By JT Parker, The Catholic University of America
“Our greatest block to growing closer to God is when we rely more on us than on him.”
In one small line, Fr. Jared Johnson summarizes the entirety of the human struggle. From the very beginning of Genesis, one can see that humanity struggles to follow God. Man longs for happiness, but, in his pursuit of happiness, he can easily direct his desires away from God grasping at whatever might seem to give immediate gratification. In pride, man seeks to control his life and fails to trust in God. Yet, God calls man to humility. Humility allows one to subordinate his desires to the will of God. It gives him peace in recognizing his weakness and trust that, no matter what happens, God is working for his good. Ultimately, humility is what gives each person the possibility of union with God in heaven. By providing an analysis of human weakness in Genesis, it will be shown that Genesis is a springboard towards growth in humility which brings with it the possibility of deeper union with Christ now and in heaven. Additionally, through this analysis, one will be given an example of humility who shows us through his witness its wonderful effects.
As Mother Theresa describes it, humility is “the mother of all virtues.” It is the virtue which allows one to recognize one’s fundamental weakness and necessary dependence on God. Yet, humility is not something that can be obtained by human initiative alone. Humility comes to us as God’s initiative. It is His gift to us which allows us to view the world in accord with reality. In other words, humility allows us to see the world and our lives within it as they truly are in relation to Him. One can see that humility stems from God’s initiative with greater clarity by understanding the nature of virtue and its direct link to grace.
William Mattison describes virtue in two ways. The first is as something which is conducive to true happiness. The second is as “a good habit.” He then divides virtue into two separate categories: “cardinal” virtues and “theological” virtues. Cardinal virtues concern “innerworldly” activities, while theological virtues have God as their object. Now, there is a third subset of virtue called infused virtues. These are virtues that are given to us by God and are only possible through His grace since they directly concern our supernatural destiny. Humility falls under this category as an infused virtue of temperance. It concerns moderating one’s desire for pride and understanding one’s place in relation to God. As an infused virtue, it cannot be attained by human means alone. It must come from God’s grace. Furthermore, it can only grow in the soul through grace since it is God’s initiative which makes this virtue possible.
Virtue changes the person. Infused virtue changes the soul. It enlightens the intellect and habituates actions which purify one’s will, make one capable of supernatural love, and draw one into deeper union with Christ. If this is the case, then growing in humility will inevitably lead each person to their supernatural destiny – communion with God in heaven. How, then, can one grow in this virtue? As was already explained, humility can only be obtained through God’s gift of grace. However, there are ways that we can open ourselves up to this grace in order to more readily receive it. One such way is by being confronted with the radical weakness of our humanity and our necessary dependence on God. Oftentimes, this can happen experientially when, in one’s daily life, he or she makes a mistake, fails to meet an expectation, or falls into sin. In a similar way, we can be confronted by our weakness through the stories of others which reflect the same weakness that we see in ourselves and who share our common humanity. Genesis is particularly helpful for this type of confrontation which leads to humility. Not only does it contain the stories of other human persons encountering their brokenness, but, it also provides a foundation for the entire nature of the human person. At the core of this foundation is the idea that we are fallen creatures who are dependent on our Creator. From the very first chapters, this reality is made indisputably clear.
Genesis chapters 1-4 gives us the first picture of human nature which sets us in relation to God and gives us a framework for humility. In the beginning, adam, a Hebrew word which references the entirety of humanity, is said to be formed “out of the dust of the ground.” At the same time, however, as one can see from the first creation account, he is created in God’s image and likeness. These two statements about man summarize his condition in the world. They show that he is both set apart from the rest of creation with a special dignity while also being made of dust and dirt which are nothing in comparison to God. It is important to recognize that from the very beginning, God reveals to man that on his own he is nothing but dust. Yet with Him, man receives great dignity. It sets the tone for the rest of Genesis and gives a point of reference for when man fails to act in accord with God’s will. During these times of rebellion, one can remember that without God he is only dust.
Saint Pope John Paul II, in Man and Woman He Created Them, offers an account of man in Genesis 2 which reflects with greater accuracy man’s need for God. John Paul II identifies three original experiences that man undergoes in the garden. They are original solitude, original unity, and original nakedness. Original solitude references adam’s experience of finding his own identity through the experience of bodilyness in the garden. In his solitude, adam realizes that relationship is constitutive to his identity and, furthermore, that he is called to it. This leads to the experience of original unity in which Eve is created and Adam realizes that there is someone like him who was made for union with him. In fact, it is the unity of persons, John Paul II argues, which creates a more complete picture of God who is a communion of persons. And lastly, there is original nakedness in which we find that Adam and Eve were “naked, yet they felt no shame.” In this experience, there was no shame because they recognized each other as they were in their whole psychosomatic subjectivity.
