Humility is the mother of all virtues; it is the one quality that seems to be indispensable in our spiritual life. Without humility, we are unable to acquire and use the saving grace that God pours out upon us without limit. Humility is the condition that leads us to repentance, for through it we recognize our weakness and our shortcomings (and thus we see and acknowledge our own sins) and having confessed our sins, we also realize our own weakness and inability to overcome them and so cry out to God to save us. Our Lord said that He came to seek and to save those who are lost, who are ill, who are sinners and it is only with humility that we are able to set aside our pride and admit that we are indeed lost and ill and sinful. Without humility we cannot be saved.
The opposite of humility is pride, which is at the root of all sin and separation from God. It is pride which teaches us that we do not need God’s help, that we are God’s equal, that we can get along without God. It is pride that prompted our first parents to rebel against the commandment of God and to seek to become like God by their own efforts and wisdom rather than by obedience to God. It is pride that blinds us to our own sins, that denies our weakness and helplessness in the face of temptation. It is pride that pushes us to stand in God’s place rather than to sit at His feet as a little child. Pride is the inherent spiritual quality that is natural to our fallen state and that prevents us from coming to God, from confessing our sins and repenting and from putting ourselves wholly in His hands.
In the Gospel that we read today we see an example of great humility in the person of the centurion who asked that our Lord Jesus Christ might come and heal his servant. A centurion was a Roman military officer who had a large company of soldiers (100 men) under his command – and his command for them was absolute. He was a man who was feared and honored not only by his own soldiers, but also by those in civil society. His power, however, was not limitless for he also had officers and authorities over him that he had to obey. Still, at the local level, the centurion was a man who commanded respect and whose desires were not to be taken lightly. Thus the centurion who sought out Jesus could simply have commanded that Jesus be brought to him and he might then have ordered Jesus to heal the servant. But this is not what happened. This great and powerful man who commanded troops of his own himself came to Jesus and begged not for his own life but for the life of a servant. An invitation to his home would have been considered an honor by those in the world but this man did not consider himself or his house worthy that Jesus should even inconvenience Himself to go out of his way. This centurion knew, from his own life, the nature of authority and power and he believed that Jesus was indeed the Son of God Whose authority and honor were greater than any other man. Humbling himself, he acted according to the faith and came to Jesus himself and implored Jesus only to say the word that his servant might be healed. In this man we see not only great faith, but at its root we also see great humility.
Contrast this behavior towards Christ to that of the religious rulers of the Jews, those who above all should have recognized the true nature of Christ. They did not go to Him themselves, but sent others to Him, but not to ask for help, rather to seek how they might entrap Him and thus discredit and dishonor Him. In the end they sent others to arrest Him and drag Him into their presence that they might question Him, not to discover the truth and salvation that He offered to all, but rather to find some means to condemn Him. They did not need Jesus; they relied upon their own ability to follow the Law and to obtain perfection by their own strength and ability. They were indeed full of pride.
We also are afflicted with pride – it is in our very nature, inherited as a result of the sin and fall of our first parents Adam and Eve. Even the very first step of our spiritual life, to confess our sin, to repent of it and to accept the healing grace that our Lord Jesus Christ gives to us requires humility for we must first recognize our own sinfulness and helplessness in the face of our natural pride that constantly tries to convince us that we are “good” and “worthy” and “strong”. Not only do we face the natural urges of our own fallen nature, but we also must resist the prompting of our spiritual enemies, the devil and the demons which war against us and seek to pull us out of the loving and merciful hand of God. One of the greatest weapons in their struggle to separate us from God is to inflame the pride that we already have within us.
In order to resist the onslaught of the demons and the inner urgings of our fallen nature, we must nurture humility within ourselves, we must remember that we are dust and of no value, except for the value that God imputes to us by His grace. We must constantly resist the thought that we have any strength or ability or wisdom in ourselves and remember that we are entirely dependent upon God even for the smallest bit of good that is in us. In our prayers we frequently are taught to confess that we are the first and greatest of sinners. These words cannot just be words, but we must bring them into our own hearts and make them our words, our confession, the expression of our own essence – for it is this awareness that becomes the source of humility in ourselves.
Pride, even the smallest bit of pride in us, opens the door to the influence and temptation of the demons. They are constantly striving to awaken and stir up our passions and by them to pull us away from God. St Macarii of Optina speaks about this struggle saying, “You should know by now that great storms of passion are allowed to assail us whenever we have been indulging in pride, self-adulation, high opinions of our own intellectual powers … The medicine is simple: humility, a sincere humbling of self. This alone can bring relief …” It is pride that ignites and incites the passions in us and it is also pride that nullifies and counteracts every effort to resist those temptations and passions. Only humility, only to confess our sins, to confess our own worthlessness, weakness and inability, to come ourselves before the throne of God and to cry out for His help, placing ourselves fully and completely in His hands; this is our only remedy.
Unfortunately even the smallest remnant of pride can take root in us and poison our humility. Even the smallest hint of self worth, of self reliance, of self righteousness can grow and derail the development of humility in us. The moment that we begin to think, “I’m not as bad as him” or “I can handle that temptation” or “I guess I am OK”, we know that pride is trying to assert itself and such thoughts, if they are accepted by us, open the door, even by just a crack, to the influence of the demons which then only fan the flames of our pride so that the door might swing wide and allow them free access to us. Against this shred of pride, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, we must be alert and turn away from it in that instant. If you are tempted to think, “I can do this” then remember to add “by God’s grace” or “with God’s help” so to turn away from the pride of self reliance and rely instead upon God. If you are tempted to think, “I am strong enough to resist this little temptation” then see that as the appearance of pride and immediately begin to confess your own weakness and helplessness to God calling to Him for protection and help. If you look at some accomplishment with satisfaction thinking how well you have done – immediately begin to give thanks to God for the good work that He has done in you, taking no credit at all for yourself for by such self-satisfaction does pride gain a foothold.
Pride is our enemy and even worse, it is the enemy that lies within us, that we all have as a part of our fallen and sinful nature. It is pride that opens the way for the demonic thieves to break in, steal and take from us the treasures of grace that God freely and richly bestows upon us. Therefore, as St Macarii also says, it is “All the more reason for us to enclose ourselves in the fastness of wise humility, alone impregnable to the thieves and robbers.” Remember the words of the prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ in the morning prayers and make them truly the prayer of your own soul, “If faith in Thee saves the desperate, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Impute my faith instead of deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds which could justify me, but may faith suffice for all my deeds. May it answer for and acquit me, and may it make me a partaker of Thy eternal glory. And may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that he hast torn me from Thy hand and fold. O my Christ, my Savior, whether I will or not, save me. Make hast, quick, quick, for I perish…” It is only with such humility and complete dependence upon God for all things that we will be saved.