgive other people’s.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

About Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

Since retiring from teaching, I have continued my work in promoting sound thinking in education and in the general culture. More specifically, I have kept refining my textbooks, four of which have been continuously in print for an average of 33 years. I have also continued to write books for the general public, the latest of which is Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, and I write a weekly column for an online journal.