Self-Loathing is Not Humility

We often confuse or pervert Christian relational postures and character traits.  There are probably lots of reasons for this.

Humility is one of those. 

It is often badly understood as something like self-loathing.  Self-loathing people downgrade themselves, their abilities and capacities.  They sound self-deprecating.

It seems to me that this is how wounded pride talks.  It’s self-love that’s been disappointed in some way.

A while back, just for fun, I would affirm insincere self-deprecating comments.  For example, I would say to someone who had just played some music, “Hey, nice job on that.”  If they responded with, “well, it wasn’t so good, I’m not that great at guitar,” I would reply, “I know, it wasn’t actually very good.  I was just trying to be nice.”

There were no lasting injuries, thankfully, and it led to some laughs.  It was an attempt to subvert our agreed-upon speech patterns that embody a perverted conception of humility.

It seems that humility is better described than defined.  You know it when you see it and when you’ve been around someone who is humble.

Humility is something like honest self-assessment.  There’s lots that can be said to describe it and elaborate on how it performs in various situations.

Anyone have a good definition or description?

12 thoughts on “Self-Loathing is Not Humility

  1. lamehousewife

    I am with you on honest self-assessment. Catherine of Siena said something like, knowing your dignity (as a child of God) and your indignity (your tendency to sin). Francis de Sales also talks about it in a few chapters in An Introduction to the devout life: External Humility, Inward Humility, Humility Helps Us Love Our Own Abasement (which is about acceptance of trials and suffering), and How to Preserve a Good Reputation Together with the Practice of Humility. In essence, he reminds us to not be fake about it, doing something that your heart is not into, to be even of spirit, to accept whatever happens in life, and to not be loud in humility, if that makes sense. I think honest self-assessment is a very concise way to put it. Excellent post!

    1. timgombis

      Interesting, Catherine of Siena sounds like James–awareness of our high position and our lowliness, too, so that we’re not carried away into thinking too much or too little of ourselves.

      1. lamehousewife

        I have full confidence that St. Catherine of Siena knew Scripture since she is a doctor of the Church, so that is probably why it echoes the same sort of vision of self as James. Now me, on the other hand, I still need to do more studying:)

  2. Jason A. Staples

    Proverbs seems to identify humility with teachability, the willingness to hear and learn from others, with God as the prime Other. I find that’s often a good place to start.

  3. Abraham Joseph

    A good way to define humility is by contrasting it with pride. If pride is falsehood (in self-assessment) and self-centeredness, then humility is truthfulness and other-centeredness.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, Abraham, there definitely is that others-orientation . . . in the best way. Not in trying to please others, but in seeking their flourishing and their good.

  4. S Wu

    I have been thinking about James this week. James 4:4-10 has much to say about pride and humility. Indeed 4:6 cites Proverbs 3:34 and says “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (NIV2011) At the same time James 1:9-10; 2:1-7; 5:1-6 talks about the type of rich-poor status reversal that is similar to Luke’s Gospel. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11; 18:14). I am wondering whether we should keep the socioeconomic and religio-political cultural contexts of the first-century world in mind when we think about “humility” in the NT? (Luke 14:7-24 is a case in point.) That is, humility is not only about the inner attitude of individuals, but also the communal and social life pattern that God requires his people to live out. I think Scot McKnight’s commentary on James captures this quite well.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, exactly, S. It isn’t merely the cultivation of inner piety, but is embodied in a whole range of relational postures and social behaviors.

  5. C Sage

    Another way one might think about humility is as the total lack of the “personal ego.”. When we are truly humble we are the pure expression of God in every thought, word, and act.

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