Why I Gave Up "Humility"

Humility is always fertile ground for jokes, isn’t it? A friend will mention an accomplishment, and before the rest of us can tease him, he’ll say something like, “And soon I’ll publish my book, Humility and How I Attained It.”

Other wits chime in: “You mean, Humility: My Early Years, don’t you?”

Or, “Perfection, the latest installment in the Sanctification saga?” And so on.

When I published a book called Humble Apologetics, my own friends predictably piled on: “Well, you know a lot about apologetics, so the book is probably at least half good.” And so on. And so on.

I’ve learned the art of self-deprecating humour, but it’s really a hall of mirrors: “See? I can laugh at myself! Doesn’t that show tremendous humility? And aren’t I just so very good at it? Let’s just pause a while and admire my… Oops! There I go again!… And again! Oh, dear” ad infinitum.

Oswald Chambers has some striking advice in this regard: “Never bother your head as to whether what you say sounds humble before men or not, but always be humble before God, and let Him be all in all” (My Utmost for His Highest).

I remember precisely the first time I came across someone who had abandoned the false art of assumed humility, what I’ll call “humility” here, and was just honest before God.

He was a professional flautist and was staying in my parents’ home for a weekend because his wife, a professional contralto, was singing in a local production and my mom agreed to host her while she did. I was about thirteen at the time and I was dazzled by these Big City musicians, not least because at the time I aspired to becoming one myself.

So the flautist was talking about a recent concert the two of them had done with a guitarist at the Place des Arts in Montreal and then he dropped a “humility” bomb: “It was a pretty good concert,” he said as he began to talk about what happened afterward, but I heard nothing else.

“It was a pretty good concert.” No one I knew ever talked like that. Everyone in my family, my church, my school, and my town took pains never to speak directly about the good quality of anything they had or did or were. We all developed the weird art of the indirect brag, the self-deprecation that brought attention to one’s fine qualities, the rueful joke in which one was, still, the hero.

Insincerity barely veiled the desperate, and normal, desire to be appreciated. “Humility” not only twisted our speech, furthermore, but perverted our judgment of others. “How conceited!” we would think, and perhaps even say, about someone who pronounced his own performance “pretty good.”

But he was right, and we were wrong. I mean, if a professional musician can’t judge the quality of his performance with a high degree of accuracy, he can’t improve. His career depends upon him being transparently honest about what worked and what didn’t.

And whose doesn’t? And whose life doesn’t?

Okay, you might think, but he didn’t have to say how good he thought the concert was. Except that he did, because the punch line of the funny story he was telling depended on us understanding that the three performers were leaving the stage feeling pretty good about their “pretty good concert” when–well, when something happened. But, as I say, I didn’t even hear the punch line, I was so shocked at his unaffected honesty.

“Never bother your head as to whether what you say sounds humble before men”–because men, and women, and thirteen-year-olds will hear you through their particular filters as to what counts as proper speech. And you’ll be condemned by more than a few who think as I did about what counts as correctly “humble” speech. But if you try to protect yourself at all costs against any possible charge of conceit, you’ll never say another word. The very act of speaking could be seen as demanding attention.

No, I like Chambers’s advice: “Always be humble before God.” I still am so desperate for attention that I frequently fail to abide by this advice. But I aspire to live by it. And I think Jesus did live by it. So if you think it’s not humble enough, by all means take it up with him.

0 Responses to “Why I Gave Up "Humility"”

  1. Angie Van De Merwe

    You speak as if God is personal. I agree with your premises about “false humility” or “religious humility”, though, as this is what I used to do, too.

  2. jana

    When I was in high school my Sunday School director held a humility contest. He had all the teenagers in our Sunday School vote for “Humblest Person in the Room”. This bothered me because I knew I would probably win. How the heck do you respond to winning something like that?

    So since my defense mechanism has always been humor, I waited for my name to be called as the winner of the humble contest. When he called my name I jumped up and started bragging about the win. Jeering the losers around me and shouting, “I’m number one!”

    Then I abruptly sat down. The Sunday School director laughed nervously and muttered something about, “well, he totally ruined that illustration…”

    What else could I have done?

  3. Bennett

    Sorry, that last post was from me. My wife’s name was left in the box before I noticed it.

  4. chriswignall

    As with so many other things I turn to CS Lewis:
    “Do not imagine that is you meet a truly humble man he will be what most call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him…He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

    When Lewis and Stack agree I generally feel fairly comfortable that we’re on the right track.

  5. Dany

    “God wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. …He wants each man to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”

    C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters

  6. Adam

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    Sorry for a belated response to this post, but I just got around to reading the blogs I follow and I really appreciated your word here. Thanks for capturing this concept so well. Honesty really is the best policy.

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