We’ve recently been celebrating the wonder of the birth of Jesus and I hope that you did have a good Christmas. We have had our fill of carols being played non-stop, delicious food to feast on, the giving and receiving of presents and connection with family and/or friends. In another three months we will be commemorating Easter with the horrific crucifixion but the joy of resurrection. Philippians 2:7-8 sums up the significance of these celebrations: ‘Instead he emptied himself of his outward glory by reducing himself to the form of a lowly servant. He became human! He humbled himself and became vulnerable, choosing to be revealed as a man and was obedient.’
Jesus modelled humility to us by stepping down from the glories of heaven to enter earth as a baby. He lived a life of demonstrating humility in his words, actions and lifestyle – giving each of us an invitation to follow in his footsteps. That’s the underlying message of Christmas & Easter. The following letter includes some insights into this beautiful trait of humility from John Dickson who has written a very thought-provoking book called ‘Humilitas.’
Humility is often seen in the most influential and inspiring people – Wilberforce, Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, … but also in places we don’t expect. Jim Collins, a well-known business author, made a study of what enabled good companies to become great companies. (A great company to Collins is one that outperforms the market by a multiple of at least three over a period of 15 years). Notable big American businesses like Coca Cola, Walmart, General Electric and Johnson & Johnson didn’t make it into the great list. These good to great companies weren’t led by ‘high profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities. The good to great leaders seem to have come from Mars – self-effacing, quiet, reserved and even shy – a blend of personal humility and professional will.’
Humility can also be seen in everyday life, as in the following story. ‘Three young men hopped on a bus in Detroit in the 1930’s and tried to pick a fight with a lone man sitting at the back of the vehicle. They insulted him but he didn’t respond. They turned up the heat of the insults, but he said nothing. Eventually the stranger stood up. He was bigger than they had estimated from his seated position. Much bigger. He reached into his pocket, handed them his business card, then walked off the bus and went on his way. As the bus drove on, the young men gathered around the card to read the words: Joe Louis: boxer. They had just tried to pick a fight with the man who would be heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1937 to 1949.
In the three languages of the Hebrews, Romans and Greeks, the word humility meant low, as in low to the ground. It was used negatively – to be put low, to be humiliated. This is how the Pharisees defined the word and in fact they were proud of the authority they carried, the status they enjoyed, the standards they kept and upheld in the culture plus the righteousness that they modelled. But Jesus introduced a new way of thinking, a new covenant, a new way to serve the world. And the Pharisees didn’t like it!
Hubris is another word for pride, the opposite of humility. Hubris takes effect when I have been right so many times, it’s hard for me to think I could be wrong!
For some, even when everyone else thinks they’re wrong, they still think they are right! This is where ‘could have been great leaders’ crash and burn. In business, sport, the military, or anywhere you care to mention, we are more attracted to the great who are humble than to the great who know it and want everyone else to know it too.
We all need honest mentors and peers who can speak into our lives, to be able to say ‘No’ to us and make it stick. Do you have someone like that? What about in your YWAM community?
A survey of one million high school seniors found that 70% of them thought they were above average in leadership ability. In terms of ability to get along with others, 100% of the students thought they were above average. Of those, 60% thought they were in the top 10% and 25% thought they were in the top 1%. Do you think we have a problem with hubris? Is there a lack of humility being modelled in our society?
G.K. Chesterton said ‘Pride is in fact the engine of mediocrity. It fools us into believing that we have arrived, that we are complete, that there is little else to learn. Humility by contrast reminds us that we are small, incomplete, and so urges us on towards the heights of artistic, scientific and societal endeavour.’
So, what is humility? It’s not being a doormat, having low self-esteem or putting aside your strengths and vision. It is possible to be humble, iron-willed and successful. Jesus knew exactly what message he had to bring and did so with conviction, perseverance and with impact.
Here is a definition according to Dickson: Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. The humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.
So, humility is about redirecting your powers, whether physical, intellectual, financial or structural for the sake of others. Philippians 2, ‘In a humble frame of mind regard one another as if better than yourselves – each of you taking care not only of your own needs but also of the needs of others.’ Humility is more about how I treat others than how I think about myself.
If we really think about it, humility is actually common sense. None of us is an expert at everything. What we don’t know and can’t do far exceeds what we do know and can do. So, it makes sense to be teachable and make room for others to use their gifts and abilities.
Let’s apply humility to conviction. It doesn’t mean believing things less. A quote from John Dickson – ‘I am advocating that we hold our convictions firmly but do so with a soft heart toward those who hold contrary convictions. We have forgotten how to flex two mental muscles at the same time: the muscle of moral conviction and the muscle of compassion to all regardless of their morality. Secular society no less than religion often operates on a narrow-minded logic: you can only love those whose lives you approve of. You can only be friends with people who agree with you. The logic can take you in two directions. The religious version reduces the number of people it loves to match the few lifestyles it approves. The secular version increases the number of lifestyles it approves to the point of accepting virtually everything
C.S. Lewis says humility is quite unlike the property of, for example, having brown hair. It’s not something you style in yourself or even especially notice in others. You don’t suddenly meet someone and think, ‘Wow, what dazzling humility.’ It is a rather low-key virtue. It often takes a while to spot in others, partly because the truly humble person is not at all concerned about appearing humble. He or she is not thinking of themselves at all.
Lewis goes on to share, ‘If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him or her the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.’
If it’s true that we are shaped by what we love, the next step is to grow a love for humility, admiring it, and longing for it. Then think of actions you would like to adopt that speak of humility. In your home and work environment, what can you do and say that will begin to develop this virtue in you? Perhaps invite feedback and criticism! Encourage and affirm your team members for a job well done. Apologise for words and actions quickly, sensitively and vulnerably. Face your fears and insecurities then the virtue of humility will begin to take root. Will you join me on this journey of learning and growth to become more like Jesus?
Until next month,