Humility – The Only Path Forward in Orthodoxy

Humility certainly figures prominently in anybody’s list of virtues, and most people are more than a little aware of pride playing some role in their spirtual failures. However, knowing that pride is a problem and that humility is a virtue is not saying that we know anything about humility.

First, humility is not precisely the opposite of pride nor is it merely the absence of pride. It is not an absence, but, mysteriously, is truly a fullness (something true of all virtue). Indeed for us, as Christians, to speak of something as a virtue is to recognize that it has a manifestation of the character of Christ. For He truly is the fullness of virtue, and the stature of His fullness is the measure God has set for us in our life in Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

St. Paul offers the most complete description and admonition to true humility:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

This passage is among the most profound in its revelation of the inner life of Christ. St. Paul says of Christ that he “emptied” Himself – theologically referred to as the kenosis. It is this emptying that at the same time gathers into Christ the fullness of our broken humanity and all creation. His complete emptiness before death is also His complete fullness that will burst forth at Pascha.

More than that, St. Paul makes of this central act of Christ the central act of our own obedience. We are “to have this mind among ourselves – it is God’s gift to us in Christ Jesus. It is not a description of behavior we should try to live up to (morality) – but a description of a charism God has bestowed on us in our union with Christ. In Christ we are able to become empty – in a way that makes room for the other – even the whole universe. It is, I believe, another description of love.

I offer this short explication of humility and will add one other note – this from St. Silouan of Mt. Athos – perhaps the most profound in his grasp of humility of any man in recent years.

When the soul comes to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit, how humble and meek He is, she [the soul] sees herself as the worst of all sinners, and is happy to sit in shabby raiment in the ashes like Job, while she beholds other men in the Holy Spirit shining in the likeness of Christ.

And this:

God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (James 4:6).

I turn now to the second part of this posting – the path forward in Orthodoxy. The only path for Orthodoxy is the path that leads to union with God and with one another. There can be no institutional goals apart from this path, for the Church would not be Orthodox were it not in union with God and with itself.

Of course, there are many instances where the unity of the Church is greatly strained. We live under the strain of multiple jurisdictions where only one should exist. We live with tensions between ancient patriarchates. Some of this is nothing new. Church history is filled with the accounts both of God’s grace at work in the Church and of some in the Church refusing the grace that was given.

In my own jurisdiction (the Orthodox Church in America) we have our own struggles, disagreeable matters that provoke anger as well as discussion. I have chosen generally not to discuss such matters on this blog (it is not my gift). This posting itself is not an invitation to discuss the particular difficulties within the life of the OCA or elsewhere My interest is to speak to every scandal – from a minor distraction in the local parish – to the largest difficulties that face us collectively. For in all scandal there is only one path forward – the path of humility. Justice is not a path, for we will not see justice in this life or receive from it the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that people should not be held accountable for their actions – but simply not to believe that such accountability will move us further along the path to which we have been called.

That path is nothing less than the humility of Christ, the mind we were commanded to have among ourselves and which is God’s own gift to us. Humility will not rejoice at the fall of another, but will weep and seek the restoration of a brother.

I believe it is the vocation of the Orthodox Church to demonstrate in its life the humility of Christ. We already embody this when, at the Vespers of Forgiveness, we prostrate ourselves before one another to ask forgiveness. Before the whole world, God Himself was prostrate, reconciling to Himself everyone and everything.

The next several years will probably be among the most important in quite some time for Orthodox Christians. Many possibilities and opportunities are open to us – but the only choice that one need make before such moments – is the choice to have the humble mind of Christ. That path takes us where we want to go – for that path alone leads to Christ.

Please do not reprint this article without specific permission of the author.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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Comments

32 responses to “Humility – The Only Path Forward in Orthodoxy”

  1. jamesthethickheaded Avatar

    “The only path for Orthodoxy is the path that leads to union with God and with one another. There can be no institutional goals apart from this path, for the Church would not be Orthodox were it not in union with God and with itself.”

