When Ben Franklin turned 20, he was determined to become virtuous. He put together a list of 12 virtues (frugality, sincerity, justice, etc.), and worked out a system of regularly focusing on one virtue a week while tracking his progress as he went.
He showed his finished list of values to a minister who pointed out that Franklin was missing humility—the queen of all virtues. Ben added it to the list bringing the total to 13.
After spending many months working on the virtues, Franklin’s friend asked how he was doing with humility. Franklin responded, “I can’t boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”
If you’re acting humble, you’re not
Virtues are a lot like garments; you can put them on on without owning them. It’s tricky because we don’t just fool the people around us by playing dress up—we fool ourselves.
Humility’s much easier to manufacture than it is to internalize, and as long as we’re more focused on humility’s appearance, we’ll never experience its transformation.
So what’s humility?
Scripture’s packed with references to humility (something God honors), and most of the time it’s used as an antonym for pride (something God despises).
The classic C. S. Lewis quote from Mere Christianity is a helpful place to start:
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Humility’s simplicity is what makes it so damned difficult. It’s simply thinking about, promoting the interests of, and celebrating others more than yourself.
Instead of focusing on others, we tend to promote, celebrate, and focus on ourselves with a little self-depreciating twist to give the appearance that we really don’t take ourselves that seriously.
4 things that aren’t humility
1. The humble brag
I use to work with this guy who’d say things like, “My wife’s always telling me that people think I’m weird and socially awkward because I use professor-like vocabulary words instead of talking like a normal person.”
Let me translate that for you: “Folks think I’m weird, BECAUSE I’M SO DAMN SMART!”
A humble brag is the delightful technique of saying something awesome about yourself, but washing it down with a chaser of faux-criticism or depreciation.
Only one person in a group can never seem to recognize a humble brag, and that’s the person who’s using it. They’re too busy trying to force feed you a spoonful of their awesomeness.
2. Most uses of the word “humbled”
When I had my first viral blog post, I was a bit of a jackass. It was such a big surprise and I didn’t know how to talk about it in a way that didn’t seem awful. So instead of just talking about it, I would post screen shots and stats and say ridiculous things like, “I’m so humbled that so many people are reading my blog today.”
I wasn’t so humbled about it—that was complete nonsense. I was excited. And you know what? That’s okay. What’s not okay is putting on some false sense of humility in order to draw attention to myself.
Now whenever I hear someone tell me how humbled they are, I recognize it for the B.S. it is. (Also, I can’t read “I’m so humbled” without hearing it in Jeremy Iron’s Scar voice.) Just tell me about the awesome thing you’re experiencing so I can celebrate with you.
3. Not taking a compliment
Newsflash: Humble people can take a compliment.
It’s funny to see someone spend an hour doing their hair and picking out an outfit to see them respond to a compliment on their appearance with, “Oh, stop. I look hideous.”
One’s inability to take a compliment (even if they’re sincere) is more about pride than it’s about humility.
Humble people have strengths, positive qualities, and nice outfits. It’s okay. Say thank you and move on.
4. Giving the glory to the Lord
Sometimes when you compliment a Christian on a job well done they’ll give you this kind of response, “Oh, that was just the Lord working through me” or “All the glory goes to the Lord.”
This is the Christian mash-up of not taking a compliment and holy humble bragging. It’s the worst kind of religiosity because it passes off the compliment while doubling down on self-righteousness.
By acknowledging your gifts, you glorify the Lord. Humility doesn’t parade around in the skinny jeans of false piety.
Truly humble people are amazing to be around. Want to be like them? Start by looking for ways to celebrate the awesomeness of others and stop looking for a way to promote your own.