It is actually quite fascinating to research the word “humility”. The definition ranges anywhere from a secular notion of being shy and timid to a theological perspective of understanding one’s self in relation to creation. Maybe that’s why the word is seldom used in conversation. It’s hard to know what meaning to assign to it!
Arrogance is quite the opposite. Definitions vary slightly in wording, but the general concept is someone who believes they are better, smarter or more important than another individual. Ouch! Who hasn’t fallen in this category at some time or another? Unfortunately, we live in a culture that advocates such self-promoting attitudes. Whose parent hasn’t bragged about one’s athletic, dance, acting and/or musical abilities or intellectual successes as something that makes them some how superior to others? You see, it was difficult to decide what word to use there. “Whose parent…” puts the emphasis on the offspring who grow up believing they are better or smarter and ultimately more important than the unfortunate kid down the block, in another school, from the wrong part of town, or cursed with the wrong family. If I had said, “What parent…” the responsibility for the better, smarter, more important attitude belongs to the supposed adult in the situation. Either way, arrogance is not only learned, but it is often supported by the words or modeled behavior of those in authority around us as the good and normal way to see the world.
Wait! What!?! Where did the “see the world” part come from? Isn’t that a stretch from “better, smarter and more important?” Nope. It is the direct result of how one sees oneself. Like, what eyes are you looking through? What is the lens of your worldview? How do you see yourself, whether its based on gender, race, skills and talents, a bulging bank account, or a myriad of other criteria, compared to others?
We have a lot of words ending in “ism” that speak to worldview…racism, socialism, communism, fascism, absolutism, illusionism, separatism, capitalism, consumerism, monotheism, pacifism, narcissism, and the list goes on. The problem is, we either cling to our “ism” for the exclusive group we think it allows us to belong to and where that puts us in relation to the rest of humanity, or we resent the “ism” because it categorizes us in a way we perceive as negative and not good enough when compared to the next guy. Either way, we tend to think our “ism” is the result of our being better, smarter and more important…than the others around us. That, my friends, is arrogance – a condition we all share to a certain degree.
As I am writing this, I am making pizza crusts. I make exceptionally good pizza crust. They aren’t the best pizza crusts ever, but they are definitely in the awesome category. I use a sourdough recipe that I also use for baguettes. By replacing some of the white flower with whole wheat, pumpernickel or cornmeal, I can make a variety of breads or bagels. Adding nuts, spices, herbs or dried fruit increases the number of possibilities from simple pizza crust and baguettes to seasonal, ethnic or artisan breads, rolls, pastries, and crackers. You see, to limit the life of my sourdough to pizza crust would prevent experiencing so many remarkable flavors – flavors that speak to emotions in indescribable ways. The butter dripping from a piece of limpa rye reminds me of my Scandinavian ancestors while a week old dry crust reminds me that not everyone has access to fresh, healthy food and water. Additionally, recognizing that others are incredibly gifted with wonderful abilities doesn’t negate the fact that my pizza crust is really, really good; rather it reminds me that others are equally adept at the things they are good at and if we all work together we can make a pretty spectacular meal, incorporating that which we all have to offer while not being limited to or by any one set of talents.
The Apostle Paul said it much more clearly in Romans 12:3-8
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
You see, arrogance causes us to forget we are part of something bigger than we are. It limits our ability to see the gifts and talents of those around us, denying us all the opportunity to live and grow together.
Which brings us back to humility. To be shy and timid isn’t the same as being humble, or living with humility. Neither is humility the act of self-deprecation. These traits can actually prevent one from living into the gifts and talents Paul spoke of. Rather, to live humbly…or to live with humility…is to recognize the amazing gifts and talents God has given not only to you but also to others and to celebrate these gifts as necessary parts for the wholeness of living. In the Gospels Christ taught us both verbally and through living his life what whole living looks like – to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. To love God means that we not only love God, but we also love all of the sons and daughters who, like us, have been carefully designed by God to complete a piece of the wholeness of creation.
We aren’t created to be better, smarter or more important than anyone or anything. We must remember who we are and Whose we are. Eugene Peterson’s translation of Micah 6:8 in The Message states it well:
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously.
Humility…the art of recognizing ones place in creation. Our challenge is to live into the essence of who we were created to be while remembering that every person who has ever lived, who is living now or who is to come is just as special to God as we are. Arrogance limits how we see others and ourselves. We can only find the freedom to live wholly and completely in humility.