Joseph and the Epic Battle of Humility over Pride in Spiritual Direction

From the lessons of the great protagonists of Judaism many valuable spiritual lessons are to be learned. What is at the core of the lives, and in particular the life of Joseph, is how the Lord’s plan is accomplished in cooperation with human activity or in spite of it.1 In this article, I will discuss the spirituality of the dynamic relationship between pride and humility and the will of God in the Old Testament narratives of the figure Joseph. As a counterpoint to the aspects of pride found in the narrative, I will use the Ladder of Humility from the Rule of St. Benedict, with an integration of practical aspects of applied spiritual direction framed in a contemporary context.

One of the central spiritual concerns encountered by any spiritual director in the course of his practice, or that of any parish priest in the course of his ministry, is that of pride. Pride has been understood in classical Catholic spirituality as the most serious of the roots of sin. On the psychological level, it is called “narcissism,” but by any name its clinical and spiritual features are the same. Its most striking feature is a word view, a mind-set, and a way of relating that is rooted in spiritual blindness. This blindness is characterized by a distorted understanding and perception of truth of the self, of others, and of God. S.F. Parmisano identifies pride as “an inordinate desire to excel that springs from a self-love that is exclusive of others.”2 He elaborates upon this premise that supports what many others experts have concluded that this exclusive self-love isolates oneself from God and the rest of humanity, leaving oneself as the absolute center of all of one’s interests and activities.3 The Catholic Dictionary includes the following attributes to pride: an inordinate esteem of oneself; taking personal credit for one’s gifts; glorying in achievements; minimizing one’s defects; and ultimately a refusal to accept and acknowledge one’s utter dependence upon God.4

Pride has been a common spiritual problem from the beginning of the study of spirituality and human experience. Pride is generally recognized in every person (except Jesus and Mary) and for that reason is a universal in human experience, and affects all of us in varying degrees. It has been the subject of countless books and studies.

It is commonly agreed that the virtue opposite of pride is humility. Therefore, cultivating humility is one of the most effective approaches to growing spiritually and emotionally. In this article, I will use the biblical character Joseph from the Book of Genesis to identify salient key features of pride found in him, and how his spiritual journey toward greater humility can be used a model in spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.

We encounter Joseph for the first time in chapter thirty-seven of Genesis; however, his story begins long before that. In his essay “Joseph and His Brothers: A Story of Change,” Uriel Simon illuminates the family history and structure that would contribute to Joseph’s background. Joseph’s family dynamics would be described as dysfunctional by today’s standards. Simon describes the family environment into which Joseph came to be as one of “haughtiness and hatred.”5 Joseph was the first son of Rachel, who had been barren for many years. Simon attributes Jacob’s excessive love for Joseph to a long-standing rivalry between Racheal and her sister Leah. Simon contends that Jacob transferred his great love for Rachel to Joseph after her death.6 It is also suggested that Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph may be attributed to his finding similarities between himself and Joseph. Jacobs’s exclusive love for Joseph is only further amplified by his inconsolability when he heard Joseph was dead (Gen 37:35).

Here follows the section of the text that shows clear evidence of the pride found in Joseph.

This is the story of the family of Jacob. When Joseph was seventeen years old, he was tending the flocks with his brothers; he was an assistant to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah, and Joseph brought their father bad reports about them. Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long ornamented tunic. When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his brothers, they hated him so much that they could not say a kind word to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had. There we were, binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf rose to an upright position, and your sheaves formed a ring around my sheaf and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Are you really going to make yourself king over us? Will you rule over us?” So they hated him all the more because of his dreams and his reports. Then he had another dream, and told it to his brothers. “Look, I had another dream,” he said; “this time, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Gen 37: 2–9)

Here one can clearly see that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, setting him over and above his other siblings. This posed a particular problem because Jacob was ignoring the tradition of primogeniture. Beyond that, Joseph had been in the habit of “tattling” on his brothers to his father, who accepted whatever Joseph reported (Gen 37:2). Jacob demonstrated his favoritism by giving Joseph a tunic, unlike his brothers, which was a symbol of explicit life-long favoritism. In reporting his dreams to his brothers, Joseph did not seek their love nor affection; but he sought their admiration and a recognition of his greatness.7 Joseph clearly demonstrated his intention to rule over his brothers by the revelation of his dreams despite his status as the younger.

