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How to Empty Your Cup and Find Humility

a woman sitting on a mountain looking out over the landscape at dusk pondering humility
Have trouble putting others before yourself? Think you have your theology all figured out? Ever try to make yourself look good in front of others?

Humility is a tricky thing. I’ve written about the topic before, and I know its perils. To write an article about humility is to give the impression that you’re an expert on the topic. To give the impression that you’re an expert is to highlight your knowledge or experience. To highlight your knowledge or experience is to draw attention to yourself. And that’s an act of pride.

Pride is the opposite of humility.

In other words: As soon as I start thinking I’ve reached a state of humility, that’s already proof that I’ve made a wrong turn.

So humility continues to be a problem for me, and that’s one reason I still want to write about it. The last time I broached the subject was to give some biographical background to my fitful journey away from pride and toward some sort of weak, limping humility. It hasn’t been a pretty journey — which is why the topic of excrement played a ridiculously large role in that article1 — but it’s a path I’m still walking. I’m still compelled to talk about it. Don’t think you can stop me.

Zen Buddhism doesn’t always get a lot of attention on Christian websites, and that’s unfortunate because Zen is chock-full of excellent stories. At the risk of unhumbly making you think I’m all mysterious and conversant about Eastern religious traditions, I’m gonna tell you one of my favorites.2

The 19th-century Japanese Zen master Nan-in had a visitor, a university professor who wanted to be taught about Zen. Being a Zen master, of course, Nan-in was all about the metaphorical object lesson. So he served tea. The professor held up his cup, and Nan-in started pouring.

He poured until the cup was completely full. Then he kept pouring. The tea overflowed and splashed onto the table, and the professor shouted, “It is overfull! No more will go in!”

Nan-in smiled a Zen-like smile, and said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”3

Most college students I know — including myself, back when I was in college — are toting around at least three different cups, in the Nan-in sense. Three mugs that are full of opinions and speculations and occasionally need to be emptied out and replaced with something greater, like servanthood or love. Humility is the cup-emptier. Here are the three kinds of humility all of us need:

Social Humility

This is the humility you probably think of first. Paul introduces this others-oriented humility in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Others-oriented humility says, via actions or attitude, you are more important than me. I’m in a hurry, but I’ll stop and hold the door open for you, because you are more important than me. You ticked me off with what you just said, but I’m gonna let it slide and give you the benefit of the doubt because you are more important than me. I totally have better things to do, Grandpa, but I’m going to listen to you tell me that story for the 15th time because you are more important than me.

Does this mean I’ll be a social martyr and let you walk all over me? Maybe sometimes I will. After all, Jesus didn’t exactly stand up for His rights before Pilate and the angry crowd. But pay attention to Paul’s words. He doesn’t tell us to become doormats and never look after our own interests. He says to look not only to our own interests. In other words, take care of yourself, to a reasonable degree. But whenever possible, set aside your own selfish ambition and submit to others as you submit to Christ. What others? Your friends. Your professors. Your family. Your enemies. That dude on the third floor who smells like a rabbit cage. Christian love puts others first.

Want to exhibit social humility? First empty your cup of the constant need to get your way.

Theological Humility

I’m gonna be as honest with you as possible here: College students can be the most arrogant theological snobs in the world. Maybe it’s a combination of religious passion, youthful vigor and a still-deepening understanding of faith. But when it comes to theological certitude, I run into a lot of college types who think they’ve got it all figured out. I know how to identify them, too, because for four years, I was one.

Since then I’ve learned that one of the most beneficial types of humility is the kind that studies hard, pursues truth and values spiritual understanding — but does so without arrogance. I call it theological humility. Have you ever known someone who said something to the effect of “He can’t be a ______________ (fill in the blank) and still call himself a Christian”? That’s an example of theological arrogance: the idea that faith is a rigid adherence to the particular standards you’ve gleaned from the Bible.

