Humility? Forget About It

When I think of humility, my mind immediately goes to figures like Mother Teresa, Ghandi or even Nelson Mandela. It has got to be one of those intangible traits I admire every time it’s exhibited by a leader.

Mother Teresa in a Calcutta orphanage, 1979. Bettmann / Corbis

But what is it really? And how do we get it?

I mean humility is a slippery sort of virtue, isn’t it. You try to achieve it and end up looking anything but humble. One can’t obtain humility as one does a new hairdo at the local barber shop. It can take time to recognize humility in someone, partly because a truly humble person isn’t looking for recognition.

Last week’s post on leadership and repentance reminded me of a book I just read on humility by John Dickson, Humilitas.

Dickson defines humility “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself” (24).

Why would we do that? He suggests a bunch of reasons, here are my five favourites:

1. Humility is common sense

  • Expertise in one area counts for very little in another
  • “True experts ought to be more conscious of their limitations than others” (53). And expert respects the fact those in other fields worked hard to know what they know
  • “Thoughtful people recognize that what they don’t know and can’t do far exceeds what they do know and can do.” (66)

2. Humility promotes growth 

  • The humble place is the place of growth and thriving that the proud have no hope of ever discovering (116).
  • Take for example, a proud person who will go away from a study conference with LESS than the humble person.

3. Humility is persuasive (133)

  • I think about a highly skilled volley ball coach I idolized as a teenager, whose humility made us all want to listen when he spoke and emulate how he played all the more.
  • That coach compared to the true story of a gifted pastor whose arrogant attitude caused him to announce one day that “he no longer needed to clean toilets,” for now he had staff to do that for him. Persuasive factor down a few points, no?
  • “The most believable person in the world is the one who has my best interests in mind” Dickson, on the subject at Willow Creek Leadership Summit 2011.

4. Humility is inspiring

  • “It is when our heroes are humble that they most inspire” (152)
  • When leaders rise to the top and take all the credit, they cease to be inspirational
  • If others stop receiving the credit, we have stopped inspiring them to greater heights (156)
  • When leaders are aloof we admire them but we don’t aspire to be like them

5. Humility is beautiful

  • Humility makes the great greater
  • Check out Phil 2:3-8…Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross
  • Our culture has been changed by the cross of Christ. It is this single event in history that changed a Greco-Roman society based on “honor and shame” into something different. Never before had a leader become weak, or humbled himself to a crazy shameful place like death on a cross in order to be great. It wasn’t so much his life, but the ‘way’ he died that made all the difference.  Greatness and humility had never been attached together, EVER in history, before Jesus Christ. His death marks a shift where cultures began to see greatness and humility as one (105-107).

The book ends with a great quotation from C.S.Lewis.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you’re not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

Want humility? Forget about it. You will probably screw up all attempts to acquire it…just get low, real low and repent for the pride you were born with…daily.

What are your humble thoughts on the subject, I dare ya?


7 Responses to Humility? Forget About It

  1. Great Post Sam!
    Apparently I am not humble enough to keep my mouth shut…which is where my question is going. I apologize in advance. At what point is “humility” negative…

    What about a person who is gifted to be a pastor but is just cleaning toilets?

    The idea of greatness and humility being linked for the first time in Jesus is fascinating… But what about Socrates?

    Is humility self effacing or self knowing?

    Why is a humble person like Sam Dick reading books on humility?


    • Duncan, so glad you opened your mouth, can sharing such questions be the stuff of pride? A comment on another’s blog, should be a humble gesture…course these days…

      I think humility is closely linked to pride, maybe the two are not even mutually exclusive. The proud can be locked into many false senses of humility. A toilet cleaning person gifted to be a pastor, might in fact be pastoring his very colleagues [which is good] OR he might be stuck thinking his role in life must remain behind the scenes. Why? His “humility” might be a trap, or a lie keeping him from any sort or leadership role of any sort. Could be for a lot of reasons he thinks this way. Negatives: Fear of crowds, fear of public speaking, fear of leadership, insecurity. Kinda reminds me of the excuses Moses gave. I wonder if Mother Teresa ever thought of her humility as a bit of curse, the admiration of the world because of it must of been quite an imposition on her commitment to help the least of the least. Humility as a negative?

      Not sure I know enough about Socrates to comment on his thoughts on humility…can you? I know that Ceasar, and Aristotle’s self-love along with other Greek historical examples were used by Dickson so support greatness/honour/pride as sought after for leadership.

      I am convinced that humility is a social attribute. It affects others. What good to anyone is the self-effacing humble hermit? Surely that is far from what Jesus’ example on the cross was and has become. His sacrificial death was humble in that it affected ALL of humanity. Humility is something we attribute to him and his actions. He would never have given that label to himself.

      In community we put the badge of humility on each other, most likely because we had been affected by it, served by it in some way.

      Case in point, you call me humble? Might have been facetious but I’ll take it as a compliment.

      BTW – I checked out smokemirrorsandcigarettes on the weekend, no shortage of deep banter going on there. Keep it up.

  2. Sam thanks for taking the time to write such a great response. I think describing humility as a social attribute really captured something of the nuance and illuminated my thinking on the topic.

    Socrates was Plato’s philosophy teacher and is known primarily through the writings of Plato…

    Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded that none was wiser. Socrates believed that what the Oracle had said was a paradox, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens—statesmen, poets, and artisans—in order to refute the Oracle’s pronouncement. Questioning them, however, Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct, in that while so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. He is subsequently condemned to death for corrupting youth with his questions and submits to death by poison…

    anyway, ultimately it is not an important point whether Jesus is first or not… I would agree that Jesus example, and not Socrates, whether humble or not, has huge cultural impact on the values of humility and service.

      • I’m a bit confused about Socrates’ cntsisneocy, as two of his arguments in particular seem contradictory to one another in my view. Maybe someone can help me understand (please?). The first argument, which I’m more cloudy on the specifics of, advances the idea that life comes from death, and death from life, (He states this more generally when he claims: Are not all things which have opposites generated out of their opposites? I mean such things as good and evil, just and unjust—and there are innumerable other opposites which are generated out of opposites. )BUT THEN, much later in the dialogue, he reasons that the soul cannot ever die because opposites cannot become each other, and since the soul is immortal it can never become mortal. His rationale relates to numbers and how an even number always opposes an odd and can never become an odd. Is it just my misunderstanding, or do these two arguments blatantly contradict one another?

    • I’m reading this post on Feb 1, 11, so I’m a few days late but it rlelay touches a cord in my life. I recently married and a few days after the wedding I was in a huge argument with my mother-in-law. Needless to say that argument has planted a very negative seed in my marriage and it’s only two months in. My husband wants me to be the bigger person and apologize. I know it would be the right thing, because it’s what Christ would have me do, even though I don’t feel that I should be the first to apologize and even though an apology (in my opinion) would mean supporting his mother’s behavior, which led to the argument in my opinion. Well I just wanted to post this because maybe someone somewhere has had this experience and I’d like to know that I’m not alone. I’ll be praying that God will bless me with the courage and obedience to do His will, even though I can’t make myself bend. Be blessed.Mrs. Clark

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