You know how you’ll be in a conversation with someone, and another person’s name will come up — we’ll call her Betsy — and Betsy isn’t someone either of you like very well? And then one of you leans in closer and says, “I don’t want to say anything bad about Betsy, but …” and then proceeds to say something entirely bad about Betsy?
That’s called a self-canceling statement. It happens anytime you say “I don’t mean to brag, but …” and then you finish the sentence by bragging. Or “I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but …” and then you say something that couldn’t be any jerkier. With a self-canceling statement, what you intend to say is instantly negated because of what you actually say.
Here’s another example of a self-canceling statement: I’m a pretty humble guy. See? Even saying it out loud — calling attention to your own personal lack of pride — is, in itself, a prideful act. It’s egotistical. It’s self-centered.
I only bring this up because I’d like us to think for a few paragraphs about pride and humility. In the process of doing so, I intend to write about myself and my own struggles with being self-centered. Be aware that — inadvertently or not — I will most likely make a statement or two detailing ways I am learning to contain my own pride. They will come across as me broadcasting my personal humility, but do not be fooled: All of these statements will be self-canceling, because I am not humble. I am as egotistical as they come.In fact, isn’t what I’m doing right now — presuming that a bunch of people I don’t know are actually interested in what I have to say about a certain subject — an act of unbridled egotism? I think it is. Writing is such a weird profession. (So is rodeo clowning, but for unrelated reasons.)
In fact, I don’t mean to brag, but I could beat any of you in an arrogance contest any day.No idea what this supposed “contest” would entail, or how it would be judged, so don’t ask.
Now, Let’s Talk About Me
Very occasionally in my life, I have had one of those moments where, upon reading a passage of Scripture, I was immediately convicted of something and began the process of reorienting my life in a different direction. One of those times was during the last semester of my senior year of high school. At the time I was trying to read my Bible a little each day, and one morning I cracked open the second chapter of Philippians. Without putting too much of an anthropomorphicSee how prideful I am? I’m trying to impress you by using big words! Sigh. spin on it, God reached down with verses 1-12 of that chapter and punched me in the face with it. Verses 3 and 4 were especially painful:
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. (Philippians 2:3-4, NIV)
At that point in my life, almost everything I was doing was out of “vain conceit” and “selfish ambition,” especially when it came to my spiritual life. Background: I grew up a church kid — I was there every Sunday and every Wednesday — and was as active in the youth group as a person could be. Furthermore, thanks to genetics or upbringing or the peculiar blessings of God, I was a talented teenager. Reasonably athletic. Good singing voice. Played the guitar. Artistic. Funny. Well-spoken. A natural performer. Also, I had a beautiful blond mullet.
So by my senior year in high school, I had climbed into a high-profile leadership role within my youth group.Just writing that — I was admired in my youth group! — sounds so dumb and pedestrian, but at the time, it sure seemed important. I had the spotlight, and I loved it. I craved attention, whether it came from younger teens or my peers or older adults. Consciously or not, I spent a lot of time trying to attract and keep this attention, striving to impress people, working to make sure everyone knew that I was talented and funny and cool and, well, really tight with Jesus.
Long story short: I was a conceited little twerp. I thought I was better than everyone else. And then I read Paul’s advice to the church at Philippi. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” he wrote in verse 5. Then, quoting what many scholars believe to have been an early hymn, he describes how Jesus cast aside His heavenly blessings in order to enter His creation as a helpless infant, grow up as a nondescript carpenter’s kid, have a brief public ministry, and then get killed. The Jesus I was supposed to be emulating “made himself nothing,” as verse 7 says.
Yet I was expending so much energy trying to make myself something. I was headed in the wrong direction.
In Praise of My Filthy [Expletive Deleted]
At the risk of getting all self-canceling here — and don’t say I didn’t warn you it was coming — the conviction I felt upon reading that passage started me on a long journey toward a more Christ-like humility. Fifteen years later, I’m only a few steps along that road, but at least I’m pointed in the right direction. Still, there are times when I find myself thinking that I’m better than everyone else — I have a subtle way of calling attention to my various talents or accomplishments or thoughtfulness.Look! I’m doing it now. I just made you think about my talents, accomplishments, and thoughtfulness, all in the name of self-deprecation and honesty. Humility is hard. But at least, when I do these things, I feel guilty about it. I’m convicted. And that’s a start.
