He said three young men hopped on a bus in Detroit in the 1930s and tried to pick a fight with a man sitting in the back. They made fun of him. He didn’t respond. They ridiculed him. He said nothing. Eventually, the man stood up. He was bigger than they had estimated from his seated position—much bigger. He reached into his pocket, handed them his business card and walked off the bus. As the bus drove on the young men gathered around the card to read the words: Joe Louis. Boxer. They had just tried to pick a fight with the man who would become the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. Louis chose to forgo his status on behalf of these three teenage boys, and I bet they were happy he did!
There’s something beautiful about that story… much more beautiful than hearing that Louis got mad and beat these kids up.
So humility is beautiful, but the interesting thing about humility is that it hasn’t always been seen as a good thing, a desirable thing.
Ancient cultures broke life into two simple categories: shame and honor. They would do all they could to gain honor and preserve it. And they would work equally hard to distance themselves from shame. To let go of your honor on behalf of someone else was the fool’s choice. It was shameful. Humiliating. Humility was for slaves, prisoners, and outcasts, not for respectable people. When authors wrote about moral virtues they never mentioned humility.
But historians noted a distinct shift in the first century. Suddenly writers started referring to humility in positive ways. Humility became a desirable quality to have, showing up on lists of virtues. Historians said that there was only one way to explain this shift. It came after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A humility revelation took place with Jesus.
John Dickson commented:
If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service. The shameful place is now a place of honor, the low point is the high point.
When Paul listed virtues for believers to aspire to, humility was often on the list. He told the Colossians:
…clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Colossians 3:12
Just a few decades later, a Roman church official named Clement (AD 96) sent a letter to Christians in Corinth saying: You are all humble-minded, not boastful, yielding rather than domineering, happily giving rather than receiving. Clement (A.D. 96)
Dickson’s concluded this about the history of humility: Western culture was imprinted by the cross. … Humility came to be valued in Western culture as a consequence of Christianity’s dismantling of the allpervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world. -John Dickson
Jesus made humility beautiful.
Humility is Persuasive
My final point is that humility is persuasive. We are more inclined to believe a humble person than an arrogant one. A few years back General Stanley McChrystal was asked what his approach would be to the insurgency in Afghanistan, and he said:
I have found in my experience that the best answers and approaches may be counter-intuitive. The opposite of what it seems you ought to do is what ought to be done. So, when I’m asked the question, What approach should we take in Afghanistan? I say, humility. -General Stanley McChrystal
That’s the last thing I’d expect a general would say. What did he mean by that? He meant that if the US army came into Afghanistan like gang-busters, with all the power and all the answers, that was the worst thing they could do. It would offend the Afghani’s and turn them against the Americans. So McChrystal said the wise thing to do was to come in as servants. To come in humility. He understood that humility is persuasive.
Many of us think that the only way we can get our way is to power up and power over those who oppose us. Bosses do this. Parents do it. So do wives and husbands. But the most persuasive people are the people who persuade by suggesting, not demanding, who appeal to reason and goodness, and not resorting to using authority or intimidation to get their way.
One day Jesus spoke to his disciples about his teaching style. He said he didn’t teach like the other rabbis. He put it like this:
Take my yoke (teaching) upon you for I am humble and gentle and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” -Matthew 11:29,30
Rabbis used a top-down kind of teaching. “Here are the rules. Don’t question them. Just do them.” In another place Jesus described it like this:
They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. -Matthew 23:4
Jesus wasn’t like that. His teaching was respectful, not condescending. That’s why he said his burden was light. He persuaded people by his humility.
Humility serves others. It’s beautiful. And it’s persuasive.
Now, while you were reading these posts on humility, I bet you had someone in mind. We’ve all got someone in our life – someone that we deal with on a daily basis – that we wish was more humble. You are probably thinking of sending them these blog posts or the full podcast.
Well, we have no control over that person. But we do have power over ourselves. What if this week we all looked for opportunities to humble ourselves – we set aside our rights – our power- our status- for the sake of others? Let’s make humility our focus in our lives and let’s invite God’s spirit to do that work right now.