Each of these original encounters, when taken together as a whole, express a framework of the person which inevitably leads to humility. In man’s experience of original solitude, we, in identifying with the person of adam who represents us as humanity, realize that our identity is obtained through, and in relation to, God. Adam does not recognize on his own that he is called to relationship. It is the Lord God who first says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Furthermore, is impossible for adam to fulfil his own desire for relationship. His partner, who he is brought into unity with and who allows him to become a more complete image of God, is given to Him by God. Finally, in their nakedness, Adam and Eve recognize fully the entirety of each other’s being. This is one reason why there is no shame. Both Adam and Eve see that the other is an image of God, given to each other out of love by God, created to be in union with Him. They recognize through the experience of the other that they are subordinate to God, receive their meaning from Him, and are created for Him. Although these experiences are before the fall, they still show us that fundamentally we receive our identity as persons from God and our dignity comes from Him. If we wish to become the people we are called to be, we must depend on God for without him we are “dust.” Taking this into account, we can proceed into the narrative of the fall to understand deeper our necessary dependence on God.
As we know, the narrative of Adam and Eve does not end in perfection. After taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden and receive punishments. While their failure to follow the will of God is itself a sign of human weakness, it is important to understand common misconceptions of Genesis 3 and “the fall” which can impact one’s perception of it. The event of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden is commonly taught as the moment when original sin entered the world. Original sin, in this context, refers to the state of weakness and brokenness inherent to man in which he is inclined to sin. However, the term “original sin” is not mentioned once in the Bible. St. Paul does say, on the other hand, that “sin came into the world through one man,” in reference to Adam. Passages such as this one, combined with what is revealed in the person of Christ, make up the Church’s main teaching on the doctrine of original sin. The point here is that Genesis 3 does not immediately present a full account of original sin as we know it. What it does present to us is the clear rejection of God’s command, who had given man everything he needed to live in relationship with him, by the very biblical figures who analogously represent all of humanity. From this, we reach a similar conclusion – that we are radically weak when it comes to obeying God and doing what is best for us. Even when everything is taken care of perfectly by the very God of all creation, man can still be subject to temptation and sin.
R.W.L. Moberly argues that the central problem of the fall narrative is not the doctrine of original sin but deals more acutely with God’s seeming untrustworthiness and the serpent’s seeming credibility. Moberly, along with other contemporary theologians, point out that God’s statement “when you eat it you will die,” in reference to eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil does not come true. On the other hand, the serpent’s statement, “you will not die,” seems to come true since, after Adam and Eve eat of the tree, they remain alive. This presents a significant problem for the reader. It seems to suggest that God, who is above all things and responsible for all of creation, is either a liar or a deceiver. At the same time, it suggests that the serpent is telling the truth and that going against God’s will acts in accord with truth.
Moberly responds to this problem by arguing that the death mentioned by God is not physical, but spiritual. He explains that death is used by God in a metaphorical sense which is, in some ways, more damaging to the person than physical death. Spiritual death signifies a separation from God and severs one from the source of life. By understanding the use of death in this way, a new perspective of interpretation can be unveiled which leads one even further towards humility.
Originally, the fall narrative, as an account of original sin, could be viewed as a catalyst for humility by explaining the fundamental nature of the human person as weak and inclined towards sin. What this new perspective does, in the form of a “second naivete,” is strengthen this movement towards humility by showing that the death which sin causes is much more radical than what is immediately visible to the eye. If it truly does cut one off from the source of life, than the death caused by sin is worse than physical death. Bringing this into a modern understanding of theology, spiritual death would mean an eventual total separation from God for all eternity which is a total alienation from Love itself. Ultimately, this impels one towards the virtue of humility because it shows man the reality of what he is inclined to and falls into daily. We act against God in our weakness and, in doing so, we damage our relationship with Him. On our own, we are only capable of alienating ourselves from the source of Love and Life. This is why we need God so much and are totally dependent on Him.
Genesis is full of accounts of human weakness and disobedience of God’s commands. These accounts give us a broader picture of the condition of weakness we find ourselves in and serve to more fully dispose us to humility. In Genesis 4, Cain’s offering to God is rejected while His brother Abel’s is accepted. There is no clear reason why God rejects Cain’s offering although there have been many reasonable interpretations. As a response, Cain succumbs to his frustration and kills Abel.
Cain, in this story, is a lot like us. No person can understand perfectly God’s plan for humanity. His knowledge infinitely surpasses ours. So naturally, it happens that sometimes we cannot understand God’s reasons for doing things. When we cannot see the end goal of our actions, it often leads us to taking matters into our own hands. This is a pattern that is repeated constantly throughout Genesis. While most people would not let their frustration with God or inability to understand Him lead to killing, it does still often lead to other forms of sin especially pride. The story of Cain and Abel reflects the human tendency towards pride and puts us in touch with the practical and understandable way it tends to take shape in our lives. If humility is the antidote to pride, then being in touch with the ways we fall to pride helps us realize even more our need for humility.
Later in Genesis 4, we are put in touch again with the reality of human weakness. When Cain reveals that he has killed his brother, God subsequently punishes him by cursing the ground that he tills. Cain responds that this punishment “is too great to bear.” Although the punishment seems to be more than just, Cain still pleads to God for mercy. He shows his weakness by saying that he cannot bear the consequences of his actions. God, in his mercy, hears Cain and gives him a mark which protects him from being killed by others as he wanders the earth.