    Thank you. Easy to get distracted. Spread the Word. He is enough… yet so often we think we want or need more… to somehow add our own “flourish”. As if.

    Agree on the one hand that time is precious.. but at the same time, wonder that we don’t also need to pray for the patience to allow for the fullness of time… God’s time… not ours. Seems so often we press to make something happen where time, reflection, and prayer may offer more… both personally and up through the institutional level. We often try to make happen what only God can do. Prayer for leadership… true discipleship… and preparation to act in concert seems called for in so many of our Orthodox Churches that perhaps our struggles here are just a microcosm of those across the globe.

    We listen. We watch. We pray. We wait. Keep us posted.

  2. shevaberakhot Avatar

    Humility gives us the perspective of Christ and if the eye is healthy, the whole body is full of light.

    Apologies for the pithy statement.

  3. Fr Protodeacon David Kennedy Avatar

    Thank you dear Father. It is a joy to read such words, words that point to the Word.

  4. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, I’m so very thankful for your perspective–for indeed it reflects that of our Lord Himself.

    “In Christ we are able to become empty – in a way that makes room for the other – even the whole universe. It is, I believe, another description of love.”

    Very true and beautiful words–beautiful reality! There are no icons that have as yet struck my heart as deeply as that of the Bridegroom.

    shevaberakhot, no apologies necessary. Well said. (I am always far too talkative!)

  5. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Father Bless
    As a member of an outpost mission in the OCA, I needed this article to remind myself that we will become what we will be in God’s fullness of time, not ours. Thank you for helping me with my impatience and frustration that seems to surface its ugly head from time to time. And, to realize that we as a group need to have the humility to love one another in order to even attempt to “be” a mission.
    By your prayers

  6. mic Avatar
    mic

    Forgive me Fr. Stephen, i re-posted “Kinder, Gentler” without your permission, please forgive me…in all honesty, i did not even think to ask, forgive my pressumption.

  7. Jason Avatar
    Jason

    Fr. Stephen,

    I mean no disrespect, but why did you feel it necessary to post the “copyright disclaimer.” I believe this is the first time I’ve seen it on your thoughtful blog, and being the curious fellow I am, I thought I would just ask.

    Thanks for your blogging ministry.

    Jason

  8. Richard Collins Avatar

    Father,

    You recommended I read ‘The Arena’, which I am doing now and have been amazed by the simple wisdom contained in it. He discusses learning both how to ‘act’ as well as how to (or NOT how to!) ‘react’ saying the latter is harder than the former but gives us greater insight into the former.

    You mention in your post about humility not being a ‘moral’ pursuit, and I agree. It is not so much an ‘action’, but a cessation of ‘reacting’ to things that sting our inflated self-image and self-worth. You also mentioned in another post about the path of hesychasm including ‘don’t react’ and I tie these thoughts together.

    To be humble is to be quiet in the face of wrongs and arrogances and to only wish for the salvation of the wrong doer. From such ‘none reaction’ all other ‘actions’ should flow.

    Lord have mercy – this is a hard path and a hard word. I thank you for helping me to think many of these issues through.

  9. AR Avatar

    Events in the Church these past weeks have caused me great grief and I’m glad to see this post here. It’s hard to know what to do with issues that are so large and so far beyond most of our grasp or involvement, but which affect us nonetheless. It reminds me of why we pray for our heierarchs so constantly. So you are right, Father. Humility must, must, must be the only way – it couldn’t have been any other answer. And I pray that is what comes out of all this.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Jason,

    I only posted it on this article (and normally never do) because there is a great deal of use and misuse on the internet regarding controversies and troubles in the Church. I have control over this website, but anyone else’s, and was simply protecting my carefully chosen words from being misused or de-contextualized or even appearing where I would prefer my name not appear. Not that anything on the net is ever really under your own control. But it seemed appropriate to me.

