The Misconstrued Virtue

A humble spirit is a strength, not a weakness

The Misconstrued Virtue
Taking pride in our accomplishments is great, but make sure the entire team shares the spotlight. (Fei Meng)
Jeff Minick

"It was pride that changed angels into devils,” St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “it is humility that makes men as angels.”

Though Augustine was addressing theological matters, if we convert his thoughts into a secular metaphor, we can still find truth in them. Pride and arrogance in tyrants, for example, can make them demonic, as seen by the millions upon millions of casualties they inflicted in the 20th century.

We, too, may bring ruin to our own lives through excessive pride, called hubris by the Greeks, yet pride is a complicated creature and has another, more positive side. A carpenter I know takes quiet pride in the decks he builds. Parents of an acquaintance of mine are rightly proud of their children’s accomplishments.

Quite often, this pride walks hand in hand with humility, another knotty concept. In fact, of all our virtues, humility is perhaps the most misunderstood and the least emphasized. Search online for “humility definition,” and you’ll find an assortment of meanings, running from “freedom of pride” to “lack of pride” to perhaps the more accurate “a lack of false pride.” These variations are understandable, for they reflect our own confusion about humility.

In “What Is Humility & Why Is It Important?” Anna Katharina Schaffner does her readers a great service with a quick run-through of humility’s history and many benefits to the human person, and I encourage you to read it. Perhaps most importantly, at the beginning of her article, Schaffner notes that humility “appears to clash with our current valuation of self-worth and self-realization,” but she then adds this paragraph:
“But humility has nothing to do with meekness or weakness. And neither does it mean being self-effacing or submissive. Humility is an attitude of spiritual modesty that comes from understanding our place in the larger order of things. It entails not taking our desires, successes, or failings too seriously.”
Here is a healthy view of humility that we see daily exercised all around us. Those parents I know who are so proud of their children’s achievements never say, “Yes, and it was all my doing.” While my friend the carpenter may take enormous satisfaction in the praise he receives for a job, he gives credit to his teachers and his skilled work crew.

And if we do some more exploring online, we discover that humility is one of the most desirable traits in a leader. On any number of sites, we read of the strengths of humble leaders: their willingness to listen to others and to share credit when good work is done, their measured take on their own talents and their ability to fill in the gaps with help from others, and perhaps most of all, their view of themselves as “servant leaders.” In this capacity, their wants and desires take second place to the objectives of a mission and the needs of others.

In “The Purpose-Driven Life,” pastor and author Rick Warren wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." Then he added, "Humility is thinking more of others.” For this little-mentioned virtue not only performs wonders in the workplace, but can enhance marriage, home life, and relationships with family and friends. This modesty brightens the sheen of talent.

A final note: Humility ultimately derives from the Latin word humus, meaning “earth, ground.” If we adopt a humble spirit, keeping our egos out of the way while confidently bringing to bear our gifts and capabilities, all with the aim of performing at our best wherever we are, we may not become angels, but we will stay grounded.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.