Humble people aren’t always what we think they ought to be. They aren’t always modest, they aren’t always agreeable and submissive, and they aren’t always nice — at least in the ways we proud people think those qualities are supposed to look in humble people.
We do tend to find true humility attractive when we recognize it, but we don’t always recognize it. Sometimes we mistake humility for pride and pride for humility. And truth be told, we don’t always like to be around humble people.
Humble People Don’t Think Much of Themselves
Most of us would agree that humble people don’t think much of themselves. But often what we have in mind is self-deprecation; humble people think of themselves as lowly. And this is true. In view of God’s holiness and their sinfulness, they don’t think more highly of themselves than they ought to think (Romans 12:3). Their healthy, proportionate view of their own depravity causes them to consider others more important than themselves (Philippians 2:3).
But self-deprecation isn’t the primary trait of humility. The primary trait of humble people is that they just don’t think much of themselves — meaning they are not self-preoccupied. They have better, higher, more glorious things to be occupied with.
We can find this trait refreshing because humble people, seeing all things in relation to God, look for and enjoy God’s glory in all that he has made (Romans 1:20). This allows them to most fully enjoy what God has made — including us. When we’re with them they often help us do the same thing. And few things are as wonderfully refreshing as forgetting ourselves for a while because we’re absorbed in something more glorious.
But we can also find this trait convicting because it exposes our self-obsession. We are so used to people (especially ourselves) being self-conscious and self-centered that when we’re with people who aren’t, our own pride stands in stark contrast.
Humble People Prefer Windows to Mirrors
Not thinking much of themselves (in both senses) means that humble people prefer windows to mirrors. Desiring to see the glory of God in everything frees them from needing to see how everything else reflects on them.
Humble people view other people as God’s marvelous image-bearers, windows to God’s glory, not as mirrors that enhance or diminish their own self-image. But this also means they aren’t absorbed by how others view them. So they aren’t worried about reading the “right” books, seeing the “right” movies, listening to the “right” music, living in the “right” home, having the “right” job, being seen with the “right” people, etc. That’s a mirror mindset. They view these things as windows to see and savor God’s glory.
Humble People Are Authentically Counter-Cultural
This makes humble people authentically counter-cultural. A culture comprised of pride-infected people produces a lot of pressure for people to conform to cultural expectations. Even much that poses as non-conformity is really just subcultural conformity — an attempt to fit into some subgroup.
Humble people are unusually unaffected by this pressure to conform. They can be hard to categorize because they often don’t fit neatly into any cultural mold. They tend to eschew using trendy fashions or interests or social media as means of personal branding. They have preferences about those things, but they hold those preferences as ways of enjoying God’s manifold goodness rather than image-enhancers.
And it’s this lack of self-preoccupation that really runs counter to the cultures or subcultures that humble people live in. This deficit of self-importance usually isn’t considered cool by cultural cool-definers. It makes humble people odd.
Humble People Are Offensive
One of the things that can surprise us about truly humble people, which can sometimes be mistaken for pride, is that they can be quite offensive. Humble people, being without guile, say it like it is. And saying it like it is can sting, and even sound condemning.
Jesus could fling some zingers. He called religious leaders a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34) and sons of the devil (John 8:44), and he called the crowd and even his own disciples a “faithless and twisted generation” (Matthew 17:17). Humble Paul publicly rebuked Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) and told the Galatians they were “foolish” (Galatians 3:1). These weren’t “nice” things to say. Humble people don’t always say nice things. They say honest things that can have sharp edges and wound. Because of this they can be accused of pride.
But there is a qualitative difference between the offensiveness of the proud and the offensiveness of the humble. The proud offend to exalt or defend themselves and control or manipulate others. The humble offend in order to advance the truth for the glory of God and ultimate good of others. Humble offensiveness may not be popular, but it’s always loving.
King David knew this, which is why he wrote, “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head” (Psalm 141:5). His son Solomon also knew this and wrote, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6). Humility can wound and pride can kiss. Kisses may feel better than wounds — at first. But later, the wounds foster health and the kisses corruption.
That’s why humble people aren’t always what we think they ought to be. They are disagreeable when truth must be valued over relational harmony. They are un-submissive when conformity mars God’s glory. And their company can be unpleasant, even undesired, when their wounding words are kinder than selfish flattery or silence.
And this is the kind of people God is calling us to be, people who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8). He wants us to be absorbed in things more glorious than ourselves (Philippians 4:8), to prefer windows to mirrors (Philippians 2:3), to live counter to every culture we live in (Hebrews 11:13), and, when love requires it and it would give grace to those who hear, to be humbly offensive (Ephesians 4:29).
To be humble people requires much grace. But the good news is that God is able to make this grace abound to us (2 Corinthians 9:8), and he offers it to us if we will receive it (James 4:6).
More from Desiring God
Why Is Humility So Attractive? | We are attracted to humility because we are designed to be attracted to God. What we find attractive in humble people is the Imago Dei.
Are You Humble Enough to Be Care-Free? | Pastor John, preaching from 1 Peter 5:5–7, explains the humility of casting our anxieties on God and how undue worry about our future is probably a form of pride.
What Makes the Humble Happy? | Humility is most fundamentally a trembling love for the majesty of God and secondarily a trembling sense of our sin and smallness and dependence.