The Virtue of Humility: Why Disciples Don’t Take Credit

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How is the virtue of humility part of the Christian life? What does it mean to keep your good deeds secret from yourself?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes that humility is an indispensable part of being a disciple. That means that you do good for God’s sake, not yours. You realize that the credit for anything good belongs to God alone.

Keep reading to learn about Bonhoeffer’s view on the virtue of humility.

The Virtue of Humility

Bonhoeffer insists that as a disciple of Christ, you must be humble, so that you can serve Christ without ulterior motives. Following Christ will cost you your pride.

Bonhoeffer notes that Christ may command you to do extraordinary good works, such as selling your possessions to help the poor. But, if you become proud of yourself for doing so much good, then, in Bonhoeffer’s view, you are no longer serving Christ. Instead, you are now serving your own ego: You are doing good works because it makes you feel good about yourself, not because you are obeying Christ. 

Thus, Bonhoeffer warns that to be a true disciple, you must not let yourself become proud—not even proud of the good works you do in obedience to Christ.

Did Bonhoeffer Influence CS Lewis’s View of Humility?

In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis argues that humility is only a virtue insofar as it turns your attention away from yourself and toward God and other people: As you become more humble, you become less self-serving, enabling you to serve God and help other people. Lewis cautions that as soon as you recognize humility as a virtue and begin to cultivate it, you are in danger of becoming proud of your humility, which defeats the purpose of cultivating humility in the first place.

Given the striking similarity between Lewis’s perspective on the virtue of humility and Bonhoeffer’s, and the fact that The Screwtape Letters was published about five years after The Cost of Discipleship, it is possible that Lewis was influenced by Bonhoeffer’s writings. However, there is no known record of any correspondence between Lewis and Bonhoeffer, so it is also possible that Lewis and Bonhoeffer reached similar conclusions about the virtue of humility independently from one another.

Bonhoeffer arrived at this doctrine by contrasting Matthew 5:16 with Matthew 6:1-4. In the former passage, Christ tells His disciples to do good works publicly so that people who see them will praise God. In the second passage, Christ tells His disciples not to do good works for the purpose of being seen, but rather to do them secretly. Bonhoeffer reconciles this paradox of doing good works publicly and yet secretly by saying that you should keep your good works secret from yourself, not from others: You obey Christ publicly, but in your own mind, you never take credit for the good that you’ve done.

Contrasting Perspectives on Humility

Bonhoeffer may have originated the metaphor of keeping your good works secret from yourself, but the underlying concept that he was illustrating (namely, that to remain humble, you should avoid taking credit for your works) is common to most Protestant theologians.

Jewish scholars tend to hold a similar perspective. Like Bonhoeffer, they emphasize the hypocrisy of taking pride in humility.

The Catholic view of humility is similar, but not identical. Specifically, Catholics define the virtue of humility as a modest and realistic sense of self-worth. This kind of humility is produced when you understand God’s holiness and recognize your own sinful nature, and it makes you more prone to be submissive toward God and others. 

The key difference between the Catholic and Protestant views is that the Catholic view emphasizes self-knowledge (having a modest, realistic view of yourself), while the Protestant view emphasizes self-forgetfulness (abstaining from comparing yourself to others).

Some Hindu and Buddhist teachers view humility itself primarily as a lack of excessive desire to be praised by others. However, their ancient religious texts also discuss a mental state of selflessness or complete absence of ego that closely resembles the Protestant concept of humility. Mahatma Gandhi is credited with re-popularizing this idea of humility in Hindu and Buddhist circles.
The Virtue of Humility: Why Disciples Don’t Take Credit

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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