The Quiet Power of Humility

Published April 15, 2017

The New York Times

Over breakfast with a social psychologist I know, I asked him what constructive contribution Christians could make to public life. An atheist who finds much to admire in religion, he answered simply: “Humility.”

That is a perfectly reasonable hope. Unfortunately, however, humility is a neglected Christian virtue. This is rather odd, given that humility should be a defining trait of Christians. The resurrection, celebrated by Christians throughout the world on Easter Sunday, was made possible only by an act of unsurpassed humility.

According to St. Paul, Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. Instead, Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Yet humility is hardly a hallmark of American Christianity, especially (but by no means exclusively) among those Christians prominently involved in politics. There we often see arrogance, haughtiness and pride, which is not only the “original sin” but also arguably the one most antithetical to a godly cast of mind.

In what should rank as one of the more ironic facts of modern politics, prominent Christian leaders and a record number of self-proclaimed evangelical voters supported for president a man of undisguised cruelty and unmatched narcissism. Indeed, for some evangelicals, those qualities worked in President Trump’s favor. Robert Jeffress, pastor of a megachurch in Dallas, explained that he did not want as president “some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek.” What he wanted, Mr. Jeffress said, was “the meanest, toughest S.O.B. I can find to protect this nation.”

Since humility is so out of fashion as to almost have been forgotten, it’s worth making the case for how to rightly understand it, to articulate why humility is not only an essential Christian virtue but also, as my breakfast companion understood so well, an essential civic one.

My own understanding of humility is inextricably tied to a decades-long journey of faith. From it I have become convinced that Christians should be characterized by moral humility. This doesn’t mean followers of Jesus should be indifferent to a moral order grounded in eternal truths or unable to judge some things right and others wrong. But they ought to be alert first and foremost to their own shortcomings — to the awareness of how wayward our own hearts are, how even good acts are often tainted by selfish motives, how we all struggle with brokenness in our lives. This is not an argument for self-loathing; it’s an argument for self-awareness.

At the core of Christian doctrine is the belief that we have all fallen short, that our loves are disordered and our lives sometimes a mess, and therefore we are in need of grace. As a result, one of the defining qualities of a Christian’s witness to the world should be gentleness, an irenic spirit and empathy. The mark of genuine humility is not self-abasement as much as self-forgetting, which in turn allows us to take an intense interest in the lives of others.

But that is hardly the whole of it. Epistemological humility should also characterize Christians. In my last conversation with him before he died in 2015, Steve Hayner, who was president of Columbia Theological Seminary and an enormously influential figure in my life, put it well. “I believe in objective truth,” he told me, “but I hold lightly to our ability to perceive truth.”

What Steve meant by this, I think, is that the world is unfathomably complex. To believe we have mastered it in all respects — that our angle of vision on matters like politics, philosophy and theology is just right all the time — is ridiculous. This doesn’t mean one ought to live in a state of perpetual doubt and uncertainty. If we did, we could never speak up for justice and moral truth. It does mean, however, that we’re aware that what we know is at best incomplete. “We see through a glass darkly” is how St. Paul put it in one of his letters to the Corinthians: We know only in part.

My point is not that humility is uniquely available to Christians; it is simply that Christian teaching and tradition affirm its importance.

Humility is a sign of self-confidence; it means we’re secure enough to alter our views based on new information and new circumstances. This would be a far more common occurrence for many of us if our goal was to achieve a greater understanding of truth rather than to confirm what we already believe — if we went into debates wanting to learn rather than wanting to win.

This is a challenge for people of every faith and people of no faith, but as Robert Putnam and David Campbell write in “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Christians and other religious Americans, while generally better neighbors and “more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts,” also tend to be “less tolerant of dissent than secular Americans.”

Certitude can easily become an enemy of tolerance but also of inquiry, since if you believe you have all the answers, there’s no point in searching out further information or making an effort to understand the values and assumptions of those with whom you disagree. It’s worth noting, too, that our checks-and-balances system of government assumes that none of us has all the answers and therefore no single person should be trusted with complete authority.

Humility believes there is such a thing as collective wisdom and that we’re better off if we have within our orbit people who see the world somewhat differently than we do. “As iron sharpens iron,” the book of Proverbs says, “so one person sharpens another.” But this requires us to actually engage with, and carefully listen to, people who understand things in ways dissimilar to how we do. It means we have to venture out of our philosophical and theological cul-de-sacs from time to time. It’s worth the effort.

As Tim Keller, one of America’s most influential evangelical thinkers, says: “You can’t disagree with somebody by just beating them from the outside. You have to come into their framework. You critique them from inside their own framework; you don’t critique them for not having your framework.”

A friend of mine recently told me that humility — a virtue he would be the first to admit he recognized only later in life — is elusive, a perpetual goal, almost always a little bit out of reach. The wiser we become, the more we see how much we don’t know and how much we need others to help us know.

The greatest among you shall be a servant, Jesus said, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. For people of the Christian faith, no one humbled himself more, or was exalted as much, as Jesus himself. The cross made the resurrection possible; humility prepared the way for hope. Which raises this question: If humility was good enough for Jesus, why not for the rest of us?

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer.

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