Though it has been over ten years since I’ve watched the movie, there’s one scene in the The Joy Luck Club I still remember. In it, a Chinese-American woman brings her Caucasian boyfriend to meet her parents. During dinner, he commits a series of cultural errors, culminating in one that leads to gasps of horror. The girlfriend’s Chinese mom, serving a plate of fish says, “This dish isn’t salty enough,” this was the boyfriend’s cue for pouring out praise for her cooking. Instead, he ends up drizzling soy sauce all over her best dish.
The dinner scene humorously caricatures a difference between how Chinese and American culture teach us to speak about ourselves. As a friend from China put it, “If you say you’re ‘not good,’ at something then you’re okay. And if you say, you’re ‘okay,’ you must be really good.” Different cultures have differing values and norms concerning how we ought to see and speak about ourselves. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how our cultures influence our definition of humility and the ways Christian humility looks both similar to and completely different from Chinese and American cultural values.
Self-Deprecation Or Self-Confidence?
Some people think of humility as self-deprecation, similar to Chinese sensibilities against being boastful. We reflexively deflect compliments and choose tempered or self-effacing speech when talking about ourselves because not to do so is to come across as arrogant. And considering the American culture of Insta-boasting and self-promotion, “This dish isn’t salty enough!” may seems like a sensible alternative. As it says in Proverbs, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth!” (Prov. 27:2)
While self-deprecation is the expected polite expression of humility in Chinese culture, American culture highlights humility as honesty— seeing things as they truly are. So, modesty isn’t humble when it is false and you don’t need to tone down how accomplished, gifted, or successful you are if it’s true. If God has gifted you in something, the rationale is, then display it confidently. Not to do so is not humility, it is dishonestly.
Chinese self-deprecation or American self-confidence, which do we choose? Is humility speaking lowly of ourselves? Is it really humble to say anything as long as it is true? And which is closer to the humility the Christian is called to?
For the Christian, there is an aspect of truth in both cultures’ thoughts on humility.
Believers who have been convicted of our own sinfulness have found that speaking lowly of ourselves is not a matter of cultural modesty, but Biblical faithfulness. The Holy Spirit has used the Word of God to bring us face to face with our wretchedness and depravity, and we have been brought low with the very real conviction of sinful pride, lust, fear of man, lack of love, anger, pettiness, idolatry, and more. In order that we may truly know grace, God first graciously makes known to us the severity and pervasiveness of our sins that we may see our need for him. Thus, we love the gospel all the more because we resonate with the Apostle Paul who declared himself the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
On the other hand, there is an aspect of recognizing humility as truthfulness which is wondrously freeing for the believer. Scripture does not speak only to my depravity, but to the wonderful grace and saving power of God. It affirms my dignity as created in his image and my identity as God’s beloved. Therefore, it is not humility to reject the truth of God’s grace as though we have strayed too far for Christ’s redemption, it is sinful unbelief. It is not humble to think of myself only as a sinner if it eclipses God’s gift of righteousness to me in Christ and neglects his work of sanctification in me today. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live with confidence and equips us for good work so that, again with Paul, we declare that we can do all things through him who gives us strength (Phil. 4:13).
So the question then still is, how ought I think of myself? What is the proper way to speak of my weaknesses or my strengths, sinfulness and sainthood? And which emphases does God require from me when he calls for humility— deprecation or confidence?
Paul, in Philippians 2:3 calls Christians to humility in how we relate to others. But he doesn’t do it in the way we might expect. Paul doesn’t say, as the Chinese do, “Be humble— think about how bad you are compared to others,” or, as the Americans, “Be humble— make sure you’re honest in your self-assessments.” Rather he says, “In humility, count others as more significant”, or important, “than yourselves.” The NIV says “value others above yourselves.” The heart of pride then, as we see in Paul’s call for humility, is not how we see ourselves, but how important we are to ourselves.
If you’ve ever been convicted of the sin of pride, you know how difficult it is to uproot and at times, to even identify. It is pervasive, working into the ways we think about ourselves, others, and God. It is a “shape-shifter,” at times manifesting as boastful self-exaltation and other times as oppressive self-doubt. That’s because pride is not just how badly or highly we think of ourselves, but how we are thinking of ourselves, with self as the reference point.
Tim Keller writes,
If we were to meet a truly humble person, [C.S.] Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.
Defining humility as a low view of self or an accurate view of self gets humility wrong because the core of humility is not how we perceive, but how we orient ourselves. To fight pride is to take ourselves out of the center of our hearts and thoughts and to place others there instead. Therefore, one of the most helpful definitions I’ve heard of Christian humility is self-forgetfulness, the placing aside of self for the sake of our neighbors (others) to the glory of God.
Practically, what does this mean? Tim Keller again says,
True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.
We pursue humility not by focusing on cultivating a low or accurate self-appraisal, but turning from constant self-assessments to consider how we may serve others. Love for God and love for neighbor is the sum of the commandments, and the gospel liberates us from our self-orientation and enables us to live unto God for the sake of others.
When it comes down to how we think and speak of ourselves then, understanding gospel humility as self-forgetfulness makes sense of why the Apostle Paul’s letters sometimes show great weakness and at other times great confidence. At one point, Paul can be exclaiming his wretchedness in struggling against sin but in another, emphasizing his authority and credibility as an apostle of Christ. As he wrote to the churches for their edification in Christ, he wrote what was appropriately helpful for his hearers— what would be “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). The grace of God and the needs of others dictated Paul’s decisions about when and how to speak of himself.
Practically for us then, humility may at times look like sharing our failures and sins to others in order to highlight Christ’s grace and at other times, sharing our victories to show his awesome power. Humility means we temper how often we talk about ourselves, avoiding sinful boasting and praise-seeking, freely offering encouragement to others instead. But it also means being willing to receive truthful words of affirmation, thanking others for their encouragement in the Lord.
Self-forgetfulness means living out John the Baptist’s declaration, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). It means I neither hide nor highlight my failures or successes for my own sake, but testify to his goodness in my weaknesses and in my strengths for the sake of loving others. It means in the church, I’m not thinking first about how I can use my gifts, discontent when I’m not recognized nor am I neglecting to steward the strengths God’s given me to build up the body. It means I will not constantly dwell on my weaknesses, but will boast in them appropriately in order that Christ’s power be made perfect.
Christians ought to neither be characterized by self-deprecation nor self-confidence, but self-forgetfulness. The way we live and regard ourselves ought to seem paradoxical in our cultures given we know both our own wretchedness and blessedness, and freely speak about both depending on what will give grace to others.
Ultimately, Christian humility is to take the example of Christ, who in his last days “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,” did what (Jn. 13:3)? Self-confidently proclaimed his own identity? No, he did that at other times, but not this night. Rather, knowing the truth of who he was and the glory of where he was going, our Master laid aside his outer clothes, tied a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ feet.
Brothers and sisters, we too know who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. Soberly, we remember well what we were like before Christ, and we continue to be aware of our sins and weaknesses. With gratitude, we know who we are now in Christ and the great promises we’ve been given regarding where we’re going. Knowing these things then, let us imitate our Master, kneeling down to love others in the freedom of self-forgetfulness.