Some of the key features of pride that are most commonly recognized are those of a sense of entitlement; a sense of specialness; and a sense of superiority over others. Joseph actually expressed these both implicitly and explicitly in the text. We can identify in the case of Joseph attributes associated with pride such as: presumption; ambition, vainglory, and boasting. The most striking feature of pride and the one that is often the most destructive is the lack of awareness of how one’s actions affect others. In the striking and terse words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “pride destroys everything.”8 In the case of Joseph, he revealed not only his gift of dreams, which again made him special and superior; he also revealed their content to his brothers. The subject matter of the dreams showed him to be superior to his siblings and even that the sun and the moon would bow down to him. The roots of this classification of pride generally have two possible roots. In the case of Joseph, it is a pride originating from the lived experience of being the favorite. A consistent experience of positive reinforcement of specialness (chosenness) and of getting what one wants. This is magnified by the experience of being treated in a superior way to one’s siblings. Quite naturally, when one is treated as superior to others over time, he internalizes these false attributes about himself and projects them onto others. Again, over time, both the internalization and the projection are reinforced and so that the pride (narcissism) becomes ingrained into his character and his patterns of behavior. Classically, the spiritual remedy is found in humility. That is, correcting this distorted sense of self, and bringing it into balance with a realistic understanding of self, God, and others. This may be accomplished by the spiritual director by encouraging the person to undertake specific steps toward humility. In other cases, it takes place naturally or supernaturally by God’s providence, like in the case of Joseph by experiencing actual humiliation and divine providence. In any case, the result is that the person is able to have his spiritual blindness (distortion of truth) corrected, and is able to see more clearly. This growth most commonly will be experienced over many years. The rate of growth may be expedited by the person when he is able to come to insights about pride in himself, and how it has had detrimental effects in his life. As one can see in the life of Joseph, the most profound negative effects of pride (entitlement) are experienced in relationships. Because the pride causes the person to be so self-centered and demanding, the natural flow of give-and-take in relationship becomes dysfunctional. The secondary cause of the dysfunction is almost always a lack of empathy on the part of the prideful person.

This type of pride can also have the inverse root experience. The opposite is when a person has been deprived of the experience of specialness (chosenness) and desires it deeply because he is able to perceive it being given to others. As his self-esteem develops, it is appreciatively lower because of the consistent reinforcement that he is not worthy or good because he is not treated as well as others. Often, such a person will attempt to overcompensate for this by projecting and internalizing this attitude of pride (entitlement). As one grows, this overcompensation becomes ingrained in the person’s character. In this case, the spiritual remedy will be a recognition of the root of the pride and exercises to build self-esteem are rooted in God’s love and acceptance. In the end, it will be the recognition of the person’s chosenness, in God’s eyes (in a healthy way), that will bring balance and humility.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict of Norcia dedicates chapter seven to “Humility” and specifically outlines twelve steps toward its growth.9 He begins his treatment of humility by warning the reader against being exalted. Here we see how Joseph was exalted by Jacob and this results in the destruction of family relationships. This pattern of exultation resulted in jealousy and hatred by his brothers and Joseph’s isolation from them. This forms a seminal experience in pride common to many and, like with Joseph, a pattern that is self-perpetuating and results in resentment by others and isolation of the person. To refuse self-aggrandizement and to insist upon being one among many is key to avoid this fault.

Below is an excerpt from the text that describes Joseph’s first humiliation.

Midianite traders passed by, and they pulled Joseph up out of the cistern. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. When Reuben went back to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not in it, he tore his garments, and returning to his brothers, he exclaimed: “The boy is gone! And I—where can I turn?” They took Joseph’s tunic, and after slaughtering a goat, dipped the tunic in its blood. Then they sent someone to bring the long ornamented tunic to their father, with the message: “We found this. See whether it is your son’s tunic or not.” He recognized it and exclaimed: “My son’s tunic! A wild beast has devoured him! Joseph has been torn to pieces!” Then Jacob tore his garments, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned his son many days. Though his sons and daughters tried to console him, he refused all consolation, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” Thus did his father weep for him. (Gen 37:28–35)

As the narrative continues, there is a profound reversal of fortune for Joseph; he is humiliated and humbled by being sold into slavery. The sense of entitlement and superiority are radically challenged for Joseph, forcing him to see himself not only as the highly favored son, but also, now, as slave. Such humbling experiences, although very painful, can result in the gift of growth in realigning one’s priorities, and refocusing one’s attention on the truth of who one is.

Benedict offers as the first step in his ladder of humility “keeping the fear of God always before his eyes.”10 One beneficial aspect of this kind of major loss is to recognize one’s need for God and one’s utter dependence on him. When one, like Joseph, is having the experience of getting all that one wants, it is often difficult to recognize one’s need for God; let alone one’s utter dependence on him. Yes, without this critical realization, further growth in humility and in relationship with self, others, and God will not be possible. On a deeper level, Joseph is submitting himself to divine providence if he realizes it at the time or not. Joel Kaminsky identifies divine providence as a central theme in the Joseph narrative.11 As Joseph’s fortunes reverse and reverse again, one can see the hand of God working in it, and, presumably, Joseph could too.

