Of all the Christian virtues, I suspect humility has the worst reputation.
Within the church, people can periodically misinterpret “humility” to be synonymous with “doormat,” subjecting themselves to abuses and struggles that they by no rights should otherwise endure. And some believers can turn “humility” into a master class in passive aggression: “No, no, honey, you don’t need to think of me, I am nothing, absolutely less than nothing. Bless your heart.”
Outside the church, humility both perplexes and frustrates others. Nietzsche identified humility as part of the “slave morality” that he believed to be the perceived weakness of Christianity – it was, he believed, a way of undermining strength. And in our modern world where being fiercely unapologetic, looking out for number one, and “doing you” at all costs is the order of the day, it’s little wonder that Christ’s exhortations for Christians to be humble and meek feel surprisingly old-fashioned, out of step to those who don’t understand them.
But humility is neither being a doormat nor passive-aggressively pushing for compliments nor weakness. Humility doesn’t mean knocking yourself down; it means lifting others up. It means you think about yourself after you think about others; it means you recognize your place in the universe with God and with your fellow human beings. Humility demands we care for ourselves and take care with ourselves precisely because we want to be in the proper emotional and spiritual state to serve others. If I can sum up humility in a sentence, I’d define it thusly: humility is not a contrived performance or a degrading of the self, but rather the attitude natural to those who act with empathy, compassion, and selflessness.
In that light, then, I’d like to offer up five questions as a quick “humility check” as we head into the weekend.
1. Are you willing to do the things that no one else wants to do – with no promise of compensation or recognition? Humility means realizing that nothing is “beneath” you. Some of the most humble people I know are the ones who write cards, move folding chairs, and pack up food in kitchens unseen and unnoticed.
2. Can you accept criticism gracefully and with love, regardless of the source? This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with criticism you feel is incorrect, or that you can’t object to someone’s assessment of you or of a situation when you disagree. But I think humility means both a) recognizing where and when we need correction both as individuals and also as a church and b) being able to accept criticism in a spirit of love, grace, and compassion. Too often, when we feel that we or something we hold dear is being criticized, the tendency is to become angry: to lash out, to explain point-by-point why others are wrong, to defend, to be disgusted. Humility says that we can respond in truth and honesty while simultaneously expressing deep compassion and love; our need to be right is never as important as God’s desire that we love others and treat them well.
3. How do you treat those society considers to be “lowly” or “despised”? God expects us to treat our boss the same way we treat the janitor the same way we treat our neighbor. Humility dismantles hierarchy. Is there any place in your life where a hierarchy is at work? Are there any “less than”s in your life?
4. What are your motivations for what you do? It’s always good to do a gut check especially when it involves service work or the commitments we make. Why are you where you are? What are you there to accomplish? Find whatever activity, passion, or joy allows you to serve others.
5. Do you fall into the “humility trap”? If humility, for you, is to let other people say or do whatever they want to you without speaking up or objecting, or if it’s something you perform in the hopes you might be reassured that you are actually super-important, you’re misdefining the term. Humility isn’t an invitation to be treated badly or a permission slip for people to behave however they want with you, and constantly degrading your own capabilities isn’t the way to receive reassurance.
May we all keep a healthy attitude of humility – one which lifts others up alongside us. Have a great weekend!