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Augustine on Humility

Dreaming Up Your Ideal Life

Did you ever play “The Game of Life” or MASH as a kid? The goal is to get the best house, the best job, and the best family. Sometimes my sister and I wouldn’t even roll the die to see what we got, we’d just play “choose your favourite life”!

As I got older, these games turned into real daydreams about getting married, setting up my own house, driving my favorite car, and enjoying all the perks of adulthood. The details of these dreams changed after I became a Christian, but I kept dreaming about my ideal life. Thus, when I came across Augustine’s story, I was captivated by his own search for the ideal life.

Augustine’s Story

Augustine’s view of the ideal life changed drastically after turning to Christ. Before his conversion, he believed that the ideal life was marked by power, success, knowledge, control, leisure, and external morality. After his conversion, he believed that the ideal life was marked by humility. All of the ways he tried to attain his ideal life before his conversion were marked by pride—he wanted to be self-sufficient, independent, and perfect—and this pride kept him from repentance. It was only when he relinquished his desire for that kind of ideal life that he discovered the real ideal life, seen in Christ, the perfect God-man.

In light of this profound personal experience, Augustine taught that humility was central to the Christian life. In a letter to a student, he wrote “I wish you to prepare for yourself no other way of seizing and holding the truth than that which has been prepared by [God]…in that way the first part is humility; the second, humility; the third, humility.” According to Augustine, humility is 1) exhibited primarily in Christ’s death on the cross, 2) Christ’s remedy for the sickness of sin, and 3) leads to the happy life.

Humility is exhibited primarily in Christ’s death on the cross

Augustine argued that Jesus is the supreme example of humility: he not only condescended to be born as a human being, but he also died a gruesome death for finite and sinful people. Christ himself said in Matthew 11:28-29 that people should learn from him because of his meekness and humility, not because of the impressive miracles he performed.

Humility is Christ’s remedy for the sickness of sin

Christ was not only the pre-eminent example of humility, but through his humility he provided salvation to human beings. Augustine repeatedly accused humanity of being full of sinful pride and in need of receiving salvation through Christ’s humility. He often referred to pride as a physical infirmity or “swelling” that could only be healed through Christ’s “remedy,” “cure,” or “medicine” of humility.

Humility leads to the happy life

In his spiritual autobiography The Confessions, Augustine often reflected on how his moments of greatest pain and sorrow were when he relied on himself, and his moments of greatest comfort and joy were when he experienced God’s humbling grace in his life. To Augustine, one reaches the ideal life to the extent that one practices humility as the highest form of self-development. Rather than ascending to an ideal existence through power, knowledge, and morality, one lives an ideal existence by falling before Christ, the true ideal Person, who humbled himself in death on a cross.

As I was researching Augustine’s view of humility for my first PhD class, my husband and I had to make the difficult decision for me to not continue in my program because of unexpected life events. Thus, Augustine’s words became very real to me in everyday life and tested my obedience—was I willing to humble myself before Christ even when I didn’t like what that meant, and when I didn’t know why I had to do it in this way? I had to embrace humility and tell myself, “my life will not be meaningless if I do not get a PhD” and “I will not idolize vocation or misconstrue it,” even though everything in me wanted to fight for my right to do this degree.

This experience taught me that I didn’t really earn the right to do a PhD; rather, it was a gift from God, and it was not foundational to my personhood or my ideal life. In the end, God brought about another unexpected event that allowed me to remain in my program. I’m very happy about this, but it has also brought on even more external pressures, and I’m certain that the real reason I feel happier now than I did several months ago is because I’ve rejected the sinful, internal pressure I felt from my Roman (and Western) ideal of perfection and success.

Having power or success in this world is not evil in itself. But letting one’s heart be driven by dreams of an ideal life marked by the primacy of self is the opposite of excellence in the Christian life. The next time you think about being the best you, write out yearly goals, or daydream about your ideal life, remember what Augustine said. If you don’t want to take it from him or me, take it from Christ, who, in response to the question “who is the best?” said the person who “humbles himself” (Matt. 18:4). According to Christ, humility is the best way to live.