Benedict suggests, as the second step of humility, not to love one’s own will. Perhaps no other experience can separate oneself from one’s self-determination and self-centeredness as can that of being the property of another — a slave. Literal slavery is not a common experience in the modern world, yet the willingness to surrender one’s life to one’s family or to one’s vocation is in a real sense a kind of slavery. Moreover, it is one that brings the benefit of growth in abandoning self-will for the love and concern of the other. Submitting to a superior will be a new and common experience for Joseph, as a slave, in the home of Potiphar and the house of Pharaoh.

Another crucial insight in understanding humility in the context of the Joseph narrative was given by Jon Levenson. Levenson points out that, in the case of Abel, “chosenness depends on antecedent suffering.”12 I think the same dynamic relationship between pride and humility is seen in Joseph. Although he is clearly chosen as special by his father Jacob, it is only after the long road of suffering that he realizes that he is chosen by God the Father to liberate his family.

Benedict identifies one being content with the lowest and most menial treatment as the sixth step in humility.13 As a slave, Joseph would have been unknown to his owner. Therefore, his potential for skill and accomplishment would have had to have been proven. Joseph would have had to start at the lowest level of service in the beginning of his enslavement. He must have had to engage in his duties with considerable commitment to have been promoted to the position he held in the house of Potiphar, and then to have built on this pattern in the house of Pharaoh. Yet, as these experiences continue to unfold for Joseph, he is resilient and is able to adapt and through all of them continues to succeed. It was clear through it all that “the Lord was with him” (Gen 39:23), which made all of his work and success possible.

In this section of the text, one can appreciate how Joseph’s path to growth in humility continues as he is falsely accused.

One such day, when Joseph came into the house to do his work, and none of the household servants were then in the house, she laid hold of him by his cloak, saying, “Lie with me!” But leaving the cloak in her hand, he escaped and ran outside. When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand as he escaped outside, she cried out to her household servants and told them, “Look! My husband has brought us a Hebrew man to mock us! He came in here to lie with me, but I cried out loudly.” (Gen 39:11–14)

Kaminsky contends that the real transformation in the life of Joseph begins as his life as a slave in the home of Potiphar.14 Not only is he given the status of a slave but he is also falsely accused of sexual assault. Joseph finds himself completely vulnerable to circumstances and to people who find him expendable. For this reason, I agree with Kaminsky that Joseph’s spiritual journey in humility begins here.

The fourth step in the ladder of humility of Benedict is obedience under difficult and unjust conditions.15 Repeatedly, Joseph finds himself having to be obedient to others in difficult conditions, and in all it is unjust to him because he is a slave. This only reflects his integrity and his willingness to persevere. It also reveals a growing sense of the presence of God, because it is in fear of offending God that he refuses to have sexual relations with Potiphar’s wife. Joseph demonstrates growing humility in his persistent patience and willingness to submit, and, at the same time, his competence and effectiveness are recognized and attributed to God.

The following portion of the text depicts how Joseph’s growth in humility is manifested by forgiveness.

“I am Joseph,” he said to his brothers. “Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could give him no answer, so dumbfounded were they at him.

“Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.” (Gen 45:3–5)

The seventh step of humility in Benedict’s Rule is that one admits to himself and to others that he is inferior to everyone else.16 Here, Joseph does not explicitly express his conviction of his inferiority, but he does express his submission to the will of God. He allows that all of his enslavement and humiliation were part of the plan of God, and willingly has submitted to it. In addition to that, he expressed no anger or resentment toward his brothers who were the immediate cause of his slavery. He does not place himself in the position of victim, nor does he demand the power and specialness associated with victimhood. Rather, it appears that he has reconciled himself to the circumstances into which he has found himself and is at peace with is lot. Moreover, he makes no mention of his suffering nor does he exact any kind of retribution from his brothers, even by asking for a simple apology. It is apparent that he has accepted the will of God and is now ready to move forward in his relationship with his brothers, and to further the accomplishment of the will of God.

