What is your mental image of a humble person? Is it an appealing picture?
When was the last time a political candidate was applauded for his or her meekness? Did you ever land a job by highlighting your humility? Even among Christians, humility is given more lip service than actual respect.
Perhaps it is not humility itself that we undervalue as a culture, but a faulty understanding of humility.
The dictionary unhelpfully defines “humility” as “the quality or state of being humble.” “Humble” is described as the opposite of pride and arrogance, “a spirit of deference or submission,” or of low rank or importance. Some synonyms are: demure, lowly, modest, unassuming as opposed to bold, assertive, and confident, some of its antonyms. We live in a culture dominated by humble’s antonyms.
Yet, the Bible is very clear that God expects, even demands, humility, meekness, lowliness and selfless service from those who follow Christ.
What does that look like?
The Bible gives us at least two examples of profound humility: Moses and Jesus.
Moses, who was raised in Pharaoh’s palace and then confronted Pharaoh and led the entire nation of Israel out of Egypt, was described as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers. 12:3)
Even more astonishingly, Jesus is described as having “made himself nothing…taking the very nature of a servant…humbled himself.”
Jesus and Moses both demonstrated great boldness, assertiveness and confidence. (Well, Moses had his insecurities, but Jesus didn’t.) Moses and Jesus were both described as humble, yet they behaved in ways that are exactly opposite of humble.
As usual, when evaluating apparent biblical disconnects, the problem is not the Bible but in our understanding of the Bible. This is often because we project our culturally informed understandings and experiences on to words written in ancient languages and actions lived out in very different cultures.
So, what is true humility?
C.S. Lewis give us an instructive picture of humility at the end of a chapter on the subject of pride in his book Mere Christianity.
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you felt a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.” (Emphasis mine.)
The short form of this concept is a phrase that I’ve also heard attributed to Lewis, but that I first read years ago in Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life:
Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.
When we are relieved of prideful self focus we are free to live in the boldness, assertiveness and confidence that is available to us in Christ. That is biblical humility, and it makes perfect sense.
How do you understand humility? Have you ever behaved boldly and confidently out of a spirit of honest humility?
“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” 1 Peter 5:5-6