If you’ve ever responded to praise with, “It was nothing, really,” or “Anyone could have done it,” simply because you know those are the appropriate responses, or if you’ve done something nice for someone mainly because someone was watching, or if you’ve talked down about yourself but are secretly hoping for someone to contradict you with a compliment — you understand the temptation of fake humility.
The concept of true humility is tough for me to wrap my mind around because if we’re actively trying to be humble, how does it come out naturally instead of as a performance?
Personally, I value humility in people I work with, in my friends, in my family, in public figures; people stand out when they aren’t full of themselves and when they truly seem to care about others. I know God values it, too, because the Bible is constantly reminding us to humble ourselves (Philippians 2:3, Ephesians 4:2, Romans 12:16, James 4:10, etc.) and that God hates humility’s polar opposite, pride (Isaiah 2:12, James 4:6, Proverbs 16:5, Romans 12:3, etc.).
Sometimes pride is obvious, but sometimes it comes in the form of pretending to be humble, and that can be just as dangerous, even (or perhaps especially) when we don’t realize we’re doing it.
Anyone could have done it
Lately, I’ve been trying to teach myself to accept compliments, because I’m not very good at it. I tend to brush them off because they make me uncomfortable — maybe because I’m afraid I’ll become arrogant if I accept them, or maybe I don’t want the pressure of people expecting great future things from me because I’ve done this one neat thing. Whatever the case, my logic is flawed.
Accepting a compliment acknowledges that the person giving it appreciates something about me or finds value in something I did. Arguing, “No, that article I wrote really isn’t as good as you say,” actually diminishes the value they may have found in reading it. Humble people can be talented, have nice hair, display a positive personality trait — and they aren’t necessarily being prideful by accepting compliments on those things.
Someone is watching
So, what if you’re only doing it to impress someone? The good deed gets done, right? Do your motives really matter? Yes and no. They might not matter to the person you’re serving, and a loving act has value on its own, but what is going on inside us is important, too.
In Matthew, Jesus warns people not to be like the Pharisees, who don’t practice what they preach and “do all their deeds to be seen by men” (23:5). The Pharisees wanted power, control and fame. And if I’m honest, I’ve been tempted by those things, too. I’m a people-pleaser, and I like the idea of others, especially those in authority, thinking well of me. But if that’s my only motivation, those acts of service aren’t part of who I am, and just become a cover that someone will eventually see through. God definitely does.
Humility and self deprecation aren’t the same thing. I’m not being humble by putting myself down because I want a compliment; I’m directing the attention back to myself. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
The disciples had the opposite, though related, problem in Luke 22 when they argued about who was the greatest. They weren’t belittling themselves, but the source of their problem also came from pride. They were fishing for compliments from Jesus because they each wanted to be his favorite, the best, the chosen, the greatest. Interestingly enough, Jesus does not shoot down their ambition to be great, but redefines what greatness means: “For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Greatness in God’s eyes means putting aside self-glorification and having the heart of a servant.
In his book “Humility,” C.J. Mahaney writes, “To learn true humility, we need more than a redefinition of greatness, we need even more than Jesus’ personal example of humble service. What we need is his death.”
Mahaney continues on to say that our service, our desire to act from humility and consider others above ourselves, is both an effect and a reflection of Christ’s unique sacrifice.
I often feel numbed to the idea of Christ’s death, partly because I’ve heard the phrase “Christ died for you” so many times that it’s starting to feel like the lyrics of a beloved song; they don’t even register anymore. How am I supposed to feel and fully comprehend something that happened so long ago? Sometimes I’ll imagine what it might feel like if my own father, mother or brother stepped in to take my place in a scenario where I’m guilty of a horrid crime and deserve to die. That personal connection — even with imagined, less potent feelings of horror over someone taking a punishment I deserve — allows me to visualize just a little bit better what Christ did for everyone in the world.
Pride is in everyone, but Christ paid the price to free us from it. Faking humility isn’t a reflection of what He has done for me. And even though I will fail again and again to be truly humble, I still make an effort to focus attention away from myself because I owe Christ my life; He has my eternal gratitude — worthless in and of itself, but made valuable because He wants and accepts it.