— "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less" —
Legend attributes this quote to a variety of authors, including, most notably, C.S. Lewis. More likely, however, it stems from Rick Warren's, A Purpose Driven Life (97, "Day 19").
Nonetheless, the sage of Narnian lore certainly nodded in assent to this conception of humility. In, Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote:
"The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether" (111, "The Great Sin" — emphasis added).
That is, rather than think less of yourself (i.e., as a "small, dirty object"), it is "better" to think of yourself less (i.e., "forget about yourself altogether").
Furthermore, The Screwtape Letters, another C.S. Lewis work, also touches upon this notion. The book is written from the vantage-point of a demon and tempter named, Screwtape, providing advice to his young demon-nephew, Wormwood, on how best to entice men away from God and toward the devil.
According to Screwtape, one way to accomplish this task is to cause a man to misapprehend the "true" nature and meaning of humility. He says:
"You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talent and character" (72, "Letter 14").
Hence, in Lewis' estimation, you should not think less of yourself (i.e., have a "low opinion of [your] own talent and character") — that's what the devil wants you to think. Rather, you should learn to think of yourself less frequently (and more of others) — even forgetting about yourself altogether. Then you will be truly humble.
In truth, from a biblical point of view, these sentiments are only partially correct. Consider:
Yourself Less, Others More
Humility certainly requires us to think of ourselves less and of others more. A humble man will put his family, friends, and neighbors — even his enemies (those who would do him harm) — ahead of himself. Their well-being takes precedence over his.
Consider these passages:
"Let no one seek his own, but each one the other's well-being" (1 Cor. 10.24).
Love "does not seek his own…" ( 1 Cor. 13.5b).
"We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please himself…" (Rom. 15.1-3).
These passages employ a figure of speech known as, elipsis. A thought or word has been elided (left out) so as to place greater emphasis on the matter. A failure to comprehend this has lead some to suppose that Paul advocated a complete self-neglect — that we should not, in any way, "seek our own well-being." But Paul makes clear his intention in Philippians 2.3-4:
"Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."
The Pauline emphasis, then, is this: though you should certainly look out for your "own interests," you should "also" look out "for the interests of others." In fact, put the welfare of others ahead of your own welfare. Think about what they require — what is beneficial for them.
When Paul instructs us not to seek "our own…well-being," he is de-emphasizing self-welfare [by eliding the word, only], and, instead, propping-up the service of others. Hence, we are instructed not to seek our own welfare only (to the neglect of others), nor to please ourselves only (to the neglect of others), for even Jesus himself did not please himself only (to the neglect of others).
Instead, humility requires us to put our personal welfare into the background and, with our Lord, focus on "doing good" for others (Acts 10.38; cf. Mt. 20.28).
While humility requires us to put others ahead of ourselves, it does not require us to abandon self-love or self-interest — to neglect our own well-being. Rather, humility simply requires us to change our priorities.
Your soul is the most precious commodity in the world (cf. Mt. 16.26). You are made in the "image of God" (Gen. 1.26-27; Col. 3.10). Your individual value and self-worth should never be wholly disregarded, for Christ deemed you, personally, worthy enough to die in your stead (cf. Jn. 3.16; Gal. 2.20). If Christ loved you — and what love that entails! — should you not also love yourself?
Our Lord himself affirmed that the second greatest command ever given is to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk. 12.31). Self-esteem, self-interest, and self-provision are essential elements of the Christian life, both in the secular sphere (cf. Ecc. 3.22; Lk. 10.7; 1 Cor. 9.3-12; 1 Tim. 5.18; 1 Thess. 4.11; 2 Thess. 3.12), and in the religious environment (cf. Phil. 2.12; 2 Pt. 1.10-11; Col. 3.23-24).
Paul instructed us "not to think more highly of [ourselves] than [we] ought to think" (Rom. 12.3). Observe that he does not say: we ought not to think of ourselves [period] — as if humility leaves no room for self-love, or self-interest. Rather, he says, "not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think."
Hence, at the very least, we ought to have a proper, "sober," perception of who we really are.
In, Synonyms of the New Testament, Richard Trench suggests that a "truer and deeper" definition of humility
"involves evaluating ourselves as small because we are so; it requires us to think truly, and therefore humbly, of ourselves" (164-165).
Accordingly, when the claim is made that, "humility is not thinking less of yourself…," there is a sense in which that statement is true. We should not deem ourselves as totally without worth.