    You’ll not likely see such a note often – linking and copying are generally fine by me – attribution is a kindness – but since I’m Orthodox and don’t mean to say anything original, even attribution is only a kindness and not a necessity. If the words have any worth then they are not mine.

    Mic,

    No forgiveness necessary. As per the above. My “copyright” was only for this particular article. Sorry for the confusion. And thank you for the kindness of your thoughts.

  11. Mary Gail Avatar
    Mary Gail

    Richard

    Can you supply the full reference to The Arena?

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is the book the Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov.

  13. Eleftheria Avatar
    Eleftheria

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your particular ministry. I have been reading, silently thanking you & God for quite some time. Your postings have more than once provided the necessary balm.
    You wrote:
    “For in all scandal there is only one path forward – the path of humility.”

    This is so relevant, so true – for the Body of Christ and for each member of that Body. A geronda once said that when people are scandalized by the words or actions of a priest or by a particular member of a church, that they fall face down and stay that way, never wanting again to go church, because of course, it’s just an excuse not to attend church. The geronda goes on to say that those people should remember to get up – onto their knees…the path of humilty, as you say.

  14. Ian Avatar

    “The Arena” is a book I keep coming back to at Great Lent [I have alternated between it and my name/patron Saint’s “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” each year]; though I feel I should read it far more often. A truly inspiring, challenging and simply superb book.

    May God help us all. With my prayers and in Christ,
    Ian.

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  16. […] discussing this passage, Father Stephen Freeman quotes Archimandrite Zacharias: Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory […]

  17. Michaela Avatar
    Michaela

    Fr. Stephen,
    For my clients (and myself) who struggle with a trauma background, it is difficult to understand what is meant by the church when it says “humility.” What does that look like practically? So much of life before leaving an abusive situation was codependency where the self is totally sacrificed and barely even explored. We were constantly humiliated. We were well practiced at seeing others as better than ourselves to the point that we closed our eyes to horrific abuse. Seeing saints literally ‘turn the other cheek’ often makes us think we must endure it. If we do break free and seek to know if we can now form a safe relationship with the self instead of one of loathing, we come across words from church about humility, not being worthy, and saints who deprive their bodies and often their dignity to be honoring to God. At this point trauma survivors will split into one of two camps: “Pleasing God is just like pleasing my abuser so I’m leaving” OR “God wants me to erase myself and die to self. I suppose that is real love. I know what to do.” The first projects the parent onto God and the second begins to call abuse “love” in the same brainwashed way they did growing up. How can I help myself and my clients tell the difference between humility and shame or that while unworthy, it doesn’t mean God wants us to destroy ourselves for Him? That taking care of your body is okay? Setting boundaries is okay? How can I help them pursue care for the self when they think it goes against the church?

  18. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Michaela,
    The scripture teaches us to hold our bodies, minds, and hearts as the temple of God. This is not to lead us to the temptation of egotism or gluttony but to live healthily. And that would also include avoiding abusive relationships.

    Father Stephen makes a distinction between healthy shame which is part of our nature, which is helpful to give us a healthy sense of boundaries, and that of toxic shame. What you’re describing in toxic relationships is the perpetuation of toxic shame.

    The practice of ascetism is taught in the Orthodox Church to be conducted in small increments. Indeed one such practice might be to extract oneself from a toxic relationship.

    Otherwise in general, anybody who thinks they are going to go about asceticism with any so-called rigor are usually discouraged by their spiritual father unless they can conduct such work in a truly healthy, soul-saving way. And any person whether or not they have suffered in toxic relationships would not be encouraged to see God as a task master, but a loving God.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michaela,
    Extremely good question!

    First, abuse and trauma damage our emotions – in particular they create toxic shame. Toxic shame makes the normal ability to deal with shame (even healthy shame) nearly impossible. Healing has to take place first.

