Chrysostom on Humility

The following is on the subject of humility and from the third homily of the epistle of St. Paul to Philemon.

What therefore shall we do in order to accomplish true humility?  We shall never in any way do it; but to whatever degree of humility we have come, the greater part of it is still left to be accomplished.  For consider, whatever humble act you do, you do it to a fellow-servant ; but your Master hath done it to  His servants. Hear and shudder!  Never be elated at your humility!

Perhaps you laugh at this expression, as if humility could puff up.  But do not be surprised at this, for humility puffs up when it is not genuine. How, and in what manner?  When it is practiced to gain the favor of men, and not of God so that we may be praised;  and in this way it causes us to become high-minded.  For this also is diabolical. For as many are vainglorious on account of their not being vainglorious, so are they elated on account of their humbling themselves by reason of their being high-minded.  For instance, a brother has come, or even a servant, and you have received him, and washed his feet.   Immediately you think highly of yourself and say, “I have done what no other has done.  I have achieved humility.”  How then, may one continue in humility?  If he remembers the command of Christ that says, “When ye shall have done all things, that are commanded you say, ‘We are unprofitable servants.'” (Luke xvii. 10.)  And again the Teacher of the world, saying, “I count not myself to have apprehended.”  (Phil. iii. 13.)  He who has persuaded himself that he has done no great thing, however many things he may have done, he alone can be humble-minded. (he who thinks that he has not reached perfection.) I think if you omit the part I put in parentheses, it actually makes a better-sounding sentence. Or,you could say, “Only he who thinks (believes) he has not reached perfection is humble.”

Many are elated on account of their humility; but let not us be so affected.  Have you done any act of humility?  Do not be proud of it, otherwise all the merit of it is lost.  Such was the Pharisee. He was puffed up because he gave his tithes to the poor, and he lost all the merit of it(cf. Luke xviii. 12.); but not so the publican.  Hear Paul again saying, “I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby justified.” (I Cor. iv. 4.)  Do you see that he does not exalt himself, but by every means abases and humbles himself -and that too when he had arrived at the very summit of perfection.? And the Three Children, when they were in the fire, and in the midst of the furnace, and what did they say?  “We have sinned and committed iniquity with our fathers.” (Song, v. 6, in Sept.; Dan. iii. 29, Dan. iii. 30; v. 16.)  This is to have a contrite heart, and on this account they could say, “Nevertheless in a contrite heart and a humble spirit let us be accepted.”  Thus even after they had fallen into the furnace they were exceedingly humbled, even more so than they were before.  For when they saw the miracle that was wrought, thinking themselves unworthy of that deliverance, they were brought even  lower in humility.  For when we are persuaded that we have received great benefits beyond our desert, then we are particularly grieved.
Let us be humble-minded as we ought, and let us be moderate as we ought.  Let it not be to us an occasion of being puffed up.  Are you humble, and more humble than all men?  Do not be high-minded on that account, neither reproach others, lest you lose your boast. For this is very cause you are humble: that you may be delivered from the madness of pride. If therefore through thy humility you fall into that madness, it would have been better for you not to be humble.  For hear Paul saying, “Sin worketh death in me by that which is good, that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” (Rom. vii. 13.)  When it enters into your mind to admire yourself because of your humility, consider your Master, to what depth He descended, and you will no longer admire yourself, nor praise yourself, but will deride yourself as having done nothing.  Whatever you do, remember that parable, “Which of you having a servant …will say unto him, when he is come in, Sit down to meat? …I say unto you, Nay …but stay and serve me.” (From Luke xvii. 7- 8.)  Do we return thanks to our servants, for waiting upon us?  By no means.  Yet God is thankful even to us, who serve not Him (as we should), but  rather do that which is expedient for ourselves.

But let us not act as if God owed us thanks. Let us act instead as if we were paying a debt.  For the matter truly is a debt, and all that we do is of a debt.  For if when we purchase slaves with our money, we wish them to live altogether for us; and for whatever they have, to have it for us, how much more must it be so with Him, Who brought us out of nothing into being; and Who, after this, bought us with His precious Blood, having paid such a price for us as no one would endure to pay even for his own son, and Who shed His own Blood for us?  If therefore we had ten thousand souls – even if we should lay them all down for Him – would this make an equal return?  By no means.  And why?  Because He did this owing us nothing; instead, the whole was a matter of grace.  But we, on the other hand, are debtors.  Being God Himself, He became a servant; and not being subject to death, He subjected Himself to death in the flesh.  We – if we do not voluntarily lay down our lives for Him now –  must by the law of nature must certainly lay them down later. The same is also true in the case of riches; if we do not bestow them on our fellow men now for His sake, we shall render them up from necessity at our end.  So it is also with humility. Although we are not willingly  humble for His sake, we shall be made humble by tribulations, by calamities, by over-ruling powers.  Do you see, therefore, how great is the grace!  Our Lord does all the work, making us humble by these things, and then He rewards us for the humility He has implanted in us.  Even though for our part, most of His work is rejected and does not bear fruit in us as it should. He hath not said, “What great things do the Martyrs do?  If they die not for Me, they certainly will die as other men do.”  Instead  He shows Himself much indebted to them because they voluntarily resign that which in the course of nature they were about to resign shortly against their will.  He hath not said, “What great thing do they, who give away their riches? Even against their will they will have to surrender them.” But He shows Himself much indebted to them, too, and is not ashamed to confess before all that He, the Master, is nourished by His slaves.   Therefore let us not be high-minded, but let us associate with the lowly, the despised, the rejected, that we may deal a great blow to that devilish pride and draw that much closer to the kingdom both in this life and that which is to come.  Amen.