Some Thoughts About Humility

I’ve been thinking recently about how Christians are meant to be set apart from the world. One of my goals for 2009 is to memorize all of Romans 12, and for February I am working on the part about how Christians are called to “not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of your mind.” But what exactly does that mean? The renewing of your mind?

Basically, I’ve been wondering what it is about Christians that makes us “set apart.” You certainly can’t tell by looking at someone—especially these days when Christians of my age dress and act (in many respects) like your average hedonistic hipster. So it must be a difference in our behavior or attitude, right?

I was talking to a friend about this a few weeks ago, and he suggested that, at the end of the day, the things that really distinguish Christians from the rest of the world are humility and forgiveness. Humility and forgiveness…

I think he was right. This pretty much sums it up.

Humility and forgiveness are totally countercultural. They are things that go against every grain of our nature—a nature that is so fundamentally driven by pride. Pride is the original sin, and the root of all subsequent sin. To be Christian is to actively repudiate our pride-based identity and instead follow Christ’s example of a self-denying, other-focused existence. And don’t think that it’s not a bruising struggle.

Everything in our society urges us to embrace our pride—to “go for it” and “be all that you can be,” to have high self-esteem and self-worth because we accomplish great things. Our parents and teachers tell us we are special and that one day we will probably be famous. The Internet tells us that we can and should be famous now. Our economy is structured in such a way that presumes that everyone ultimately wants more: more wealth, more prestige, more renown, more significance. Pretty much everything most of us do is toward the end of bettering our lives, making something of ourselves, and leaving some sort of important legacy behind.

Christianity says, “deny yourself” and “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.”

It’s a crazy idea. To think that, even as every instinct within us clamors for the recognition and envy of others, we might put ourselves last and love others first.

Just imagine what Christianity would look like if we stopped being so self-obsessed! What would the world do if every Christian stopped trying to make themselves look good or sound smart, and humbled themselves to a place where everything they did was not about them but about how they could be used to bring God’s graces and glories to a world in need?

What if we all decided to live simpler lives and consume less, giving more of our resources away instead of spending it all on iPhones, expensive wine, and whatever other status symbols we accumulate to pamper our lives and project an image of stylish perfection? What if, instead of obsessing about our complicated relationships or fretting about silly things like how a facebook wall post might be perceived, we realized that the deepest thing Rick Warren ever wrote is totally, reassuringly true: “It’s not about you.”

It’s. Not. About. You.

It seems like if ever we are to truly appear set apart—in a desirable, “I want to go to there” sort of way (to quote Liz Lemon)—a good place to start is with some sincere, “it’s not about me” humility.

Yes, it’s hard. Insanely hard. And even as I’m writing this blog post I’m stuggling with it. But the most subversive thing about the whole idea is that, even though it’s hard and seems stupid and self-loathing to purge ourselves of pride, it is ultimately a much better and more fulfilling place to be. For when we remove our own self-aggrandizing tendencies, we open ourselves up to being conduits of some other, higher, infinitely more significant purposes—the purposes of God. It’s about Him; not us. What a ridiculously comforting thought.

16 responses to “Some Thoughts About Humility

  1. This is lovely. I really appreciate your thoughts put so well into words. Thank you for mentioning what a struggle it is to be humble and to forgive. These two attributes combined create the space for true compassion and wonderful expressions of God. It’s not just Christians who struggle with this – it is all people. It’s just that as Christians there is a religious struggle. Do we want to be more like Christ (if we understand what the means) and not more like the church or doctrine or culture of Christianity? It’s difficult to see our way sometimes and that is why God is go good at giving people like yourself the ability to write to the heart of the matter. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks Brett. Maybe add love to the list? Particularly love of enemies and the unlovable.

  3. Hey Brett – found your blog link from RELEVANT. Have been a fan of your writing for awhile. I’m wondering – do you think that the church sometimes suffers from false humility? In other words, we succumb to self-deprecating comments like “it’s not about me” in an attempt to bring more attention to our wonderfully-humble selves? Do you see any of that happening? I wonder if we can be haughty about our humility. Thoughts?

  4. Oh yes, Joan, love should be added to the list for sure. Though I think that love is implied in forgiveness.
    And Jeff, I definitely think that we can wield humility in haughty, self-aggrandizing ways. The church is often guilty of this. Of course, one can easily say “It’s not about me” but then live a life that is in complete contradiction to this sentiment. So we have to make sure that we are talking the talk but also walking the walk.

