Humility is when we don’t claim status, prerogatives, nor power over other people. It’s putting submission into practice: Before we do or say anything, we think about how our actions and words will affect others, and take them into consideration. Humility is the opposite of selfishness.
Humility isn’t about claiming we’re all on the same level. Some of us are clearly more gifted or talented than others. Some of us obviously have more wealth, more connections, better jobs, greater power. Prtending otherwise isn’t humility; it’s hypocrisy. But in fact a lot of the so-called “humility” we see nowadays is the fake sort.
Instead humility is when we don’t lord these advantages over others. We’re not so important, we can’t meet with just anyone. Those bishops and pastors whose secretaries and “armor-bearers” keep everyone unimportant away: They’re not humble. The Lord, who angrily told his students to stop keeping the kids away: Infinitely humble.
This post is part of a synchroblog, a bunch of different Christian bloggers reacting to “Bridging the Divides”: How we might heal the divisions in the church. Wanna get in on it? Visit the synchroblog blog.
Paul held up Jesus as the perfect example of the sort of humility we ought to see in Christians.
So if any
of you want to bean encouragement in Christ, a loving adviser, a Spirit-led friend, compassionate and merciful, fill me with joy: Think alike. Have the same love. In thinking, act like you’re one soul. Never try to get itthrough politics, nor sucking up, but humbly put other people ahead of yourselves. Don’t watch out for your own stuff, but others’ too. Think, among yourselves, the way Christ Jesus did.
- Existing in the form of God,
- he figured being the same as God
- was not something to clutch.
- Instead he poured himself into a slave’s form:
- He took on a human likeness.
- He was born; he was found human in every way.
- Being obedient, he humbled himself to death:
- Death by crucifixion.
—Paul and Timothy,
Jesus’s cosmic almightiness made it feel to us like he was too far removed to be sympathetic or helpful. So he removed all that, and came down to our level. It doesn’t matter that he’s perfect or greater or wiser or in every way our superior: He wants a relationship with us, and doesn’t want any of his abilities, any of his otherness, to get in the way of that relationship. So he put ’em aside.
That’s how we need to be: Humble.
Humility is often described as the opposite of pride, but ’tain’t necessarily so. Some kinds of pride are just fine. Pride in your accomplishments, pride in other’s accomplishments: These aren’t bad things. I’m proud of certain things I’ve achieved. I’m proud of family members, friends, my country, and others for having achieved certain great things. Paul was proud of the churches who followed God wholeheartedly. No doubt God is proud of us when we do his will, just as when he bragged about Job.
But the reason the scriptures so often condemn pride, is because we humans take pride in ridiculous, futile, stupid stuff. We take pride in our possessions. We take pride in the wrong people. We take pride in conforming to the patterns of Christian culture (i.e. this world) or we take a perverse pride in bucking the trends and alienating everyone, including people who want to love us. We take pride in our honor, our social status, the illusion of our respectability or propriety. We take pride in these things for all the wrong reasons: They’re expensive, or mighty, or pretty, or big, or put fear into people, or impress shallow fools. We never consider whether these attributes are any good. Misdirected pride is the sort of pride God always opposes.
Misdirected pride is the opposite of humility. Y’see, it’s the misdirected stuff which gets in the way of our humility. If I’m so proud of my wisdom, I refuse to listen to anyone else who might likewise be wise, that’s not humility. If I’m so proud of my knowledge, I don’t feel anyone can teach me anything else, that’s not humility. If I’m so proud of my orthodoxy, I figure I’m right and everyone else is wrong—when in fact we’re all wrong—that’s not humility. When Christians act like jerks towards pagans, and towards one another, it’s because we’ve embraced pride instead of humility, and we’re too dense to notice we’ve embraced something God opposes.
If my hangups get in the way of relationships, it means I’m at fault. My pride is getting in the way. My accomplishments and abilities and orthodoxy don’t save me, don’t make me any less of a sinner than anyone else, and don’t provide me an excuse to act superior to anyone. If I expect to be great in the Kingdom, I have to become the smallest thing in it. I have to be a little kid. For even the Son of Man didn’t come to be great, but to serve everyone else, and surrender his life for them. That’s why Jesus accepted all who came to him. All. He was never too important, too prideful.
Don’t hide your ability. But don’t be hindered by it.
Fake humility means we degrade ourselves. True humility doesn’t consider it degrading to put ourselves on the same level as everyone else—or even a lower level than others. Because it doesn’t matter what level we take: We know who we are.
Jesus knows who he is. But he came down to our level. And he could truthfully and honestly tell everyone he was humble, for he most definitely was. Yet this humble man could, even so, accept people’s praise and worship, call himself the Son of Man, and describe himself as equal to God. There’s nothing prideful, or not humble, about admitting who he really was.
But fake humility says there is. Years ago I casually told my students I was a genius. (I’m bright, but because I get genius-level scores on IQ tests, I figure it’s okay to call myself that.) My students responded, “You can’t call yourself humble, then turn round and call yourself a genius.” I pointed out, “So what am I supposed to do? Hide it? Lie about it? When somebody asks, ‘Are you a genius?’ I’m to answer, ‘Not really’? If someone asked Jesus, ‘Are you Messiah?’ was he supposed to lie?”
Like I said about fake humility: It demands we lie. It demands, not that we come down to everyone else’s level, but that we pretend we’re naturally on that level already, and have always been there. It demands we fake equality, even though God made us unique, not equal. It takes a generation of kids, whom we’ve rightly told, “You’re special,” to now pretend they’re not.
And because we’re not the same, and because everybody knows we’re not the same—we’re not fooling ourselves, and we’re certainly not fooling others—it’s not seen as humility and grace. It’s seen as pretense. A big phony show. An act. And quite often, this act is interpreted as mockery—it becomes mockery, as those of us with a sense of irony can’t keep a straight face through all the foolishness. Well, that’s hardly gonna help us develop a relationship with one another.
True humility isn’t lying to people, and telling them, “No no; I’m not better than you; we’re all alike. Really.” It’s admitting, “We’re different. We’re not the same. But that’s okay. Those differences won’t stop us from talking with one another. Now let’s talk. How can I help you?”
The only way we’re gonna bridge the gaps in our society, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in anywhere, is if we drop the pretense, drop the hypocrisy, come together on a common level, and have a conversation. We might not agree on everything, or anything. But we’ll get a lot farther than if we assume we can’t talk. Or worse, pretend we’re here to have a conversation, but turn it into a lecture, tell them why they’re wrong, ignore how we’re wrong, and refuse to hear otherwise.
We have to be humble, as Jesus is humble. We have to be like Jesus.