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James S. Spiegel

The Moral Irony of Humility

The Christian faith is profoundly ironic. From its historical devel-
opment and the principal figures involved to the essence of its mes-
sage, it is a worldview full of surprises, giving us exactly the opposite
of what we expect. This irony is especially evident in the virtue of
humility, both as displayed in the life of Christ and as divinely com-
manded for the daily practice of his followers. The aim of this paper
is to explore humility as a Christian virtue and apply the insights
drawn from this discussion to the problem of evil. The discussion
will reveal a certain moral-theological coherence within Christian-
ity that is normally hidden from view.

Moral Irony as the Essence of Christian Virtue

Nowhere in the Scriptures is the irony of God more manifest than
in its moral instruction. In fact, one might say that the Christian ethic
is essentially ironic. This will become clear as I expound upon two
important facts, specifically that the moral virtue of humility is iron-
ic and that humility is at the very heart of Christian morality.
logos 6:1 winter 2003
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1. Humility as a Moral Virtue
Let us begin with the concept of “virtue.” The ancient Greeks gen-
erally understood virtue to denote any characteristic that enables a
thing to fulfill its function. Thus, a virtuous sail is one that realizes
its end by catching wind; a virtuous cup holds liquid, and so on. But
the concept may be understood more broadly to refer to any specific
excellence. Thus conceived, when applied to human beings virtue
may be defined, in the words of Robert C. Roberts, as “a trait that
makes a person a good specimen.”1 So to be more specific, a moral
virtue would be any characteristic that enables a person to be a good
moral specimen.
Is humility properly considered the sort of trait that makes a
person a good moral specimen? Well, just what is humility anyway?
Conceptions of this characteristic fall into two basic categories.
What I shall call the traditional view conceives of humility as essen-
tially consisting in a low view of oneself. For example, Gabrielle Tay-
lor writes that “the man who accepts his lowly position as what is due
him is the man who has humility, or the humble man.”2 Historical-
ly, this perspective has been taken by most Christian thinkers on the
subject, as we shall see below. Others, such as Norvin Richards,
reject this approach because it apparently cannot account for those
accomplished or especially praiseworthy people for whom, it would
seem, a low self-estimation does not accurately reflect their true
moral worth. On this definition, he says, such persons “could be
humble only through self-deception or ignorance.”3 So Richards
prefers to define humility as a proper estimation of oneself. It con-
sists, therefore, in “taking oneself neither more nor less seriously
than one should,”4 thus placing a lower as well as an upper limit on
how one ought to regard oneself. Richards supports this claim by
noting that “anyone who undervalues his good qualities is thereby
wrong about them.”5 Consequently, on this conception “a humble
attitude would embody an error about oneself ”6 and amount to a
lack of self-respect.
There are two basic problems with Richards’s account or, more
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specifically, his criticism of the traditional conception of humility.
First, he rejects the Christian moral anthropology in which the tra-
ditional account of humility has historically been couched and that
lends this perspective so much of its intuitive plausibility. If human
beings are fundamentally morally corrupt, as the doctrine of origi-
nal sin affirms, then no one could possibly be mistaken, ignorant, or
self-deceived in taking a low view of herself. Affirming our lowliness
is appropriate for all of us, if the doctrine of original sin is correct,
our greatest accomplishments notwithstanding. And even for those
Christians who reject the notion of original sin, we are all lowly rel-
ative to the absolute perfection of God.
Even granting Richards’s optimistic perspective on human
nature, his account is too rigid, and his criticisms of the traditional
view are unfair. For to take a low view of herself a person need not
ignore or underestimate her better qualities, nor need one even
refuse to recognize how much more accomplished she may be in
some areas. A person may be perfectly aware of the praiseworthy
qualities she possesses but nonetheless affirm her lowliness in an
alternate sense than the literal assertion of her actual moral (or
other) standing. Instead, the humble person’s “low self-regard” may
be taken in a performative sense, such that one plays the role of the
unworthy or assumes the position of the lowly through her behavior,
words, or self-conception. Such an account avoids the absurd impli-
cations noted by Richards, while preserving the intuitive appeal of
the traditional account of humility.
Max Scheler develops a model of humility that duly recognizes its
performative aspect. He defines the virtue as “a constant inner pul-
sation of spiritual readiness to serve at the core of our existence, an
attitude of serving towards all things.”7 We become humble, says
Scheler, by “surrendering” or “letting go of our self.” There is no cog-
nitive act of self-estimation necessarily involved in humility. It is an