In my experience, letting things go as soon as possible it is a very important feature in the spiritual life. The dynamic tension of injury and forgiveness is a perennial issue in human experience. Humility and spiritual maturity both speak of the necessity of learning to forgive. Often a distorted sense of justice causes one to hold on to past hurts, gaining power from them. The stubborn refusal to forgive is a mark of pride because it is self-centered and it makes healthy relationships impossible. Obviously, with a serious injury, considerable “work” must be done to grow through it. In the end, the only thing that will bring freedom and peace is forgiveness, made possible because of the virtue of humility. Joseph models this humble forgiveness and a forward-moving attitude well in this passage.

I realize, that not being a Scripture scholar, my reading of the Joseph narrative may be quite naïve (or frankly ignorant) in the way I understand and apply it. Kaminsky and other scholars disagree about what Joseph’s motives might have been in dealing with his brothers in this way.17 Kaminsky indicates that there is considerable discussion about this among Jewish scholars. I have chosen to look at these events from the perspective of how one might grow in humility through the process of spiritual direction. And, of course, I am looking at Joseph through a distinctly Christian lens that seeks to find elements of sacrifice and reconciliation in the Old Testament prefiguring events in the life of Christ.

In this final excerpt, one can realize in the text that Joseph has made considerable spiritual progress in humility by his relationship with God and his brothers.

“God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

“Hurry back, then, to my father and tell him: ‘Thus says your son Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me without delay. You can settle in the region of Goshen, where you will be near me — you and your children and children’s children, your flocks and herds, and everything that you own. I will provide for you there in the five years of famine that lie ahead, so that you and your household and all that are yours will not suffer want.’ Surely, you can see for yourselves, and Benjamin can see for himself, that it is I who am speaking to you.” (Gen 45:7–12)

That a humble person has the ability to remain silent and, when speaking, to speak gently encapsulates the ninth and eleventh steps of humility in Benedict’s understanding.18 In the above passage, we observe Joseph’s silence and his gentle speech. Not that he is being taciturn, no; he is deliberately choosing to speak about the work of God and not of his own sufferings or accomplishments. He is allowing God to be the center of the dialogue and is allowing himself to be in the background by virtue of what he is not saying. At this point in the narrative, Joseph had the perfect opportunity for self-aggrandizement, an ideal situation to speak of himself, of his success, and of his chosenness. But, on the contrary, he simply and humbly does not mention anything about himself, but simply turns the focus of the event to God and his family. Benedict elaborates on this point in the eleventh step of humility, specifying that a humble person has speech that is characterized as speaking with “becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising his voice.”19 The tenth step of humility in Benedict’s taxonomy is to “avoid laughter”.20 Benedict does not intend this to mean that one should not laugh at all, but, rather, to laugh at what is appropriate. Often, when people laugh, they do so at the expense of others. In this way, laughter can easily be a form of ridicule or a passive-aggressive (or just plain aggressive) way of expressing hostility. On the natural level, Joseph had every reason to be hostile toward his brothers, and to want to express that hostility. Yet, in the narrative, I do not detect any evidence of hostility being communicated. On the contrary, what I read is generous forgiveness and true magnanimity. Magnanimity toward those who do not deserve it is a true mark of humility because it imitates the way God is magnanimous toward humanity.

The final step in growth in humility is that one perpetually manifests humility in all that he says and does. That is to say, that humility is so deeply internalized by the person that it is no longer acting out humble behaviors, but it is rather a way of being. It is a death to self; giving birth to a life lived fully for God and others that “leads to perfect love for God,” according to Benedict.21 Like with Joseph, growth in humility as characterized by Benedict is not a static nor a “one size fits all” reality. It is a dynamic movement away from all of the distortions and falsehood that keeps one out of truth in relationship with self, God, and others. It is a gradual and progressive process of divesting from the false and negative attributions of entitlement, specialness, and superiority to a recognition of a true and positive realization of how chosen and special one is in the eyes of God. If one is able to grow into the understanding that each one of us is no more or less special or chosen than anyone else, then one is able to express true empathy for others. One can never hope to know God or another person unless he first knows himself. Moreover, one can never know himself if he is blinded by pride.

In conclusion, the rich tapestry of ancient Israel provides an ample source of spiritual insights, one of the most prominent being the character of Joseph. In studying the character of Joseph, one is able to extrapolate a complex analysis of the journey from pride to humility. Beginning with family dynamics contributing to the deeply engrained sense of pride, the journey to humility features a pattern of incredible losses and successes. All of these dynamics are set against the backdrop of the movement of God’s divine providence in the life of Joseph and his family. To highlight the movement from pride to humility, I compared and contrasted the attributes of both in the life of Joseph with the ladder of humility from the Rule of St. Benedict. Throughout this article, I have demonstrated the commonalities of Joseph’s journey with the human journey toward growth in humility. Using “living in truth” — or, as Teresa of Calcutta puts it, “it is said that humility is truth”22 — as a working definition of humility, I discussed how developments in Joseph’s life led to the ability for him to see and live in truth; in addition, how living in truth brings right relationship with the self, with others, and with God. Therein lies the key to peace and freedom. Finally, I would like to end the article with the words of Teresa of Calcutta, “if we were humble, nothing would change us — neither praise nor discouragement. If someone were to criticize us, we would not feel discouraged. If someone was to praise us we would not be proud.”23

