“A man is what he is in the sight of God, and
nothing more. If the Lord should take from me
his treasure, which he has loaned me, what else
would remain to me except a body and soul?”
—St. Francis of Assisi
In his simple wisdom, Francis saw poverty and humility as twins. We are absolutely dependent on God for all things: that is humility. And God will provide them: that is poverty. We are nothing without God: that is humility. We want nothing but God: that is poverty. As creatures, we are poor before God: that is both poverty and humility. Humility is a virtue whereby we realize and act according to our nothingness apart from God and our complete dependence upon God.
Christ began his Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. First among them is “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). This has two meanings: (1) How happy are they who are free because of their spirit of Gospel poverty, and (2) how happy are they who realize and admit that they are absolutely poor before God and thus see everything as a gift!
The fundamental statement of humility was made by our Lord. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Nothing can exist without God. Our hearts will not beat another beat, our next breath will not be drawn unless God keeps on maintaining our lives. We cannot raise a finger a fraction of an inch or love our neighbor unless God keeps us alive. Humility is, therefore, a deep and simple virtue. It acknowledges our absolute nothingness without God and our complete dependence on God every second of every day. “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). It is hard for proud human beings to believe this basic truth of all life.
Humility in this sense was in Christ. His human nature was as dependent on the divine as we are. Therefore, Jesus had to say: “I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him” (John 8:28–29). Mary, in all her immaculate beauty of soul, had to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She was nothing without God. How much more we ought to recognize this Christ as our model in humility.
Just as he depended on his Father, so we must depend on God. One of the greatest tragedies of life is the self-hate or the lack of a sense of self-worth that afflicts many people—sometimes without their realizing it. They feel completely insecure. How can anyone love them since they are not worth loving? How can they love others since they have nothing to give? How can they believe that others really love them since they are nothing?
This attitude does not reflect humility but emotional sickness, the terrible result of others’ lack of love. Anyone who is truly humble before God has heard the Good News, that God has made us really something—his children. And God loves us!
Pride, humility’s opposite, is the infected heart of all sin. It says, “I am somebody, all by myself. I am independent, worthwhile, all by myself. I need no one, not even God.” The tragedy of so many good people is the infection of pride that runs through their whole lives. One can be proud of the holiest things such as prayer and kindness. One can even be proud of humility!
Francis always mentioned humility in the same breath with poverty. In a sense, they are the same: personally doing without. This is a fact, because all that we have is from God. This is an ideal, because we want to be without everything but God. Some of the most striking things Francis said concern humility: “A man is what he is in the sight of God and nothing more.” “The better a man really is, the worse he feels himself to be.” The more we appreciate God’s gifts and unending generosity, the more we become conscious of refusing to admit this and spoiling God’s precious gifts. As with St. Paul, the only thing Francis would take pride in was the “cross of Christ.”
Even while he was the happiest of men, Francis felt himself to be the worst sinner in the world. No one ever took more seriously Christ’s words, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:10). The follower of Christ was trying to keep a balance: realizing his nothingness but believing in God’s love.