“I am humbled to receive this award, ” we say. Or “I was humbled to be offered that position.” Really? What does that mean? Does it just mean “I don’t want to brag, but”? I see nothing wrong with sharing our achievements, and it is good to soften our words so as not to sound like we’re bragging, but if this is all humility has come to mean, I’m pretty sure we have missed it.
Humility is a Christian trait. No Christian would argue that point, and the word “humility” is not lost to us. Whatever it used to mean though, I fear has been lost and replaced by something easier for us to handle.
How would you describe humility? Think about it. Serving at the homeless shelter maybe? A good service no doubt, but is it really a picture of humility? Do we serve because we feel the humanity of the homeless, see a part of ourself there, and feel compassion for them? Do we want to sit at the table with them and listen to their stories, or are we only comfortable on the opposite side of the serving window? Either way, let’s keep doing it, but maybe we can’t use it as the definition of humility.
If I see a homeless woman sitting in front of the post office and offer to buy her a meal at the fast food restaurant across the street, do I order something for myself too and sit with her? Do I listen to her stories, or just offer her my “wisdom”? What if someone else comes into the restaurant who knows me? Do I feel compelled to go over and explain to them that I don’t really know this person, that I’m just helping her because she’s homeless? If so, let’s continue to do what we’re doing, but let’s not call it humility.
Think of your last mission trip or mission project. Why did you go? Why did you participate? Was the “mission trip” more of a “mission” or more of a “trip”?Did you see yourself as somehow above those you were serving – as the helper, the one with something to give? Or did you see yourself in the others, on equal ground, listening and receiving as much as sharing and giving? Did you give because that’s what mission projects do, or did you give from a deep compassion that overflowed from within you? Either way, let’s keep doing the mission projects, but maybe we can’t use them to define humility.
Humility comes from within, and it is those “within” traits that we are most likely to lose. We substitute the acts that come out of humility for the humility itself, running straight for the tangible but bypassing the more important intangible. More important because if the humility is there, the acts come naturally, with no effort, no matter where we are. The tangibles are easier. We can touch them with our hands and see them with our eyes. The intangible is more difficult to find. Thus we water it down and pretend we have mastered it just by saying the word, or by performing the deeds.
So where do we get a true picture of humility? In Jesus. Seems we always have to go back to Jesus. Look at him as the woman washes his feet with her hair. Unbelievable, even for his culture. The disciples were appalled. How could he allow such a woman to touch him like that? Completely socially inappropriate, and an embarrassment to the disciples. Jesus felt no embarrassment and received the heartfelt action in the spirit in which it was given, unconcerned with what others were thinking.
Look at him with the Samaritan woman at the well. Another socially unacceptable encounter. Speaking to a woman alone, and a Samaritan woman at that! What would people think of him? Wouldn’t it tarnish his reputation? Wouldn’t it ruin his chances of hanging out with the affluent people? To Jesus, there were no outcasts, no people groups to avoid – not women, not lepers, not tax collectors, not homeless people, not adulterers, not the mentally ill, not Samaritans. Jesus’ actions flowed from the intangible compassion within him.
But if we are doing the right things, does our motivation really matter? I think it does, for while outer actions can give someone a meal or a coat, it is only true humility that can change the world. It is only when we see our own reflection in the face of the homeless man, the Muslim with her head covered, the undocumented immigrant, the gay teen, the drug addict, the abused child, the promiscuous young woman, the man in the wheelchair, the child with cancer, the person who can’t find a job, the man with HIV, the black/white/Hispanic woman, the mentally ill, the lonely soul in the nursing home, the rebellious child, the woman holding up the line with her food stamps . . . it is only when we can see our own connection to every human life, our own potential to have shared his/her circumstance, that we can find the endangered humility.
These Bible passages can help us find it: Deut. 8:2-3, 2 Chron. 7:14 (we hear this one a lot, but we skip over what might be the most important word), 2 Chron. 12:12, Prov. 11:2, Phil. 2:5-8, 1 Pet. 5:5
I propose a challenge for us. Let’s pray for the seeds of humility to germinate from within us, and let’s privately commit to not say the word “humbled, ” but to just allow God’s work within us to do the speaking. How long will it take for anyone to hear? The wait might make us humble.
Kathy Vestal is a college educator in Salisbury, NC. She has a Master’s of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master’s of Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An avid writer, gifted teacher, and occasional public speaker/preacher, her passions include civil rights, social justice, church reform, and education. She has traveled to Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Ecuador, and The Gambia, Africa, and enjoys reading, nature, and history.You can follow her personal blog at http://kathyon.blogspot.com/ or follow her on Twitter @VestalKathy
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