Al Earley: Can You Define Humility?

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By Al Earley

How humble are you? I think of humility as one of those things that is easier to recognize than it is to define. For example, my dictionary defines humility as a state or quality of being humble of mind or spirit. It is the absence of pride or self-assertion. That doesn’t really capture the power of encountering a truly humble person, does it?

The Bible has a lot to say about humility. The prophet Micah summarized what God wants most from us with these words, “He (God) has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Paul tells us in Philippians 2:5-8 about the humility of Jesus Christ. He writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.”

The kind of humility Micah is calling us to is the kind of humility that changes the world around us, like Jesus did. I have thought I exhibited that kind of humility before, but at the same time I thought I could also write books entitled, “Humility and How I Attained It” and “The Ten Most Humble Men in the World and How I Chose the Other Nine.”

My understanding of humility today teaches me that deciding if I am humble or not is not my call, it is something I hope others see in me, and I try to understand it better and live that way.

I read a story a long time ago. I have always liked this story and hoped I would be like the man in the story and not how Christians usually act. I don’t think Christians are generally much better at exhibiting humility than the population in general. I think this story illustrates the problem we face being humble pretty well.

It starts with a college student named Bill. His normal appearance was wild hair, T-shirts with holes, old jeans and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He was kind of esoteric and very, very bright. He became a Christian while attending college.

Across the street from the campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. They want to develop a ministry to the students, but are not sure how to go about it. One day Bill decides to go there. He walks in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt and wild hair. The service has already started, so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed and he can’t find a seat. By now people are really looking a bit uncomfortable but no one says anything. Bill gets closer to the pulpit, and when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the carpet. (Although perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, this had never happened in this church before!) By now the people were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick.

About this time, the minister realizes that from way at the back of the church, the church’s oldest deacon is slowly making his way toward Bill. He is in his eighties, dressed sharp as always and presents an air of dignity and respect. He walks with a cane and, as he starts walking toward this young man, everyone thinks they know what the deacon is going to do. It takes a long time for the deacon to reach the young man. The church is utterly silent except for the clicking of the man’s cane. The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do. And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships with him so he won’t feel alone. Everyone knows they have seen a definition of humility. When the minister gains control, he says, “What I’m about to preach you will never remember. What you have just seen you will never forget.”

How humble do you think you are? Should you be answering the question or should you ask others what they think? What are the traits of a humble person? Do you exhibit any of them regularly? Why is there such power in true humility? Why is it so rare?

Al Earley is pastor of La Grange Presbyterian Church. To find out more about Al Earley or read previous articles see www.lagrangepres.com. The views in this column are those of the writer.