attitudinal choice, a “voluntary self-effacement,” whereby one
decides to serve rather than to be served.
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Scheler’s account captures the performative quality of humility
that Richards ignores. But he goes to the opposite extreme of fail-
ing to sufficiently account for the cognitive element of the virtue.
Criticizing Scheler on this score, however, is probably unfair, since
he intends to focus his analysis on humility as a “spiritual disposition”
in response to our place before God. That is, he assumes that the
humble person already recognizes God’s greatness and her own
smallness. So the cognitive aspect of humility is more likely taken for
granted by Scheler than ignored by him.
A balanced account of humility, it would seem, must recognize
both cognitive and performative aspects of the virtue. Nancy Snow
has offered a definition that achieves such a balance. She proposes
that humility consists in both a recognition of one’s flaws or defects
and a proper behavioral response to them. She writes, “To be hum-
ble is to recognize your limitations, to take them seriously, and
thereby to foster a realism in attitudes and behavior regarding self
and others. Humility can be defined as the disposition to allow the
awareness of and concern about your limitations to have a realistic
influence on your attitudes and behavior.”8
Snow correctly recognizes that humility is performative, neces-
sarily issuing forth in certain types of behavior. And she is also cor-
rect in noting that, typically, humility is inspired by recognition of
one’s natural limits. I say this is “typically” the case because, from a
Christian perspective, humility must be conceived in such a way as
to allow for the humility of Christ, a perfect moral specimen. Jesus
was divine, so his humility could not have flowed from a recognition
of any actual flaws on his part. It is primarily for this reason that I
would broaden this cognitive requirement to affirm at least a low
self-regard, if not a recognition of one’s actual unworthiness. Thus,
in the discussion that follows, I will assume that humility involves
low self-regard, whether deserved or not, and a concomitant will-
ingness to serve or, otherwise put, performative self-lowering.
So why should it be supposed that humility is a moral virtue?
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What reasons are there for believing that a low self-regard and the
readiness to serve contribute to one’s becoming a good moral spec-
imen? Richards is most helpful in identifying numerous ways in
which humility (on any of the above conceptions) is a moral, as well
as a psychological, boon. Not thinking too highly of oneself protects
a person from self-absorption and resentment, while increasing a
person’s capacity for compassion and patience. This is because
humility “provides an understanding that one is not special, from the
point of view of the universe, not an exception to be treated differ-
ently from the others.”9 Consequently, Richards observes, one will
be less inclined to overreact to mistreatment of oneself and less
likely to underreact to the mistreatment of others.
Similarly, Snow identifies several virtues that are fostered by
humility, including the propensity to forgive and to ask for forgive-
ness. The humble person is also less vulnerable to vices such as
vicious pride, vanity, boastfulness, conceit, and arrogance. Hence,
“insofar as humility facilitates the development of other virtuous
dispositions and curbs the developments of vices, it is a trait worth
There are further reasons for supposing humility to be a moral
virtue. Assume that all mature persons are typically involved in each
of the following: (1) significant human relationships, such as mar-
riage, friendship, parenting, etc.; (2) a more encompassing human
community that extends beyond the bounds of family and friends to
include the broader population of one’s neighborhood or town; (3)
tasks in service of others within the community; and (4) a quest for
contentment, happiness, or Aristotelian eudaimonia.
Humility, as defined earlier, is essential for each of these human
domains and endeavors. First, it is an attribute that strengthens per-
sonal relationships, for every friendship and marriage occasionally
calls for compromise or concessions by one party for the sake of the
other party’s needs. Egoism and vicious pride, traits that oppose
humility, are destructive to these relationships, alienating friends
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and lovers rather than endearing them. Humility begets proper ser-
vice of others, whatever form that might take, and this nourishes
vital relationships. Second, humility is a trait essential to communi-
ty. For any community to survive, its members must function as a
team, each carrying on a task that contributes to the whole. This
demands mutual service that humility promotes. Moreover, just as
in a friendship, a community thrives precisely when those who com-
pose it are willing to accede to the legitimate desires of others.
Finally, humility breeds contentment, a sense of “well-being,” as it
contributes to the peace of mind robbed of those who incessantly
crave but often fail to acquire their “fair share” of goods and recog-
nition. A person who does not see herself as “above” anyone else will
naturally be more content with her share.

