Humility is one of the most talked about ‘character words’ in our Christian subculture, and rightfully so. In Philippians 2, the apostle Paul describes the incredible humility Jesus displayed though His incarnation and death. We should, according to him, interact with each other in the same way.
But what exactly does it mean to be humble?
But what exactly does it mean to be humble?
It seems to me that we often elevate a certain type of self-effacement in the name of avoiding vanity; we sometimes even call it humility. But it’s a false type of it – and one that does little to solve the root problems associated with a lack of humility, specifically pride. Humility is a deeply rooted heart condition – as is pride -- that originates in our beliefs about God, the universe, and our place in the big scope of things. It can be developed but not manufactured, cultivated but not rushed, grasped but not attained. In the end, the best way to grow in humility is to stop looking at ourselves and wondering how we could become more humble and instead fix our eyes on the King, His story, and His greatness.
Using the life of Moses, I’d like to address three common myths concerning humility:
Myth #1: Believing or admitting that you are called or gifted in a specific way is prideful
If you are called to something or gifted at something, people will sometimes see it and let you know. Receiving this complement with a cheerful heart does not mean you are prideful. I don’t even believe it’s prideful to admit that you are gifted in specific ways. For instance, I wouldn’t say it’s prideful for Lebron to admit he is gifted with a basketball, or Thoreau with a pen, or Brad Paisley with a guitar. Pride is evident in us though when we begin confessing our giftedness apart from The Giver of such gifts (here’s looking at you, Kanye). Yet talented people often deny and even suppress the gift within them in the name of ‘humility’ – an act that is possibly just as insulting to the Gift Giver as the aforementioned.
When Moses stands before God with a staff in his hand, he is holding an extraordinarily powerful tool – He just doesn’t know it yet. That’s because the staff only had its power because God decided to use it. I don’t doubt that Moses was a pretty good shepherd (he spent over 40 years doing it) – and I bet He was actually pretty handy with his staff. But God wanted to take that thing Moses had spent years learning and understanding and do something beyond his most wild imagination with it. God too might ask us, “what is in your hand” – and then proceed to use it for His purpose. When we submit those things in our hand to His purpose, He will do immeasurably more than we could conceive with them. And humility will grow in us as we continue to see Him use the gifts He gave us for His glory.
Myth #2: Timidity and insecurity are signs of humility; Boldness and confidence are signs of conceit
Timidity and insecurity are often associated with humility. And boldness and confidence are often associated with conceit. But these personality types really have little to do with whether or not someone is humble. In reality, the most quiet and reserved person in the world could be completely adverse to admitting their own faults, while the bold and confident person could be extraordinarily open to learning, growing, and saying sorry. And vice versa.
The truth is that while Moses was extremely timid and insecure when he first started, he led the people of Israel with boldness and confidence. This is because he was so in tune with the directions God had given him that he felt completely confident in carrying them out. I am absolutely sure that he was held in contempt for His boldness on more than one occasion by the people. Jesus was likewise. With that being said, people who are bold and confident can absolutely be arrogant and egotistical. We have all experienced this. So, how do we tell the difference? I don’t know. I just know that these categories are built in our minds for the sake of our being able to judge other people’s humility – and in the process tend to build pride in ourselves as we place people in the category opposite of us.
Myth #3: It is self-defeating to confess your own humility
In Numbers 12:3, Moses claims to be the most humble man on the face of the earth. This is one of the more amusing phrases in scripture. Of course, many commentators have tried to explain the irony away by saying the phrase was added later by others, but I don’t see the need for such a justification. Let’s recount Moses’ happenings. He is commissioned by God to leave his shepherding job to go deliver all the Hebrew slaves from a country in which he was a fugitive. He did nothing to see this task through except willingly submit to everything God told him to do. He watched as God did breathtaking and science-bending things through his obedience. Then he spent considerable amounts of time in God’s actual presence on top of Mount Sinai, saw God’s backside, and had significant dialogue with Him. How would Moses not be the most humble man on earth and know it full well? In fact, who on earth could communicate how insignificant and small Moses’ really understood himself to be than himself?
We consider it ironic when someone confesses their own humility – but isn’t that just an admission that they have come to understand how small and insignificant they really are? Honestly, it is kind of strange and ironic that we would think someone is bragging when they confess their own humility. Are we all competing for the award of feeling the most insignificant in the grand scheme of things?
At the end of the day, it is very difficult to discern the heart conditions of others. True humility really has nothing to do with being quiet or loud, fervent or apprehensive, confident or insecure, driven or mellow. It has everything to do with understanding that this is God’s story and that whatever part we play is only important in view of the main character, God Himself. Humility will come as we spend more and more time in God’s presence. One thing is clear: to have the mind of Christ is to consider others as better than ourselves, to willingly lay our lives down for the sake of others and the gospel, and to take the form of a servant no matter what the circumstances might allow.