Richard J. Foster: A Lesson in Humility

As Told to Jessica Hanewinckel

Humility, humus, is being close to the earth. It is being clear about ourselves so that we see when we’re trying to control or manage or be in charge. It is learning to let go and have open hands. It is a freedom from the need to always get our own way or control a conversation. It is the freedom to say, I don’t know, but I’m willing to learn. To me, that’s one of its great values, because humility makes us teachable. And that’s why it’s really the most foundational of all the virtues and the most essential for spiritual formation and transformation. If we’re not teachable, we don’t move into character formation. 

It was St. Augustine who emphasized humility as a key Christian virtue. That is because the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus redefined humility. But something is going on culturally, because it’s been probably a century that we have not thought of humility even in a religious context. Narcissism, greed and egocentric stuff seem to be everywhere. I can find people and situations where folks have common courtesy and care for one another, but they feel like tiny specks of light on an ocean of darkness. 

Why is humility such a disappearing virtue? People might give lip service to it, but in our culture we have tended to have very different views of what makes a person important or helpful. Jesus would probably have a tough time getting a job in a lot of religious settings today. 

In our contemporary context, we often think of leadership as domination and control. But in terms of humility, leadership is serving and valuing those we work with. It’s giving them a platform and bringing them to areas where they are gifted and accenting that. If they succeed, you’re glad. If the church down the street succeeds, you’re glad. You know the old story says, Well, we didn’t do very good this year, but praise God, the Baptist church down the street didn’t either. That’s not leadership. 

We learn to be humble by valuing others. And when I learn to serve another person, it levels me into a relationship that is more human, and therefore more humble. It’s really pretty simple. Read the Gospels to see how Jesus led, because he did lead, and he did have authority and confidence. But he didn’t have to put down everybody else in order to be great. And I think it helps to just see someone who is a real leader. If we watch those things, we will learn about humility. It doesn’t mean we’ll be humble. But you know, knowledge of it and seeing others model it helps.

This is especially true for leaders. Be brave enough to seek humility. Be strong enough to seek humility. Be courageous enough to seek humility, and we will grow. It increases our sense of community, and none of us can do this on our own.

Richard J. Foster is the founder of Renovaré, a Christian nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals and churches engage in intentional Christian spiritual formation. He is the author of Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue (IVP).

Richard Foster
Richard Foster

Richard J. Foster is a theologian, author and founder of RENOVARÉ, an international, ecumenical Christian organization working for church renewal.