II. Humility as a Christian Virtue

The history of Christian scholarship on humility suggests, too, that
humility is a moral virtue, that humility is indeed crucial to one’s
becoming a good moral specimen. Moreover, it gives us a more
thorough analysis of the trait. Early Christian thinkers from John
Chrysostom11 and Augustine12 to St. Bernard of Clairvaux,13
affirmed that humility is not just an important Christian virtue but
central to Christian morality. About this, many Christian thinkers
since have agreed. But precise characterizations of the virtue have
differed. Thomas Aquinas, for example, saw humility as a species of
temperance and, more specifically, as a form of modesty. Whereas
the virtue of magnanimity prevents the mind from falling into
despair, humility is that virtue of mind that serves “to temper and
restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately.”14 He
adds that “it belongs properly to humility, that a man restrain him-
self from being borne towards that which is above him. For this
purpose he must know his disproportion to that which surpasses his
capacity. Hence knowledge of one’s own deficiency belongs to
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Thomas à Kempis’s Of the Imitation of Christ may be regarded as
fundamentally an extended endorsement of the humble life. He
declares that “the chiefest saints before God are the least before
themselves, and the more glorious they are, so much within them-
selves are they humbler.”16 He essentially affirms humility to be the
most basic of Christian virtues. And with Aquinas, he regards self-
abasement as appropriate, given the greatness of God, noting that
there is no worse nor more troublesome enemy to the soul
than you are to yourself, if you be not in harmony with the
Spirit. It is altogether necessary that you take up a true con-
tempt for yourself, if you desire to prevail against flesh and
blood. Because as you yet love yourself too inordinately; there-
fore you are afraid to resign yourself wholly to the will of

