The Deceptively Easy Path to Prideful Humility
The Danger of Self-Preoccupation
There is a danger, in thinking about humility, that we can become so self-preoccupied in the process, and it kind of defeats the point. It's actually kind of funny if you think about it. There's a passage in The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis when Demon is counseling another demon, and he's saying, See if you can get your patient [the human being] to be proud about his own efforts at humility.
And that is a real danger. We can start thinking, Wow, I'm being really humble right now. Tim Keller has said humility is so shy that when you start talking about it, it goes away. And so that's one danger in one direction.
In Humility, Gavin Ortlund explains that humility is not just an abstract virtue but a mark of gospel integrity, casting a vision for gospel-centered humility that is ultimately self-forgetfulness leading to joy.
Think on and Pursue Humility
On the other hand, I don't think it's right to say we should just never think about humility in any way. There are verses in the Bible that call us to be humble. Philippians 2 says, “in humility, consider others better than yourself." That word humility is there. We need to know what that means in order to obey that verse and so many others, so that means we need to think a little bit about what this calling is.
Throughout church history, there's been so much reflection about the nature of humility. You think about Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine and some of these great Christians who wrote at great length about the nature of humility. They reflected on it. What is the nature of this virtue? Basil of Caesarea wrote a famous homily on humility. Jonathan Edwards preached many sermons on humility. So I don't think it's right that we shouldn't think about it at all.
Joy is an authentic experience that comes from true humility.
What helps me steer between the two dangers here is that we should pursue humility. Think about humility, but just be aware that there's the temptation to become self-focused in the process, to take ourselves too seriously in the process, to start becoming self-preoccupied or to just be thinking about how we're doing in the process too much. And a good acid test is to ask, Is humility leading me to joy?
Joy cannot be faked. Joy is an authentic experience that comes from true humility. And counterfeit forms of humility don't lead to joy. So, as we're trying to navigate between a self-preoccupied, artificial kind of humility on the one hand and avoidance of humility on the other, a good acid test will be to ask, Is what I'm pursuing leading me to joy? Is it leading me to a greater love for Christ, a greater concern for my neighbor, or even just a greater awareness of the world around me?
That's a good test for whether this is real and authentic humility.
Gavin Ortlund is the author of Humility: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness.
10 Key Bible Verses on Humility
Christ set the ultimate example of humility by submitting himself to life on earth and then death on the cross on behalf of sinners.
It’s more difficult to think too much of yourself when you remember what is currently riveting the attention of the mightiest angels.
A Call for Theological Humility
There are plenty of issues over which Christians will be tempted to divide. We must even be willing to make sacrificial adjustments for the sake of our unity with others in the body of Christ.
Podcast: The Cure to Our Polarization and Outrage: Humility (Gavin Ortlund)
Gavin Ortlund talks about misconceptions we often have about humility—that it corresponds to weakness or that it hides our abilities—and discusses how humility is so foundational for experiencing true joy in Christ.