In thinking about humility, I came across a quote by Blaise Pascal that gave me some inspiration:
“Do you wish people to think well of you? Don’t speak well of yourself.“
At first glance, it’s good advice. And I don’t mean to pick on Pascal, he just gave me a springboard.
But it reminded me of the contrast between the spirit and the letter of the law.
Do you want to appear to be humble? Then don’t speak well of yourself.
Does this have any representation of what is within our heart? No.
So, will this do for the Christian seeking to cultivate humility? Consider the words of Christ in Matthew 5:21,22:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.“
Just as obeying the letter and not murdering anyone won’t save us from condemnation, neither will simply adhering to the outward rules of humility: not talking about ourselves, not referring to pride or boasting or, in contrast, trying to talk down about ourselves.
We can fool both ourselves and others by showing outward compliance, but God knows, and desires our hearts.
Another thing I noticed about this quote was the aim: Do you wish people to think well of you?
I heard a story about a class for a certain business – I don’t remember the details- which taught their employees the importance of honesty when dealing with clients. They appealed to the workers by pointing out the benefits of honesty: a good reputation, customer loyalty, more enjoyable workplace. While this may seem like a good approach, without appealing to the heart or integrity, the basis is flimsy. What will happen when a circumstance arises in which dishonesty would be more beneficial, whether personally or for the company? The motivational foundation is pulled from under the employee.
In a similar way, Pascal’s aim also appeals to self-seeking motives, which in the case of humility is ironic and self-defeating. Humility is about loosening our grip on how we wish others to perceive us. As Paul says:
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” – 1 Corinthians 4:3,4
Not only does Paul shy from the tempting desire to seek man’s approval, he goes further to explain that he doesn’t even seek his own approval or validation.
“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” -Proverbs 26:12
He is not concerned with his image, whether the opinion comes from his own mind or another’s.
But he doesn’t stop there; he elaborates by concluding it is the Lord who judges him. When we share that understanding, we’ll find there is no ground for us to either exalt nor even degrade ourselves. I include the latter in the way C.S. Lewis aptly described:
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Trying to feign humility by beating ourselves up and engaging in negative self-talk is just a different form of pride or self-obsession. Humility is self-forgetfulness, and whether we’re spending a lot of time thinking highly about ourselves or spending a lot of time thinking negatively about ourselves, we’re still thinking too much of ourselves.
And when we only refrain from speaking about ourselves in order to satisfy our desire to get approval, praise or to seem very humble, we are living according to our flesh and not the Spirit.
Tim Keller explains about Paul:
“His sins and his identity are not connected. He refuses to play that game. He does not see a sin and let it destroy his sense of identity. He will not make a connection. Neither does he see an accomplishment and congratulate himself. He sees all kinds of sins in himself – and all kinds of accomplishments too – but he refuses to connect them with himself or his identity….He has reached the place where he is not thinking about himself anymore. When he does something wrong or something good, he does not connect it to himself anymore.”
And this true humility is something that can’t be found or understood outside of Christ.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2:8,9
Only the one who comes to understand the gospel can be touched by their inability before God, and by the immeasurable grace of Him who wishes to save us anyway. Only then, when we put on Christ, can we rejoice in His approval of us and consequently walk in His Spirit, serving Him – not to build up a resume or to prove ourselves tirelessly, but to please our Father and to do good for the joy that it brings to us and Him – not to validate ourselves or fill up our insatiable egos.
Only when we understand God and His grace can we free ourselves from the need to find our identity in the approval and praise of ourselves or of others. Only in Christ can we rest easy in an ever-satisfying validation, unlike any we could hope to find in the world. Only then can find joy and not drudgery in obedience to Him, or see opportunity and blessing in criticism and rebuke. Only then can we glorify God and not ourselves as we grow and mature in His ways. Only with Christ can we be blessed with self-forgetfulness.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20