Humus and humility
While reading “Suffering and God” by Alistair McGrath (an excellent book!) for another research project, I was both surprised and fascinated to learn that the root word for humility is humus. Needless to say, this soil scientist really perked up to hear what Dr. McGrath had to say next! And a little later while ruminating on this idea (because that’s what farm girls do), I thought of a quote something like humility is the root of all virtues while pride is the root of all evil and these thoughts came together in a brand new picture of the O horizon in a soil profile as seen in relation to Philippians 2:5-8 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Before digging deeper into these verses, let’s look at a few definitions from soil science. A soil profile is a vertical cross-section of soil from the top of the soil (or what we commonly call the ground) in a cut reaching down to the parent material from which the soil formed. This cross-section or soil profile is comprised of multiple soil horizons. These horizons are horizontal layers parallel to the soil’s surface which are distinctive from each other by physical differences in soil color, texture, structure, composition and other classifiers. Normally, the uppermost soil horizon in a soil profile is the O (organic) horizon also called the humus layer. Humus is Latin for earth or soil.1
The absence of an O horizon in a soil profile greatly affects the current and future productivity of a soil since the humus layer is composed of decaying organic matter, be it plant, animal, or microbial in origin, in association with the inorganic soil particles (sand, silt, clay) that have arisen from the parent material(s) at the site. Because of the organic matter, the humus layer is usually very dark in color, soft in texture, and fertile in nutrient supply and other characteristics promoting crop productivity, even though it’s normally only 3-6% of a soil’s total composition. This 3-6% can make all the difference in whether a soil can provide well for the needs of a crop in nearly every variable impacting overall crop growth and productivity.
The humus layer is also distinctive in being the only soil horizon we, as humans, can directly influence for current and future productivity via organic matter additions like manure and compost. Such inputs increase the organic matter levels in the humus layer and thus improve nutrient and water availability, drainage, rooting potentials, pH, buffering, and so many other crucial variables in crop growth.
Having said all that, here’s the picture I’m seeing in this relationship of humility, Scripture, the O horizon, and the life of a Christian. Just as a soil with a deep O layer can support many different purposes, be it crop production, building and road foundations, water filtration, and/or wildlife habitat, a life rich in humility is fertile ground for whatever task or purpose God deems best. In contrast, without humility, the life of a Christian is poor soil for the growth of the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23) much less for what is necessary for the 100-fold harvest of Matthew 13 as discussed previously. The absence of humility makes hearts hard from pride, dry in love, and weak in lacking the strength of joy – not the kind of soil receptive to seed germination and growth (see Matthew 13).
One of the most intriguing ideas about humus (or soil organic matter) is that the smaller and most indistinguishable portion of humus is the most active and usually the most influential on soil properties. As the soil organic matter decays into smaller and smaller pieces and looks less and less like the formerly living plant, animal, or microbe that it once was, the greater the amount of surface area it has for nutrient exchange, pH buffering, and water storage for crop productivity. And thus, the more important it is to the life-giving potential of a soil. This concept reminds me of John 3:30 He must increase but I must decrease. Just like the most active, most useful, most effective portion of soil organic matter is that which is the most decayed (or decreased), so am I as a Christian. The less that is present of me, the more that is seen of Christ which is as it should be in the life of a vibrant Christian. In the decreasing of me, that is, in the death of pride and the decay of discontent, humility grows and displays Jesus alive in me (see Colossians 3:12). And then true life can flourish as with Matthew 23:12 Whomever exalts himself will be humbled, but whomever humbles himself will be exalted as seen in the modelling of Christ’s example to us in the earlier reference from Philippians 2.
Just as Adam was formed from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7) and named in reflection of soil (adamah, Hebrew for “fertile earth”), the presence (or absence) of humility reflects my relationship to Christ (the second Adam as in Romans 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:22).2 My heart’s soil is a “fertile earth” only if it is rich in humility which makes me receptive and obedient to the work of Christ in my life for His glory and the good of His people. A good soil is rich in humus just as a good heart is abundant in humility. Hearts rich in humility respond to the leading of Christ as the adamah seen in Hebrews 6:7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling upon it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God and Mark 4:20 Others like seed sown on good soil, receive the word, accept it, and produce a crop – some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.
I want to be a good soil scientist who yearns for fertile soil in my yard and most importantly, in my heart and life. I want a humble heart that will truly be adamah for bearing that one hundred-fold harvest sown by the Master. And in that harvest, may more people know the Gospel and likewise bear fruit in their own lives so even more can know the truth of Psalm 34:8 Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him.
1. Online Etymology Dictionary
2. Davis, Ellen. 2005. Ecology and Theology. Duke University.
Written by and copyrighted to Beth Madison, Ph.D., 2021
This essay is also currently published in The American Scientific Affiliation’s God and Nature Spring 2021 publication. I’d encourage you to take a look at the other essays listed there – some great material by some neat people!
Here’s the link to ASA’s God and Nature Spring 2021 Publication