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Miniblog #164: The Little-Known Difference Between Biblical Humility & False Humility

by Carson T. Clark on December 31, 2012

If my experience is at all an accurate representation, most Christians fundamentally misunderstand biblical humility. We falsely think that to be humble is to be lowly, piously denying one’s talents while speaking poorly of himself or herself. It isn’t arrogant to acknowledge that you’re better at something than most people; what’s arrogant is incessantly announce that you’re better or to think that because you’re better at the thing you’re better than those people. Take a musician as an example. If a less talented pianist comes up to another after a recital and offers a compliment on the excellence of the performance, it’d be false humility to reply, “Oh, I’m not that good. I really need to practice more.” The humble response is to say, “Thank you,” not treat that person with condescension, and to genuinely believe that those talents are a gift from God. One is a culturally-conditioned facade of humility. The is authentic, biblical humility.

  • Jacob Garcia III

    Josef Pieper’s fantastic (and dense) Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart treats of this with great poetry. (By the way – Pieper was a Thomist, thus the constant references to Thomas).

    “Nothing shows the way to a correct understanding of humility so clearly as this: that humility and magnanimity not only are not mutually exclusive but also are near to one another and intimately connected; both together are in opposition to pride as well as to faintheartedness. What indeed does magnanimity mean? Magnanimity is the expansion of the spirit toward great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it is magnanimous. The magnanimous person is to a certain extent ‘particular': he does not allow himself to become concerned with everything that comes along, but rather only with the great things that are suitable for him. Magnanimity seeks above all great glory: ‘The magnanimous person strives toward that which is worth the highest glory’ [presumably from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica]…. On the other side, the magnanimous one is not broken by disgrace; he looks down on it as unworthy of himself. In general the magnanimous man regards with disdain anyone who is narrow-minded. He would never be able to esteem another so highly that he would do anything improper for that person’s sake…. Undaunted uprightness is the distinctive mark of magnanimity, while nothing is more alien to it than this: to be silent out of fear about what is true. One who is magnanimous completely shuns flattery and hypocrisy, both of which are the issue [i.e., outpouring] of a mean heart. The magnanimous person does not complain, for hisheart does not permit him to be overcome by any external evil. Magnanimity encompasses an uncshakable firmness of hope, a plainly defiant certainty, and the thorough calm of a fearless heart. The magnanimous person submits himself not to the confusion of feelings or to any human being or to fate–but only to God.

    “It is with some amazement that one learns that this profile of magnanimity is traced line for line in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas. It was necessary ot bring this to mind, for in the Treatise on Humility it is state several times that humility does not conflict with magnanimity. One can now consider what this sentence, uttered as a warning and a precaution, truly means to say. It means nothing else than this: that a “humility” that would be too weak to bear the inner tension of coexistence with magnanimity is indeed no humility.”

  • SamHamilton

    I think that’s insightful.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Thanks, Sam!

  • Ethan McCarthy

    Someone asked Flannery O’Connor why she had decided to be a writer. She said, “Because I’m good at it.” Hard to argue with that…

    • Carson T. Clark

      Indeed. I love the matter of fact tone.

  • Morgan Guyton

    Very good point. It’s narcissism to try to be better at acting humble than other people. Just saying “thank you” is the least attention-grabbing way to respond to a compliment.

    • Carson T. Clark


  • Pat

    Amen. My mother is 81 and from the old school, so I was always taught a form of humility that is false humility in my opinion. She used to talk about giving glory to God when complimented, but you know, what’s wrong with a simple “thank you”? Just because I don’t respond with, “Oh, that’s just God in me” or something similar, doesn’t mean that I don’t acknowledge God’s gifting in my life.

  • Nicole

    Thank you for sharing–good points to make. :)
    The common misunderstanding of humility…I think the problem is often
    that we are trying to act humble when we are not actually humble (the
    facade of humility). We don’t possess true, biblical humility, but
    because we know we should be humble, we try to act humble.
    Maybe we need
    to be asking God to make us humble, to teach us and show us how to develop/cultivate
    humility, so that we may truly possess the attitude Jesus demonstrated,
    which was true humility. Jesus’ humility was not demonstrated by
    thinking of HImself as worthless or useless or denying His abilities; rather, He demonstrated
    true humility through complete obedience to God and truly loving, in
    action and in truth. I think humility involves having a right attitude before God,
    realizing and accepting the truth that apart from Him, we can do
    nothing. We can have this attitude while also acknowledging, accepting, appreciating, and using the talents God has given us to enjoy and use to help us love God and love others…

    • Carson T. Clark

      “God, please make me humble.” <– Probably the most dangerous prayer possible.

    • Nicole

      I agree, it probably is the most dangerous prayer possible. I also think it is good. :) And I want to make decisions/choices based on something’s worth, not on its safety. What is more valuable: being comfortable/safe or becoming more like Jesus? I want Christ-like humility, not my own shallow attempt at humility. And I think God loves us too much to want us to be “safe” all the time.

      The same question of comfort versus becoming more like Jesus can maybe be applied to your desire to wrestle through various aspects of your faith and deeply and truly think about them–it may not always lead to comfortable places, but it is still a good thing as it ultimately deepens/expands your understanding of God and your closeness to Him. And it truly benefits those around you as well, in my opinion (even though it may also make others feel uncomfortable or threatened).

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