And elsewhere, he says “show yourself so humble and so very small,

that all may be able to walk over you, and to tread you down as the
mire of the streets.”18
While à Kempis’s language of self-abasement is strong, his view
is in keeping with traditional Christian thought on humility as fol-
lowing from the natural condition of human beings before God.
Accordingly, the mystic author of Cloud of Unknowing distinguishes
two causes of humility: “One is the degradation, wretchedness, and
weakness of man to which by sin he has fallen . . . The other is the
superabundant love and worth of God in himself: gazing on which all
nature trembles, all scholars are fools, all saints and angels blind.”19
These two causes result in a further distinction between two forms
of the virtue: “imperfect” humility, which is prompted by a realistic
self-awareness, and “perfect” humility, which is caused by our con-
templation of God. Thus, like Norvin Richards, this author regards
humility as “nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of one-
self as one really is.”20 However, it is just because God is holy and
humans are sinful that the natural consequence of a proper estima-
tion of one’s moral worth before God is self-abasement.
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In affirming the centrality of virtue to the Christian life, few are
as unabashed as John Calvin, who regarded humility as the “sovereign
virtue . . . the mother and root of all virtue.”21 He writes that “By
God’s mercy alone we stand, since by ourselves we are nothing but
evil . . . As our humility is his loftiness, so the confession of our
humility has a ready remedy in his mercy.”22 Such confession, Calvin
maintains, will only come to a person as she “lay[s] aside the disease
of self-love and ambition” and obtains a clear vision of herself
through Scripture.23
Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards identifies “evangelical
humiliation” as one of the telltale religious affections by which one
may discern true Christian spirituality. He defines this as “a sense that
a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odi-
ousness, with an answerable frame of heart.”24 Such humility he dis-
tinguishes from “legal humiliation,” which consists solely in the
recognition that one is morally helpless and insufficient before God.
But such humiliation does not involve an “answerable frame of
heart,” by which Edwards intends a disposition to abase oneself and
“exalt God alone.”25 While legal humiliation is useful as a means to
so incline one’s heart, it is only evangelical humiliation that is truly
virtuous and a Christian grace. True humility is known by certain
signs, among which Edwards includes: (1) an inclination to submit
to others and a disinclination to assume authority, (2) a disinclination
to speak highly of one’s own experiences, and (3) an inclination to
regard oneself as an unworthy teacher and an inclination to seek
instruction oneself.
In his classic devotional work on the topic, Andrew Murray
affirms the centrality of humility to the Christian moral life. Like
Calvin he maintains that “humility is not so much a grace or virtue
along with others; it is the root of all, because it alone assumes the
right attitude before God and allows Him as God to do all.”26 Mur-
ray’s argument is a straightforward Christological one, noting that
the defining characteristics of Christ were his meekness and lowli-
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ness and that we ought to emulate these traits. He reminds us that
the divine incarnation itself was an act of divine humility and so,
even more, was Christ’s servanthood and atoning work. Thus,
“Christ is the humility of God embodied in human nature.”27 Like
à Kempis, Murray endorses self-abasement and describes the hum-
ble attitude as a sense of one’s “entire nothingness.” But the essence
of the virtue is really just an acknowledgment of one’s position
before an almighty God.
What this brief survey shows is that Catholic and Protestant the-
ologians alike affirm not only that humility is a moral virtue but that
it is a very significant one, even definitive for the Christian charac-
ter. It is a trait directly opposing such vices as selfishness (or the ten-
dency to regard oneself foremost in decision making) and abject
