There are multiple problems with humility. Here are 14, in no particular order:
Problem 1: Humility is difficult to write and talk about because the moment someone starts talking (or writing … ) about the need for humility, that person’s own pride begins to appear — like I’m facing right now as I write. I wonder if this is a primary reason we hear so few sermons and read so few articles about humility, despite its importance. Furthermore, speakers and writers can’t easily challenge others about the need for humility without subtly communicating that the speaker’s or writer’s own pride is under control, which often isn’t the case.
Problem 2: The Bible commands us to be humble (Mic. 6:8; Zeph. 2:3; Col. 3:12; James 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:6). Can we become humble simply by trying to be humble?
Problem 3: Humility is obviously not the same as self-deprecation. Humility demonstrably is not intelligent people claiming to be unintelligent, strong people claiming to be weak, or musically gifted people claiming they can’t carry a tune.
Problem 4: Humility was not extolled as a virtue among ancient Greek and Roman authors (not to mention several other non-Jewish cultures in New Testament times). The driving Graeco-Roman virtue was honor, and since seeking honor is antithetical to humility, you rarely encounter ancient Greek and Roman authors commending humility. This created difficulties for first-century Christians who had spent their entire former lives pursuing honor, but who were newly learning that humility was important. It also presents challenges for us in interpreting New Testament passages about humility, since some of the cultural contexts into which New Testament verses about humility were written were considerably different from our own.
Problem 5: In life it is necessary for us to think about ourselves, at least sometimes. We must pay attention to our motivations, address sin as it arises in our hearts, root out hidden attitudes that dishonor the Lord. Humility is not the same thing as not thinking about yourself.
Problem 6: Many people in history, including some modern people, associate humility with humiliation. The English word “humble” can mean various things, including that someone is low in rank, less important than others, or has few financial assets. The fact that the word “humble” is polyvalent sometimes confuses us.
Problem 7: “Humility” in contemporary academic circles is sometimes used as a hammer to silence people who believe that truth (including ultimate truth) is accessible and important. Academic “humility” of this sort sometimes relativizes knowledge. Biblical humility does not require someone to abandon the belief that some things are true and others false.
Problem 8: So, if humility is not the same thing as not thinking about yourself, or humiliation, or inaccessibility to objective truth (Problems 5-7), what is it? I’d like to suggest that humility is a proper assessment of oneself. But this definition creates its own difficulty. Some of us have grown up viewing ourselves as “pretty good,” tending to underemphasize our sin and desperate need for Christ. Unless we properly assess ourselves — that we are “dead in our sins,” (Eph. 2:1) — we will never receive the gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, since such grace is only given to those who confess their sins and recognize their need for forgiveness. But Christ does not leave us there. He adopts us as his precious children (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:4-6)! A proper assessment of ourselves after we have been saved must include the truth that we are united to Christ by faith and deeply loved by him. We then assess ourselves not as who we are, but rather as who we are in Christ, which the Scriptures declare is someone deeply loved by God (1 John 4). My personal problem, though, is that I toggle between forgetting that I have been saved from sin (considering myself too good), and self-deprecation (forgetting the cleansing from my sin, 2 Pet. 1:9).
Problem 9: Philippians 2:3 instructs us to consider other people as more important than ourselves. How are we supposed to do that?!
Problem 10: How do I pray about humility? Should I ask God to make me humble, or not? What if God answers such a prayer? How might he answer my prayer? Do I really want an answer to that prayer?
Problem 11: Humility often increases through suffering. If I want humility to increase in my life, am I supposed to desire suffering, too?
Problem 12: Recent Christian church culture, at least during this past generation in the United States, has tended to place a high value (too high) on strong leadership, and has sometimes minimized gentleness and kindness and … humility. The lack of humble role models has made it more difficult for us to learn how to grow in humility.
Problem 13: Humility is primarily a heart attitude. It isn’t something you simply decide one day to do. I don’t know of any three-steps-to-more-humility programs. How, then, can I grow in humility ( … in three steps, please … )?
Problem 14: For you Christian preachers and teachers who deem it valuable to sometimes teach about humility, you will find it difficult to find positive sermons or teaching illustrations to use as you speak. You certainly can’t use personal examples! You can, of course, employ positive illustrations of other people, but humble people often won’t give you permission to use them as examples of humility. How can Christian preachers and teachers help others grow in humility when it is so difficult to locate suitable examples that can be shared publicly to help others see what humility looks like in daily life?
There you have it: 14 problems with humility. But I think the main problem with humility is not really a problem with humility at all. The main problem is me. I urgently need God’s grace to help me grow in humility.
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.