But there is also a sense in which this statement is false. While we should certainly put the welfare of others ahead of our own, and while we are never permitted to totally loathe ourselves, humility does require us to think less of ourselves — to lower or lessen ourselves. In fact, the key to thinking of ourselves less — and of others more — resides in the ability to diminish our own sense of self-worth. Without the ability to lessen our pride in our own accomplishments and talents, we will never know how truly to honor the accomplishments and talents of others.
Thinking Less of Yourself
The Greek-speaking world generally perceived, humility, to be a "bad and degrading" thing (Vincent, 68). Those who exhibited the trait were commonly regarded as possessing a weak "condition, lowness of rank, and cringing abjectness and baseness of character" (ibid).
Nevertheless, Vincent observes that there were exceptions to this, even among the pagans.
The Christian community, however, lionized the trait. Lowering oneself no longer was weak and "degrading," but championed mightily by Christ and his disciples (cf. Mt. 23.11-12; Jms. 4.10). The key to greatness no longer involved the accumulation of authority and status; rather, it was found in our willingness to diminish our sense of self-worth, assuming instead the role of a lowly servant. The Bible repeatedly accentuates this quality of thinking less of yourself.
There are a handful of words in the Greek Bible which convey the idea of, humility, humble, humble-minded, etc. Tapeinos resides at the root of them all.
This was the word Paul used when he suggested that he was "lowly" when he was in the presence of the Corinthians (2 Cor. 10.1). It is also the word Christ adopted when he characterized himself as "meek and lowly in heart" (Mt. 11.29). James suggests that God "gives grace" to those who are tapeinos [humble] (Jms. 4.6).
Ceslas Spicq, in his, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, suggests that humility "combines the ideas of poverty, modesty, and mildness" (370). He further observes that tapeinos describes those who are "discreet and self-effacing" (371).
William D. Mounce, a scholar of New Testament Greek and former director of the Greek program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, says the word has to do with making something "small" or "low," "in a general sense of causing something to be at a lower point" (345). When applied to human beings, it means "the lowering of one's estimation of oneself" (346).
W.E. Vine concurs with this conception of tapienos, suggesting "low-lying" as its main signification (314).
Too, James Moulton and George Milligan, renowned scholars of the Greek language in the 19th century, also give us "make low" as a definition, adding that Diodorous used the word "with reference to the 'falling' of the Nile: it "runs low" (625).
Finally, Thayer remarks that the word, tapeinos, alludes to things that do not rise "far from the ground." Tapeinophron (low-minded) means to have "a modest opinion of one's self." And, tapeinophrosune (lowliness-of-mind), conveys "a deep sense of one's (moral) littleness" (614).
When Luke spoke of John the Immerser's preparatory work, he affirmed: "every mountain and hill" will be "brought low [tapeinoo]" (Lk. 3.5). The "hills" needed to think less of themselves, if the Lord was going to walk in them. After all, how could they be higher than their creator?
Ezekiel speaks of certain trees which bowed themselves low to the earth — as Thayer mentions — "not rising far from the ground" (Ezek. 17.24). Those which kept themselves low to the earth will be raised up, whereas those "trees" [humans] which raised themselves high would be "brought down."
Indubitably, those who think less of themselves, lowering their sense of self-worth, regardless of how good and talented they may be, are deeply cherished and honored by God (cf. 2 Cor. 7.6; Rm. 12.16; Jms. 1.9; 2 Cor. 10.1; Lk. 1.48, 52). Men like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David — and certainly the Lord himself — were profoundly righteous, and extraordinarily talented. Yet, briefly consider how they viewed themselves:
Abraham — Genesis 18.27
"Then Abraham answered and said, 'Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord." Certainly, Abraham was more than mere dust and ashes. He was a soul, made in God's image — perhaps the most righteous man, short of Christ himself, ever to have lived. Yet, Abraham lowered himself in the presence of the Lord. His humility was profound.
Jacob — Genesis 32.10
"I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which you have shown your servant…" The Lord thought otherwise. Yet, Jacob bowed himself low to the ground in deference to the Almighty. He not only thought of himself less, but came to appreciate what it means truly to think less of himself.
Moses — Exodus 3.11
Was Moses not humble? Who would dare suggest otherwise? God declared that Moses "was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth" (Num. 12.3). Surely, with that sort of reputation, Moses — of all people — would not need to lower himself any further, right?