pride (or the tendency to regard oneself as morally better than one
actually is). The core understanding of the virtue among Christian
thinkers on the topic seems to be quite consonant with the philo-
sophical definition of humility arrived at above, namely a low regard
for oneself and a willingness to serve.
To canvass biblical teaching on humility is to see why Christian
writers on the topic give this virtue so prominent a place. The Scrip-
tures repeatedly exhort us to be humble. James gives this charge:
“humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”28
Solomon warns, “[God] mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the
humble.”29 The Lord declares through Isaiah, “this is the one I
esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my
word.”30 And Paul asserts that “God chose the weak things of this
world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world
and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the
things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”31 Indeed, the
theme of divine exaltation of what is lowly pervades the Scriptures.
Over and over again we see humility as a condition for divine favor
and such particulars as protection,32 guidance,33 answered prayer,34
spiritual insight,35 and salvation.36
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Nowhere in the Scriptures is the emphasis on humility more
pronounced than in the teachings of Jesus. That the last shall be first
and vice versa is a consistent theme in his discourses.37 “Anyone who
will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child,” he says, “will
never enter it.”38 The beatitudes underscore the blessings to be had
by those who are meek, mournful, needy, and poor in spirit.39 Even
the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is essentially a call to
Then there is the life of Christ, a vivid illustration of moral para-
dox. His self-description as “gentle and humble in heart”40 is con-
firmed in the gospel narratives in dramatic, sometimes disturbing
ways. Most significantly, the key New Testament text dealing with
the divine incarnation, the Philippians “kenosis” passage, treats the
humility of Jesus as his crowning virtue. There Paul writes,

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who,

being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the
very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And
being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and
became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore
God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name
that is above every name.41

Here we find a summary of the principal ways in which Jesus was

humbled: his refusal to rely upon his divine attributes, his assump-
tion of human nature, his servanthood, his obedience, and his
degrading manner of death. Paul finishes by noting the exaltation of
Christ, which is as complete as his humility, reminding us of Jesus’s
words that the last shall be first.
There are further biblical recommendations of humility to be
found in the doctrines of confession, repentance, and faith. To con-
fess one’s sin is to accept blame and admit wrongdoing, weakness,
and failure, the very antithesis of pride. Humility is a prerequisite for
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confession of sin.42 Repentance, the moral response of turning one’s
back on one’s sin, too, is a humble act, since it not only implies
recognition of guilt by the repudiation of one’s prior actions, it con-
stitutes resubmission to proper moral authority. Finally, faith itself is
morally ironic, for it is to trust someone other than oneself for what
matters most to a person.43 The exercise of faith tacitly admits one’s
insufficiency and need for help.
We are now in a position to spell out more fully just what the
virtue of humility is from a Christian standpoint. To be humble is to
assume an inferior position before others due to one’s natural moral
condition and the greatness of God. Cognitively, it involves low self-
regard and, performatively, it is a lowering of oneself by serving
others or subjecting oneself to difficult circumstances. Humble atti-
tudes and behaviors are proper for us both because of our moral
standing before God and because they are a prerequisite for other
virtuous acts, such as confession, repentance, and faith.

