Why are we attracted to humble people?
Why did atheist Mark Twain find the devout Catholic Joan of Arc’s humility so beautiful that she became his historical hero? Why do people all over the world, even of other religions, find Jesus’s lowliness so compelling (Matthew 11:29)? Conversely, why do people like Michael Prowse feel revulsion in the divine pride they think they hear in God’s biblical commands that we worship him?
There is something about humility that resonates deeply in our psyches, far deeper than evolutionary explanations go.
More Than Evolutionary Residue
Evolutionary sociobiologists explain our innate pride as a primal survival instinct. The theory is that our desire to dominate and manipulate others is a genetic residue of our ancient evolutionary struggle to compete in the winner-take-all contest of natural selection. But while this might fit well in that theoretical framework, it does not sit well in our souls.
We know instinctively, at a level deeper than mere enlightened self-interest and social reinforcement, at a level just as (or more) primal to our pride, that we are meant to behave differently from other creatures. We know that the “alpha” behavior that becomes a silverback gorilla does not, for some reason, become us.
We Know Pride Is Pathological
We know that for us, pride is pathological. Try as we might, we cannot come to peace with our conceit. When we do try, we must struggle hard to suppress our conscience, which keeps warning us of its evil. And when we don’t see the evil clearly in ourselves, we surely see it clearly in others. When we see it on a large enough scale, something tells us that a good transcending even the interest of the human species has been violated. Hitler’s diabolism is still too fresh for us to ignore.
We know instinctively that pride is a mark of a lesser human soul, while humility is a mark of a great-souled person. That’s why humans have always regarded true humility as truly honorable while regarding those who have acted most like animal alphas as human monsters. We find something pathetic and degrading about the man who must have as many women as he can or as much power as he can or as much attention as he can. We know this betrays a hole in his soul.
How do we know these things? Deep down in the primal places of our personhood, perhaps scripted into our genetic code, we carry the ancient historical knowledge that we humans, unlike the other terrestrial creatures, are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). We are unique, there is a holiness about us, and we are subject to a holy moral law that requires us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8).
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.
What Is Humility?
I don’t find most of the dictionary definitions of humility very helpful. They tend to emphasize the quality of one not thinking oneself as better than others, which is a biblical quality (Philippians 2:3). But that’s more of an expression of humility than a definition.
A helpful biblical definition of humility is found in Romans 12:3, where Paul says that a person should “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” In other words, humility is an accurate estimation of our self-importance in relation to God and others. It is not inappropriate self-exaltation or self-abasement. Pride then is the over-estimation of our self-importance in relation to God and others.
Why Humility Looks Different in God and Us
God is humble, the most humble person in existence. He is also the greatest. So God’s humility, his accurate assessment, his self-importance in relation to everything else, is holy — its expression is unique to anyone else’s.
For example, since God is supreme in everything, including supremely satisfying to us, it’s not proud of him to declare it (Psalm 97:9; Philippians 2:9). And since we always express our greatest enjoyments by praising them, it isn’t vain of God to command our praise. God’s humility and love in fact require him to exhort us to enjoy our deepest satisfaction as opposed to lesser ones.
For us, accurately assessing our self-importance as it relates to God and everything else will often be expressed differently from God, since we’re not God. If we commanded others to praise us, it would be the pinnacle of pride.
True humility pushes us to extremes. On one end there’s the glorious privilege of being an image-bearer of God, a reality we’ve hardly begun to understand. On the other end we have horribly sinned against God (Romans 3:23) and it required Jesus’s death to redeem us (2 Corinthians 5:21), also a reality the depths of which we’ve barely plumbed. And then there’s the humbling fact that our tenure and impact on this earth is comparable to grass (Psalm 103:15).
Attracted to Jesus
But God’s humility is not always expressed differently from ours, though we will never match his scope. There is one place where we clearly see the height of his glory in the depth of his magnificent humility, and when we really see it, it resonates in the deepest places of our psyches: in the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus.
[For] though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8)
There it is. That’s the humility that all but the most hardhearted among us find beautiful. This is the fundamental reason we are attracted to humble people, because we see in them the likeness of God in Christ.
God’s wonderful invitation to us through Paul is to “have this mind,” for in Christ it can be ours (Philippians 2:5). Today we can have this mind by repenting of any pride we are aware of, embracing an honest self-assessment of who we are, meditating on Philippians 2:1–11, and obeying what it says.