Peter on humility


“Clothe yourselves with humility
in your dealings with one another, for:
God opposes the proud
but bestows favor on the humble….

Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you” (1st Peter: 5: 5b-7)

Near the end of this letter, Peter* advocates humility. The larger context of the letter is counsel to a community that is undergoing persecution, perhaps physical, perhaps social. It made me wonder about why Peter emphasizes humility rather than a different moral virtue in this closing of his letter. *[Note: some scholars think the letter was written by Peter himself, and others by a secretary or later follower.]

A good definition of humility is one a colleague once offered: telling the truth about oneself. Humility is not about pretending one does not have gifts or putting off compliments.  Instead, it concerns a certain kind of realism about oneself: a self-knowledge that is inclusive of knowing my gifts and my flaws alike.

The Ignatian Examen is a practice that encourages humility. A good summary of the method appears here: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen. Essentially, it is a way of looking back at a day, a week, or any period of time to look for where God’s graces and gifts have been offered, and where one has been responsive and participatory in God’s grace, and where one has not. It’s taking the time to meet with God in order to remember that God has been with us all along. Over time, we get to know both God and ourselves better. The Examen builds humility.

A certain consistency in practicing the Examen also builds up compassion for others, because one increasingly notices how everyday and ordinary many of our own faults and failings are. If I have been more attentive to my own small or large patterns of weakness or sin, I’ll be more compassionate and less judgmental about those of others, and more aware of our shared humanity.

Perhaps this is why Peter advocates humility to a persecuted community. When one feels hurt or persecuted, the tendency is to become self-righteous and to re-assert one’s own values even more strongly. We see this both in a wide variety of instances of people who claim to be persecuted in “cultural wars” in our own country, and in smaller, interpersonal conflicts. People become defensive about their own values, and then the divisions between people increase.

Instead, Peter advocates humility, or being attentive and realistic about both one’s strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps this means one can even begin to have compassion for those who are perceived as persecutors—even before they act or think any differently. Rather than responding to the negativity of others with a sense of self-righteousness or judgment, we can practice humility with respect to ourselves and know that we have shortcomings and limits in our perception, knowledge, and action. If others in a different group do the same, then there is a possibility of connection and working through difficulty, in a way that is impossible without mutual self-knowledge.

Peter reminds us that this is all grounded in God’s own care for us. God loves us in our imperfection already and so we are invited to care for others in theirs–and for ourselves despite our own limits. Rather than casting our worries back at others, we can cast our worries on God, and trust in love and care to guide relationship.