What Humility is Not

Q. How do you define humility and what does walking humbly with others look like practically?

A. There has never been a healthy, diverse, and united community that did not pursue or at least expect some level of humility among its people. I know that is a huge, sweeping statement, but I believe it's true. It's simply not possible for people with very different cultures, preferences, expectations and ways of relating to stay together without the virtue of humility.

That's why Paul reminded the Ephesian church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles alike, that Humility (and its cousins, Gentleness, Patience, and Tolerance in love) is crucial to their being one united community. As Oakland Communion and The Way move forward toward becoming one church, it's crucial that we get this part right. 

So what exactly is humility? 

Sometimes it's helpful to define something by pointing out its common counterfeits--the things that pose as humility but actually aren't:

Humility is not shame.

Being humble does not mean telling yourself and everybody else how worthless you are. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

For us to be truly one community, we need to value each other for who we are. And if we are always devaluing ourselves, our culture, our way of speaking or worshipping or eating or living, we're going to have a hard time truly valuing other people. 

Humility is not a lack of conviction.

First of all, no one actually believes nothing. If you believe that you believe nothing, well then, you believe something. But more importantly, we sometimes mistake humility for lack of conviction. Being humble in our conviction is not always doubting everything all the time. It's about loving the person in front of us more than we love being right. In fact, the most humble people I've ever known were the one's who were most secure in their beliefs--so secure they were neither anxious nor arrogant when you challenged them. 

Recognizing this is crucial because lacking conviction could potentially lead us to the next, and perhaps most devastating counterfeit. 

Humility is not passivity.

If we think being humble means we cannot believe anything strongly, we will also fail to act when the moment requires of us to seek justice for our neighbor. Humility does not say, "Well, I can't be sure what to think or do, so I won't do anything." Humility says, "Help me learn how to see through your eyes, so I can be there for you when it counts." Only people who believe strongly and love deeply will be willing to sacrificially love each other. 

As Raymond Chang said in his Open Letter to John Piper on White Evangelicalism and Multiethnic Relations, "...we need to have the humility to listen, but not just listen, and act upon the problems we see." Humility means not only that I will listen to you, but also commit to serve you. As the apostle Paul says, "...in humility, value others above yourselves." 

As a Christian, my deepest conviction is that God is revealed most plainly and powerfully in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That means that God, the Creator of the universe, decided to become not just a human, but a baby born to an unwed mother in a place only animals should be, from a town everyone thought was trashy and worthless, in a people under the occupation of a violent empire. 

This Humble God revealed in Jesus shows us just what humility is: radical service born out of a deep love and firm conviction--that he would not abandon the ones he loved.