    If you’re a therapist then think with me about this (I’ve been on both sides of the therapeutic experience regarding trauma). In order to be able to speak about trauma in your life, you have to have a strong sense of safety. You need to believe that the therapist is a safe person and cares for you. That is risky and requires some vulnerability. That vulnerability is itself of a piece with humility. I think it starts slowly and, as the therapeutic experience grows, so confidence grows and healing can begin – and it’s a slow process.

    You’ve described a number of very false messages (“pleasing God is just like pleasing my abuser…etc.”). Pastorally, it’s very good to be aware of such distortions. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been writing on the dynamic of shame (and, please God, my book on the topic of shame will be out in the next month). It requires teaching, patience, lots of care, emotional support, and time.

    Being able to make the distinction between healthy shame and toxic shame (that’s the language that John Bradshaw used by in the 80’s and is common in a number of treatments) is very helpful. But – healthy shame is an essential part of being able to recognize boundaries. It’s an essential part of wonder and awe. It is as necessary as every other emotion we have – all of which underscores how devastating it is when the capacity for such a healthy experience is damaged or even made impossible through trauma and abuse.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have a very good Christian friend who has endured s great deal of pain and humiliation, not out right abuse but still a lot of stuff heaped upon him. We have been talking by text recently about humility. He extolled the Cross and our participation in it with our vessels of clay, made of earth (humus) humility. You will have to trust me on this, but coming from him it carries weight because he carries his Cross with honor, humor and kindness.

  21. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michaela,
    A discerning holy Edler called Aimilianos would often say to people that went to him with ambitions of holiness, ‘you need to first just become human’ and that will take some time (i.e.: be healed back to a simple wholeness) ‘before becoming a saint’.
    It would confound them.
    The saints that speak of a healthy “self-loathing” come to this from an entirely different angle compared to what psychology makes of it.
    St Sophrony is a great example here, he was pretty explicit that, it is the wondrous encounter of God, transforming himself (Sophrony) into a god, permeating his being with God’s eternal transformative Light, that brought about that humility he called ‘healthy self-loathing’ which is so different to what we tend to think of when we hear such an expression. Essentially, because such an ineffable experience bestowed on him a clear existential glimspe of the awesome heights of what his Creator’s initial idea of his own being (Sophrony’s) was, and how far from that calling he was (of his own accord), the result was this humility. He called it the “double knowledge (of one’s simultaneous eternal worth and their current “unworth”, not arrived at through thoughts, but through the shining of God’s loving Presence upon their being). It is a humility of discovering how great you are in Someone’s unconditionally loving gaze, despite your darkness, how bright He makes you, how God freely carries you along this abysmal distance that cannot but make you dizzyingly humble.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino,
    “Just become human.” Does that not entail several things?
    1. Acknowledging one is not yet human.
    2. Having at least a minimal understanding that being human involves our intrinsic connection to other human beings.
    3. Which means we share one another’s triumphs and pain to some degree.
    4. As hard as one might try to “do good”, I fail a lot due to my own shortcomings or the evil of others.(if not evil per se at least that others do not wish to “do good”)
    5. That humanity’s collective will both now and historically has failed “to do good” more often than not.
    6.Both my own failures and the collective failures cannot be overcome by human will alone.
    7. As AA and other such programs insist, only by obeying a higher power can, at least, my own will be changed enough to do more good.
    8. Admit to some degree that Jesus Christ is the only rational choice for one’s higher power.
    9. Find others of like mind and begin to worship and obey Him.
    10. Enter into a life of repentance and mercy in communion with Him and others as a human person, made in His image and likeness.

    Just wondering?

  23. Michaela Robinson Avatar
    Michaela Robinson

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen and others for interacting with me on this. It sounds like your idea is that those suffering from toxic shame primarily need healing before discernment about these ideas can really be reached. It’s true that trauma will warp perception. The abused dog bites the hand of its rescuers until it learns that hand is not like the past hands. It is helpful to hear how others explain humility outside of self-hatred and shaming. You’re saying the relationship with God is to be so profound and loving that one cannot help but feel small in comparison; leading to overwhelming gratefulness and desire for God. We’re calling a good experience a wake up call to who we are…rather than calling a bad experience good. I think I’m tracking, right?

