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.”
I believe Lewis. He’s a smart dude. If you tell a humble person they’re humble, they won’t acknowledge such a thing. To them, humility flows naturally. It’s part of who they are.
Let’s be honest, humility isn’t normal in our culture. But there are a few common traits humble people share. Hopefully, you can look at these and do some self-examination. Here are a few ways to recognize humility in a narcissistic culture.
1.) You don’t believe anyone is better (or worse) than you.
A humble person might not be without prejudice, but he or she works ruthlessly to eliminate any form of it. Humility can’t live with prejudice. Prejudice stems from egoism, the antithesis of humility.
People with humility believe everyone is created equal, and they chastise those who elevate themselves above others while building up the weak and vulnerable. This is the posture of Jesus, right? He elevates the dignity of the marginalized and speaks harshly to the religious leaders.
2.) You aren’t afraid to say “I was wrong.”
Narcissism and self-absorption are calling the shots when people would rather protect their reputation than their integrity. Reputation is primarily based on external expectations, the person others perceive or want you to be. Integrity is primarily about who you really are.
Good reputations create large followings, but because reputations are largely built on the crowd’s expectations, rarely will you hear someone say the phrases “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” And people obsessed with crowds go to great lengths to protect their reputation. They will plead innocence, tear down best friends and family, even when guilt stares them in the face.
Humble people always chose the right decision over the easy one. They admit wrong and would rather lose followings than lie or jeopardize a relationship.
Jesus, the ultimate personification of integrity, often drove away crowds. Rather than catering to the masses, he told them what they needed to hear.
The fact that you rarely hear someone in leadership, whether in government or in the church, admit fault or say “I’m sorry,” is alarming. What if we were more concerned with who we are than what others think about us?
3.) You build more bridges than walls.
Humility doesn’t separate, segregate, or draw lines. Humble people recognize their flaws. They need others to fill in the gaps and correct their errors. They learn from everyone, especially those with a differing perspective.
When narcissism reigns, walls are everywhere. This is what made Jesus so amazing. He broke down walls, even ones the Law built. If your theology leads you to build more walls than bridges, I’m not sure Jesus is the center of it.
4.) You’re more concerned about the world you leave behind than the one you’re living in.
This is what made America so great. Despite the flaws of our forefathers and the generations that followed, almost everyone wanted to leave this country in better shape than they found it. And this desire was shaped, in large part, by Christian principles.
Humble people care about what kind of country they leave for the next generation. Humble people fight for the next generation, putting aside personal preferences. They see themselves as a small piece of a larger puzzle, realizing previous generations sacrificed a lot, sometimes even their very lives, so we could enjoy freedom.
In our churches, how much time and energy are focused on personal preferences and selfish desires? As the cultural climate shifts, many American churches refuse to adapt. We erect large campuses, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with large buildings, I wonder if building campaigns prepare the next generation to engage an ever-shifting culture. Maybe so. Maybe not. I’m not sure. I wonder if many churches even care?
Could the church be losing ground in America because we’ve focused more energy on winning internal battles than engaging a hurting world?
Is it possible that we’ve focused more on worship preferences than preparing the next generation of leaders and Christ-followers?
5.) You listen more than you talk.
Our world is full of noise, a sure sign of narcissism. Everyone wants to dominate conversations and have the last word. In the rare case when we allow someone else to talk, we’re often thinking about what to say next, which isn’t listening at all.
Humble people, however, are listeners. They don’t need the last word because they’re not frantically searching for validation and acceptance. Listeners are a rare species in a narcissistic culture. When was the last time you met one? I know only a few.
How different might our world look if we listened more than we talked?
6.) You celebrate the success of others.
Humble people celebrate when others succeed. They don’t view success as a finite resource or a never ending King of the Mountain game. While King of the Mountain is a fun to play with friends in the backyard, it’s a toxic way to approach life.
Yet, this is where we find ourselves. Even Christians, unfortunately, are guilty of competing for things like the largest church or the most Twitter followers. And, whether intentionally or not, this often sends the message that life’s a zero sum game. Second place is the first loser. Rather than uniting under the cross, we compete for silly awards.
Only a truly humble person, one confident in his or her worth, can celebrate the success of others. This is incredibly hard for me. I will be honest. But this is one principle of humility you can nurture. Even if your intentions aren’t pure, celebrate when someone else succeeds. Keep doing it, and eventually it will get easier.
Imagine how different our culture would look if everyone look for ways to celebrate others?
7.) You have convictions and core values.
The ego says no one should tell you what’s right and wrong. Whatever you think or feel is right. Don’t listen to generationally-tested principles. That’s not YOUR experience, so it must be wrong.
In a narcissistic culture, one of the first things to die is convictions. What fills the void is feeling. Groups unite around shared experiences. And, most of the time, disagreement is hatred. Because no one has ever confronted these people or asked them to change, overly sensitive groups equate differing opinions with discrimination.
The problem with our culture is not convictions. The problem is demonizing or oppressing those who think differently.
Humble people are convicted. A culture where anything goes and everyone determines his or her own thoughts about morality might be sexy and trendy. But it’s not conducive to human flourishing and healthy societies.
Humble people also realize human dignity is more valuable than personal convictions. Humility never oppresses or shames someone for thinking differently.
8.) You live at or below your means.
When ego drives the train, unhealthy consumerism and materialism are sure to follow. You develop a sense of entitlement. The ego tells you to stand out from the crowd. So you buy the popular brands, the big house, or the new car. You spend whatever, whenever. Who cares if you don’t have the resources?
The world owes you.
Humility, contentment, and modesty are good friends. You will usually find them together. Humble people don’t believe the world owes them. They give more than they take and use resources on others. They believe there are more important things than oversized closets filled with clothes they don’t wear and bank accounts fattened with money they may or may not use.
Humility is hugely important. Without it the gospel doesn’t exist. The call here is to consider our posture and perspective. It might be that humility determines whether the church grows and our culture flourishes.
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!