you were just trying to lead us down the wrong path.” For an icebreaker that day—a question designed to promote communication—the discussion group leader asked her members, “What are you good at?”
Since no one was offering an answer, Jill knew she could call on Mary to keep the discussion going.
“Mary,” Jill asked, “what are you good at?” Mary thought for a moment.
Jill waited. Silence. No one else spoke. Finally, David spoke up, “I think Sarah has the gift of hospitality. Then Sarah highlighted someone else’s gifts. Thus went the discussion—that is, until David spoke again.
“Jill, that’s what we were supposed to be doing all along: talking about other people’s gifts. You were just trying to lead us down the wrong path.”
What is it about Christians and humility that makes a person think that they cannot acknowledge their own giftedness? What is it that makes Christians think that to belittle themselves is to be holy? What is it that makes Christians think that it’s Christlike to allow others to take advantage of them?
The Myths of Humility
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you,” the apostle Paul states, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Rom. 12:3).*
Just as there have been many erroneous and damaging acts performed in the name of Christ, there have also been many specious and harmful things done in the name of Christian humility, especially using the above scriptural text.
From the beginning Satan has been an expert at taking the true and pure things of God and creating false and perverted representations of them. We see this in a prominent way in society in regards to sexual relations. “Sex,” as we call this intimate act, has been distorted to such a degree that not only has it been taken out of the context of a loving, committed, monogamous relationship and relegated to the “one-night stand,” but it has now become a marketing tool for consumerism. From cars to jeans to perfume, sex appeal is flaunted and showcased for its ability to draw men and women to the marketplace.
Humility has also gotten a bum rap. The face of what should be a character attribute to compel us to love God, others, and ourselves with an honest, agape love has been distorted. The most recognizable trait of this false face of humility is the one of self-abasement: the man or woman who believes that to be humble is to become a doormat for their family, friends, coworkers—even strangers.
Susan1 was one such woman. A dedicated, accomplished Christian woman, she struggled with how to deal with a verbally and emotionally abusive spouse. As she sat across from me, she asked, “Shouldn’t I just turn the other cheek? Won’t it be a witness if I humbly endure it without saying anything?” Sadly, I believe this woman confused guilt from a flawed past with humility. She thought that because of some poor choices of her past, she must endure this treatment “humbly.”
Another aspect of this false face of humility is that of denying one’s own giftedness. I’ve spoken with many people over the years in regards to spiritual giftedness. And I’ve heard more times than not, “You need to go talk to so-and-so; they’re really talented. I don’t have any gifts.” For many people, this rings of a humble person—someone not wanting to toot their own horn. Unfortunately, this does not reflect humility. It represents unbelief and unfaithfulness.
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the measure of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge. . . . All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor. 12:7-11).2
If God says in His Word that the manifestations of His Spirit are given to every person, how can we honestly and humbly state that “we have no gifts”? Whether a person denies their giftedness because they don’t have a healthy self-love or because they don’t want to be recognized as gifted so that they won’t be held accountable for contributing to the body of Christ, the fact remains that they both originate from a lack of faith in the Word of God.
How do we recognize the face of true humility? Actually, Romans 12:3—the verse that most people use to show that we are to be “humble”—contains the answer.
The church at Rome was composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians. And, as one could imagine, conflicts arose. The Jewish Christians apparently acquired “an attitude” about their status with God because of God’s entrusting them with the Law. They believed that they were superior to their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters. The apostle Paul spoke to them quite directly, “If you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” (Rom. 2:19-21). Thus, Paul’s primary theme in the book of Romans is that God’s plan of salvation is for all humankind: Jew and Gentile alike need God’s grace.
It is in this context that we come to chapter 12. After Paul has urged them to be “living sacrifices” (verse 1), in contrast to the dead sacrifices of the law, Paul brings them to verse 3. Below are different translations of that verse:
“Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all” (Phillips).
“Do not be conceited or think too highly of yourself; but think your way to a sober estimate based on the measure of faith that God has dealt to each of you” (NEB).
Theologian William Barclay comments on this passage: “One of the first basic commandments of the Greek wise men was: ‘Man, know thyself.’ We do not get very far in this world until we know what we can and what we cannot do. An honest assessment of our own capabilities, without conceit and without false modesty, is one of the first essentials of a useful life.”3
Ellen White also speaks about self-knowledge: “To know oneself is a great knowledge. The teacher who rightly estimates himself will let God mold and discipline his mind. And he will acknowledge the source of his power. . . . Self-knowledge leads to humility and to trust in God, but it does not take the place of efforts for self-improvement. He who realizes his own deficiencies will spare no pains to reach the highest possible standard of physical, mental, and moral excellence” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 67).
