I mentioned recently that “humility is the best way to live our lives.” In writing that, I want to make something perfectly clear: humility is NOT modesty.
I think people get the two confused, as if they are one and the same. But they’re not. Far from it.
I think it was Dallas Willard (author of “The Divine Conspiracy”) who opened my eyes to the difference between “modesty” and “humility.”
“Modesty” is the “aww, shucks, ma’am, you don’t have to give me the credit, I was just doing my job” attitude. It is letting people know that we’re not prideful or arrogant or pretentious – like how other people are. But underneath modesty can be an insidious form of pride; the most dangerous because it can fool us into thinking that we don’t have an “ego” problem. Blatantly arrogant people know they are prideful; or at least, the people around them know that. But modesty masks the pride from others and, often, from ourselves.
I know because I am a recovering “Modest-aholic.”
For most of my life I’ve wanted people to know that I am a “non-pretentious” person. On occasion, my ego will flare up and I will say something that betrays my selfish pride; but most of the time I control it. “Control” is a key word. Modest people control their ego. Humble people admit their ego.
As a modest-aholic, I also understand how modesty is a subtle form of judgmentalism. I judge other people secretly. I especially judge people who are not modest like me. I take pride in how I live my life – without fanfare, with simplicity, with discipline, without claiming credit. I won’t tell others about how proud I am of myself – that would just be uncool and socially unacceptable. But I’ll treasure it in my heart and mind.
I believe the Pharisee, in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:11, was probably modest. It’s easy to judge him as arrogant, but if you look carefully at the passage, it says that he was “alone” when he prayed. That meant he wasn’t trying to show off to others. Rather, his prayer to God was sincere. So he could have been a modest person on the outside, but his prayer before the presence of God revealed his secret pride.
I never thought of myself as that Pharisee, but after reading Willard, I realized that I resembled him more than the humble tax collector.
So what is humility?
True humility is an honest assessment of our situation and our character – nothing more, nothing less. It begins with the understanding that we cannot have this honest assessment without the help of God. So we ask God to reveal truth to us (Ps 51:6b, Ps 139:24), before we jump to any conclusions. We then accept God’s perspective and live by it. We don’t beat ourselves up over our mistakes and failings (for God doesn’t). In Christ, we know we are loved, accepted and a work in progress. So while our sins, failures and mistakes are sobering, they are not to devastate us. Christ does not condemn us, so we do not condemn ourselves. We learn, we grow, we move on.
True humility does not take credit for the work of God. Blessings, successes, and break throughs are all a part of God’s amazing grace. We may contribute hard work on our end, but we know that our ability to contribute is also a grace of God. One of our worship team members (who is an amazing musician and inspirational worshiper) put things into perspective when he shared that playing worship music for the church is an amazing privilege; that God gives us the honor to do this.
Finally, the truly humble person is not out to impress anyone. This is because the humble person is focused on honoring God, not impressing other people. We serve others. We love others. But frankly, my dear, we shouldn’t give a darn about what they think about us! We’re too busy wanting to know what God thinks and desires than to involve ourselves in the drama of others. Contrast this with the “modest” person, who is usually obsessed in what others think about them and where they stand in the “pecking order.”
There’s an old country-western parody that goes, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when I’m perfect in every way.” We can laugh at such arrogance, but I think that’s an attitude that is all too present in too many Christ-followers (including myself). But to pursue humility is the way of life and freedom. It’s the way of Whole Life Worship.