Only the Bible is a complex book. It’s big and unwieldy. It’s full of a lot of stories without clear explanations. I believe in its authority and that it represents God’s true communication with us. But I won’t for a second pretend that I’ve got it figured out. For every moral or spiritual question I can think of, there are people way smarter than I who take opposite positions on the issue … positions informed by the Bible. This doesn’t cause me to throw up my hands in hopelessness, because I think the main point of the Bible — God’s redemption of the world through Jesus — is pretty clear. But the smaller points? The bits and pieces that have divided churches and turned Christians against each other and given rise to denominationalism? We’d be better off to approach those with humility.

One of my favorite writers, G.K. Chesterton, put it this way when explaining his theological journey: “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”4

Theological humility doesn’t mean going around thinking the truth is unknowable. But it involves an awareness that, sometimes, people get stuff wrong. If there’s the slightest possibility you might misunderstand something, you’re better off refusing to condemn a fellow believer — or a fellow human, for that matter — for having come to a different understanding.5 If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong on the side of grace, not judgment.

Want to exhibit theological humility? First empty your cup of the constant need to be right.

Personal Humility

Personal humility is related to who you are and the image you project. In our culture, we have another word for this kind of humility: honesty. It’s the opposite of artificial modesty, which looks like this: Let’s say you have a date. You spend two hours shaving and showering and moisturizing and fixing your hair. Then it takes you 25 minutes to figure out which shirt to wear. When you finally pick her up, she smiles and says, “Wow, you look nice today.” To which you shrug your shoulders and say, all nonchalantly, “Oh … thanks. I kinda just grabbed this out of the closet.”

Please. That’s not humility. That’s self-interest disguised as humility. It’s not the same.

Personal humility means taking a realistic look at your successes and failures and refusing to inflate either. It’s showing gratitude when you’re praised. It’s refusing to act like you have it all together when you don’t. It’s owning up to your talents as gifts from God and your abilities as the byproducts of hard work. But it’s also being honest about your limitations — pride, or grudge-holding, or vanity — instead of burying them beneath a cloak of self-righteousness.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go around narrating your life with audible status updates like “Watch out, ladies, I’ve had wandering eyes today.” Or “This cold has given me some wicked drainage.” Or “I’m pretending to listen to you but really I’m just waiting for you to stop talking so I can spout out my opinion.” Save those for Facebook.6

But be real. Don’t hide your failures or overplay your achievements. Your friends respect you for who you are, so be yourself with them. Be yourself with God, who’s not easily fooled. Commit yourself to truthfulness, because at the end of that path is personal humility.

Want to exhibit personal humility? First empty your cup of the constant need to control how others see you.

If It’s Good Enough for Nan-in …

In John 10:10, Jesus promised us a life of abundance and fullness. Our tendency is to identify that abundance with stuff that makes us happy, like health and wealth and a hot wife. After all, those are the things that we want. But what if a “full” life means the life God wants for us — an others-oriented, gracious, honest existence?

To achieve that fullness, we’re going to have to empty out some of the clutter that gets in its way. That’s a pretty Zen thing to do, but it’s also a Christ-like thing to do. And that alone makes it a worthy pursuit.


    1. It has to do with the Apostle Paul, the New Testament letter to the Philippians, and the Greek word skubala. That’s the only hint you’re getting.
    2. The following interior conversation took place prior to the writing of that sentence. It went like this:

Prideful Jason: Tell ’em a Zen story. They’ll be impressed at your worldliness and knowledge.

Humble Jason: Maybe that’s not the best idea. This isn’t about impressing people.

Prideful Jason: Fine, Doctor Killjoy. Come up with a better illustration then.

Humble Jason: (Thinks for a long time, then gives up.) Sigh. You win. Again.

  1. From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyoken Senzake (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1998), p. 19.
  2. G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2006), p. 34.
  3. Popular dividing lines include Calvinism vs. Arminianism, immersive baptism vs. sprinkling, contemporary worship vs. liturgy, the role of women in church, and whether or not Thomas Kinkade paintings are high art or schlock.
  4. Or don’t, because those would be creepy status updates for sure.

Copyright 2007 Jason Boyett. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Jason Boyett

Jason Boyett is the author of Pocket Guide to Adulthood and several other books.



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