Humility is one of these things that I have been thinking about and trying to understand for so long. On one hand I think everyone accepts that humility is very important. In my experience, to different degrees many people claim to be humble, or try to deliberately (and falsely) come across as being humble. On the other hand though, it seems as if there is little consensus as to what humility actually is. I think that in a way it is easier to identify people who are humble or who are alternatively not humble in the slightest, than to correctly analyse exactly what humility may or may not be. There are many different aspects of humility. However, here I am going to talk about humility as opposed to pride.
This is personally very important to me because humility has never been one of my big strengths – by which I mean that I have never been able to work out how to pretend convincingly! Seriously speaking, as a person I aspire to be the best I can be. I know that pride, the opposite of humility, is one thing that would reliably hinder or handicap big dreams, and I would not want to surrender my dreams to something so silly. However, I have seriously struggled with just what it means to be humble, and how to go about being humble. These are thoughts that recently occurred to me, when thinking about other people who are successful and yet who clearly conduct themselves with humility.
So what is humility? Firstly, a few thoughts on what humility is not.
-Humility is not a lack of ambition or a passive attitude to life.
Sometimes I have come across the impression from others that to even aspire after greatness is an expression of pride; to say “I dream of being the best I could ever be” or “I want to excel in life”. This is not true, because it simply cannot be true. If it was wrong or proud to aspire after greatness, Jesus would not have said: “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, learn to be the servant of all” Mark 10v43. Rather He might have rebuked the desire to be great, perhaps telling us it was wicked to want to be great. [In the context of this particular Bible teaching, “greatness” means being the leader over many other people, as Jesus contrasts His own way of being great, often called “Servant Leadership”, with the greatness of Gentile rulers, who would lord it over their followers (v42): “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them….” However whenever I talk about greatness, I do not necessarily mean having power over lots of people.]
I know that nothing excellent in life comes from just sitting there, passively. If you want to be an Olympic gold medallist, if you want to have an excellent marriage, a successful career, then you have to pursue these things. You have to invest yourself and your efforts. No-one is going to tell me that it is automatically “wrong” or “proud” to aspire after these things.
I’ve just seen a reference to the fact that God uses meek and humble people, like say David, whom God called while he David was a shepherd boy to be the king over Israel. It is true that being a shepherd was considered a menial and a humble task in the land of Israel. However even in that role David still aspired to be the best that he could be. Being a shepherd boy did not stop him from taking on the challenge of a fight to the death with the great giant Goliath who was intimidating the camp of the Israelites. His role as a shepherd did not make him think he was incapable of taking on this giant and winning. When brought before King Saul before being allowed to go out to face Goliath, David explained how in his shepherding he had killed bears and lions with his bare hands, in his determination to protect his flocks. This story appears in the Bible in the book of 1 Samuel 17 When David heard the challenge issued by Goliath to the Israelites, he realised that no-one else in the camp of Israel had the courage to go out to face this giant. By taking up that challenge, he made it clear that he thought he was capable of doing what no-one else seemed to think that they were capable of doing. This does not communicate passivity.
Humility is not beating yourself down.
Have you ever heard anyone who seems to go about just giving out a constant stream of negativity about themselves, about their abilities, about their own character? I know that sometimes people do this in a bid to appear humble. To my deep shame, I myself have carried on in the past with this kind of behaviour, for the same reason. However, whenever I encounter it from others, it does not sound humble in the slightest. It just sounds deeply irritating. To be honest, this seems to be the special preserve of women, (perhaps because as women we are not necessarily encouraged to express awareness of our own excellence?) “Oh I could never do that…Oh I’m dreadful at that. Oh I’ve never been good at that …Oh I wouldn’t know where to start!” Seriously, whenever I hear someone start talking like this these days, I just feel like rolling my eyes.
Or how about when you are outstanding at something (and you know it), and then you downplay it? “Oh I’m not sure I have many skills…” or “I’m not sure there’s anything I am really excellent at…I know that there are a few things that I am OK at…” Oh come on! You are a human being! EVERYONE has been blessed with talents and skills – and that does include you! You may have to work at them to really hone them to excellence – but then everyone does! I remember once when I was in a church setting and we had to define our skills and talents, and the level we attained in each one, and I sat down waiting for the fake humility to roll out. And sure enough “Well I would not say I score 4 out of 4 at anything, maybe a 2 out of 4… and maybe a 3 out of 4 at a push!” Needless to say, I took great relish in marking myself as “4 out of 4” in as many categories as I could possibly get away with.
