Is it possible to have humility in a self-absorbed culture? Recently, I was asked to speak to college students on the topic of Jesus as the better David, the Perfect King. David is a fascinating character, the greatest king in Israel’s history, and arguably the greatest leader in the Bible. VBS stories frame David as a small boy, weak and feeble. But even before killing Goliath, David’s resume included killing a lion and a bear. Make no mistake, this “boy” was a bad dude, even before the infamous Goliath encounter.
Then you have the other side of David. You know, the part where he sees a hot woman on his balcony and has sex with her. After discovering the hot woman is pregnant, David uses his power to orchestrate the murder of her husband. Real classy, I know. Despite a string of actions that would land him 25-to-life in a modern-day justice system, the apostle Paul describes David as a ‘”man after God’s own heart.”
How could such a morally flawed man be considered a man after God’s heart? Why was God’s hand seemingly always with David, despite his moral flaws?
As I paralleled David to Jesus, something hit me. Could David’s humility, not his moral track record or astute knowledge of the law, be the reason God never leaves him? David makes mistakes, but he never loses his perspective. After winning battles, he praises God. When confronted, David falls on his knees and repents. After losing a child, David cries to God. Repeatedly in Scripture, David acknowledges he is just a man, no better than anyone else (1 Sam. 18:18-23; 1 Sam. 24:14; 1 Sam. 26:20; 2 Sam. 7:18-29; 1 Chron. 17:16-27).
Jesus, of course, is Humility. The son of God leaves heaven, not to be served, but to serve others. He never performs a miracle on himself or for himself. And the night before his death, he does the unthinkable, taking a basin of water and washing the feet of his disciples.
What if humility is the distinguishing mark of a Christian? What if the gospel needs humility to spread? What if the flourishing of cultures and countries depends on humility?
If so, what does this say about our culture, America? One thing’s for sure, humility isn’t a desirable virtue in 2016.
What is humility?
There’s a catch-22 with humility. We’re afraid to talk about it at the risk of sounding prideful. Humble people don’t talk about humility, right? So, if you aren’t born with humility, you’re out of luck.
Obsession with self is increasingly the norm today. Turn on the TV. Watch the presidential debates. It’s all about what’s wrong with everyone else, and what’s awesome about the person speaking. We’ve accumulated debt that will inevitably cripple us. It’s not a matter of if, but when. We’re overly sensitive about everything, leading to fear mongering and cat fighting. Everyone must choose a side on every issue. Maybe we aren’t fighting with guns like Americans during the Civil War. But we’re very much an “us vs. them” nation. If I don’t think like you on any issue, whether it’s marriage or abortion, I’m a bigot.
Behind much of this, I believe, is narcissism. And, unless we regain a spirit of humility, narcissism will destroy us.
So, what is humility? I don’t pretend to hold “the” answer, but maybe I do have a good place to start. In a recent talk for Q, David Brooks tells the story of a Jewish rabbi who walks into a synagogue with two pieces of paper. The first says, “The world was made for you.” The second says, “You’re nothing but dust and ashes.” This, I believe, summarizes humility.
It values self and minimizes ego. Let’s look at these two complementary pieces of humility’s puzzle.
Humility is NOT low self-image. It starts with a healthy view of self. Humble people understand their worth as men and women created in the image of God, the pinnacle of His creation. A culture where people are insecure and unaware of their infinite worth breeds a host of destructive behaviors (addiction, fornication and the like).
So, humility is high self-worth. But it’s not just self-worth. Humility also requires a healthy ego, the realization that you’re incredibly limited. You’re no different from the man or woman beside you. Just like them, you will return to dust, the way you came.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said this about humility.
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people 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. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: He will not be thinking about himself at all.”