Meek. Humble. Humility. When is the last time you heard someone resolve to be more humble? Or saw “humility” listed as a strong point on someone’s resume? Has anyone ever told you, “Oh, by the way, I’ve just found this great set of self-improvement videos and I’m spending the next eight weeks trying to develop inner humility”?
I’m guessing not. Humility is a good thing, but it’s terribly misunderstood in most Western cultures. We tend to think of it as being a doormat, letting other people push you around, or constantly telling yourself that you’re no good. And we know that isn’t healthy. How could that be a virtue?
But that isn’t what humility is. That’s a mistake, a parody of humility—not the real thing. The real thing is more valuable than rubies and rarer than diamonds.
So what exactly is humility, and why do people with Christian faith value it so much?
Humility is a form of knowledge.
The simplest definition of humility is really knowing yourself for what you are. It means having a clear-eyed view of your own inner life—your thoughts, your feelings, the motives that make you tick. And yes, that includes good and bad both.
Being humble means neither over-rating nor under-rating yourself. A humble person will not value himself more highly than fits with reality—that’s what we call pride, or straight-out self-delusion. But he also won’t waste time trying to pretend that he is worse than he actually is. Playing those kinds of mind games just wastes everybody’s time. What is the point of denying something everybody knows is true—whether it’s that you are a great tennis player or simply the world’s best at catching popcorn in your mouth? Just admit it and move on. Nobody’s got time for fake humility.
Clear-eyed humility is really hard, because it doesn’t come naturally to human beings. We all act from murky motives, and a lot of the time we don’t really know why we did or said something—often, because we don’t really want to know. It’s nice to think that I helped that woman with the little kids at the grocery store because I’m such a nice person. It’s painful to dig a bit deeper and admit that the real reason I did it was a combination of guilt (“I’m really going to look bad to the friend I came with if I just walk away”) and pride (“See how awesome I am!”). Oh, and sure, throw a bit of real niceness in there. But that little bit of goodness isn’t the whole story, however we pretend it is.
So what, then? Do we stop helping frazzled mamas with screaming babies at the grocery store? Of course not. But as I develop real humility, I stop lying to myself about my motives. In fact, I stop paying a whole lot of attention to them at all, or to how I look in the eyes of others. I stop play-acting, with my mental focus on myself, and I start really, truly focusing on the main issue all along—the person in need, and what can be done to help him or her.
(That’s one reason humility is so refreshing. All the mental energy I used to devote to burnishing my awesome self-image—meh, I don’t need it anymore. Use it for something else! It’s much less tiring that way.)
Humility is a form of love.
You can see how all of this flows right into love, because you’re taking all that time and effort you used to spend on your own self-image and spending it on people in need right in front of you. No more looking in mirrors or trying to catch a glimpse as you walk by a store window. Your focus, your personal power, is not divided. All of it goes into service. And when you’re serving someone else in an appropriate, healthy way, that is doing love.
We can see that in Jesus’ life. No matter how busy or how tired he was, he had time for even the least important person who needed his help. There was one case where he was en route to the home of an important official whose daughter was dying. Even in that rush, when he felt a hand reach out to touch his robe, he stopped, turned around, and tried to find the person in need. He had a short conversation with her. He healed her. And then he went back on his way, focused on the little girl who still needed his help. (Mark 5:21-43)
In a weird way, humility is a form of self-love. Truly humble people aren’t trying to hide what they really are out of a sense of shame or self-hatred. They know they have problems—even some really serious issues—but they no longer feel the need to beat themselves up over those weaknesses. Instead they can look at themselves with the same compassionate, rueful humor they show to the rest of the human race—an attitude that says, “Yep, I’ve definitely messed up on that one,” and seek help from God, who values us and loves us even when we’ve fallen. That’s what the Christian recommendation would be.
If a person is constantly falling into self-hatred, that is NOT humility. That is a situation they need to resolve with the help of a pastor, a counselor, or both. To hate the self is to hate a person that God created, and that is never good. What we’re after is a clear view of reality—not to over-value the self, but not to destroy it either—because it is God’s creation.