The weakness of Cain, evident through his inclination towards, and carrying out of, sin continues throughout the rest of Genesis. In Genesis 6, we are told that the Lord “saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil.” In other words, man had been influenced so strongly by sin that all he could desire was a rejection of God and His will. At this point, it would seem pointless for the human race to carry on if all it could desire was a rejection of God. Therefore, God decided to wipe out the entire human race through a great flood. This action could actually be thought of as an act of great mercy knowing that the only place humanity was destined for was hell. However, God spares the human race through Noah which is yet another manifestation of mercy, although in a different sense.
One can see a type of pattern beginning to form in Genesis. God initiates relationship with His people and they respond with unfaithfulness, even if at first, they attempt to be faithful. Despite their rejection of Him, God continues to be faithful and, in His mercy, provides His people with another opportunity for right relationship and covenant with Him. This pattern continues in Genesis 11.
Genesis 11 tells the story of the tower of Babel. Chronologically following the human race’s preservation from extinction, they repeat again the same sin of pride which Adam and Eve committed in an attempt to “make a name for themselves.” While on the surface this story may not seem to be a repetition of the sin of Adam and Eve, it is important to note that Shinar, the land in which the tower was being made, was a land in ancient Babylonia. Therefore, the reference to the building as a “tower with its top in the sky,” would have been understood by ancient readers as a possible reference to the ziggurat temple of Babylon. In other words, the tower signifies another rejection of God in favor of pagan idols. God responds again to their lack of fidelity by confusing their tongues and scattering them across the earth.
It is not hard to see evidence for human weakness and pride in Genesis 1-11. Humility seems to be almost absent from the hearts of the biblical figures discussed thus far. In failing to realize their necessary dependence on God, they seek to be like God taking control of their own fulfillment. So far, this destructive pattern has only ended in disaster. Genesis 12 provides for us the first example of humility, Abram.
God does not give up on His people. At the beginning of Genesis, God calls Abram for a special purpose and promises Him many blessings including descendants and land. The only problem is that Abram’s wife Sarai is barren and Abram is seventy-five years old. Still, he puts his trust in the Lord and sets out for his new land. When Abram goes to this land, a severe famine strikes and Abram and his wife Sarai are forced to go to Egypt. While in Egypt, his wife is taken by the Pharaoh. Pharaoh ultimately gives Abram’s wife back after the Lord inflicts Pharaoh’s household with a plague and Abram receives many gifts as he is sent away from Egypt. Then, for the second time, the best land that was supposedly Abram’s is taken by Lot when Abram offers him the first choice. Abram goes to war in Genesis 14, establishes a covenant with God in chapter 15 where God renews His promises to Abram, and still, at the beginning of chapter 16, he still does not have descendants or land.
Thus far, God has not followed through on the promises He has made to Abram. Even in His seeming dishonesty, as Jon Levenson explains, Abram perseveres in faith. He trusts God in all circumstances, even when it seems irrational. The land that was promised to him is struck by severe famine. Then, Lot takes the better portion of the land forcing Abram to move. Sarai is barren and has not conceived a son. Still, through it all, Abram, now called Abraham after the covenant in chapter 15, trusts in God and obeys his commands unceasingly. From this unwavering trust, Sarai, called Sarah after the covenant, bears a son. This son is the son through which the covenant passes. What was thought to be impossible became possible with God. By trusting in God’s promise, Abraham received the blessing God had given Him and shows that His unwavering, and, at times, seemingly irrational, trust was actually a witness to the reality of faith in God and His fidelity to His people.
Abraham’s humility, expressed through his trust in God’s providence, carries him through even the most difficult cross. In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham obeys God’s command even to the point of holding his knife in the air ready to strike the son whom he had waited over 20 years for and who was supposed to carry on the blessing of the covenant. At the last moment, an angel of God calls out to Abraham not to kill his son. In return for Abraham’s faithfulness and humility, God reaffirms once again the covenant with Abraham but this time, extends the blessing saying that “your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing.” From Abraham’s example, one can see the effects of humility and the blessing it brings – even if the blessing is an interior grace. Abraham’s witness to humility, in making himself last among his family and in being obedient to God in all things, becomes a paradigmatic example for Christians today of an authentically lived-out faith. His example is a living example and, through it, our hearts should be moved towards humility as a means for growing closer to Christ.
The end goal of every human life is union with God in heaven. We are created for God and we are destined to go back to Him. Humility is necessary in order to achieve this supernatural destiny because it gives us the ability to see ourselves accurately in relation to God. Through humility, we come to see that we are weak, since we are inclined towards sin, and that we are necessarily dependent on God for all good things, especially if we wish to be with Him in heaven. Genesis 1-22 creates a picture of the human condition which shows us the inherent weakness of man and his need for God. By analyzing the themes of humility in these chapters of Genesis, one can become more easily disposed to receive the gift of humility which leads one to union with Christ. Additionally, Abraham provides for us a witness of humility that we ourselves can seek to emulate. He shows us experientially that humility leads to trust in God and trusting in God leads to fidelity and personal fulfillment. With humility, we can learn to trust God like Abraham so that, with our last breath, we can look forward to death in confidence trusting that His faithfulness will lead us to the union we seek.
Edited by Christopher Centrella
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