The Humble Path
A friend of mine, Gary Ray, posted a handy piece on humility on his blog and it got me thinking about the subject. I have had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion on humility in various classes and group discussions through the years. Interestingly, the discussion has gone the same way almost every time. I start out with something like this:
How do you guys define pride?
There are a variety of answers that come forth, most of which are variations of the things we have come think of in terms of pride. Things like being selfish, looking down on others, thinking you are better than other people, etc. After we go around the room for a few minutes we begin to look for a common denominator that we can all agree upon. At some point I offer the following definition as a compromise to capture everyone’s thoughts: Pride is thinking too highly of yourself. At that point the group sort of ponders it for a moment and deems it an acceptable answer. So then I ask this question:
What is the opposite of pride?
There is no long discussion on that one. The entire group will blurt out simultaneously: humility! And that is where things get interesting. Because my next question is: What is the opposite of thinking too highly of yourself? That question is normally met with hesitation and you can see some wheels clicking. Inevitably one person in the group will slowly speak as if he is letting us know that he is aware that what he is about to say cannot be right:
Thinking…too….lowly of yourself?
If we were taking an analogy test they would have just created this:
Pride : Thinking too highly of yourself :: Humility : Thinking too lowly of yourself
So I ask everyone if they agree with our new definition of humility, and of course none of them do. Part of the problem is the word opposite, and the binary opposition that we tend fall back on (at least as Westerners) when we hear the question, “What is the opposite of ________?” But my interest is not a talk on Ferdinand de Saussure and post-structuralism. Rather, my interest is in discovering a spiritual reality. So, we journey back to the definition and start over.
The definition of thinking too lowly of yourself is not humility. It is shame. In that sense, it could be said that shame is the opposite of pride. A better definition of humility, then, is thinking rightly of yourself. To have humility is to have neither a high nor low view of yourself, but a right view of yourself. It is the balance between these two errors. We could draw it out simply like this:
Pride __________ Humility __________ Shame
Highly _________ Rightly __________ Lowly
Humility is a path. It is not just any path. It is a dirt path, an earthy path–a down to earth path. A friend and mentor of mine once pointed out to me that the word humility comes from the same Latin root as the English word humus, which is dirt or earth. But humus is not just normal dirt. It is dirt that is rich in organic properties and nutrients. It’s the kind of dirt in which it is good for things to grow. It is life giving, and brings about growth. Unfortunately, it is a narrow path, and not many people find it.
…narrow is the path that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7:14
On either side of this narrow path is a broad way of destruction. This is where we often find ourselves. On one side of the path of humility is the ditch of pride. On the other side of the path is the ditch of shame. The enemy wants us to live in these ditches of destruction. But God wants us on the path of life, the path of humility.
The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy; but I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10
It terms of the goals of the thief it really does not matter which ditch you end up. He steals, kills, and destroys just as easily in one ditch as the other. In terms of the goals of the Life-Giver there is only one path, and He only requires one thing from you and me. It is teachability.
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his path. Psalm 25:8-9
Perhaps the pursuit of humility seems unreachable for you today. If you long to find the path of life but struggle to find humility I would encourage you to start with the idea of teachability. If you are willing to learn then He is willing to teach. And if He is the one that is teaching you then you will find yourself on the humble path.
Excellent!! Somewhere–I don’t remember where–I read this definition for humility: “a quiet comfort with oneself.” I especially like your analogy of the two ditches and the idea of one being as deadly and destructive as the other. That is a truth some people have difficulty accepting.
I love that definition! Thanks for sharing it!
Really good, Jon. A great way/thought to start the week.
I love the definition that humility is “thinking rightly about oneself.” Having had my share of both errors in life, I daily attempt to find the right balance. I think a critical component of teachability comes in relationship with others. Clearly, family and close friends have been helpful in calibrating the pride and shame in my my life. In fact, you might even argue that humility may not be possible without these relationships. They tend to know the dirt (both the nutrient-filled and nutrient-deficient) in our lives.
So true, Phil! I don’t think it can be overstated. It is impossible to know oneself without the help of others, and no one is a “greater” help than those closest to us. Thanks for reading and for your comment!
This understanding of these terms is so helpful. Thank you for taking time to write on this subject. Pride, humility, and shame are often misunderstood…especially in Christian circles.
Thanks for your additional thoughts on humility. I like the thought of humility being traveled on a dirt road with rich soil for deeper personal growth. I think you have found the right balance. Now, let’s try to walk it. When you find the balance between humility and pride, then you truly found a place in life to have the greatest impact for the kingdom of God.
Agreed, Gary. Thanks for your comments. And of course, thanks for your blog which sparked my writing last night!
It is always surprising to notice how simple the Gospel of Jesus Christ is. He commands humility in His people. We complicate the issue by justifying ourselves, both pro and con. But now you open the door we all know is true: Believe in God’s judgment on us. Confess our failings. And accept the forgiveness of Christ’s sacrifice. So very simple, yet so very unlikely to happen to a man of pride or abject shame.
Simple indeed! Thanks!
Luther said that if you think yourself righteous, you are not. If you do not think it, you likely are. Humility kind of works like that to me.
I love that quote from Luther. Thanks for reading.
This reminds me of Max Lucado’s writings concerning the discovery of our middle selves. Somewhere between our exalted and condemned self lies the correct perception of who we are. I agree with roofless. Once you think you have arrived at humility, you have almost certainly missed the boat.
It is indeed a path and not a destination.
Thanks, Mark. I’ver never read Lucado’s thoughts on the “middle self,” but love the concept. Thanks for chipping in!
I think this exactly what I was trying to express when I wrote the poem you commented on earlier. Humility is an understanding that you are not perfect nor will you ever be but God will still continue to love you, teach you, and bless you in every way that He knows how as long as you’re willing to accept it.
I think it is important at the end of each day to evaluate and re-evaluate yourself in how you handled yourself that day. How you handled situations, how you made particular decisions, and how you accepted praise and criticism. Did you do it for yourself, to make yourself feel better, did you do it for someone else, to serve others, or did you do it simply to glorify God?
Great point! A lot of times we appear humble, doing acts of service. Yet, if we dig down deeper we realize that we were more motivated by getting recognition than true obedience.
This was so helpful Jonathon! Thank you! And I love all the comments too.
God bless you!
Very clear illustration!
I might as well share this concept with others.
Thanks for posting!
God bless you and your blogging ministry!
Thank you, Arnold. Blessings!
[…] am talking about humility. I have written on humility before, and I love the balance in that post. It allows me the opportunity to guard against shame. And if I […]