A friend and I used to joke that we wanted to co-author a book someday called “Humility, and How I Attained It.”
We never did. But it was a way of expressing some of the complications that come with that notion. True humility is a rare virtue, and those who claim to have it might very well be boasting in the most ironic way imaginable. And yet humility is not just a suggestion or a pie-in-the-sky attribute; it’s a key mark of the disciple of Jesus. In fact, humility is one of the ways Paul, in his imprisonment, told the Ephesian believers they could live a life worthy of their calling:
“Therefore I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
It matters, and it matters a lot. But humility is not mystical; it’s not a condition that you simply fall into and out of from one moment to the next. In fact, true humility is about having an accurate picture of reality and acting accordingly. We can err on either side of that reality – we can think too highly or too lowly of ourselves. Humility is in the middle. It’s not self-idolatry, but neither is it self-debasement. David’s words in Psalm 8 help us see this middle ground of humility based in reality. In that Psalm, David is blown away at the size and scope of the universe. He also is humbled by his relative size and importance in that grand picture. But on the other side, he finds it equally remarkable that though we are small, and seemingly insignificant, God has been mindful to us.
Humility is recognizing reality. Soberly. Truthfully. And living accordingly.
Pride, then, results when some element of reality becomes distorted in our minds – when we, for whatever reason, start to underestimate or overestimate some aspect of reality. There are 3 misunderstandings of reality that can undercut humility:
1. Misunderstandings about God.
If we find ourselves growing prideful, then it’s very possible the root of that pride is a misperception about who God is. Think of the people during the time when Peter wrote his second letter, those that he describes in 2 Peter 3:3-4: “Scoffers will come in the last days to scoff, living according to their own desires, saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? Ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they have been since the beginning of creation.’”
The pride in these people came from a misunderstanding about God. They heard the Christians say that Jesus was coming back, and yet everyday the sun came up and went down just like it did the day before. In their minds, either there was living Christ that could return, or God simply didn’t care about what was happening in the world. But the delay of the return of Jesus is not due to either God’s indifference or His absence; it’s due to His patience in that He wants all men to come to repentance. The misunderstanding about God’s character led them to this prideful declaration.
With us today, misunderstandings about God can lead us down the same road. We might sin, and sin again, and yet again, and not see the consequences of doing so. So we might pridefully conclude that there are no consequences and that God is perfectly fine with our lifestyle. This is not so, and our assumption that it is so only shows that we have dramatically misunderstood some element of the character of God. From the opposite standpoint, we might assume that we have sinned too much or too often or too badly or too whatever, and that God has abandoned us. We fall into a pit of self-loathing, self-pity, self-examination… all with our eyes on ourselves. This, too, is a misunderstanding about God and His character.
2. Misunderstandings about ourselves.
The second misunderstanding that can undercut humility is a misunderstanding about ourselves. Paul gets at this recognition of reality in Romans 12:3 when he says that all Christians should have a “sober estimation” of themselves. That is, they should not think too highly or too lowly about who they are and their position in the universe. We can err on either side, and either side is actually a prideful stance, for we might think of ourselves as completely indispensable to the earth’s rotation, or we might think of ourselves as insignificant as a microbe. In either case, our focus is on ourselves whether in adulation or disdain.
If, then, we find our gaze firmly fixed on ourselves, then the root behind that might be a misunderstanding about ourselves and our place in God’s universe.
3. Misunderstandings about others.
Sometimes it’s not misunderstandings about God or misunderstandings about ourselves that undercut humility; it’s a misunderstanding about others. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis commented on the true nature of the people we interact with on a daily basis:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
When we forget that everyone – everyone – is an image-bearing, eternal, specifically created being, humility is undercut and pride creeps in. Instead of seeing others in this light, with this kind of gravity, we very easily drift toward that sense of superiority that Lewis described. This happens for all kinds of reasons, be they education, race, economic status, or virtually anything else.
Whether we misunderstand the reality of God, of ourselves, or of others, our humility is undercut when that reality is distorted. But if we can continue, by God’s grace, to have an accurate picture of God, of ourselves, and of others, then the humility that comes only with that sober estimation will follow.