Golda Meir once said, “Don’t be so humble; you’re not that great.” Humility is a quality we love to see in others, and we try to feign in ourselves, but I’m not sure what passes as humility is actually humility.
I’ve seen too many people act humble, but it’s not much more than an act. This is particularly true among religious people. If you compliment someone, they vehemently refuse to accept the compliment, instead telling you, it’s not them, its God. After a while, I get tired of hearing someone say, “no… it’s not me, it’s the Lord.” I wish people would just learn how to accept a compliment and say, “thank you.” There is nothing wrong with people appreciating you or something you have done. It doesn’t rob God of His Glory to have people be appreciative of you or some skill you have. Not accepting a compliment is not humility, its more of social awkwardness.
The opposite is also true. I don’t like being around people who are so full of themselves that any compliment given is absorbed by their tremendous ego. What people call humility is no more than the other side of the spectrum: They either have a big ego, or a damaged ego. Both problems come from the same wrong behavior. They compare themselves with other people.
When I was a much younger person, I used to compare myself with others, and it had devastating effects on my ego. I saw people who were taller than me, smarter than me, better looking than me, and/or richer than me. Whenever I compared myself with others, I felt inferior, and I acted that way. People mistook it for humility, but it was a bad self-image.
As I got older, I began to realize my poor self-image was based on wrong things. When I was in High School, I asked my guidance counselor about the results of my IQ test and was told that it was 95, a bit below normal. I labored for the next fifteen years under the assumption that I had below normal intelligence. I did well in college and grad school without over exerting myself with study, but figured I was pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. When I was working on my doctoral degree, I had a friend who kept calling me a genius. I angrily told him to stop calling me that because I only had a 95 IQ. He burst out laughing and said there had to be a mistake, because he thought I was brilliant. When I accused him of mocking me, he proceeded to point out that I had the highest grades in our class and I was studying the least. I began to see that I was laboring under a wrong understanding, and that I was not less intelligent than others. Maybe I had a bad day when I took that test. Maybe the guidance counselor was an anti-Semite. In any case, I was not pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, just my own.
Real humility does not come from comparing ourselves with other people. There will always be people with more or less than us. People are what they are, and they should be appreciated for what they are. Real humility comes from comparing ourselves with the standards God set forth in his Torah. God does not ask us to compare ourselves with others, only with our own potential. Are we the best version of ourselves we can be?
A truly humble person is someone who knows they are created and loved by God. They understand that the world does not revolve around them, and they are to live their lives in submission to Him. It was with this understanding that we should understand Moses saying he was the most humble man on the face of the earth. He wasn’t bragging about it, but saying he understood quite well who he was in relation to God. In other words, when someone is genuinely humble, they are submitted to a life of Torah, and people can see the love of God in them. It’s not about refusing compliments, but about treating people with kindness and love. It’s about letting people see the life of Yeshua in our lives. This is true humility.
also posted in Riverton Mussar: A Wellspring For Ethical Change