I’ve said that possibly the Bible is one of the best self-help books out there, and today’s parable by Jesus is a great example of one of the deep lessons that we can learn about the power of humility.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, humility is
freedom from pride or arrogance : the quality or state of being humble
We go on to read in the definition: Both it and humble have their origin in the Latin word humilis, meaning “low.”
So, when we talk about being humble and humility, we often cite verses from the Bible such as:
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.— Proverbs 11:2
You can easily find 100 or more verses in the Bible that speak about pride and/or humility. And the parable that Jesus uses today in Luke is a prime example:
A Pharisee and a Tax CollectorLuke 18:9-14 (CEV)
9 Jesus told a story to some people who thought they were better than others and who looked down on everyone else:
10 Two men went into the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood over by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, and unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad that I am not like that tax collector over there. 12 I go without eating for two days a week, and I give you one tenth of all I earn.”
13 The tax collector stood off at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up toward heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, “God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner.”
14 Then Jesus said, “When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honoured.”
Humility is not some old-fashioned Bible trait – it’s a strength that allows us to learn from life and experience.
For the Pharisee, there was nothing more to learn or improve – he had already reached his pinnacle. But for the tax collector, he was beginning a journey.
Top-down leadership versus influence
If you want to simply tell others what to do, in a style of top-down leadership, it might be enough just to have confidence and the power of persuasion. Like the Pharisee, you can rely entirely on your ability to “follow the rules” and be boastful and proud of your achievements.
You can keep your distance from the crowd, and hold yourself up as better than others.
But if you are looking to create lasting change in an organisation (or a church), then you need influence. For influence, you need to seek and hear feedback, focusing on the needs of others and listening to opinions.
Pride will not allow you to do this effectively, because you not able to love your neighbour as yourself, when you consider yourself better than your neighbour!
What benefits do you reap from humility?
Humility allows you to stay in touch with your emotions, responses and more importantly with the effect you have on others.
When you are humble, you connect with others, having empathy with them and noticing their reactions and responses, because it’s not “all about you” and your ego. When you are able to stop worrying about “what do others think of me”, you can focus on “how are others experiencing me”. This allows a new relationship to develop, one of giving and receiving.
Because you are connected with others, you are also able to notice their needs. The Pharisee was unable to connect with those in the crowd, because he was busy looking at his own accomplishments. While the tax collector was focused on his mistakes and his need for forgiveness, he could also notice what others needed in forgiveness and acceptance.
When we notice needs, we can tend to them, look out for their best interests, not solely our own. This opens up a space for loving your neighbour as yourself, as well as living in the presence of the Divine – being connected.
And as you learn to listen to others, obtain their input and feedback, you receive a better image of the facts. A more complete picture. This allows for better decision-making.
Imagine a construction site, with a supervisor that is unapproachable. If there is a problem with the cement, and no one dares approach and speak up – how many decisions is he making based on the wrong information? How far up the wrong path will he get before the problem is noticed and solved?
People want to be valued and heard, which means that we are all looking for leaders that are approachable. Humility allows us to listen, giving us an opportunity for better decision-making.
But humility helps us in other ways, not simply leadership.
Firstly, it is an asset for self-improvement. When you are humble and open to feedback from others, you are open to see opportunities for change and growth. You listen and you look, because you don’t presume to know it all. You are open to listening to the still, small voice of Spirit when it chides and calls your attention to an inappropriate response.
The Pharisee believed he had already learned all there was to know. He was busy filling his head with what he was already doing – rather than noticing if there was more to be done. Was there any space in his life for true communion with the Creator – or was he too busy showing off how good he already was?
A confident person is not necessarily skilled or good at what they do. They may have a false confidence, one that is simply based in their pride in having nothing left to learn or know. A skilled person, however, can be quietly confident, though humble, in relying on their experience and abilities. Is your relationship with the Divine confident or skilled?
What does humility look when you encounter it?
If you are truly ready to be shown – to learn and grow – you need to get comfortable with ambiguity, that place where “I don’t have all the answers.” Because not everything is black and white all the time. Sometimes it’s hard to know the best answer, the right choice.
Humility allows you to admit this – to yourself and to others.
But humility also shows the way forward – because it allows you to open up to listening and to asking others for advice. A humble person is open to learning, they are teachable and curious.
They will seek out others that know more, so that they can improve their ability to respond and handle the situations that life shows them. And because they are open and transparent – others are more inclined to work with them. To share with them. To teach them.
Think back on the last time you encountered an arrogant person demanding that you share with them information or knowledge.
How did you respond?
Consider, on the other hand, how you responded when someone approached you with genuine curiosity, with interest in learning from you?
Another characteristic of humility is the ability to admit mistakes – to stop playing the blame game and step up and accept responsibility. If decisions were made that were wrong, rather than looking for a scapegoat, this person is willing to own their role and responsibility. This breeds trust. Because you don’t need to protect yourself from this person – they are not going to throw you under the bus to save themselves!
Consider a moment the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – who would you rather be standing next to if they’d made a mistake? Who would you receive better treatment from? Which one of them might ask you for forgiveness if they were wrong?
Learning true humility
Like any path of self-improvement or personal development, humility is something that we have to intentionally learn – unless you choose to learn it the hard way through pride coming before a fall!
But, if you want to intentionally learn humility, and avoid the harshness of falling flat on your face, here are some suggestions for learning humility.
Self-awareness and reflection – like any other part of personal growth, become aware of how you see yourself and how you are relating to others. This goes hand-in-hand with accepting yourself, seeing clearly where you are really at in life’s journey.
And accepting others, exactly as they are. Without loading on their shoulders your expectations of how they should be.
Take off your rose-coloured glasses and have a good look at the present moment – your situation, the quality of your relationships, your thoughts and emotions.
Just become aware.
When you focus on the present – this is who I am right now – you have the choice to strive to do better. But the only place you can actually start from is where you really are. Not some imagined (better) version of yourself that you want to be!
Once you know where you really are at, then you can ask for help from others to get to where you want to be! When you’re humble, there’s no shame in asking someone to mentor you, coach you, or simply to give you advice or a helping hand! Perhaps you just need someone to listen – ask.
It’s through using emotional intelligence that we start to bring humility to our relationships. We become aware of what we say and how we respond, and then we notice how others are reacting and responding to us.
Self-awareness and emotional intelligence allow us to notice our triggers. “This makes me mad.” or “This upsets me.” And once I know what my triggers are, I can go back to the depths of the trigger — why does this trigger me? What is the underlying cause of this that I haven’t actually acknowledged or dealt with yet?
The strengths of humility
Humility is not about being passive, submission, insecure or a doormat! It allows you to take the risk of speaking your mind, even if you might be wrong. And if you are wrong, being willing to then listen to the other sides of the story, until you discover the truth.
Humility allows you align your decision-making with your values and your internal compass of what is right — recognising the needs and concerns of others with compassion while making the best possible decision for everyone (including yourself).
Most importantly, humility allows you to seek a win-win solution because no one has to lose in order for you to win! Ego does not require the parade of winners and losers, because you have chosen humility.
Humility is a place where actions speak louder than words – where constant learning and growth are the name of the game: emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Because when you know you don’t have all the answers, there is a seeking of the Presence of the Divine in every moment of every day.