While it may definitely actually be pride to go about bragging about your skills and abilities, humility is not the same as denying them altogether, especially when you are asked in a fair, open way, for the sake of best assigning people to necessary roles. “Are you good at XYZ?” “Yes, as it happens, that is one of my strengths” or “No, I don’t think that I would work well in that area. However, I do excel at ….” As it happens, I am the kind of person who aspires to be good at pretty much everything, however at any one time I will have reached different levels for each different skill. So I may be a beginner at X, I may be good at Y, but I may already be excellent at Z, which means that there will be an optimum placement for me.
As with David, so it was with Mary, whom God chose to give birth to the Messiah (because God does also use women too, after all!) When the angel Gabriel told her she was going to give birth to Jesus, she did not say: “No, I never could do that – I would not know where to start!” Rather she said “Let it be to me according to your word”. So she expressed her humility not by denying her own abilities, but rather by submitting to God’s instructions. Another lesson to take from this: if God tells you to do something, He already thinks you are capable of doing it OR He is prepared to invest His power to make you capable. It cannot then be an expression of humility to deny God’s own words, to say “No Lord, I couldn’t” – when He has already said you can.
So this then is what I think humility is:
Humility is not about how you see yourself. Rather, it is about what you are looking at, it is about what you are focusing on. If you are secretly thinking about yourself all the time, about how great you are, how excellent you are at doing all these different things, then that is pride. If you allow yourself to think yourself better than other people because of your skills, or because of the extent of your skills, or because of anything at all, then that is pride. The more you think about it, the more you meditate upon it, the more proud you become. As human beings, we all have exactly the same value before God, no matter what we may or may not have attained in life. If because of your achievements, you think you do not have to pay attention to God or His word, then that is pride.
Like anything else in the Christian race, it is ultimately about your heart. That is, many people have learned how to pretend to be humble, how to say the right things to appear humble. However in that hearts they continue to cultivate ideas of themselves as being amazing, they continue to gaze longingly and admiringly at themselves and all that they have achieved, they continue to allow themselves to think they are better than other people. Sometimes it is the smallest things that give these people away, in facial expressions, expressing disdain. Sometimes it is in the way that people talk. Sniggers, snide comments. Jesus tells us in the Bible that people speak out of what fills their hearts Luke 6v45.
I believe that humble people on the other hand do not sit around thinking about how amazing they are all the time. They may well think about what they need to do to improve on their existing excellence, but I believe that they do not let themselves cultivate an idea of themselves as being superior to other people. If say, I was an Olympic gold medallist, then how could I possibly fail to be aware that I am effectively the best (woman!) in the whole world at this particular thing? Pride would be about my thinking of myself in that light, thinking endlessly about the fact that I achieved this thing, walking with my head held high as someone who has achieved this gold medal status. However humility might be about thinking what else I need to do to get better at my sport. Humble people might spend their time thinking about God, what He wants them to do, or other people, genuinely caring about them. Crucially, I do not believe that they will let themselves get into the habit of thinking that they are better than others because of what they have achieved. So when you jostle them, when you step on their toes, when you catch them when they are not expecting to see you, no pride spills out, simply because it was never there in the first place, that is genuinely not what they spend their time thinking about. For people who are only pretending to be humble, however, these are exactly the kind of moments that pride spills out, because they were after all only pretending, they actually do spend much of their time meditating on thoughts of their own greatness.
So what if you’re someone like me, who wants to be humble, but just does not know how to go about it?
I believe that you have to identify and quickly extinguish all thoughts of pride that occur to you. Any time you are tempted to think “Well, at least I am…” quickly identify that as pride, and root it out of your thinking immediately. That is what would stop you from truly attaining excellence. Any time someone treads on your toes, and you are tempted to curl your lip in disdain (I’ve done this about a million times) “Who do they think they are?!! Do they not know that I…..” That is pride. Rip out that thought! This is what I mean when I talk about being aggressive as a Christian. Conversely, you have to cultivate thoughts of submission to God, and love to other people. You have to deliberately cultivate thoughts of everyone else as being valuable and precious because they are. This includes even people who hurt us, deliberately or otherwise. We have to let go of the wrongs they have done while holding on to the precious value of their humanity. We must never allow ourselves to think even for a split second that we are superior…because we are not. I believe that the difference between pride and humility exists in the thoughts that we actively cultivate about God, about ourselves, about others.
It is good and acceptable to pursue excellence, and as Christians, I believe that we should give ourselves permission to make this pursuit. We have an advantage that was not available to either David or Mary. We have the veil from the Temple that was torn at the death of Jesus, and the authority from God Himself to come right into the Holy of Holies, that is God’s own presence, to know Him, to take the knowledge of Him around the world. If God Himself says that we can, who are we to say that we cannot? If God Himself has told me that I can know Him, that I can walk in His power (as He certainly has in the Bible, as He has told all of us!) then trust me that no-one else in heaven or in earth is going to convince me otherwise.
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
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