Humility leads to joy.
If you know yourself—really know yourself—you can set down all those heavy burdens you were carrying—the worries about other people’s opinions, the plots to burnish your public image—and you can just BE yourself, maybe for the first time ever. You’re out of that rat race. You can do what you’re really meant to be doing, instead of constantly “managing your brand.” If your desire in life is to learn belly dancing, hey, you do you! No more worries about whether you’re too fat or clumsy, or “I’m going to look like a dancing hippo in a tutu.” Just go for it. And a few months down the line, you may be surprised to find out how much you’re loving your new life.
Humility leads to freedom.
Humility leads to freedom—the freedom to say no, and the freedom to say yes. Remember all those times when someone asked you to do some onerous chore that you really didn’t want to do, because you knew you didn’t have the talent or the time to do it well? But you said yes anyway, because you were too embarrassed to say no? Humility will get you out of those traps. Since you are no longer concerned with your public image, you can say simply, “I’m sorry, but that isn’t my thing. Why don’t you ask James? I hear he’s good at that.”
So how do we get humble?
Humility is a frustrating virtue because the minute you catch yourself being humble, you lose it. “Oh, look at how humble I am!” we think proudly. Whoops. Try again. Let’s be humble about being humble. Success! Until I realize I’m proud of my humility over humility. It turns into an endless regression. Sensible people will laugh and go to bed at that point, as C. S. Lewis suggested.
While anybody can try to practice humility, and may even get a ways down the road toward really being humble, the roadblock just mentioned will put a stop to progress sooner or later. Pride is just that sneaky. And if it isn’t pride, it’ll be self-hatred that gets in the way, as we become angry with ourselves for not living up to our own standards. Practicing humility is rather like Martin Luther’s description of the drunk man on the mule—first he falls off one side, and then he climbs back on and falls off the other. First we fall into pride, and then we go to the opposite with self-hatred. Who can help us?
Christians believe human nature can’t manage true, lasting humility on its own. That’s why we turn to God for help. Since God himself is humble, he can make us humble too.
God is humble.
That may sound weird, since God is by definition the greatest and most powerful being that exists. If anybody has a reason to be proud, it’s him! But he’s not like that. In fact, if you want to see what God is like when he’s walking around among ordinary people, look at Jesus. He is God and human at the same time, so he can show us what God is like.
Jesus is the best example of humility our world has ever seen. If you read his life in the Bible, it’s clear he’s not a doormat. He’s fierce. He’s joyful, he’s passionate, he’s angry, he’s happy. Jesus goes through the whole range of human emotions.
But never, on any occasion, do we see him being arrogant, or worrying about his public image. He doesn’t give a single hoot what anybody thinks of him, high or low. It doesn’t bother him when his disciples think he’s wasting his time with children (Mark 10:13-16). He has no concern for the threats of a king (Luke 13:31-33). All he cares about is carrying out his mission—doing what God the Father put him here to do—and he’s going to spend all his energy to make sure that happens.
Along the way, that led to a parade and public applause. It also led to whipping, public shame and being strung up on a cross naked. Jesus was not concerned about his public approval ratings. The only approval that mattered to him was God’s. And that matters because Jesus loves God, and wants him to be happy.
If it’s like that for Jesus, it’s like that for the people who follow him, too. For the truly humble Christian, only one person’s opinion matters in the long run—and that is God’s opinion. God is the one who knows the real truth of the heart. He understands all motives and knows exactly what our real value is. And if God says “Well done!” to us, well… we can celebrate and sing for joy, because that judgment is absolutely true and correct. If he says, “Well done!” then it IS “well done.”
It’s all about value. In the end, the question is, “How valuable are you? How do you know?” Christianity says, “You are valuable because God himself values you. He sacrificed himself for you. You don’t need to manage your image or try to raise your value in the eyes of others, because God is the ultimate authority on what matters or not—and he says you do. So you can relax and enjoy being humble.”