Several years ago, I was finishing up PhD studies and preparing to leave the place that had been my home for the past three years in Cambridge, England. Some friends invited me for a farewell dinner. They also invited another friend of theirs, an independently wealthy, quintessentially British gentleman who was bright, articulate, well-read, witty, and sported a rather posh accent. Naturally, he was curious as to what I was going to do after my graduation.
“So what are your plans?” he asked.
Since I was about to earn a PhD from one of the world’s top universities, he assumed I would be heading for a teaching post at an Ivy League school—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, perhaps?
“I’m going to be a pastor,” I told him, somewhat sheepishly. “P-a-s-t-o-r”—I can still hear the sound of that strange little word proceed from my mouth; it nearly got stuck on the way out, as if it didn’t want to be seen or heard.
My announcement surprised the dinner guest. In fact, he looked at me incredulously, as if I’d morphed into one of those ghoulish creatures from a cheap sci-fi movie. The look on his face told me I had some explaining to do—at least if I wanted to hold on to an ounce of self-respect.
I began to describe where we’d live in Wheaton, Illinois, a lovely town in what Americans call the Midwest, part of that large stretch of land between New York and Los Angeles. “You know, with all those red states,” I editorialized, adding a touch of humor—“where buffalo still roam.” My feeble attempt failed, and he continued to stare at me disbelievingly.
So I went on to unpack what it meant to be a pastor. Evidently, he’d never met one. “A pastor,” I explained, “is someone who works at this thing called a church.”
On and on I continued until his bemusement gave way to amusement. I watched as a cheeky grin took shape on his face—it was a smirk, really. It was as if he’d finally realized what sort of creature he was meeting.
He then dipped his head so his nose was strategically pointed down at me, peered over the top of his glasses, and said in a notably condescending tone, “The pastorate? Don’t you think that’s a bit anticlimactic coming from Cambridge?”
Anticlimactic. Few words strike greater fear in a proud soul. Who wants life to be anticlimactic? I felt quite small, almost silly, at that moment. In an instant, my self-worth was crushed like the ground pepper on the table before me. At the same time, I could feel the desire to defend myself surging within me. I despised being belittled and wanted to dodge or deflect the embarrassment of what it meant for me to follow Jesus.
Even worse, his comment made me doubt myself. What am I doing going into the ministry? I thought. Why waste all that education? Why squander the opportunity of a promising career as a scholar, lecturer, and writer?
I was like a drowning man groping for a life preserver, clinging to the prerogatives and prestige of my Cambridge PhD. I watched as it slipped away, leaving me to sink under the weight of my own vanity and pride. It was a humbling experience, and it didn’t feel all that good.
Humility is hard—not like calculus, more like sacrifice. It pains the soul. No one grows in humility quickly or easily, nor do we gain it naturally. Humility cuts against the grain of human nature. And that always hurts.
Humility is also hard to define. It’s often misunderstood, even by thoughtful, godly Christians. We tend to equate humility with certain personality types—the shy, quiet, passive, and reserved folk. But that’s not what humility is really about, at least not biblically. Being a real Mr. Milquetoast, with a limp, squid handshake, doesn’t mean you’re humble.
Not Denying Reality
Sometimes we confuse humility with self-doubt or self-deprecation as though, in the words of C. S. Lewis, humility involves being “a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.” But thinking poorly of yourself doesn’t mean you’re humble. In fact, self-deprecation can be a subtle species of pride.
Humility doesn’t mean putting on airs or affecting a humble demeanor. Nor do you achieve it by pretending to be something you’re not. To be humble, you don’t have to convince yourself you’re someone you’re not. You can be honest about your gifts and talents, and be grateful for the experiences and opportunities God has given you.
Contrary to popular opinion, humility doesn’t force you to make a dozen downward adjustments in the way you view yourself. You don’t need to downplay the fact you aced the SAT or took home a fistful of firsts at the state swim meet. You don’t need to hide the fact you graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, or that you can play the cello like Yo-Yo Ma, write poetry like Goethe, have an uncanny ability to remember names, run a Fortune 500 company, or enjoy hauntingly beautiful blue eyes with thick, dark eyelashes.
Being humble doesn’t require you to deny reality.
Expression of Love
When understood in the light of biblical teaching, humility is not letting who you are hinder you from loving others. In other words, the purpose of humility isn’t to make you think less of who you are, but to enable you to love others regardless of who they are.
Humility is how love expresses itself toward those of a different status, rank, or position. It’s the capacity to view everyone as ultimately equal. Again, this doesn’t mean denying differences between people. But it does mean looking past those differences to the underlying equality of all people.
To the humble it matters little whether a person is better educated or less attractive or more accomplished. They don’t experience that forlorn feeling that comes from knowing they’re not as successful as someone else. Nor are they prone to get a buzz from knowing they’ve done something that causes them to stand out from the crowd. In fact, a humble person views another’s victory as though it were his or her own.
Humility is delightfully self-forgetful. The humble don’t fret over their own prestige or position, nor that of others. In short, humility is, as Robert Roberts has observed, transcendent self-confidence—a quality of character that liberates people from having to compare themselves with others and frees them to love everyone equally.
This is why pride is so damaging to love, whether for God or your neighbor. For the proud heart isn’t a broken heart, but a bottled-up heart from which love can’t flow. If we’re preoccupied with who people are or where they stand in the world’s pecking order, we’ll be blind to those of a different status and fail to love them as we ought.
Humility, however, doesn’t cling to rights or prerogatives. And thus it clears the way for love to flow to the Savior, and then to others. Love, not humility, is the goal. Humility is simply the mindset needed to love others as God calls us to.
He Humbled Himself
Consider Jesus—matchless in dignity, and consummately humble. Recall the apostle Paul’s description of the mind we see in Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).
Humility is having the mind of Christ, which means not holding on to status in a way that hinders love. It means letting go of your own prerogatives. You can’t cling to your rights or rank or standing as a reason for failing to love someone. Humility is love freely flowing among people of different positions.
This is what we see in the Son. He didn’t let his own divine status hinder him from meeting the needs of sinful humanity. Instead, he pressed beyond his exalted place for the sake of love. More than that, he became a human who would die the most ignoble of deaths—death as a tried and condemned criminal on a cross. And yet it was his humility—not counting his rights and privileges as something to use for himself—that enabled our Lord to meet the needs of sinners like you and me.