Any discussion of humility and how we obtain is not complete without also addressing pride and humanity’s perennial struggle with this vice.
The news had a story not long ago about a woman on a plane who was trying to hug the passenger next to her, then got up and ran to the front of the plane to get off — This was mid-flight; where she thought she was going, I have no idea — and refused to return to her seat. She then bit another passenger multiple times, spit and tried to kick others before being restrained by the flight crew.
I’ve traveled a fair amount in my life and spent more time than I care to remember in airports. Of all the places I can think of, airports seem to be the place where most people lose their ability to act rationally. I’ve seen some of the absolute worst behavior take place in airports.
In fact, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) reported that 2021 was a peak year for bad traveler behavior. Verbal abuse was on the rise. Public intoxication became a major issue. Plane crew members were assaulted. The flight attendant union leader actually reported, ““We also have a lot of incidents that are happening more regularly that are violent maybe not directly toward someone, but in actions and words: punching backs of seats, spitting, throwing trash at people, yelling obscenities…”
There’s even an Instagram account now dedicated to shaming unpleasant passengers. It’s got people clipping their toenails or changing dirty diapers right there in the economy seating. So many people are asking, “Why on earth does anyone think this is okay?”
Now we can look at behavior and talk about how to manage that, but the real discussion is what lies beneath it. A lot of people seem to walk into planes thinking, “I paid for these seat, so I get to do whatever makes me most comfortable, regardless of how irritating it will be for others around me” or “If someone annoys me, it’s excusable for me to curse at them or throw my soda cup at them.” My opinion is that much of this behavior is based on an entitlement mentality. We’re losing the fine art of humility.
Any talk about humility isn’t really complete without considering the flip side of humility: pride.
Sometimes people want to put a positive spin on pride and say there are some good parts to it. In reality, pride is incredibly destructive, even if it doesn’t immediately seem like it. As a matter of fact, pride may be the most destructive attribute of a person’s character; it seems to be the mother of all sins.
The ultimate example of pride would be in an absolute lack of self-awareness. This is beautifully shown in the New Testament’s comments about pride. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17, ESV).
John starts out in a place we don’t often consider when we think about pride versus humility. He begins with talking about the love of the world and things of the world. What are those things? Well, he describes them: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, the pride of life. Some versions of the Bible say, "The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life is not from the father, but is from the world and the world is passing away along with all of its desires.” I think the reason we don’t often associate this verse with major discussions about pride is because it’s easy to read and think to ourselves, “Well, I follow God, and I see how ugly and sinful the world is. I don’t love the world.”
Here’s the dangerous aspect of any discussion about pride. We all struggle with it.
Sometimes there are stereotypes that loud, assertive people are prideful and quiet, more passive people are humbled. There are many people who are quiet, low-key introverts and still have a whole lot of pride. Pride lives under the surface, and so often, it goes undetected because it’s the master of disguise, particularly in areas where we feel inferior. It’s like the old Shakespearean quote, “I think you doth protest too much. You crow, but you crow too loudly.” A lot of times, pride is a sign that we’re covering up an area where we actually feel vulnerable or insufficient.
There’s a story about a preacher who gave this rousing sermon. There was a tremendous response from the congregation during the alter-call. The preacher felt like it was a great success. On the way home from church, he looks over at his wife and says, “Hey, honey. How many truly great preachers do you think there are in this world?”
She glanced at him, thought about it for a minute then said, “Hmm, I don't know, but probably one less than you think.”
That story makes me chuckle, but it also illustrates two very important points. First, pride is very easy to identify in others and incredibly elusive inside ourselves. I’d even go so far as to say, the more pride we have inside us, the easier it is for us to spot pride in other people. Second, pride masquerades very easily as confidence.
How do we tell the difference then between pride in ourselves and confidence in who God has made us to be and in his calling on our lives?
I love the scriptures when it says, "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:3-5, emphasis added). In this moment, John stressed that Jesus knows who he is. He didn’t deny being God. The purest form of humility came out of Christ embracing who he was and then giving himself to his followers.
We see this again when Jesus was before Pilate. “Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.’” (John 19:10-11). Jesus was not being sarcastic or arrogant here; he was simply pointing to the truth of his nature and Pilate’s.
Pride flows out of denial over who we truly are, how frail we are, what our failures are. Genuine humility and confidence often go hand-in-hand, and they both spring from an unflinching embrace of reality.
For example, I know I am 100 percent a child of God, forgiven and redeemed. I don’t think it’s unhealthy, though, to remind myself that I am not a natural child of God. I’m adopted through God’s grace, not because of my own merit. Keeping that reality in front of myself helps me fight against entitlement. I’m a child of God, but I’m also a servant of God.
Jesus knew this full well. That’s why he told his disciples, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:14-16). It’s hard to be a proud servant.
As we let go of our entitlement and insecurities, we can embrace who God defines us as and what he’s given us ability to do. As we do that more and more, we will discover almost by surprise that we’ve grown in humility and confidence together. It was C. S. Lewis who brilliantly captured this idea in Mere Christianity. “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. …He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Humility is not denying the gifts or opportunities that God gives you. It’s about using both of those for the glory of God and the betterment of others.
You know, that verse in 1 John that we looked at earlier reminds us of what we gain when we follow God this way. “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). The positive side of this is that we will live forever in peace, joy and abundance because we have done the will of the Father, and that means living in humility, subservience and submission to him and his will. It’s a beautiful promise worth pursuing with everything we have in us.
If you found this article inspiring, you can listen to more encouraging content from John Bailey and Mark Renfroe in the Truth & Grace podcast here.