Henry Augustus Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University from 1875 to 1901, was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?”
The normally modest and retiring professor replied quietly, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.” Later a friend well acquainted with Rowland’s disposition expressed surprise at the professor’s uncharacteristic answer. Rowland answered, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.”4
True humility stands in contrast to false humility in that it is not fueled by shame and guilt. It is not fueled by an inability to say No. It is not fueled by neediness. It is fueled by the Spirit of God working in our lives to view ourselves honestly—with neither an inflated ego nor an unhealthy, loathing self-image.
Humility at Its Best
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus was contemplating what was to soon happen—He was to leave this world and return to His Father. But before He left, He wanted to show His disciples how much He really loved them—Scripture calls it the “full extent of his love” (John 13:1).
“So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (verses 4, 5).
Jesus rubbed those dusty, dirty, darkened feet with His bare hands—the same hands that created the sky, waters, mountains, animals . . . and us. Why did Jesus do it? Did He feel guilty for leaving them? Did He feel inferior to His disciples? How could He do it?
Verse 3 of this chapter gives us answers to these questions, and I believe also answers another question: “How can we walk with true humility?”
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (verse 3).
• Jesus recognized the source of His spiritual power and giftedness. Jesus realized that anything He did was directly the result of His connection with His Father. Whether teaching, preaching, healing, or giving words of encouragement and compassion, Jesus was dependent on the Father for the power of love to accomplish these tasks. And He didn’t deny this power; He merely acknowledged the source.
Phillip Brooks made an apt comment when he said, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.”5
While in my early 20s, I worked at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland. There was a vice president working there whom I greatly admired. I was impressed by not only his calm and thoughtful demeanor, but his sincere interest in the workers—no matter what station in life. Actually, from my youthful perspective, he seemed larger than life!
As I was organizing the files in our department’s office one day, I came across a copy of his curriculum vitae (CV), along with a cover letter. To this day I’m not sure why we had a copy. As I began to read, I still remember the deep humility that he brought to that document—which for all practical purposes is designed to promote oneself. He began with these thoughts, “I realize that the purpose of this document is to tell you all of my strengths, which I will share with you. But I want you to know that they are all by God’s grace.”
• Jesus recognized the source of His identity. Jesus realized that His security came from His relationship with His Father—He knew where He had come from. He was not dependent on other relationships or others’ opinions of Him to know that He was special.
The person who truly has confidence in who they are, and their worth to God, can perform any task with dignity and honor. And the person who truly has confidence in who they are, and their worth to God, can acknowledge their giftedness with dignity and honor—and humility. Actually, God’s children must acknowledge their giftedness. For to deny their giftedness is to deny their spiritual heritage.
Rick Warren defines true humility as “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”6
• Jesus recognized the source of His destiny. Because Jesus knew where His giftedness and power came from, and He knew whose He was, Jesus had a strong sense of mission and purpose to His life. And we can walk with that same confidence. Unfortunately, some people without this strong sense of confidence and mission misguidedly view those who possess it as somehow “less than humble.”
When Jesus taught in the synagogue in Nazareth one Sabbath, He read to the crowd the mission statement for His life as found in the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19; Isa. 61:1, 2).
What was the crowd’s response? “‘Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James . . . ? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). In other words, “Who does he think he is? My, has he gotten full of himself. He needs to remember where he came from!”
We may not have the same mission statement for our lives as Jesus: preaching the gospel, proclaiming freedom for the oppressed, or performing miracles! But when we walk humbly forward in obedience and boldness to fulfill what we understand the Lord’s will to be for our lives, we may not always be met with support and affirmation. Some people will take offense at us, allowing their view of our humanity to limit what they believe God can accomplish through us. Fortunately, God works through us in spite of that humanity.
The apostle Paul hit the mark when speaking to the Christians in Rome: to reveal humility’s true face, we must be honest about who we are—no more and no less.
The knowledge of the truth—about God and ourselves—sets us free (John 8:32). And when we are free to face the truth about who we are, and recognize the source of our power, identity, and destiny, we can walk confidently and boldly along God’s path of service.
*Unless otherwise noted, texts in this article are from the New International Version.
Bible texts credited to Phillips are from J. B. Phillips: The New Testament in Modern English, Revised Edition. © J. B. Phillips 1958, 1960, 1972. Used by permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
Texts credited to NEB are from The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.
1 All the names in this illustration, other than my own, have been changed.
2 The King James Version of the Holy Scriptures says “every” man.
3 The Daily Study Bible (Bangalore, India: Theological Publications, 2003), p. 159.
4 Today in the Word, August 5, 1993.
5 Quoted in E. Skoglund, Burning Out for God, p. 11.
6 Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing, 2002).
Bonita Joyner Shields is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.