III. Humility as Moral Irony

We have seen that the Christian account of humility presupposes a
particular view of human moral worth. Most significantly, it assumes
that human nature is fundamentally morally corrupted or “fallen.” It
is just because we are fallen that: (1) our moral worth is diminished
considerably, relative to our original righteousness; (2) we are
inclined to put ourselves before others, that is, to exhibit the vice of
selfishness; and, concomitantly, (3) we are inclined to exaggerate our
present moral worth (whether that involves underestimating our
moral faults or discounting them altogether). This is to say that our
current natural condition is one of abject pride. In a sense, this
aspect of our fallenness is itself ironic—that we should be naturally
inclined to exaggerate our moral goodness as a result of our moral
corruption. So abject pride is itself a form of moral irony, though of
a negative sort.
Humility, the virtue of self-abasement, runs counter to both self-
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ishness and pride, our natural vicious tendencies as human beings.
The humble person places others before herself and maintains a
proper estimate of her own moral worth. Indeed, these two aspects
of the virtue of humility are not unconnected. It is because the hum-
ble person so clearly sees her own (low) moral worth that she places
others before herself and their needs above her own. Humility is a
virtue, then, which turns the natural fallen moral condition of
human beings on its head, introducing a different and more profound
sort of moral irony. For in exhibiting this virtue, the humble person
consequently increases in actual moral worth and is therefore
deserving of greater moral credit than she otherwise would be and
more than other persons who are not humble, other things being
equal. But—and this is the new, positive irony that supplants the
irony of abject pride—the humble person refuses to act so as to
affirm her greater moral worth (where “acting” may be taken in the
broad sense, inclusive of speaking about or dwelling upon some-
thing). In fact, to consistently display humility and grow in it is to
successfully resist the temptation to affirm one’s increasing moral
worth resulting from its demonstration.
It should be clear why humility is an ironic characteristic. It is a
trait constituted by attitudes and behaviors that one would not
expect from a person. Typically, people desire at least their “fair
share.” We strive for what we deserve and jockey for a little more
besides. The humble person, on the other hand, does not seek goods
or recognition beyond what her talents or efforts warrant. Surpris-
ingly, she seeks no more than and perhaps less than her just deserts.
This is why the humble person is a perplexing entity whose words
and actions, or lack thereof, will sometimes provoke reproofs from
those who do not share her perspective—the viciously proud. Fur-
thermore, the humble person is ironic because, as just noted, even
as her humility increases she manages to avoid the natural tendency
to dwell on her own accomplishments, be they moral or otherwise.
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Application to the Problem of Evil
We have seen how humility is not only a virtue but a central virtue
in the moral life, from a Christian point of view. Furthermore, we
have seen that humility is ironic, given the human tendencies toward
selfishness and abject pride. The practical value of what has been said
so far is obvious. Christians should take more seriously the call to
humility and strive doubly to emulate this attribute of Christ. But
now I want to reveal some of the cash value of all this in terms of
philosophical theology. In particular, I think this perspective on
humility helps the Christian to deal with the problem of evil, specif-
ically natural evil or suffering.44
Two points must be kept in mind. First, let us recall the ironic
biblical principle that humility ultimately results in exaltation. It is
partly because of this long-term payoff that we may proceed on the
assumption that humility is a good and desirable thing. Further-
more, the relevant biblical passages reveal that the connection be-
tween humility and exaltation is law-like, at least for the redeemed.
That is, as far as the Christian is concerned, there seem to be no
exceptions to this rule: the virtue of humility always leads to exalta-
tion of some kind.
Second, we may distinguish between two kinds of humility,
according to whether the lowering of oneself is voluntary or invol-
untary. Voluntary humility is the intentional lowering of oneself,
while involuntary humility is not willingly displayed. The former
originates from within the agent, while the latter is imposed from
without. Examples of voluntary humility are found in those persons
who “humble themselves.” In these cases humility is a moral virtue.
Involuntary humility is not a moral quality, since it is not intention-
ally displayed. Examples include any suffering or distress, whether
physical, psychological, or emotional, not sought by a person.
Now the problem of evil as traditionally set forth recognizes suf-
fering as an evil and therefore as something that theists must explain
or justify in the light of God’s goodness and omnipotence. But the
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above analysis suggests that we need not view pain as necessarily evil
and, therefore, as evidence against theism. Rather, we may see suf-
fering as a divine blessing, disguised though it may be.45 Suffering is
a form of involuntary humility that presents the sufferer with an
opportunity to see and affirm her place before God.
Some recent theodicies focus on this deeply ironic feature of suf-
fering. The most famous of these is John Hick’s “soul-making” theod-
icy. He proposes that there are two basic stages to the divine creative
process. The first of these was God’s initial creation of the physical
