There are few truly humble people in this world. Even though we praise in-the-spotlight people when they speak humble words or perform humble actions, we rarely seem to seek it ourselves, make it a part of us.
Of course, when I say “we,” I’m talking about myself. I’ve got an interesting story when it comes to humility, or lack thereof (which, by the way, is one of my favorite phrases in the English language). This story is in three phases.
Pride in Being “The Best”
Growing up in the stereotypical “Christian home,” I was raised to do all the right things. I didn’t drink, didn’t chew and didn’t go with girls that do. Or did. I didn’t cuss, didn’t see an R-rated movie until I was 14 or 15, and even then it was one that was barely R-rated. I made a habit out of being a “goody-two-shoes.”
According to Wikipedia, the phrase “goody two-shoes” was made popular by the children’s story “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes” about a girl who grows up with only one shoe. One day, a rich man gives her a complete pair of shoes. She then goes on to live a gloriously happy life, with the story implying her good life comes because she is virtuous. Basically, she was good, so she got good things.
I was generally (but not all the time) respectful and honoring of my parents and teachers. I tried to avoid all the bad things my classmates were doing. I felt like I was a pretty good person. I was hoping to be that “goody two-shoes.”
I hope you’re seeing the pride that made a living in my heart during that time. Even when I committed my life to Jesus at age 13, I still had a ridiculous amount of pride and boastfulness. I thought I was the only committed Christian in my class in high school because I thought I was the only one legitimately showing it. I didn’t cuss, didn’t hook up with girls, didn’t do any of that “bad stuff.” I knew some stuff in the Bible, enough that I felt like I contributed a lot during youth group on Sunday nights.
My pride was purely self-righteousness. It was me thinking I was good enough to warrant being called a “good Christian.” I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be the one people looked at and said, “Man, he’s a good Christian kid. He does all the right things.”
I made sure to not talk about myself this way, because that would be prideful and boastful. But boy, my heart was guilty.
The Despair of Not Being “Good Enough”
When I got to college, I recognized that pride. I recognized the self-righteousness that I loved. Like in high school, I was one of few Christians in my friend group and thought that I carried the cross-emblazoned flag very well. But it hit me during my freshman year that my self-righteousness was turning people away from relationship with me. So I decided to cut back a bit.
And there was growth there. Unfortunately, it was like the growth of a root – only down. I struggled long with sinful temptations and became so burdened with sin and guilt and shame that I started a downturn. The false humility I had before – when I’d play down my “goodness” with a shrug and a sheepish smile – became a self-deprecating “humility.” I would look for ways to put myself down in front of others. People would mention me being a “good Christian” – words I lived for just a couple years before – and I would turn them down, saying, “I’m definitely not perfect. Oh I could list the ways…” and trail off, sincerely hoping they wouldn’t ask me to.
This turned into a prolonged period of depression and rejection of God’s grace in my life. I would take stock of my actions and my thoughts and think, “Well, I suck. I’ve got nothing to offer.” I would work so hard to try to get back on God’s good side. Nights and nights when I would pray and beg God to get better.
Meanwhile, I would seek praise and affirmation from others because I felt so crappy about myself. And when someone praised something I did in the Christian realm, that was even better, because that’s what I felt the worst about.
So I got stuck in that rut. I would be doing well spiritually for a few days, but then I’d do something stupid and would lose it. All the good that I had built up seemed to crumble down in a messy, unruly heap that would take a couple days to sort out.
Grace, Grace, Such Grace
The other day, Paul David Tripp posted this on Facebook: “Our sin is what separates us from God, but it’s our self-righteousness that keeps us from running to Him for the grace He willingly gives to all who come.”
Self-righteousness is the No. 1 stumbling block to receiving God’s grace, and it can work both ways. We can be self-righteous in thinking that our works get us to God, make us look good before Him. We can also be self-righteous in thinking that our works have to be good enough or it’s impossible to be in relationship with Him. In both of those scenarios, our righteousness comes from ourselves. Therefore, self-righteousness.
Those kinds of thought processes prevent us from truly knowing, understanding and receiving grace from God. Grace comes when we realize we are insufficient to reach God on our own. Grace gives us hope in this life of a real relationship with God built on unconditional love and mercy.
What is it Ephesians 2:8-9 says? “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” That verse promotes that very two-pronged truth: we’re not saved by our works, but we’re not deemed valueless by that fact. We’re actually given the chance to have much greater value than we would ever have by our actions alone, because our value comes from God, not from ourselves.
I think it was in Jerry Bridges’ excellent book The Discipline of Grace, but I remember reading C.S. Lewis’ quote: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” True humility defines Jesus. He kept an accurate view of who He was: the Son of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, sent to earth to accomplish a mission. But He thought of others – us – more than Himself. We are called to be the same.
Last February, I went to Banner Elk, N.C., in the Appalachian Mountains. I was journaling and writing out 11 points of things I learned those few days I was there with a friend. One of those points was as follows:
Biblical humility is not about saying, “I’m the worst.” It’s about saying, “Jesus is better.” Biblical humility isn’t based in self-degradation; it’s based in Christ-exaltation. So when I’m dealing with my pride, my call should be not that I suck, but that living for and giving the glory to Christ is better.
It’s a lifelong struggle, and it took me nearly 22 years to get to this point right now where I have some sort of semblance of what true humility looks like. And I’m sure that I’ll have to continue to wrestle with all of these things. Grace, grace, such grace. Grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Grace, grace, God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all my sin. Including my pride.