Why We Misunderstand Humility 

We often think of humility as a somewhat dreary virtue. We know we need it, but we don’t expect it to be much fun.

I remember hearing a talk on humility at a youth group. The speaker opened with dutiful reluctance: “I know we don’t really enjoy this topic, but we need to talk about it anyway.” 

This is how many of us think: humility is important, but strictly as a duty. It’s like paying our taxes or going to the dentist. Interestingly, C. S. Lewis argued the opposite: “To get even near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.” Tim Keller preached something similar: “There’s nothing more relaxing than humility.” As he explained, pride grumbles at everything, but humility can joyfully receive life as a gift. 

So perhaps we get it backward: we think humility is an impossible burden, but in reality it is as light as a feather. It is pride that makes life gray and drab; humility brings out the color. 

Misconceptions about Humility 

Why do we get this wrong? I don’t fully know, but I suspect that part of the answer is that we simply misunderstand what humility is. It may be the most misunderstood virtue there is. Here are three misconceptions, in particular. 

Misconception #1: Humility Is Hiding
Humility is not hiding your talents or abilities. If you can paint like Van Gogh, humility does not require you to keep your work under a veil in the basement closet. If you can pitch a ninety-five-mile-per-hour fastball, humility will not encourage you to sit on the bench and never tell the coach. 

In Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters, one devil advises another, 

“The Enemy [God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.”

If Lewis is right, then denying your talents is not humility—if anything, it is the opposite, since you are still focused on yourself, biased for or against yourself as an exception to the rest of the human race. Humility means the death of this craving, self-referential framework. It means the freedom of valuing your contribution to the world alongside every other good thing in the world. 

Imagine it like this: you are part of a team of doctors working to cure a disease. You make a discovery that contributes approximately 25 percent toward finding the cure. Another doctor then makes a different discovery that contributes the remaining 75 percent toward finding the cure. Humility means you are pleased with your accomplishment and able to speak freely about it, while simultaneously and effortlessly three times more pleased with your colleague’s effort. 

To be such a person is not a burden, but joy and freedom. 

Misconception #2: Humility Is Self-Hatred
Humility is not self-hatred, self-neglect, or self-punishment. The Bible never says, “Hate yourself; instead, love your neighbor.” It says, “Love your neighbor as yourself ” (Lev. 19:18). Self-hatred is actually no less sinful than hatred of others (just as suicide is a form of murder). 

Musician Andrew Peterson has a song entitled “Be Kind to Yourself.” It’s quite a lovely song. But this idea of self-kindness strikes some of us as strange—and, to be sure, it can be misunderstood. It must be distinguished from self-indulgence, for instance. But there is a way to take care of yourself, to genuinely have regard for yourself, that is healthy and good, and ultimately makes you more useful to others. As I often say in counseling situations, self-care is not selfish. 

Many in our society struggle with a sense of shame, inferiority, and low self-worth. We must sharply distinguish such feelings from the goal of humility. Whatever else humility will require of you, it will never rob you of your dignity as an image bearer of God. 

Humble people don’t need constant attention, but they also don’t necessarily mind being noticed. Humble people don’t need flattery, but they can sincerely receive a compliment. Such people are not constantly minimizing themselves. They can walk into a room with a bounce in their step, open to what their presence might contribute to others (but not needing it to). 

Again, to be such a person is not a burden, but joy and freedom. 

Misconception #3: Humility Is Weakness
Humility is not weakness. We often think of it this way— as though humble people are the type you can push around if you want. They think so lowly of themselves that they don’t stand up against opposition.

But the truth is once again close to the opposite. Humility actually breeds strength and resilience because it frees us from the restricting needs of the ego—the need to be in charge, the need to look good, the need to defend ourselves, and so on. Humble people are often marked by a healthy ability to speak their minds on a given subject. They are not distracted by the burdens of constant self-regard and self-assessment. 

Humility also breeds strength because it is motivating. There is nothing like freedom from self-awareness and self-protectiveness that so wonderfully concentrates you on the matter in front of you. As a result, humble people tend to be productive and industrious, often without even thinking about it. 

So again, humility is not a burden but a joy. It feels like discovering how something is supposed to work (that “something” being yourself). 

Humility Is Self-Forgetfulness Leading to Joy 

Okay, this gives us a sense of what humility isn’t—but what is it, exactly? 

Keller, following Lewis, speaks of humility as self- forgetfulness—it’s not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Self-hiding, self-hatred, self-protection—these are all forms of self-preoccupation, whereas humility leads us into freedom from thoughts of self altogether. 

Lewis helps us once again: 

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

The word cheerful strikes me in this passage, as well as the emphasis on the enjoyment of life. This is the particular theme we will explore in this book: the pleasantness of humility. When we see humility in others, it is attractive, charming, and winsome. When we practice it ourselves, life goes more smoothly and happily. 

In fact, we can go so far as to identify joy as the acid test of humility, for true humility always produces joy. If we lack joy, we know we’ve got a counterfeit humility. Something is misfiring. Of course, this doesn’t mean that humility will always feel uplifting and comfortable. There will be arduous moments. But the net result will be, as with exercise or a healthy diet, distinctly pleasant. 

So we can think of humility like this: self-forgetfulness leading to joy. 

Consider this wonderful passage from J. R. R. Tolkien’s story The Hobbit. It’s the conclusion of the book, after the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins has returned home and is reflecting on his adventures with his friend, the wizard Gandalf. 

“’Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!’ said Bilbo. 

“’Of course!’ said Gandalf. ‘And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

“’Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.”

Oh, how I love this passage. It conveys a sense of the relief of humility. Being a big deal is a burden. Humility, in contrast, means you don’t interpret everything in relation to yourself, and you don’t need to. It is the death of the narrow, suffocating filter of self-referentiality. It is the nourishing, calming acceptance that you have a small place in a much larger story: that your life is being guided by something far bigger than your plans or controls, and serving something far bigger than your “sole benefit.” 

Humility is the joy of embracing life as it is meant to be lived. Humility is accepting Gandalf’s rebuke that “you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all” and responding, like Bilbo, with relief and laughter. 

We are tiny people in a vast world: thank goodness!

Excerpted from Humility by Gavin Ortlund, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.