Three Truths About Humility

Luke Barry

March 3, 2021
5 min read

Leadership is important. What you do matters. Your work may impact the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. For that reason, one of the challenges all leaders will face—especially as our impact and influence grow—is the temptation to think a little too much of ourselves. Sometimes as leaders, whether we seek it or not, we become the center of attention. Our teams look to us. Our staff supports us. We find people asking us what we would like or what we need. None of these are bad things. But all of them bring with them a wind that, if we’re not careful, may blow us off course.

Few things in this life are more destructive than pride. If we are going to go the distance as leaders, we are going to have to counteract pride with its antidote—humility. Pride is destructive; humility is life-giving. Andrew Murray, the South African writer, teacher, and pastor, once said, “Pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you.” If we let it, pride will kill the heavenly destiny God has set before us. Pride is where our ancient ancestors first went wrong. It was the beginning of all of humanity’s trouble. And centuries later, we find ourselves in the same struggle.

One of the ironies of our culture is that it honors both humility and pride. Few would argue with the virtue of humility. Yet look at how our culture defines, portrays, and celebrates pride and you will be faced with an irreconcilable picture. How can these two “virtues” coexist? Of course, the truth is that they can’t. You can’t be humble and prideful at the same time. You have to choose between the two. Our natural inclination leads us toward pride but, with a bit of intentionality and the help of the Holy Spirit, we can develop humility at our core.

Here are three simple truths about humility.

1. Humility is a Dose of Reality

“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” Thomas Merton

When I encourage you to cultivate humility, I’m not suggesting that you take on a low view of yourself. I am simply advocating an honest view of your own importance. The truth is, your importance is contextual. It varies relative to your circumstances. Your value as a human being is fixed; it doesn’t change with your shifting situation, success, or failure. But your importance fluctuates constantly. In a room with your friends or family, you are likely known, loved, and admired. In a meeting you’re running, you are in charge. In your department, you’re the boss. But in a different context, you may be unknown and unnoticed. You may be critical to your company, but worthless to another. Again, I’m not talking about your human value. I’m talking about your contextual significance.

Humility is optional, but its lessons are unavoidable. Whether you like it or not, eventually you will come face to face with this reality. Jesus said it this way, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). You can either humble yourself or you can be humbled. You can embrace it willingly or encounter it forcefully. There is no other option. (Hey, don’t get mad at me, get mad at Jesus.) You are both infinitely valuable and relatively insignificant. You are a big part of your story and a small part of the narrative of history. You are one of a kind and one in a sea of billions that came before and will go after you. If you feel you need to conjure a forced sense of humility, you might be doing it wrong.

2. Humility is Essential for Longevity

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” C.S. Lewis

Prideful leaders can last for a time, but they will not stand the test of time. Don’t let temporary success convince you that your methods are sustainable. Ultimately, prideful motives and selfish tactics will backfire. You can only get away with it for so long. In his famous collection of wise sayings, King Solomon warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). The deceptive thing about this truth is that there is no clear timeline attached. For a time, external results may make it seem like all is well. There may be no sign of trouble...until there is. The only way to know if you are operating from a place of pride or humility is to examine your heart and be honest about your inner thoughts and motivations.

I don’t mean to get too heavy. The flip side of this conversation is the riveting prospect of a meaningful life and a lasting legacy. The consequences of pride are frightening, but the rewards of humility are invigorating. They can bring life to what we do. It was the Apostle Peter who said, “Humble yourselves…under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6). We can fight, struggle, and strive to get ahead, but the best promotion is the one precipitated by God himself. You may lift yourself up temporarily, but God can lift you up permanently. No one can prevent his promotion, reverse his favor, or thwart his purposes.

3. Humility is Key to Greatness

“A great man is always willing to be little.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Humility is not something we need to fake or force. It is the natural result of an honest examination of our own importance. It means coming to terms with what we are and what we are not. It means accepting our human limitations. It is not easy, and it will cost us something. But what it will add to our lives is of much greater value than what it will ask of us. Rather than sabotaging our desire for greatness, humility is actually the key to significance and meaning. Humility creates space in our lives for God to do great things. It is the greatest success strategy we have.

You may have heard John The Baptist’s famous declaration, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). Yet the paradox of the Gospel is that as we become less, as we decrease and Christ increases in us, we become more than we ever could have imagined. Why should we mourn the loss of so little when we gain so much? Humility will cost you everything you have, but it will make room for things of far greater worth. It is not the path to less, it is the path to more. It is the surprising and unexpected road to the things for which we all long. Don’t be fooled by its unassuming appearance or its unexpected direction. It may look like it runs backwards, but it is our only way forward.

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