We often think of humility as a rather dreary virtue. We know we need it, but we don’t expect it to be much fun. Kind of like going to the dentist.
C.S. Lewis argued the opposite: “to even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.” Tim Keller preached something similar: “There’s nothing more relaxing than humility.” As he explained, pride grumbles at everything, but humility can joyfully receive life as a gift.
So perhaps we get it backwards: we think humility is an impossible burden, but in reality it is as light as a feather. It is pride that makes life gray and drab; humility brings out the color. Why do we get this wrong? I don’t know, but part of the answer might be we simply misunderstand what humility is. Here are two ways we do so, in particular.
1. Humility Isn’t Hiding
Humility is not hiding your talents and abilities. If you can paint like Van Gogh, humility does not require you to keep your work under a veil in the basement closet. If you can pitch a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, humility will not encourage you to sit on the bench and never tell the coach.
In The Screwtape Letters, one devil advises another,
The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents — or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.
If Lewis is right, then denying your talents is not humble — if anything, it is the opposite, since you are still focused on yourself, biased for or against yourself as an exception to the rest of the human race. Humility means the death of this craving, self-referential framework. It means valuing your contribution to the world alongside every other good thing in the world.
So, imagine you are part of a team of doctors working to cure a disease. You make a discovery that contributes approximately 25% toward finding the cure. Another doctor then makes a different discovery that contributes the remaining 75% toward finding the cure. Humility means you are pleased with your accomplishment, and able to speak freely about it, while simultaneously and effortlessly three times more pleased with your colleague’s effort.
To be such a person is not a burden, but a joy and freedom.
2. Humility Isn’t Self-Hatred
Humility is not self-hatred, self-neglect, or self-punishment. The Bible never says, “Hate yourself; instead love your neighbor.” It says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Self-hatred is actually sinful, no less than hatred of others (just as suicide is a form of murder).
Musician Andrew Peterson has a song entitled “Be Kind to Yourself.” The notion of self-kindness can be misunderstood, to be sure. It must be distinguished from self-indulgence. But there is a way to take care of yourself, to genuinely have regard for yourself, that is healthy and makes you more useful to others. As I often say in counseling situations, true self-care is not selfish.
Many in our society struggle with a sense of shame, inferiority, and a lack of self-worth. We must sharply distinguish such feelings from the goal of humility. Whatever else humility will require of you, it will never rob you of your dignity as an image-bearer of God. Humble people do not regard their own existence as an evil. They do not regard themselves as corrupting everything they touch, or wasting the space in which they move. They can walk about freely in the world, with a bounce in their step.
Humility’s Acid Test
Okay, if that’s what humility isn’t, what is it? I love how Keller (following Lewis) speaks of humility as self-forgetfulness — it’s not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Both hiding your talents and hating yourself are forms of self-preoccupation, whereas humility leads us into freedom from thoughts of self altogether.
Lewis helps us once again,
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 feel 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.
Lewis’s word cheerful strikes me, as well as his emphasis on the enjoyment of life. This reminds me that joy is a good acid test of humility, and our entire spirituality. True humility always produces joy. If we lack joy, we know we’ve got a counterfeit. Something is misfiring.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that humility always will feel uplifting and comfortable. There will be arduous moments. But the net result will be, like exercise or a healthy diet, distinctly pleasant. So, we can think of humility like this: self-forgetfulness leading to joy.
Great Model of Humility
In the Christian gospel, we are given the ultimate picture of humility: Jesus, in his incarnation, and especially in his death and burial. “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). No one ever humbled himself more than Jesus. From heaven to crucifixion is the ultimate descent. Yet even for Jesus, humility was the pathway to joy (Hebrews 12:2) and glory (Philippians 2:9–11).
If we would like to grow in humility, the place to start is here, at the cross. Christ’s humiliation is the death of all ego and swagger. There is no room for pride before the crucified Savior. And his exaltation gives us a greater glory to live for than our own. Heaven is roaring with his praise, and one day every knee will bow before him — what a waste to spend our talents on any lesser cause!
So, humility is not hiding what you can do, or hating who you are. It’s the joy of thinking about yourself less, and about Jesus more.