“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven.” [Matthew 5:16]
I’ve noticed that the majority of honest Christians I’ve encountered, Catholic or not, have this “instinct” when it comes to their own gifts and abilities. You know, when we try to deny we have the abilities we have, or even choose not to exercise our gifts and abilities so that we can avoid praise in the first place.
And our intention behind this is usually a good one, an attempt to be humble. We think, like St. John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30]. And it’s true, we should decrease, so that Christ can transform us and shine through us into the world more and more. But good intentions can sometimes be counterproductive.
Whenever I heard the parable of the talents, I always thought that the last servant, the one who buried his talent, represented those who choose not to serve God, even though He gives them gifts and abilities to do so. But recently another interpretation of this passage dawned on me – the last servant can also represent those who *do* genuinely want to serve God, but do not make use of the gifts and abilities He has given them for that purpose, for whatever reason – in this case, false humility.
Here is the entry for humility in the Modern Catholic Dictionary:
“HUMILITY. The moral virtue that keeps a person from reaching beyond himself. It is the virtue that restrains the unruly desire for personal greatness and leads people to an orderly love of themselves based on a true appreciation of their position with respect to God and their neighbors. Religious humility recognizes one’s total dependence on God; moral humility recognizes one’s creaturely equality with others. Yet humility is not only opposed to pride; it is also opposed to immoderate self-abjection, which would fail to recognize God’s gifts and use them according to his will. (Etym. Latin humilitas, abasement, humility, from humus, ground.)”
Most of us understand the first part – not reaching beyond ourselves. No matter how much we might deceive ourselves about our pride, at least we recognize that it is wrong and not a virtue. As the psalmist says:
“O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.” [Psalm 131]
But it’s that second part of the definition that’s more difficult – the “immoderate self-abjection”, because it can disguise itself as a virtue, when in fact it is not. If we stifle the gifts and abilities that God gives us so that we can be “humble”, we are not really being humble, we are in fact putting on the appearance of a kind of “designer humility”, rather just being truly humble – being who we are with what we were given, no more, and no less.
So how does one use the gifts and abilities God has given, while trying to grow in humility? I think most of us who have this “instinct” towards false humility are afraid of exercising our gifts and abilities because we are afraid that doing so would mean promoting ourselves. Well, there’s good news – the gifts and abilities we have are not from us, and neither are they for us. So they really don’t have much to do with us at all. Rather, they are from God, and they are for “the benefit of the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world” (CCC 799). And He can take them away from us at any time. If God gave me a truckload of food to drive into a town where there were starving people around me, it would not be wrong for me to drive into town and feed the people. In fact, it might even be an obligation arising from justice. What would be wrong, however, would be if I pretended that I was the maker of the food rather than just the distributor. Humility is a matter of living in truth.
In a similar way, we should not be afraid of or shy about the gifts and abilities that God has given us. We have all been given gifts and abilities, be they “extraordinary or simple” (CCC 799). And it’s ok to recognize what you have been given by God. If you pretend they’re not there, you probably won’t make good use of them. So let us not be cheap and timid, but rather generously and tirelessly make use of the gifts and abilities God has given us for the purpose He has given them to us – His plan of salvation for the world.
For further meditation: 1 Corinthians 12.
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