In the last 70 years, we’ve changed how we celebrate victory, David Brooks argues in his new book, The Road to Character. While listening to a radio broadcast from August 15, 1945, the day after V-J Day, Brooks noticed how the host Bing Crosby described the program’s tone: “Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.” One guest, recalls Brooks, quoted a war correspondent, saying, “We did not win [the war] because destiny created us better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.”
When the program ended, Brooks turned on his TV to watch a football game just in time to see a wide receiver catch a short pass before he got tackled. Immediately, the defensive lineman did a “self-puffing victory dance” to celebrate his accomplishment. “It occurred to me,” Brooks reflects, “that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II.” He then zooms out to comment on this significant cultural shift:
It did occur to me that there was perhaps a strain of humility that was more common then than now, that there was a moral ecology, stretching back centuries but less prominent now, encouraging people to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combatting the flaws in their own natures and turning weakness into strength.
In contrast with our “modest” tone of former years, our current era embraces “the gospel of self-trust,” Brooks says. Citing modern-day “prophets” like Ellen DeGeneres and Joel Osteen, Brooks says that this gospel tells us to trust ourselves, to follow our passions, and to embrace our destinies.
Most Valuable Player Award
Then enters basketball player Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Last week, just two weeks after the publication of Brooks’s book, Curry was named Kia Motors 2014—2015 NBA Most Valuable Player. He opened his acceptance speech this way:
This is a tremendous honor. First and foremost, I have to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for blessing me with the talents to play this game, with the family to support me, day in and day out. I am his humble servant right now, and I can’t say it enough how important my faith is to how I play the game and who I am. I’m just blessed, and I’m just thankful for where I am.
For the next 10 minutes, often with tears, Curry thanked his family and community who made his success possible—his mom and dad, his wife, his siblings, his coaches, and the administration and staff, even the equipment manager, of the Golden State Warriors. He then continued:
I want to use this opportunity to shed light on who I am and what drives me to play the way that I do. I do a little sign on the court every time I make a shot or make a good pass. I pound my chest and point to the sky that symbolizes that I have a heart for God. It is something that my mom and I came up with in college, and I do it every time I step on the floor as a reminder of who I’m playing for. People should know who I represent and why I am who I am and that’s because of my Lord and Savior. I can’t say that enough.
Curry isn’t perfect, and he knows it. Just like the rest of us, he’s flawed. That’s why he points beyond himself to the true hero—not himself, but God.
Inadequacy of Self-Trust
Tim Keller suggests that four things characterize the natural state of the human ego—emptiness, pain, busyness, and fragility. We’re riddled with prideful illusions that self-trust and self-esteem are rational responses to our greatness. We believe we can find meaning in life without God and think our accomplishments can produce satisfaction and joy.
But we know these are lies, because when we try to quiet our deep feelings of inadequacy with personal achievement, failure causes our self-worth to plummet, and shallow notions of success leave us dissatisfied. One of my friends, for example, graduated from Harvard University and Yale Law School, received a Marshall Scholarship for study at Oxford, and secured a Supreme Court clerkship—all before he turned 25. I’ve achieved 99 percent of everything I’ve ever wanted in life, he recalls thinking. Do I really think getting that additional 1 percent will make me happy?
Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul testifies about how the gospel has transformed his self-identity (1 Cor. 3:21—4:7). He doesn’t care what other people think about him; he doesn’t even care what he thinks about himself. What’s his secret? Self-forgetfulness, Keller says:
The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself; it is thinking of myself less. . . . I stop connecting every experience, every conversation with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.
The gospel transforms our notion of self-worth and identity because it invites us to embrace a sense of meaning and purpose that’s bigger than ourselves. In Christ, we we’re not demoralized by failure or overly impressed by narrow ideas of success, like football tackles or MVP awards or prestigious scholarships and degrees.
How do we embrace this freedom? By looking to the only achievement that matters—not what we’ve done for ourselves, but what Christ has done for us (Mk. 1:11, Rom. 8:1). Our work no longer becomes about “self-puffing” celebrations, but about the faithfulness and joy of doing good work, loving others, and glorifying God. Only with the indwelling of the Spirit can we find that deep humility that Brooks laments we’ve lost in modern times—that deep humility that says, when we’ve done everything commanded, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Lk. 17:10).