On Sunday afternoon, in the checkout line at the grocery store, I put a man on trial. He made no argument and offered no defense, but I judged him guilty.
I went there to pick up three things—fruit, deli meat, and club soda. When I got to the only open line, there was just one man ahead of me. This is going to be quick, I assumed.
After the cashier started ringing up his items, though, he decided it was a good time to ask where the premade guacamole was. “Aisle 5,” she said. Then he left his place in line to find it.
When he returned a few minutes later, the cashier had finished scanning his items and customers had started lining up, but his hands were empty. He hadn’t found the guacamole. “It’s on aisle 7,” another store employee said. “On the bottom shelf.” The man again went to search.
Five minutes later, with eight customers now in line, he finally checked out. And I was annoyed. Why did he wait and ask the cashier? Why didn’t he ask someone else before he got in line? How could he inconvenience the rest of us like this? The only reasonable answer, I concluded, was that he was rude, incompetent, and narcissistic.
As I walked home, though, I wondered why my heart went so easily to judgment and anger, not to grace and mercy. Why did I spend so much time mentally logging the reasons he was guilty, not the reasons he might need grace? Why did my time need so much defending?
How little I knew of this stranger, yet how easily I judged him based on a single 10-minute interaction—and we didn’t even exchange a word.
I Feel a Fool for It
My real-life interaction last Sunday is sadly commonplace in our media engagement. We have little patience and grace for strangers. In fact, we’re often entertained at their expense. We watch reality TV just to mock the contestants, and we bully others on Twitter with 140 sarcastic characters.
It took me 10 minutes to size up the man at the grocery store, but judging others on social media often takes less than five seconds—the time it takes to read a single tweet. We’re unbelievably quick to jump to conclusions about people we don’t know and events thousands of miles away. Even though we have no direct access to relevant and unedited information, we ignore due diligence and embrace ignorant indignation.
And it’s not just the gullible among us who fall prey to these temptations. In the wake of the Clock Boy hoax, for example, Richard Dawkins—a scientist who loves evidence and verifiable facts—confessed: “I jumped on the bandwagon myself and feel a fool for it.”
Media reaches for the worst in us, and our relishing in its mean-spirited overtones doesn’t speak well of who we are.
The Opposite of a Proud Heart
Amid a culture that celebrates being quick to make snap judgments, we encounter the words of James:
Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your soul. (James 1:19–21)
James is saying that the word of truth is implanted in us. When we’re born again, we embrace the knowledge that we’re sinners, that we’re in Christ, and that he died to reconcile us to God. This doesn’t mean we automatically become sinless people, but that we have the potential to be liberated people.
To live out the fullness of our liberty, though, we must get rid of our arrogant, controlling, slow-to-hear, quick-to-speak, know-it-all spirits. In a 1995 sermon titled “Growth Through Hearing Truth,” Tim Keller highlights three characteristics of a proud heart:
- A proud heart argues for every one of its convictions because it can’t distinguish between major and minor points. Instead, it says: “Any belief—because it’s mine—is a major belief.”
- A proud heart either enjoys or avoids confronting, but never confronts with tears.
- A proud heart is unhappy with life and, instead of receiving it as a gift, always gripes about how things are going.
The opposite of a proud and angry heart is humility, not self-control. And it’s our internal postures—not our external circumstances—that determine our happiness.
Heart Affections, External Worlds
When psychologist Shawn Achor was studying happiness at Harvard, his friends from Texas came to visit. As they toured campus, they were amazed by its beauty and asked, “Shawn, why do you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard? Seriously. What does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about?” Achor replied:
Embedded within that question is the key to understanding the science of happiness. What that question assumes is that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels when, in reality, if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness; 90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes it.
But it’s not just our brains that process our external circumstances; our hearts do, too. Both our minds and our affections influence how we see the world. Proud hearts are always unhappy and complaining about situations and people. They think they know the way their lives should go and how others should behave—and how quickly they should be able to check out at the grocery store.
Humble hearts, though, search Scripture and let Scripture search them. They receive from others and from God. They’re flexible, not controlling. They think, Things are messy right now, but who knows? Maybe I need this. I know God must have a reason for it. I guess you know best, Lord.
“There’s nothing more relaxing than humility,” Keller observes.
Three New Daily Gratitudes
One practice that’s helped my heart grow in humility is something Achor does with his patients. He asks them to write down three new gratitudes each day. For Christians, I believe this can be even more powerful because we know the One to thank.
When I first started tracking my daily gratitudes, they were general—for people I saw, for food I enjoyed, for verses I read. Since they have to be new, though, they’ve gotten more specific—for a student understanding something I taught, for time strategizing about a new work initiative, for not getting a concussion when I bumped my head on the airplane, for someone else’s great idea.
As I reflect on the grocery store incident, I see a proud heart. But I also see a heart that’s grown in humility. I’m not sure I would’ve walked away questioning my sinful judgment of that man before I started listing my daily gratitudes. I’m still a sinner in need of God’s daily mercies, but I’m learning to embrace the happy and relaxing freedom of humility.