By: Brian Harris

I imagine you have heard the usual quips about humility, often of the “I’m the most humble person I know,” variety.

While we might smile at the quandary the “are you humble?” question places us in (if you answer yes, it means no; and no means yes) it’s still worth asking. Perhaps it’s not about rating ourself on this virtue, but thinking about why it matters.

There is of course a case to be made against humility.

It can mean struggling with a sense of unworthiness, or of feeling second rate – or a downright failure. There is no virtue in that, especially when we do good things, and consider them of no consequence. It’s especially disappointing when out of a false sense of humility we decline invitations to participate, thinking we have little or nothing to offer, and that it is best to make way for our more confident peers. The trouble is that the most confident are not always the most able, and I’ve seen many instances when groups have put up with a sub-standard but confident performance, while a more talented person sits unacknowledged and inactive in the room. That’s to everyone’s loss.

Sometimes people also suffer from false humility, proclaiming that what they do is of little worth or value, but then you see the way they interact with others and quickly recognise that they are dismissive, arrogant and unappreciative of what others bring. There is no value in humility as pretence.

Humility as ‘Sober Judgment’

But just because we sometimes have unhelpful images of humility, does not undermine its value. Perhaps we can think of humility as starting with what Romans 12:3 calls “sober judgment” – “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…” I love the image. It is about sitting back and carefully evaluating. What do I do well? What not so well? What about my inner world?

The inner world question is an important one. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus introduces an essentially new and penetrating tool for ethical evaluation. It’s our inner world and inner motivation. With astonishing insight he moves the questions of murder and adultery into the realm of the anger and lust within (Matt 5:21-30). He invites far deeper personal reflection – sober judgment if you will. Few of us come out squeaky clean.

Humility goes alongside a good understanding of the Bible’s most common word for sin, hamartia. It essentially means to miss the mark.

While many are offended at the Bible’s insistence that we are all sinners, most often it is reminding us that we miss the mark of our creation. Made in the image of God, we fall short of that image over and over again. While on the one hand that should cause sorrow and repentance, at another level it’s a strange compliment. God is confident we can do better! When we sometimes think, “I’ve been made for more” or “I’m better than this” – the Bible quietly agrees, and advocates that we stop missing the mark and take seriously all God has called us to be and to do. We do that despite knowing that hamartia is our common experience. We do it because we know hamartia finds forgiveness at the Cross of Jesus. Knowing that forgiveness and the offer of a fresh start comes from beyond ourself leads to a natural posture of humility.

Why Humility Makes a Difference

There are many common sense reasons why humility works in practice.

  1. It takes humility to listen well (as opposed to thinking we already know).
  2. It takes humility to ask how we can do better (for the question reflects our insight that things could be better).
  3. It takes humility to recognise that the good of the group might be served better by someone else, and that it is appropriate to make space for others.
  4. It takes humility to be curious – because curiosity implies that I don’t already know.
  5. It takes humility to accept feedback – especially when the feedback is not complimentary, but might be critical for our growth.
  6. It takes humility to be gentle with others when they err – for the humble know how often they have been in that place as well.
  7. It takes humility to be approachable – for it is hard to draw close to another when you sense the barrier of arrogance that they have erected.
  8. It takes humility to be a little more like Jesus, for as Paul quotes from an ancient song of the church: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:5-8)

He humbled himself… if that was a choice Jesus made, perhaps we should make it as well. What might it mean if we approached life with humility – not knowing everything, but being open to others, open to life, and open to God? Perhaps we’d be humble enough to really grow.