Trying to be humble probably won’t work

  • Ruth Baker
  • 3 September 2018

I’m a sucker for clickbait. Even when I know it’s clickbait, I still click. Ten tips for this? Click. Life hack for that? Click. The secret to doing this? Click. If there is an easier way of getting things done, I want to know about it. That goes double for things I find it hard to get my head around.

Like humility. We hear about it all the time. We get that it’s the way we are supposed to behave. But can we actually wrap our head around it? The whole concept is like mist: if you try to grab hold of it, it disappears.

Here’s what happens. If I try to be intentionally humble I can go pretty well—to a point. But the second I think “I can feel myself changing, I think I’m getting more humble”, I’ve blown it. Every time we bring the focus back to ourselves, the mist has shifted. But the trouble is we instinctively think of ourselves first. That’s the reality of our post-fall humanity.

That being said, we still need to work on our instinctive lack of humility. Of course we do. Just because it’s impossible for us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. But how do we do that? How do we cultivate it? And how do we keep it?

We tell ourselves to read our Bibles and pray—and that is by no means wrong. But if it were that easy, why I am not humble all the time? What’s the trick?

Maybe we’re looking at the wrong thing. I’m not suggesting we take our eye off the ball—I’m saying maybe we should try a different game. Instead of trying to be humble, maybe we should stop being prideful. We are naturally prideful rather than humble, so the former could be far easier to work with on a long term basis than the latter.

Proverbs 21:4 says that haughty eyes and a proud heart are the lamp of the wicked. We can’t ignore this, thinking “that’s about other people”. Sadly, that’s us. That’s us when we refuse to give up being ‘right’. That’s us when we look down on others, even when we don’t mean to.

In 2 Chronicles 26 the Bible tells us about King Uzziah. Uzziah was one of those kings of Judah who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord”. I think this is how we like to think of ourselves—we try hard to do the right thing and we have good goals and intentions. But then in 2 Chronicles 26:16 it says that after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He stopped being careful. He thought he could honour God in the way he thought was right. He didn’t listen to others who tried to correct him. He didn’t expand his myopic view. He didn’t self-reflect. He didn’t examine his motivations.

I don’t think Uzziah was an unusually evil man (we tend to view kings in the Old Testament as if they are baddies in some epic film). I think he was a normal human being. He got prideful. And when the priest confronted him, he got angry, because his pride was hurt. He was unaware of where his motivations were taking him. And neither are we. 

Dealing with pride needs something the length of an encyclopaedia—or a Bible!—but since you’ve already clicked… “Here are top tips Satan hopes you won’t read!” 

  1. Self-reflection is hard but necessary. We tend to be myopic in our view of ourselves. That’s natural, but we should make efforts to broaden our viewpoint, to see situations from other points of view, wearing glasses of grace and compassion.
  2. We need to examine our motivations when we brush up against others. Am I driven by being right? Is my focus really about proving my point? Here’s the diagnostic question: Am I prepared to let it go? Is what I am arguing about significant in the grand scheme of things? Am I defending someone’s safety or wellbeing? Is taking a stand with a waiter over who got an order wrong really so important? If I’m stuck in the middle of a he-said-she-said debate, how bad would it be if I just let that one go? If I am continuing the fight because I’m right, I should probably concede. But if letting it go would compromise someone’s health or the gospel itself, then holding my ground is better. This seems like an easy distinction, but life isn’t clear-cut—so thought and self-reflection and discernment are required.
  3. We need to examine our reactions. If we are feeling hurt by things said or done, are we hurt because we have been let down, because we have been betrayed, because there has been an injustice (to others or to those we care about), or because our pride has been hurt (Prov 21:24)?
  4. We need to choose what to care about. We need to decide what priority different foundational values have and then make choices accordingly, rather than going where pride pushes us. In Philippians 2:3 Paul tells us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit”. Are our foundational values built on personal preference? Or have our values been shaped by humbly sitting under God’s word? These are the values that shape our attitudes, behaviours and responses, so they need to be critically assessed for the poison of pride.
  5. We need to be aware of our ability to sabotage ourselves. These factors are interlinked. If I consider my foundational values ahead of others, even if I think my motivation is pure, my reaction can still let me down. This is the difference between standing up for what we have discerned as being true by submitting to God’s word and pushing what we feel is right because we are right. If my reaction involves feeling right, even about a foundational value, then I need to re-visit points 1 and 2 (Prov 26:12).
  6. How do I know I’m self-sabotaging? I don’t have to feel like I’m right to feel satisfied that others are wrong. When rightness becomes insidious and inflexible, we have become self-righteous. That is dangerously prideful. That’s when we don’t feel the need to change or self-reflect. We might trick ourselves into thinking we are not being prideful, but we don’t present any evidence of maturing in Christ. We still think we are right. We have allowed it to colour our view of others. There is no fruit of change in our heart. (Ps 59:12; Gal 6:3). This, without even meaning to, leads us in the opposite direction to humility.

So rather than putting all our energy into trying to be humble, let’s start looking at where our pride is taking us. If you are anything like me, it will be pulling you away from humility in Christ. 

Being wrong and corrected is hard, but we must continue to test ourselves. As Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).