If you’re great at humility, you’re doing it wrong?

 When I was in high school, teachers and teammates often praised me for “being humble.” And I gotta admit: I loved hearing it.

After all, I took care to hype other people up. To put their feelings before mine. To avoid speaking highly of my own achievements (while simultaneously doing as much as I could, as perfectly as I could, as cheerfully as I could).

I thought I was pretty great at humility. But despite the irony there, I was shocked when God led me—through burnout and a breakup—to question my ways of being humble.

My old version of humility looked good from the surface. But deep down, it was still all about me. Did I help that person feel better? Did I avoid making others think I was arrogant? Look at me, pushing down my own messy feelings to help someone else with theirs. Wasn’t I so good at this?

But that’s the thing. I wasn’t good at being truly humble. I was just good at pretending—even to myself. And it was only when I couldn’t pretend anymore that God’s grace ‘clicked’ in my head.

After lots of reflection and exploration of Scripture, I’ve realized humility doesn’t mean ignoring yourself or being ‘perfect’ (and pretending not to be). Rather, it means acknowledging your failures, your weaknesses, your self-centered feelings…and trusting God to do what you can’t.


Who does humility honor?

When I think about Biblical examples of humility, I think of the psalmists composing their songs. Whether they’re singing or crying out to God, the Psalms don’t shy away from their authors’ failures. “My guilt has overwhelmed me,” says one, “like a burden too heavy to bear” (Psalm 38:4). “My sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see,” says another. “They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me” (Psalm 40:12b-13).

Depressing? Yeah. But relatable? Also, yeah. No matter how much I might be “getting right,” sooner or later failure will stop me in my tracks. It could be as basic as making petty, negative comments about a classmate, or as big as ignoring someone begging on the street who I felt God wanted me to help.

 In those moments, I simply can’t believe that I could receive God’s goodness. The magnitude of my sins becomes so real to me; each one feels like a brick in a wall between God and myself.

Under my old rules for humility (which was almost synonymous with perfection), moments like this meant game over. You stink at this. Why don’t you try harder next time? I’d spiral downwards, ashamed of my weakness, feeling like I’d failed God.

But the Psalmists don’t react this way at all. They don’t promise to get it right next time. They don’t rationalize their sins or pin the blame on someone else. Instead, they lay out their guilt—and then turn to God. “Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior” (Psalm 38:21-22). “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:10-11).

If my humility was secretly about me, the Psalmists’ humility was openly about God. By owning their failures, they made room for God to come in and work. Any spiritual growth happened thanks to God’s grace because all the Psalmists did was cry out.

I think Paul described similar humility when he wrote: “‘[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Contrary to what I’d thought, Christian humility didn’t always mean “doing the right thing.” It meant realizing how often I did the wrong thing—and leaning on God in my brokenness.


How should we respond to failure… and success?

Soo, it turned out I’d failed at being humble. In fact, I’d failed at a lot of stuff. But…what if I trusted God to love me anyway, in spite of all my failures? What if I let his grace guide my steps, instead of chasing the “perfection” and “success” I pretended not to care about?

Don’t get me wrong—this wasn’t an excuse to “stop trying” at things. Nor was it an excuse to start bragging all the time.

I still want to serve others. I desire to grow spiritually. I definitely aim to tackle difficult goals. But believing these things will happen through God’s grace—not my own abilities—takes the focus (and pressure) off me. Now, “failure” isn’t grounds for an identity crisis, but a time to wait and see where God is taking me. And “success” isn’t something to talk down, but a reason to praise God for working through me when I’m such a mess on my own.


How do we “succeed” at humility?

When I think of people who succeeded at being truly humble, all while accomplishing great things, I think of Jesus. (Classic answer, right?)

Seriously, though. Jesus had power over everything that exists. Yet he became a puny human and wandered through Israel, embracing people ignored by the rich and influential. He had chances to become a ruler or celebrity, but he never took them. Instead, he followed God’s direction, all the way to the cross.

At the same time, Jesus knew who he was and what he was about. He didn’t hesitate to say so— even when speaking truth meant conflicting with religious leaders (Luke 11:37-52) or his disciples (Mark 8:31-33).

He also didn’t downplay his accomplishments (something I often do in response to praise). Can you imagine Jesus being like: “Sure, I raised her from the dead…but it wasn’t that great! I bet the Holy Spirit could do way better”? Or “Aww guys, feeding 4,000 people is no big deal. I’ll keep putting in the work and feed 6,000 next time”?

Jesus knew how incredible his power (aka God’s power) was, and he didn’t try to hide it. Instead, the way he lived his life—prioritizing marginalized people, seeking God’s will over public favor, and ultimately giving himself to death—made it clear that his works weren’t meant to boost his popularity. They were simply what God had called him to do. And they pointed people to God’s glory.

How often do we think of humility as something that shapes our entire lives? I know I mostly think about humility when someone compliments me. I might be great at saying how little I can do on my own…how the Spirit empowered me…how grateful I am for God’s presence in this…and that’s awesome! But if each day, I’m still choosing to chase popularity and seek my own will, how much do my words really mean?

It definitely isn’t wrong to give God the glory when people praise us. Most important, though, is whom our decisions and actions—big and little—praise. Do they speak of love and trust for God? Or of concern for ourselves? 

I might be barely 22, but I still think I’ve spent enough time and energy on false humility. Will I flip a switch and immediately become perfect at the real thing? Definitely not. Learning, and practicing, true humility will be a life-long process. But the Bible shows me plenty of ways to pursue true humility in everyday life that can help me get started:

  • Step away from it all
    • Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus leaving the crowds behind to pray—often when his popularity was at a peak! No matter what people thought or expected of him, Jesus prioritized time alone with his heavenly Father.
    • Try stepping away from the world’s demands—even for, like, 5 minutes on a Tuesday morning—to make a space just for God and you.
  • Be honest with God (and with yourself)
    • I hate failure. I hate admitting that I’ve been selfish, lustful, or unforgiving. But confessing my sins opens me up to God’s grace. It lays the foundation for biblical humility.
    • Not sure how to be that honest with God? The Psalms are great examples of people sharing their thoughts, moods, and situations with their Creator.
  • Serve others in love
    • Let’s be real: Jesus did not have an impressive resume. He spent his time on earth healing beggars, eating with outcasts, and loving those who “successful people” didn’t look twice at.
    • Ask God to help you notice people to love. Maybe you could volunteer at the homeless shelter, organize game nights at the nursing home, or invite “that weird kid” to sit with you at lunch. Or you could wash a housemate’s dishes, shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk, or choose the ethically sourced brand (even though it’s more expensive!).
  • Notice what you obsess over
    • What looming situations fill you with stress? What moments do you replay in your head, wishing you’d handled things differently?
    • When you find yourself striving to perform in exactly the right way, ask yourself: What’s driving my definition of “success” here? Am I trying to please people, or to please God (Galatians 1:10)?



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