Like most North Americans my age, I grew up on a diet heavy in reruns of The Simpsons. One scene that often comes to mind involves Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ overly pious neighbour, confessing to their longsuffering minister: “I’m meek, but … I could be meeker.” What I love about this quote is that it’s impossible to tell whether Ned is legitimately concerned about his humility and is expressing that concern in a way that demonstrates that he is in fact humble, or whether it’s really what we’d now call a “humble-brag,” an expression of pride and vanity couched in the language of humility.
Humility is often like this; it’s difficult to get a good handle on it. Humility is hard to define and easily misunderstood. Additionally, in a culture which increasingly rewards self-promotion, humility is severely undervalued and actively undermined. Moreover, we have to acknowledge that Christian teaching on humility has often been abused to keep the marginalized ‘in their place’. And so we have to pay particular attention to understanding what humility is but also what it isn’t.
According to the VIA Institute on character, “If Humility is your top strength, you do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.” On its own this definition might rightly rankle people in marginalized groups, who feel that their accomplishments are often ignored. But, it continues with some important qualifications:
“A common misconception is that humility involves having a low self-esteem, a sense of unworthiness, and/or a lack of self-focus. However, true humility involves an accurate self-assessment, recognition of limitations, keeping accomplishments in perspective, and forgetting of the self. Humble people do not distort information to defend or verify their own image, and they do not need to see — or present — themselves as being better than they actually are.”
This is a helpful clarification. Humility isn’t about thinking poorly of ourselves or allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. It’s about seeing ourselves honestly and letting our actions speak for themselves. It isn’t about how much power we have, but how we wield the power we do have, even if the only power we have is over our own thoughts. Proper humility will be expressed in different ways depending on one’s circumstances, and — and this is critical — so too will proper and true teaching on humility.
For Christians, humility will always first and foremost be expressed in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, who, in the words of the famous first century hymn:
did not regard equality with God
as something to be held onto,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.2ff)
This way of being is one of ‘self-emptying’: though divine he becomes human; and though by rights a king, he identifies with the powerless to the point of suffering and dying as an outcast at the hands of the religious and secular authorities.
There is very challenging language here, especially in these times when we have become so aware of the ways these words and sentiments have been abused to reinforce existing — sinful and unjust — power systems. But if we look at what Jesus’ life was actually like, we see that his humility did not turn him into a wilting flower. Jesus was a troublemaker and a rabble-rouser. From the moment of his birth he represented a challenge to the power structures of his day. As a child he freely debated with religious teachers in the Temple. He brazenly disregarded religious traditions he thought missed the point (“The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath”) and even refuted the Scriptures themselves when he had cause (“You have heard it said …. But I say to you….”). So if we use Jesus as our example of humility, clearly being humble does not require us to quietly accept injustice or hold our tongue. Jesus knew who he was and what he stood for. He certainly didn’t have self-esteem problems and was not self-deprecating. Jesus didn’t need to boast or to boost his ego in any way, but allowed his actions to speak for themselves. Jesus’ humility didn’t come from not speaking truth to power, but rather from his refusal to return evil for evil, but instead addressing evil by exposing it by goodness.
Again, this is a great example of why I find the approach of looking at these character traits alongside their pathologies on both sides so helpful. It places genuine humility in contrast not just with arrogance, pride, and entitlement, but also with timidity, poor self-esteem, and acceptance of the unacceptable. These are equal and opposite sets of problems, which both only serve to perpetuate injustice.
So, how can we cultivate true humility in our lives? Here are some small practical suggestions:
- Resist showing off accomplishments for a week and instead show off the accomplishments of others;
- Pay attention to how much you speak in meetings or conversations, and if you’re speaking a lot, stay quiet or deliberately ask someone else for their opinion;
- Admit your mistakes;
- Recognize your limitations and ask for help.
- If you struggle more with timidity than you do with pride or arrogance, you can combat this by building other character strengths, such as leadership, honesty, or bravery.