The word of the day is “humility.” In The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 4, Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory lists thirteen virtues. Fr. Hopko says that the thirteen qualities of character are gifts of the Spirit. All humans must possess to them to be restored to the image of God in which they were made (Hopko 1981). Fr. Thomas presents a helpful list of moral traits, but it is hard to keep all of them in mind. Likewise, today’s reading of Romans 12:4-5, 15-21 appears to be a random collection of assorted fragments of spiritual counsel that are also difficult to remember.
Today we search for one practice of holiness that is the key to all the rest. According to the Philokalia, we will find it in humility the beginning and ending of the virtues (St.-Gregory-of-Sinai, Section 115; Kindle Loc. 29880). Thus, Paul writes, “Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion” (OSB vs. 16). In a word, the apostle teaches, “Be humble.” In today’s study, we will find there are different forms of humility, just as there are various tests that demonstrate that we are genuinely humble. Yet if we attain this spiritual gift, the other virtues will follow.
Paul Turns to Practical Matters
After Paul finishes his long and complex discussion of the rejection of the Jews to the Gospel, he turns in today’s passage to some practical matters of Christian living. The Orthodox Study Bible has sub-headings for nine different topics in four chapters at the end of Romans. And in our reading, the apostle gives seven distinct pieces of advice. Bible scholars have termed this writing style “paraenesis,” a technical word that refers to a set of loosely connected pieces of moral counsel found at the end of epistles.
Paul seems to offer these bits of practical wisdom as he thinks of them. It is as if he says, “by the way” and then expresses his thought before he forgets it. Yet a close reading can find the center of this guidance for living “in Christ.” We discover the core idea in the attitude that is the opposite of high-mindedness (OCB vs. 16). Paul makes it clear that the outlook is humility when he says that we should “associate with the lowly” (OSB vs. 16).
Paul’s Counsels Are Ways of Being Humble
The counsels that Paul gives in our reading are all ways of being humble. For example, St. Gregory of Sinai says that the initial type of humility is to consider oneself as lower than others (St.-Gregory-of-Sinai). Thinking of others as better than ourselves ensures that we practice Paul’s advice that each should not “think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (OSB Romans 12:3). Moreover, putting others before ourselves makes sure that we follow Paul’s guidance, “Do not be wise in your own opinion” (OSB vs. 16).
But what about Paul’s warning against revenge and vengeance? Especially when our pride is hurt, we want to “repay evil for evil” (OSB vs. 17). Instead, humility can let the offense rest. We can let the hurt go without striking back with “vengeance” (OSB vs. 20). In summary, humility paves the road to peace (OSB vs. 18) as it does not try to prove it is better than others or attempt to have its own way against others. Humility is the attitude that can do good in the face of evil and in response to it (OSB vs. 21).
Do we have this virtue of humility? In this passage, St. Paul gives some tests. Do we think our abilities to serve Christ are better than others? Do we “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”? Do we share the same mind with our fellow members? Do we treat our enemies with kindness? All of these require an attitude of humility that puts below the level as others. It is easy to be conceited; it takes a great effort to be humble. But it is a sign of a good and noble soul. And, as St. Anthimos of Chios said, “Humble-mindedness will bring all the virtues” (Chios).
Chios, St. Anthimos of. “Gleanings from Orthodox Christian Authors and the Holy Fathers.” St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. https://www.orthodox.net/gleanings/humility.html.
Hopko, Fr. Thomas. 1981. “The Orthodox Faith: The Virtues.” Department of Religious Education: Orthodox Church in America. https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/spirituality/the-virtues/the-virtues.
St.-Gregory-of-Sinai. “On the Commandments and Doctrines.” In The Philokalia Kindle Ed.