universe, along with all the sundry life forms populating our planet.
The second stage of creation is that which involves God’s directing
of human moral development, achieved in part through our strug-
gles and painful trials. Many virtues (e.g., courage, mercy, compas-
sion, patience, etc.) require a context of suffering for their
cultivation. Thus, says Hick, “it is an ethically reasonable judgment
. . . that human goodness slowly built up through personal histories
of moral effort has a value in the eyes of the Creator which justifies
even the long travail of the soul-making process.”46 If this is correct,
then suffering has value for what it can produce in a person, viz., a
better soul.
More recently, John Edelman has proposed that suffering is a
divine grace because of the wisdom it imparts. He writes, “there is
an understanding that consists in the recognition of the limits of
human power, and there is a suffering that necessarily accompanies
and often occasions this understanding, namely, the suffering—the
pain—one feels in running up against those limits. So the under-
standing and the suffering cannot come one apart from the other.”47
Suffering is a grace, on Edelman’s view, not because of its usefulness
in building character or otherwise improving a person morally but
in the more direct sense that it brings one into contact with a vital
truth concerning one’s own contingency. This insight, existentially
emblazoned upon the soul by pain, might graciously occasion other
goods as well, Edelman notes, such as “open[ing] the door to an
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understanding of the nature of God, or the nature of God’s love for
the world.”48 More profoundly, suffering may teach one about the
nature of grace, showing a person that her very life is itself a divine
Marilyn McCord Adams makes a similar observation about the
redemptive value of suffering. She observes that suffering provides
a vehicle for mutual understanding between God and human beings.
On the one hand, in taking on a human form God knows “from
experience what it is like for pain to drive everything else from a
finite consciousness and to press it to the limits of endurance.” 49 On
the other hand, the one who suffers finds “a sure access to Christ’s
experience”50 and therefore provides her with a “vision of the inner
life of God.” Thus, ultimately, suffering is the gracious means by
which we can find that which we were created for, namely, intima-
cy with God. And this, Adams suggests, is an incommensurate good.
So where does my proposal about involuntary humility fit in with
these accounts of the good occasioned by suffering? In short, my
view provides each of them with explanatory power for the biblical
notion of the exaltation of the humbled. Each of these theodicies
identifies some particular aspects of this larger moral-spiritual mech-
anism. That is, each highlights a specific way as to how the humble
are exalted. Let us review them in light of this observation.
Hick’s soul-making theodicy focuses on the fact that by doing the
moral good, whatever it is, in spite of the painful obstacles a person
may face in a situation, she develops virtue (e.g., courage, mercy,
patience, etc.) in the process, which is to say that she morally
improves and, therefore, is more deserving of moral praise. Thus,
her exaltation is naturally—because causally—linked with her
Edelman’s theodicy actually helps to account for the law of exal-
tation in two senses. First, the contact with the truth of God’s grace
and one’s own contingency that suffering provides is a kind of wis-
dom that deserves moral praise. Second, such wisdom naturally
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results in a greater attention to the moral life and, thus, more con-
sistent displays of diverse virtues that, again, is praiseworthy.
Adams’s theodicy, too, provides both direct and indirect expla-
nations of the law of exaltation. First, to gain a vision of God and be
more intimately associated with God is its own reward and exalta-
tion. As Adams notes, intimacy with God is an incommensurate
good. This is surely the most direct way in which the involuntarily
humble are exalted. Moreover, again, there is the indirect moral
result of this intimacy that warrants moral praise, viz., the virtuous
life naturally inspired by the vision of God gained through suffering.
This approach not only provides explanatory power in account-
ing for the law of exaltation (via the theodicies of Hick, Edelman,
and Adams), it helps us to see just how suffering can improve a soul,
provide wisdom, and procure intimacy with God. First, through
the experience of involuntary humility, we are invited to humble
ourselves voluntarily. Our pretenses of absolute autonomy are dis-
abled during suffering, so we are more likely to assume a lower
regard for ourselves than during times of relative ease and prosper-
ity. Furthermore, our suffering lowers us in fact (i.e., we become
more inferior to others in terms of our physical or psychological
health), which we are likely to affirm both attitudinally and behav-
iorally. The sense of our contingency presses upon us, and it
becomes a more difficult matter of will (or delusion) to feign inde-
pendence and self-sufficiency. In short, suffering inclines us to rec-
ognize our vulnerability and limitation, thus overcoming the moral
inertia of abject pride. Finally, in suffering we grow closer to God
because we see our likeness (in involuntary humility) with Christ in
our respective sufferings.
My basic claims about the centrality of humility as a Christian
moral virtue and involuntary humility as an ironic divine grace do
not constitute a distinct or unique theodicy. Rather, they serve to
enhance the “greater good” approach to the problem of human suf-
fering. The model I have developed here not only makes this theod-
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the moral irony of humility 

