My brother Michael has begged and begged to be featured on my blog. I finally relented and let him write this week’s post.
No one should be shocked when I say that humility gets less coverage than it deserves. It seems that by definition, anyone who acts in humility necessarily fades into the background. It is not to say that it is impossible to be a “great man” and still be humble, but “narrow is the way.” I would list three of our American Presidents as humble men who were also great men: George Washington, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower. Also receiving an honorable mention (which should be the award given to all humble people), Abigail Adams practiced humility but was not married to a humble man, John Adams. Nevertheless, she continually encouraged humility in her husband’s life, and he was all the better for it.
A quick aside: my older brother, Stephen, was a counselor at Camp Blue Haven in the summer of 2004. He tells one story about a young man—probably in the 6th or 7th grade—whose ego exceeded his talents. He wanted everyone to know how great he was at basketball, how popular he was back home, and how much respect he deserved from his youth group. Stephen and the other counselors thought he needed to be taught a lesson. But how do you bring a braggart down to size? Easy: you give him something to aspire to. So they gave him a nickname: Humble (yes, this blog post endorses instilling values through sarcasm). Whenever the young man would trumpet himself, a counselor would remind him of what he should be, Humble. To those who can look inwardly and find that they are not great, the name is a badge of honor. But to those who cannot see beyond themselves, the name burns as a constant reminder of who I choose not to be.
So how does one practice humility? Where can we go to learn and who can we walk alongside to emulate and to study under? I’ll suggest a few resources and a few principles that I hope to be living by on a daily basis. While I often fall short of receiving the great title of “Humble,” these are some helpful stories and principles that I would like to live by.
1. As Christians, we go first to scripture. As Jesus was the perfect example of humility, I find myself asking if I can act in the same way that He did. He was not only the incarnate Son of God, but he was a man who lived a sinless life. When Jesus spoke about Himself in no uncertain terms and proclaimed His true title, He was being honest about Himself and loving to let that generation in on the biggest mystery in the course of history.
Other characters in scripture, and the writers themselves, have a unique perspective on humility, because the Holy Spirit was speaking through them. Their authoritative Words were truth. Outsiders would not consider the writings of Paul to be humble in nature, but the transformed believer knows that Paul submitted himself to the Father and that the Spirit spoke through him.
I would suggest that Christians should look for supplemental characters to study—those who got humility wrong. What was it about the Pharisees that made them so “not humble”? I would suggest that it was their disposition towards controlling the religious lives of the Hebrew people that condemned them: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).
How do we live in light of this example? “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity” is a common phrase used across an ecumenical spectrum. When a Christian practices charity, especially when they are rightfully entitled to their position, this is an act of humility. The best concrete example, in my (humble) opinion, is Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Make no mistake: Jesus was entitled to throw the first stone! But he practiced restraint, shared his compassion with the woman, and gave no additional burden to her. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” To sin no more is burden enough.
2. In the same light, our churches should practice humility.
My apologies as I put this in economics terms: All churches compete in a market, where the congregations are franchises of a larger corporation (think different church groups). The buyers are potential members of these congregations. What do the consumers make their choices based on? To go to the earlier quote, the buyers have views on what is essential, and they don’t want to bend on these issues. But, on non-essentials, they are looking for liberty and a church that has a reasoned position on why they do what they do. However, these buyers are not shopping purely based on doctrinal positions. If they plan on joining this group, they want to find a sense of belonging—this is where the humility comes in. If you listen to their stories, the most common reason for an individual or a family to leave a congregation is not because of doctrinal issues but because they did not feel welcome. They were treated poorly, they didn’t have good friends, they were not family. Why does this occur? Because of a lack of humility.
We try to come up with programs to “solve” the problem—as if the problem is with institutions—rather than individuals taking the initiative to be the change that they wish to see (oops, now I am quoting a Hindu guy). Church leaders should lead by example in reaching out to make all feel welcome and to have a time for all to be heard. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when buyers vote with their feet and worship elsewhere.
3. Finally, I wanted to quickly talk through my view of humility in government. I’ll start with one of my favorite quotes [slightly altered] from Arnold Kling, a libertarian economist: “At the University of Chicago, economists lean to the right of the economics profession. They are known for saying, in effect, ‘Markets work well. Use the market.’ At MIT and other bastions of mainstream economics, most economists are to the left of center but to the right of the academic community as a whole. These economists are known for saying, in effect, ‘Markets fail. Use government.’ [Humble Economics] says, ‘Markets fail. Use markets.’”
Humility most often comes in the form of restraining from going beyond our local knowledge. Reflecting on the tendencies of the powerful, one man called it “the pretense of knowledge”—because I am smarter than you, I should get to make decisions to control your actions. Government action has a tendency to go beyond what can possibly be known. One example comes from the work I do with school options: is it right for the government to have a monopoly over the schooling options of children? Most have likely never thought about this, because the government school they went to performed “good enough.” But what happens when these schools fail the students they are meant to serve, greatly restricting their potential life outcomes? In so many other areas of life, we would laugh at this pretense that my choices are limited (you say I have to eat Domino’s Pizza because it is closest to me? HA!).
The sad part is that we have been sedated to accept this status quo. How many of us look idly by while the government provides services for the poor—and does a poor job of it. When Medicare was introduced in the 1960s, one group argued that we should limit the upper income threshold for senior citizens who can receive the benefit. Why are we subsidizing the wealthy? The reason was twofold: first, to build a constituency that would advocate for keeping the program, and second, because: “A program for the poor will most likely be a poor program.” The best signs that we still live in a thriving community is that there are churches and community organizations that take it upon themselves to take responsibility for their local knowledge and to practice humility by sharing what the people ask for, and then offering a listening ear.
Why focus on humility? A negative reason is to say that humility is extremely lacking in our world, and to be honest, often in my own life. However, a positive reason for humility to be of first importance is because it is a reflection of God, and we should be looking daily for ways to integrate it into our work, our families, our politics, and all of our decisions. Lift up humility in your own life and encourage your community to find others more important than yourself.