What gives me hope is that guys like Paul dealt with the same stuff. Later in Philippians he paints a brilliant portrait of humility by listing his credentials — and they’re solid. Beginning in Philippians 3:5, he outlines everything he ought to be proud of, from his circumcision and heritage to his spiritual zeal and obedience to the law. Paul had serious chops.He may also have had a mullet, if my childhood Sunday School pictures are to be believed. But his hair was brown, not blond. So I win.
But how does he view these things? “I consider everything a loss,” he writes, when compared to the greatness of knowing Jesus Christ. In verse 8, he takes it further. Still carping about his accomplishments, he writes, “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ….” Rubbish, it should be pointed out, is a mild, sanitized translation of skubala, the word Paul used in the original Greek. It was used back then in reference to human waste.The King James Version more accurately translates skubala as “dung.” Scholars are divided on whether or not skubala was actually considered an offensive or profane word in Paul’s day, but the meaning is clear: He considers his human accomplishments no better than excrement.
He’s being a bit dramatic, of course, in order to make a point. Our skills and talents and abilities are not given to us so we can draw attention to ourselves. They’re part of the package of who we are, though, and if we follow the pattern of Jesus proclaimed in Philippians 2:7, we are to use those abilities to do the work of our master. We are to become servants.
So What Do I Do?
Let’s get practical. Talking about doing stuff for God and not for yourself is one thing. Actually doing it is another. The path from pride and self-interest to humility and servanthood is a rough, steep climb, accomplished by taking only a few steps at a time. Here are what some of those steps look like in my life.
- Show genuine gratitude when praised. Some people act as if humility means denying we’re good at anything. If someone praises us — hey, great article! — we might get all Paul-like and say “No, it wasn’t. It was meandering and sloppy. I’m a terrible wordsmith. My writing is a pile of dung.” When I do that, I’m not only refusing a compliment, which is just mean, but I’m also denying the God who gave me that natural ability.Take note of James 1:17. A better approach is to reply with a sincere “thank you,” along with a prayer of gratitude to the Giver.
- Remember that humility is an action. Jesus “humbled himself” (Philippians 2:8). He became obedient to the plan God had for Him. If God has given us certain abilities — the ability to write, or to lead, or to build things with our hands or to teach children — then we humble ourselves by submitting those abilities to Him. We take action and find ways to use those skills and talents, not to draw attention to ourselves but to serve God and others. We put them to work in the church. We use them to help people outside the church. Either way, by loving people we’re loving God.
- Put others first. Philippians 2:3 says, “… consider others better than yourselves.” The Message paraphrases this as “Put yourself aside and help others get ahead.” The mindset here is a simple but profoundly countercultural one. At the center of it is the idea that you are more important than me. The results of this way of thinking — increased politeness, better understanding, patience and mercy and slowness to anger — are clearly reflective of Christ’s love, and the kinds of virtues that improve any human relationship.It should be said that the “you are more important than me” approach isn’t an invitation for others to take advantage of us or walk all over us. In Philippians 2:4, Paul states that “each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (my emphasis). It’s clear that we should have boundaries and develop the ability to say “no” when necessary — if only so we have the energy to put others first when it’s most important. You can’t pour water from a pitcher forever. When it empties, you’ve got to fill it back up.
Have I defeated pride in my life? Nope. Not by a long shot. But now, at least, I recognize that it exists. When it shows up, I’m convicted of it, and I’m learning ways to step over it as I continue the journey toward humility. I don’t expect to ever get there, but on good days, I make progress.
Also, I cut off the mullet and replaced it with a receding hairline. Which means the pride-in-my-awesome-hair temptation is totally gone.
One step at a time.
Copyright 2007 Jason Boyett. All rights reserved.