Here is how he spoke to God: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
David — 2 Samuel 7.18
"Then King David went in and sat before the Lord; and he said: 'Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that you have brought me this far?" David was "a man after" God's "own heart" (1 Sam. 13.14; cf. Acts 13.22). His feats of faith and humility are legendary. His temporal and spiritual greatness is beyond dispute. Yet, he said, "who am I?"
No arrogant man has ever come close to harboring these thoughts in his head — I am but dust and ashes…I am not worthy…who am I?, etc. Rather, he reminds himself that he is talented; that his character is, relatively speaking, worthy and upright — points which may very well be true. He then convinces himself that he shouldn't think of himself "as a small, dirty object" when he is, after all, not that small or dirty (at least not anymore); or that he is not "talented," when, in reality, he is.
Paul says: "do not be wise in your own opinion" (Rm. 12.16). The conceited man says: "but what if I actually am wise?"
The conceited man further proclaims: "it is not boasting if I can back it up!" But the humble man says: "I am nothing; I have nothing except from the Lord" (cf. 2 Cor. 10.17-18). He considers himself, lowly — "a fool for Christ's sake" (1 Cor. 4.10). He therefore submits himself to the wisdom of God and the service of man.
The Lord spoke through Jeremiah in this fashion:
"Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight, says the Lord" (Jer. 9.23-24).
With humility, who you are (how talented you are, how smart you are, etc.) matters less than how you think yourself to be, for it is our thoughts [especially our thoughts about ourselves] that make us who we are (cf. Prov. 23.7)!
Thus, it is when a man thinks he is less honorable than others (even though he may have more honor than most) that he begins to train himself to "sit down in the lowest place" at a dinner — his lowliness of mind translates into lowliness of conduct (Lk. 14.10a). And when a man, in his humility, has trained himself to assume the least honorable position available, he will assuredly, one day, be told by the Lord, "friend, go up higher" (v. 10b). And when that happens, Jesus says,
"Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted" (vv. 10c-11).
No greater exhibition of this sort of godly self-belittlement can be found than in the person of Christ.
Christ — Philippians 2.3-11
Though Christ is the eternal God, worthy of eternal glory, he nonetheless embraced the sort of "lowliness of mind" that enabled him to "esteem others better than himself" (Phil. 2.3).
No one on earth is actually better than Christ himself! Yet, Christ esteemed us all as "better than himself," serving us even to the "death of the cross" (2.8). Christ was "in the form of God" — divine in nature (2.6a). He was also "equal with God" — he possessed equality of rank with the heavenly father (2.6b; cf. Zech. 13.7).
Despite these praiseworthy qualities, Christ — the ultimate example of humility — thought less of himself. He "made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men" (2.7). Rather than retain his role as co-Master with the father, he "humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death" (2.8). Though he had every right and ability to co-command, he became subservient to the father, assuming a lower rank than what he rightly deserved.
Because Christ exhibited true humility — lowering his own sense of self-worth and served others — God
"also has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father" (2.9-11).
1 Peter 5.5-7
Likewise, those who are willing to think less of themselves — and of themselves less — will also be "highly exalted." Peter instructs us to "be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility" (1 Pt. 5.5b).
The word, submissive (hupotasso), is a military term. It has to do with "ranking" yourself "under" another. The man who is "clothed with humility" will, like Christ, think of himself as meriting a lower "rank" or reputation than what he may truly deserve. Because he thus lowers himself beneath another, he will therefore be inclined to place himself in their service. And though he may be extraordinarily talented, upright, and worthy, like the righteous men and women of old, yet the humble man will deem himself as "little," "low-ranking," "not worthy," and "of no reputation."
It is also in this sense that we are to "rank" ourselves "under the mighty hand of God" (2.6). We must acknowledge that he is "higher" than us, of greater "rank" than us (cf. Isa. 55.9; 1 Cor. 11.3). Grace belongs to those who thus do. But, God "resists" those who proudly refuse to think less of themselves (2.5c).
Finally, observe that humility is something you do to yourself. It is not something that will simply "come to you." You must make a conscious effort on a daily basis to lessen your sense of self-worth and, in turn, act in the best interest of others.
"Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon him, for he cares for you" (2.6-7).
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960. Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Books, n.d. Moulton, J.H. and G. Milligan. Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004. Mounce, William D. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 3. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996. Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1889. Trench, R.C. Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000. Vincent, Marvin R. Word Studies in the New Testament: Volume 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973. Vine, W.E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985. Warren, Rick. A Purpose Driven Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.