  5. Well Brett, you raise some good questions. The same question all of us who’ve surrendered our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ ask. How do I live in a way that will please God? It will be 35 years ago next month that I asked Jesus to forgive my sins and be the Lord of my life. I read my Bible and listened to strong preaching
    and learned all the things God expected from me and every time I tried to over come a sin in my life I failed. It got discouraging. I got a book written by Watchman Nee called “The Normal Christian Life”. It helped me understand that what God was waiting for was for me to stop trying to do it in my own strength and let Him do it in me. I guess the word for that is “yieldedness”. Simply stated: you know how God wants you to live you just don’t have the ability, the willpower to do it so you go along doing the best you can and when you fail (and you will fail and I still do) you ask Him to forgive you as you forgive those who sin against you, to strengthen you against temptation and to keep you from doing or thinking evil. You know He will forgive you because He said He will. Each time you do this you’ll become a little stronger in living the way He wants you to. It’s kind of like Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6. One other thing I might point out …. don’t get pushed around by religion. Christianity isn’t a religion. Christianity is a relationship with God made possible by what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Religion will get you all confused with it’s doctrines and creeds. Remember, Jesus is The Way, The Truth and the Life. John14:6. One last point …. in 1John2:15 – 17 John wrote, “love not the World…… ”
    Mizpah

  6. I’ll try to expand the discussion a little bit. I’m an atheist. Don’t confuse me with that bigot Dawkins though, I also try to be a humble person. I believe that people of different beliefs can live peacefully together and discuss these things (yes, atheism is a belief). I’m also from sweden, one of the most areligous (if that’s a word) countries in the world I think. I’m writing this because I think the discussion is interesting and hopefully we can all learn something from it.

    I do think that it is better to phrase it as “It is not about me”. This is why.

    Here in sweden we have something called “Jante lagen” or in english “The Jante-Law” (Jante is a name). It’s not a formal law, more of an sentiment. It is similar to “It is not about me” but in a negative way, it’s more like “Who do you think you are?”. It is a feeling that I think most swedes have, that they don’t take pride in things openly, not because they aren’t proud, but because it is not acceptable. And people that do take pride in things are heavily criticized and looked down upon.

    “It is not about you” can be easily confused with “Who do you think you are?”.

    I do think that this is a erroneous view too. But it is very hard to have “it is not about me” as a maxim and not fall into the trap of also believing “It is not about you”.

    I’m not saying that you are doing this, only that it’s a real issue.

    And please don’t try to convert me, and I won’t try to convert you. You are free to ask questions though, I will answer as good as I can (I will be offline for a week though, so I can’t promise any quick answers).

  7. Hey Brett, thanks for writing this. I know I really needed to be reminded of this and looking back on some of the decisions I made in the near past, wish I had read this before trying to keep up with everyone else and promote myself. God bless

  8. Johan makes a good point.

  9. The false humility problem reminds me of the way the mother of Wormwood’s “patient” acted in “The Screwtape Letters,” always asking for part of her meal to be taken away because it was too much, they shouldn’t have gone to such trouble. Her insistence they shouldn’t have gone to the trouble was, of course, an excellent way to make sure they had to go to the trouble.

  10. Great article, Brett! This is something I struggle with, too. And as you pointed out, it doesn’t help that we’re surrounded by a culture that says, “It is all about you.”

  11. Jeff and Brett M, you probably are both familiar with this passage, but I think it provides an interesting comment on Jeff’s question. From C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, letter 14:

    I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble”, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

  12. Great thoughts, as always, Brett. And beautifully expressed, as always, too.

    You mentioned that love is implied in forgiveness. I would go so far as to say that love is the root motivation behind both these things (humility and forgiveness). In other words, we don’t become humble or practice forgiveness for no reason. We do it because we genuinely love others.

  13. Pingback: Wendy & Lucy screenwriter, Comix, Best albums of 08 you’ve never heard of, McCracken on humility, strong words from Jeffrey Overstreet « Beside The Queue

  14. Good stuff, Brett – as usual! Such a comment from me provides, of course, a temptation for you to feel ‘less than humble’. I feel that the real reason we all find humility to be almost unattainable is that one cannot actually claim to be humble! I guess that we just have to do our best to follow our Saviour’s example – give selfless service (even that actually makes us feel better in ourselves – as it should). Finding humility in self is like trying to find the end of a rainbow.

  15. i love reading your thoughts and i think you touched on something that i so often forget- humility goes hand in hand with forgiveness. it’s one thing to be humble, but it’s another to completely forgive someone and love them no matter what they’ve done towards you even when it feels impossible to do so. both of these qualities are SUCH a hard thing, and we absolutely can’t do either of them on our own, which i guess is the part where “it’s not about you” comes into play. we aren’t capable of being humble or forgiving- it’s god that does it through us.

  16. This is good to think about. :)

    I’ve been writing lately about the phenomenon of “self-care,” too. I feel like a raving lunatic claiming that taking care of oneself is NOT actually how we take care of others… and in fact sometimes (sometimes, not always) it is the right thing to neglect care of ourselves in order to care of others, and to let others care for us when we need it. I suppose the only real danger in this is flaunting a kind of martyrdom, but I think that’s a small risk compared to neglecting the debt of love we owe each other.

    I just wonder what the Church would look like if we not only stopped saying “It’s all about me,” but also stopped saying “It’s about each of us taking care of ourselves responsibly except in dire emergencies,” and started saying “I am responsible for you, period.” (In fact my current church, a little tiny one but lacking little old people, which is disappointing, but still – my current church, where I’m brand new, essentially said “because you have walked in the doors, we are now responsible for your well-being, and you don’t have to do anything to earn it, and in making you feel welcome we may sacrifice something we wanted badly, like time with friends we’re moving away from in a few weeks.” Not in so many words, but close. It’s astonishing.)

    /end rant

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