Sell Yourself Short
The Rare Joy of Christian Humility
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
We live in a day in which understatement is an endangered species. There is no shortage of embellishment and exaggeration. Public communication can feel like one grandiose soundbite after another. Parties, events, releases, contests, political rallies must be bigger and better than the last.
In our society of hype and hyperbole, pomp and posturing, we embellish our own online profiles, selecting our most flattering photo, highlighting our most impressive accomplishments, and filling our timeline with the confirming data, all carefully curated. We are enduring (not to overstate it) an epidemic of over-promising and under-performing. At least in the public eye, few seem to have the humility to speak, post, and report with the simple truth.
Sadly, we Christians often fall prey to this cultural pressure. This Sunday, this conference, this study, this book, this message must be more “epic” (talk about exaggeration) than the last. Such a penchant can be especially acute in church planting and other ministry startups, when our collective insecurities and immaturities conspire to make it feel like everything needs to sound better than it actually is, to make us seem stronger than we truly are, to give the impression we have momentum and staying power. Often, it’s all an elaborate and upbeat cover for feeling fragile, weak, and gnawingly uncertain.
But what if we unsubscribed from the madness? What if we asked ourselves, in such a world as ours, How do I humble myself?
Think Less of Yourself?
Wise men want to be humble. And yet, ironically, the first lesson we learn in the pursuit of humility is that it’s not something we can just up and do. The first step in seeking humility is a humbling one. Humility begins with God’s initiative, not ours.
However, even though self-humbling is beyond our control, God does give us the dignity of participating in the process, and the opportunity to prepare our hearts to be humbled. Romans 12:3, which is one of the most important words in the Bible about humility, gives us a glimpse into the kind of heart that is ready to receive God’s humbling hand whenever it falls:
I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
C.S. Lewis memorably observed that humility does not mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. More than just guarding against swollen views of self, the apostle Paul would have us “think with sober judgment” — which I take to mean, among other things, don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about yourself at all.
Yet self-awareness is a mercy, even if Paul would caution us against self-focus. What might it mean, then, as a Christian, to think with sober judgment about self?
Observe the World’s Pattern
First, we will do well to remember what kind of world we live in: one swollen with inflated views of self. We cannot take our bearings from our surroundings and at the same time cultivate sober judgment of ourselves. In the verse before Romans 12:3, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
From the beginning, from humanity’s very first sin, we have been overestimating ourselves. And as sin — the great, deadly, rebellious impulse in the heart of the creature to overestimate self in the face of God — as sin has taken root, and grown, and spread, and borne fruit in our world, one age after another (apart from revival) has sought to outdo the others in self-regard.
Maybe modern humans are no more swollen with self-regard than our ancestors, but we do have a bigger box of powerful digital tools for going into all the world and preaching ourselves. It’s in the air. And on our screens. If we look at the world around us for our balance, we will soar in self-exaltation, or soon crash in self-pity.
We need to get our bearings before the face of God, with hearts daily and weekly recalibrated by the rhythms of God-conscious worship and devotion. For most of us, the outworking of genuine humility before God also will include owning our proneness to overestimate ourselves. Humility may feel like underestimating self because our age is so bent on overestimating. The goal is not to underestimate ourselves, though, but to think with sober judgment, in a generation inebriated with self.
Choosing the Lowest Place
Jesus told a parable when he saw the evidence of such overestimation (pride) in wedding invitees. Rather than presuming to sit in “the place of honor,” he instructed them instead,
Go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:10–11)
Christ would have his people think of themselves as ordinary, not special. As lowly, normal, one of the flock, not as a rabbi, teacher, instructor (Matthew 23:8–12). Not as a cut above the common man, but as happily ordinary, even gladly a servant. Even as a child (Matthew 18:3), as one who knows his smallness and dependence. Such people feel no need to pretend to be strong and self-sufficient; they are happily God-reliant and self-admittedly lowly, too modest to pretend otherwise.
Speak with Sober Judgment About Self
So, we reject the world’s pattern of self-exaltation and self-pity, but how will we discern what we really think about ourselves — and whether it is sober or swollen? It will come out of our mouths.
Consider the countless junctures in everyday life when how we think about ourselves comes out for all to hear and see. How do you introduce yourself to a new person? How do you “tell your story,” and what do you foreground? How polished a version of yourself do you put forward online? How often do your words slide into the humble-brag, not to mention your social-media posts? Do you presume and anticipate public acknowledgement and appreciation from others? Do you deliberately self-denigrate, hoping someone will swoop in and correct you? Do you presume the greater seat or happily head for the gallery?
Thinking with sober judgment may begin in our heads and hearts, but it comes out in our words. And our words in the world not only reveal our inner person, but also then shape our minds and hearts going forward.
Secure Enough to Be Small
It is humility, after all, that goes hand in hand with what we call “understatement.”
Understatement, as a figure of speech, has long had the technical title “tapinosis,” based on the Greek for humility (tapeinosis). It is humble to understate certain realities (especially our own abilities and accomplishments) and allow our hearers to experience the rare joy (almost inaccessible in modern life) of discovering something is more impressive than promised. And it’s humble to understate ourselves such that some listeners may never know the full force of it — because we are secure enough in Christ to have our qualities go unacknowledged.
When Christ is our security, we learn to be content with our lives being more dramatic in reality than in our telling of them, whether in conversations or online. Rather than making subtle, and sometimes shameless, efforts to have others think we’re more impressive than we really are, we’re happy to have them underestimate what otherwise might amaze.
Ultimately, it is the bigness and unsurpassed beauty of Christ, who is “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3) and whose worth we cannot overstate, that frees us from exaggeration and inspires us to understate self.
As we’re increasingly impressed with him, we lose our need to be impressed with ourselves.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.