icy more compelling but suggests that it should take a central place
in philosophical discussions of the problem.
Jesus said that the first will be last and the last will be first. This
suggests that those who suffer most (and thus place “last” in this
world in terms of personal comfort and pleasure) are most blessed,
for presumably they shall be most comforted and overjoyed in the
next world. How ironic it is that we should so resent suffering since
it is ultimately such a blessing.51 And it is all the more ironic given
the fact that the means of world redemption was brought about by
the ultimate humiliation.
The humility of Christ provides the most important clue regard-
ing the centrality of the virtue of humility to the moral life. God
chose suffering and death as the antidote for evil. In Christ, God
gives the world “a hair of the dog that bit it.” However, unlike the
early morning sip of whiskey for the hungover one (to which this
idiom refers) we have here a genuine cure. So the humility of Christ
is not merely a model for the Christian moral life, epitomizing the
entire life of the ironic Messiah. It is also the soteriological key in
Christian theology, the means by which salvation is wrought by a
God who deigns to suffer with us.

1. Robert C. Roberts, “Sense of Humor as a Christian Virtue,” Faith and Philosophy 7,
no. 2 (1990): 190.
2. Gabrielle Taylor, Pride, Shame and Guilt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 17.
3. Norvin Richards, Humility (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 2.
4. Ibid., 17.
5. Ibid., 187.
6. Ibid.
7. Max Scheler, “Humility,” Aletheia 2 (1981): 210.
8. Nancy Snow, “Humility,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 29 (1995): 210.
9. Richards, Humility, 189.
10. Snow, “Humility,” 211.
11. John Calvin quotes Chrysostom as saying that the “the foundation of our philosophy
is humility” (John T. McNeill and Ford Lewis Battles, eds., Institutes of the Christian
Religion, vol. 1 [Philadelphia, Pa.: The Westminster Press, 1960], 268).
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12. Augustine observes that “the first sin of man was pride” and that the essence of
God’s first commandment to human beings was that “humility was always to be held
onto; that is, that the lowliness of man placed under God should be preserved”
(John E. Rotelle, ed., Sermon 159b in The Works of Saint Augustine, vol. III/11 [New
York: New City Press, 1997], 150).
13. St. Bernard defines humility as “that thorough self-examination which makes a man
contemptible in his own sight” (George B. Burch, trans., Steps of Humility, [Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940], 125). St. Bernard expounds on the Bene-
dictine rule for development of humility: fear of God, suppression of desire, submis-
sion to a superior, perfect obedience, complete confession, admission of inferiority,
belief in one’s inferiority, conventionality, silence, gravity, restrained speech, and
downcast eyes. These steps are precisely the opposite of the steps of vicious pride,
which begin with curiosity, then proceed to frivolity, mirth, boastfulness, etc. So to
find humility, St. Bernard explains, one need only traverse the path of pride in the
reverse direction.
14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947),
15. Ibid., 1849.
16. Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Whitaker House, 1981),
17. Ibid., 121.
18. Ibid., 122.
19. Clifton Wolters, trans., Cloud of Unknowing, (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1961), 70.
20. Ibid.
21. John Calvin, Sermons on Job, lxxx, quoted in Calvin’s Institutes, 269.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust,
1974), 294.
25. Ibid.
26. Andrew Murray, Humility (New Kensington, Pa.: Whitaker House, 1982), 12.
27. Ibid., 18–19.
28. James 4:10. (This and all other biblical references are from the New International
Version of the Bible.). See also I Pet. 5:6.
29. Prov. 3:34.
30. Isa. 66:2.
31. I Cor. 1:27-29.
32. Job 5:11.
33. Ps. 25:9.
34. II Chron. 7:14.
35. Matt. 11:25.
36. Ps. 149:4.
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37. See, for example, Matt. 19:30, 20:16, 20:27; Mark 9:35, 10:31, 10:44; and Luke
38. Mark 10:15.
39. Matt. 5:3-10.
40. Matt. 11:29.
41. Phil. 2:5-9.
42. This is confirmed in such passages as II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called
by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their
wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their
43. For an illuminating philosophical examination of faith, see Robert Adams’s essay “The
Virtue of Faith” in The Virtue of Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). He
identifies the essence of faith as a trust in God that directly opposes the vice of lust
for control over one’s own life.
44. Another potentially fruitful application of the previous analysis regards the divine
incarnation. Specifically, here we might have a priori evidence for—or conceptual
grounds to anticipate—a divine incarnation. For when we consider the notion of
humility as a key moral virtue in light of the fact that God is morally perfect, these
facts together might make it a priori probable that God should become a human
being. The argument for this conclusion is as follows: Given that (1) God exhibits all
moral virtues and does so to the greatest degree, and (2) humility is a moral virtue,
it seems that God must exhibit humility to the greatest degree. Now the greatest
degree of humility that can be exhibited is suffering and death by a being who is
morally perfect and, hence, least deserving of such a fate (as is the case with God).
What seems to follow from this is that God must experience suffering and death. Of
course, only a finite creature can suffer and die. Thus, if God is in any sense to expe-
rience suffering and death, he must do so in the guise or form of a creature. The only
known kind of creature that is both capable of moral virtue and susceptible to suf-
fering and death is a human being. So the creature whose form God would likely
assume is that of a human. A divine incarnation, then, is a priori probable. Of course,
such an argument is not without its problems, not the least of which is the con-
testable assumption that God exhibits all the moral virtues that humans exhibit
(including humility). But if this problem can be overcome, some version of this argu-
ment might succeed.
45. For biblical evidence in support of the notion that suffering is a blessing, see Isa.
30:20, James 1:2-4, and I Pet. 1:6-7.
46. John Hick, Evil and the Love of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 292.
47. John Edelman,“Suffering and the Will of God,” Faith and Philosophy 10, no. 3 (1993):
48. Ibid., 384.
49. Marilyn McCord Adams, “Redemptive Suffering: A Christian Solution to the Prob-
lem of Evil,” Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, eds. Robert Audi and
William J. Wainwright (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), 260.
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50. Here Adams echoes à Kempis when he says “no man so feels in his heart the passion
of Christ as he who suffers” (Imitation, 87).
51. à Kempis expounds upon this sentiment when he writes,
As long as it is grievous to you to suffer, and you desire to flee it, so long shall
you be ill at ease, and the desire of escaping tribulation will follow you every-
where. If you set yourself to what you ought, namely to suffering and to death,
it will be better with you and you shall find peace. (Imitation, 90)