  1. Uriel Simon, “Joseph and His Brothers: A Story of Change,” Perspectives on Jewish Education II (Israel: Lookstein Center, 2002), 6.
  2. S.F. Parmisano, New Catholic Encyclopedia, “Pride,” (Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 1967), 766.
  3. Parmisano, “Pride,” 766.
  4. The Catholic Dictionary, s.v. “Pride,” CatholicCulture.org, catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/.
  5. Simon, “Joseph and His Brothers,” 6.
  6. Simon, “Joseph and His Brothers,” 6.
  7. Simon, “Joseph and His Brothers,” 7.
  8. Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado, Mother Teresa: In My Own Words (Liguori, MO: Liguori, 1996), 56.
  9. Timothy Fry et al., eds., The Rule of St. Benedict (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1980), 193.
  10. Rule of St. Benedict, 193.
  11. Joel Kaminski, Yet I Loved Jacob (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 69.
  12. Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993), 77.
  13. Rule of St. Benedict, 199.
  14. Kaminski, Yet I Loved Jacob, 61.
  15. Rule of St. Benedict, 197.
  16. Rule of St. Benedict, 199.
  17. Kaminski, Yet I Loved Jacob, 65.
  18. Rule of St. Benedict, 201.
  19. Rule of St. Benedict, 201.
  20. Rule of St. Benedict, 201.
  21. Rule of St. Benedict, 201.
  22. Gonzalez-Balado, Mother Teresa, 34.
  23. Gonzalez-Balado, Mother Teresa, 34.
Fr. William Dillard About Fr. William Dillard

Fr. William Dillard is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and an Oblate of Mount Angel Abbey. Ordained in 1998, Fr. Dillard has served in parishes in the Diocese of San Diego and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation at Mount Angel Seminary.

Comments

  1. Avatar Glenn LANHAM says:

    Wonderful……

  2. Avatar CJ Braun says:

    Personally I’ve never considered pride Joseph’s sin. He has a wonderful dream he shares with his big brothers – who else would he tell in those days? No the sin is jealousy of his brothers. Rather than discussingwhat God may be saying in the vision they try to destroy him-remove him from his father so they don’t have to keep seeing how much their father loves him- Similar, isn’t it to how evil works-to remove us from safe places of love? It was this very gift of visions that enabled him to save Egypt and his family from famine. His brothers traveled the road to humility-not Joseph. He knew all along a life of troubles at the hands of his brothers and the wife of Potiphar. He still knew Gods goodness and tells his brothers this He could have been susceptible to pride but he didn’t succumb . Think deeper on this.

  3. Avatar Bernadette. Fakoory says:

    This observation of the life of Joseph in relation to his father,Jacob and his older brothers, his struggle to fit in the inner circle of his brothers who excluded him from their company on account of their hate and resentment for Joseph because his father favored him, joseph’s Seeking entitlement, specialness in the eyes of his brothers as implied in revealing the content of his dream with show of their inferior position to him is spot on.

    The interplay of pride and humility and the great suffering that comes with the fall from being prideful is dead on. Only someone who has had the experience somewhat like Joseph is able to explain the rising and fall of the human spirit in attaining freedom from the vice of Pride.

    No doubt Joseph would not have considered himself full of pride. He was young and I would like to think loved his brothers but they resented him. These are all natural human characteristics. Pride jealousy ,envy ,anger and so on.

    The important thing is that Joseph gained self knowledge through his slavery and imprisonments and false accusation which are all a classic case of God’s divine providence at work in Joseph’s life to get him to a point of accomplishing the God task of going ahead of his family to Eygpt in order to provide for his family during famine in Canaan.

    What I found beautifully stated by you is when Joseph met with his brothers and revealed himself to them he did not scold them or reproached them , his heart was filled with sorrow for them and at this point in their relationship there was a true exchange of brother love and kindness.

    Lastly, we all are guilty of a show of self importance. I believe that it comes from a share of God’s glory and importance to be actualized through the death of a false self and real self actualization through humility. The question is how many of us would choose to go through hardship and suffering at the hand of God’s providence to reach that level of humble existence?

    Thank you.

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