In a recent article, “Truly Humbled to Be the Author of This Article,” in the Atlantic, David Brooks pokes fun of the way we use “humbled” online. He quotes a particular social media post from a particular successful person (but it could have been anyone) who was “humbled” for receiving a prestigious honorary degree from a prestigious school. If you want to follow the code of what he calls “humility display,” wherein a person proudly and very publicly boasts about how humble they are, you would be hard pressed to find a better example.
This game has unwritten rules, he notes, and the first one is that “you must never tweet about any event that could actually lead to humility.” In other words, never share, “I’m humbled that I got fired for incompetence.” We must avoid experiences that lead to real humility because “the whole point of humility display is to signal that you are humbled by your own magnificent accomplishments.”
We do not live in a world that values humility. Humble people are not rewarded. In fact, a truly humble person would probably not even be noticed very much. And in our world, to not be noticed feels a lot like not existing. The world is organized to maximize being noticed. We live for it. We crave it. We love the “likes” and affirmations that the internet provides. We are only “humbled” when we can display it.
It’s hard to imagine a phenomenon as far removed from the spirit of our Lord and Savior as that of “humility display.” Jesus did not have to put forth fake shows of humility because he was truly humble. He lived it. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The Creator of the universe took on frail human flesh and subjected himself to weakness and excruciating suffering—ultimately, death—in order to save the very people causing his pain. But here’s the thing we must never forget: he calls his followers to imitate his example.
What does a truly humble life look like? This question is not easy to answer because the number of available examples is truly sparse. However, Jesus, the aforementioned humble man par excellence, devoted a fair amount of his life and ministry to teaching us. I am struck by an account that Mark records for us in Mark 9:30-37. Mark tells us that Jesus has been teaching his disciples about his upcoming death and resurrection, but that they do not understand it yet. In fact, there’s a reason they do not understand it.
They are not able to understand Jesus’ humility because their moral consciousness has gone awry. Conditioned by the world to seek praise, they have no category for true humility. You see, the whole time Jesus was teaching them along the way, they had been having a debate among themselves about who among them was the greatest.
Before we cartoonize them with our mocking scorn, let’s remember that we too participate in such arguments. We probably would not come out and say that we are arguing about being greater than our opponents, but what else would you call it? Why do we so want to be seen as right? Why do we spend so much time depicting our lives with the perfect poses with perfect hair and perfect clothes using perfect filters? Why do we want everyone else to see how paradisical our vacations are? Why do we flaunt our accomplishments so readily? Don’t we want to be great, too?
What’s amazing to me is that Jesus never condemns the desire for greatness. There’s something about being created in the image of the great God that leads us to naturally yearn for greatness. The desire for greatness, in itself, is not the problem. The problem for them and for us is that we think greatness comes by trying to raise our own profiles. We have the wrong definition of greatness. We equate greatness with worldly power. So, Jesus drops the truth bomb: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
What does such a life look like? How do we measure whether we are on the path to true greatness? Jesus picks up a random child and says, in effect, “How do you treat children?” The treatment of children, to Jesus, reveals the heart of true humility, and thus true greatness, because children have nothing to offer us transactionally. Devoting your life to raising children, serving children, and caring for children will not make you great in the eyes of the world. But it will make you great in the eyes of Jesus. Which one matters most to you?