On the reality TV show “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump plays a godlike figure who judges whether job candidates have what it takes to be executives in his multi-billion dollar kingdom. Praised for their cunning ambition, contestants try to outsmart each other on their quest for fame and fortune.
The show’s emphasis on achieving worldly success has attuned my ears to the many cultural voices that exalt the importance of being big in the eyes of the world. Yet, when I listen to Jesus’ voice, I hear a much different message: The humble among us will be exalted.
Sometimes these words seem so counterintuitive. Humility and exaltation are polar opposites, right? Yet I’m reminded of how often divine Truth comes tangled up in paradoxes — the last are first, the foolish are wise, the weak are strong, the poor are rich.
Clearly, Jesus’ idea of exaltation is radically different from the world’s. For him, greatness is not synonymous with earthly accomplishments or prestige. Rather, it is the exalted status God bestows on us when we make him first in our lives by humbly serving him and others. In the words of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, greatness is a matter of soul.
As I run the race toward the prize of heavenly exaltation, I find that Jesus is my best companion and mentor. “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” he says in Matthew 11:29. Ironically, it was in his gift of self to the Father that Jesus achieved our salvation and was highly exalted. He is our perfect model of humility.
Humility is a virtue that enables us to see God as the source of all good (Catechism, No. 2559). It also helps us avoid “inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer” (No. 2546). Humility keeps our eyes fixed on God’s will and prevents us from always looking around to see how big we are.
As a Catholic family man and professional, I often struggle to live humility in the circumstances of daily life. When I’m changing our baby girl’s diapers, I feel like I’ve got humility down pat. But in other areas it’s not so easy, especially when achievement is involved.
My profession, for instance, seems to demand the pursuit of worldly success in order to provide for my family’s needs. At times, I find my desire for a successful career blurs the line between humble service and sinful ambition.
I’ve come to realize that Jesus’ call to be humble does not mean cowering at the prospect of using our gifts to do great things. Humility rightly ordered allows us to see ourselves as stewards of the talents God has given us and to put them at his service in the many facets of our lives.
Jesus gives this formula as a guideline: If we humbly seek first God’s Kingdom, everything else will fall into its proper place.
Following the path of success — even toward Donald Trump’s apprenticeship — can be an act of humility provided it is God’s will that lights the way and heavenly greatness we seek. At the same time, the cross is a shocking reminder that a life given in humble service to God and deemed tragically unsuccessful by the world can be more perfect than one marked by outstanding achievement.
Robert G. Schroeder