Humility, Gratitude, and Joy

I once did a spiritual practice of reading the words of Jesus every night for three years. At the end of that time, I put away the New Testament and asked myself: “What is the most important teaching I have learned?” To my surprise, a word popped into my mind: humility.

Humility has a bad reputation in the modern world. We associate humility with being a loser, a naïve door mat. “Nice guys finish last.” Jesus may have said: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”, but the modern world says: “Blessed at the confident go getters, for they shall get the goods of the earth.”

But, my friend, look at the mess we are making. Our arrogant consumption of planet earth is turning into global warming and rampant pollution. Politicians tear each other apart, but never seem to accomplish what we really need. Some politicians are willing to default the entire nation for their narrow minded agenda. This attitude of arrogance is not working for the human family. We need to rediscover the value of humility.

To begin with, a humble person loves them self. Being humble doesn’t mean you have to put yourself down and punish yourself. On the contrary, a humble person feels good about them self. Self worth and arrogance are really opposites. Arrogance is rooted in fear and greed. Self worth is rooted in love and the desire to make other people happy.

So a humble person loves them self, which includes accepting our limitations. We all have limitations. Even a brain surgeon, who may be “the expert” in the operating room, is a novice in everything else. All of us need to ask for help. When I go to the fish market I’m saying: “I don’t know how to catch fish, I don’t know how to get the fish here. I need your help. Thank you.” Isn’t it like that all day long? “I can’t drive a bus, thanks for driving it for me. I don’t know how to fix my teeth, thanks for filling my cavity.” We are utterly dependent and interdependent on one another – all day long.

This is true of preaching, whether you are a minister or lay person. If there are 100 people in church and if the average age is 45 – that is 4,500 years of human experience. How can I possibly compete with that? I can’t. Any topic I choose, there will be dozens of members who know more about it than I do. And any weakness in the sermon or service will be obvious to many. I am just a scared fool if I try to be a “know it all” with the wisdom of Solomon. For worship to be effective, it takes a major dose of humility on whom ever is leading the service.

The humility which comes from this dependence and interdependence applies to us economically, as well. Those of us in the middle class and above got there through, yes, a good work ethic and commitment. We can be proud of that. But we also got there because there is a world-wide economic system which favors some and not others, no matter how hard one works. We need the humility to admit, we have a lot of nice things on the backs of others, and this honest humility (not guilt but humility) will encourage to be financially generous and progressive in social justice work.

A humble person is not judgmental. Instead of judging others, a humble person is able to admit their own short comings, instead of projecting them onto others. We judge others because we are insecure. Jesus said: “Why do you take the speck out of another person’s eye, when you do not take the log out of your own eye.” A humble person is able to accept their human vulnerability. After all, deep inside, aren’t we are all scared? We all feel anxious. We all grieve. We all make mistakes. This is the human condition. Instead of judging it as bad, a humble person accepts it with compassion, and then works to create a better world.

Thus, a humble person is not obsessed with competition, where as, the modern world is. In our pettiness we think:

“I don’t make as much money as they do” or “I make more money than them”

“I don’t look good anymore, I’m getting old” or “I am young and beautiful compared to those oldies.”

“I don’t make conversation very well” or “I certainly speak better English than them.”

A humble person stops this game of personal comparison. A humble person can be proud of their own abilities without needing to be better than others, and a humble person can accept their limitations without being worse than others. Humility is a full acceptance of human dignity for everyone. Thus, a humble person is good at democracy. They are able to disagree with others in a spirit of mutual respect: able to listen carefully to others and able to speak their truth with kindness.

A humble person appreciates the talents and gifts of other people. Rosa Say, a business consultant, writes: “Those who are humble feel that the rest of us are pretty interesting. Those with humility have a genuine desire to discover what other people can offer. They are intrigued by how others think, and how others may feel differently from them…Humility is a kind of hunger for more abundance. The greater our humility, the greater our fascination with the world around us, and the more we learn.”

Another business author, James Collins, studied some of the most successful CEO’s in America and concluded that one of their core qualities was humility. They appreciated the thoughts and talents of the people around them and thus empowered their work. One CEO, Patrick Daniel, said it simply: “Greatness comes through humility.”


At the center of genuine humility is gratitude. A humble person is grateful – grateful because they realize that 99% of what we have or do is a gift – an unearned blessing.

+Our body is a gift. Our atoms were made in ancient stars. Our cells were made in ancient oceans. The human body is the gift from billions of years of evolution.

+Our language is a gift. Our ancestors created almost every word we use. How many words do you use that you invented yourself? Our language is a gift from the ancestors.

+This earth is a gift: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the plants and animals that give up their lives so we can eat. When the Apollo Astronauts looked back at the earth from the moon they were spiritually transformed. They saw how fragile, beautiful, and unique this planet was in the vast dark emptiness of space. Sure on this shining night! And in that awe they just wanted to be kind.

+The people we love are all precious gifts. Authentic love, healthy love, is worth more than all the gold in the world. To maintain and deepen a love relationship takes a lot of humility, communication, and commitment.

All day long we are showered with blessings. A humble person recognizes this and is deeply grateful. Thus, a humble person is not caught on the treadmill of consumerism. Because they can be happy with the simple things of life (a smile, a flower, a hand to hold, a blue sky, a good meal) they do not need a lot of things to own and consume. They can have a smaller carbon foot print and be happy.

Humility is grounded in gratitude, and the fruit of gratitude is joy. Not the joy of consumerism or personal greatness, but the joy of the simple things, the joy of being. It is not a material joy – it is not a fleeting emotion. It is a spiritual joy, a knowing that is deeper than feeling. And it is deeper than suffering.

My friends, life is very difficult. Life is so challenging because everything ends. All that we cherish, every person, place, animal, and object will end. On this physical plane we lose everything.  Grief and loss create a crucible of suffering we all experience. The arrogant person says: “No way! I’m the one in control here. I will stay in power.” And they thrash around, using people and destroying lives, until they finally collapse. The humble person says: “I will let grief break my heart, and transform me into a deeper and more compassionate human being.”

Which is to say: sure on this shining night, we will trust in kindness. We will weep with wonder.

“Behold,” exclaimed the poet Rilke, “I exist. How? The joy of Being wells up in my heart.”

So in this sacred space let us affirm together, that we will choose love and not fear as the ground upon which we stand. We will choose humility and not arrogance.