    It’s refreshing, Fr. Stephen, to hear your words about toxic shame recovery needing love, patience, time, and help. So often, sufferers are told to ‘think’ their way out or find a way to ‘love themselves.’ In my therapeutic orientation, I believe that if emotion regulation and love are not taught/given in the crucial years, then such internalization does not take place. Therefore, to love oneself without seeing love is like trying to repair something broken without a tool kit. Being loved by new others enables them to add tools and eventually get that ability to internalize again (as opposed to continual dependency). It is indeed risky. For both parties. To love someone broken is tough investment that needs boundaries. To ask for love when broken is jumping off the cliff of vulnerability and bringing up all the old attachment wounds.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michaela,
    The Tradition says that the “Church is a hospital for sinners.” This is much more clear when we understand that “sinners” is not so much about “moral problems” as it is about the brokenness within us (death at work in us) and that it has been a process that must be understood, and treated compassionately, patiently, and with kindness. It’s a slow work.

    When I’ve been privileged to be part of the healing of a soul – it is the most moving thing I can think of.

    Those who have been victims of trauma and the like – often need therapeutic assistance of a variety of sorts. May God give us the grace to be of use!

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, it is amazing to me how much freedom our good God gives us (Each person in the Holy Trinity) gives me/us. Frustrating too both for myself and others. At times, I do not like free will.
    I think those who embrace some kind of universal salvation do so, in part because how can a good God stand by (so to speak) and allow souls to remain in deep depravity or unrepentant. Or is that part of the slowness?

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    First off, it’s part of what it means to be a soul. If your soul were an inert rock, it would not be depraved or unrepentant, etc. But it would be a soul. That a soul is free is part of what it means to be a soul. Ultimately, the depravity, etc., is not of the essence of the soul – it will pass. But the freedom is essential and will remain.

    We get frustrated (mostly due to the pain of shame) with our faults and failings. It is better to just work at doing the next good thing, keeping the commandments of Christ.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …And somewhere in each soul is a well of Joy that is not of our thoughts just waiting to be discovered?

  28. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michael,
    I took the Elder (by “first become human”) to mean something far more simple than that, namely that, before embarking on our spiritual struggles towards holiness, we first need to ensure a ‘basis’ of genuine, simple, direct, forthright ‘oneness of soul’ – like a child. Especially the element of “trust in a truly trustworthy Creator” that is so easy for a child (well one could feasibly argue it actually possible even for a traumatised soul if it were to believe in the “trustworthiness-of-its-Creator”-part enough)

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, I was describing many of the steps I have gone through in my life (although much less linear and more messy). It has gotten me closer by Jesus Grace and mercy. I will never be a saint. Fortunate to know one man I think might be.
    Knowing Jesus mercy is enough for me
    He has been extraordinarily kind to me. Especially when I am less than human.

    Forgive me, a sinner

  30. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michael
    I think all those points you describe also show that there’s a positive side to all human trauma in its ability to lead to growth

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, yes indeed. It is rather amazing that even the trauma, by God’s mercy, is ultimately redemptive (or can be) True humility is the key. The humility off the Cross I think/hope/pray. But to know the Cross even God had to become human.
    In English the words human and humility have the same root from the Proto-Indo-European word dhghem meaning earth. I believe there is something similar in Greek, is there not?

    It is from the earth that all good things come, even Jesus (God Incarnate) rose from the Earth.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, thank you for your comments. They are quite helpful

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  1. Matthew, Generally speaking, in Orthodoxy, when we speak of “obedience” (I don’t anyone who speaks of “submission”), we are speaking…

  2. Matthew, Just to confirm, I’m not suggesting we are self-made. I hope I didn’t make that impression. And yes, I…

  3. Dee, I really like your description of the effects of humility. The description helps me understand humility better. Thank you.

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