Humility is a vital Christian virtue. Solomon, Peter, and James all agree: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34, 1 Pet. 5:5, James 4:6). While every single believer struggles against pride, the pursuit of humility is a key ingredient in maturity.
But humility can be misunderstood. There’s false humility, the “Oh, it was nothing…” that we use to actually elicit more praise. But there’s also a kind of “unreal” humility, a genuine but misguided attempt to pursue this virtue.
What does unreal humility look like? No one I’ve read helps me understand it better than C.S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters Lewis inverts his own thoughts on humility and puts them in the words of Screwtape, a senior demon writing to his protégé Wormwood with advice on how to tempt Wormwood’s Christian “patient.” Listen to what Screwtape says about real and unreal humility:
By this virtue, as by all the others, our Enemy [God, in this context] wants to turn the man’s attention away from self to Him, and to the man’s neighbors…You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character…By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools…The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents – or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.
…[God’s] whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, then that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instill either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.
Do you see how Lewis defines humility there? It’s not an exaggerated low opinion of one’s self, but self-forgetfulness coupled with awareness of others. Pride says, “I am Somebody (with a capital ‘S’) – look at me!” Unreal humility says, “I am nobody – look away from me.” But real humility simply says, “I am God’s – look at these people I can love!”
In the end, humility is simply living in light of reality. God is God, and I am not. But as a person made in God’s image and redeemed by Christ, I am a part -not an indispensable part, but a real part nonetheless – of God’s purposes. I don’t need to sort out my “own precise niche” in those purposes to throw myself into them with self-forgetting abandon. And that, Lewis says in another place, is exactly what real humility looks like:
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…He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. (Mere Christianity, 108)
May the Lord give us real humility!