I remember reading a comic strip a number of years ago. Two people were waiting patiently at the gates of heaven, while St. Peter was leafing through his large book. Finally, St. Peter looked up and said “I’m afraid that we have space for only one more person, so to help me decide who gets in, I would like you to answer this question: Which of you two is the most humble?”.
This Catch-22 scenario reminded me of the utter confusion I had often experienced during my Catholic elementary school religion classes. In my blog post The Generosity Coefficient, I lamented that my while my religion teachers used to recite a plethora of Bible verses, they didn’t do a particularly good job of explaining what they meant or how they might apply to us. This comic strip reminded me of another one of their pronouncements – Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” As a child, this one also didn’t make much sense to me. It was actually counter-intuitive because this was the 1970s – a time when schoolyard bullying meant more than mere verbal taunting or name-calling – there were also threats of physical violence. Being meek was not a wise strategy for me or for any of my classmates, and it certainly wouldn’t get one very far in my world.
Another related verse that I heard in church quite regularly was “He who is humbled shall be exalted”. Our priest never elaborated on this one, which frustrated me. In hindsight, I should have approached him afterwards and asked him to clarify what it meant. Everyone else in the congregation seemed quite content, as if they understood all of its nuances.
I decided that it was time to revisit this verse and find out exactly what was being promised to us. After Googling some online Bibles and doing a few text searches, I discovered that this verse appears many times, in slightly different ways. Here are some examples:
Matthew 23:12: And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
James 4:10: Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
Peter 5:6: Be you humbled therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in the time of visitation.
To me, these verses all seem to be counter-intuitive. First of all, if you are a genuinely humble person, then why would you want to be exalted? This advice appeals only to those who are narcissistic or otherwise ego-driven in their behaviour. In another one of the many ironies I’ve discovered in the Bible, the above verses seem to be directed toward those who suffer from hubris. Hubris is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and according to Wikipedia, it’s the the original and most serious of them all. In my opinion, genuine humility requires no ulterior motive; people should be humble because it’s simply a good way to conduct oneself.
Secondly, as we age, we become wiser and more mature (well, most of us, anyway). In general, we become less inward-looking and more outward-looking. We focus less on ourselves, our social position, the accumulation of material goods or what other people think of us, and we concentrate more on helping others and giving back to society. I think it’s safe to say that those nearing the end of their lives probably don’t care much about being exalted.
When can we expect to be exalted? The first two quotes don’t give a timeline, but the last one says “in the time of visitation”. What could that mean? I decided to look up Peter 5:6 on the Bible Study Tools web site, which provides dozens of interpretations and translations of this verse, and it was very vague. That phrase was interpreted as “at the right time”, “in due time”, “at the proper time” or “in His own good time”. Not particularly helpful…
Personally, I envision two possibilities: God will either exalt you while you’re here on Earth, or after you get to heaven (I assume that those who are on their way to hell are on their own). As far as I know, no human (other than Jesus) has ever been exalted by God – if so, then the media would have been all over this story. Therefore, it’s unlikely that we will receive our reward while we’re still here on Earth. I also asked a few of my friends what they thought these verses meant to them, and their answers were fairly uniform: “Be humble now, and God will exalt you when you get to heaven”. Given the lack of any exalted people here on Earth, this seems like a reasonable interpretation.
It sounds like someone wants to ensure that we remain humble during our entire lives, by promising us a reward – at an unspecified time, but more than likely after we die – that appeals to our ego. Yet another intangible dangling carrot…
And now, The Bob Angle… these verses do not deliver the right message. Yes, humility is a noble character trait, but one mustn’t say “be humble and you’ll be exalted after you die”. Not all of us are able to embrace the concept of delayed gratification. If you want proof, then just look at the popularity of scratch-off lottery tickets – there is a segment of the population that can’t even wait until Saturday night’s lottery draw for their reward. What Matthew, James and Peter should have said instead was “be humble, and you’ll be rewarded immediately and often”. Not only will more people respond to it, that’s also how society actually works, and I can prove it with these examples:
It’s no secret why Pope Francis is the most popular and beloved popes in recent memory. Despite his ascribed status, he is a genuinely humble man who remains unaffected by his new station in life. Immediately after the papal conclave, he went back to his hotel to pay his bill. Afterwards, Francis declined to live in the papal apartments, and chose to live at a residence for visiting clergy, the decidedly more modest Casa Santa Marta, and eat in the communal dining room.
One the the things I admire most about Popes is the ceremony in which they wash their parishoners’ feet. They may lead a rarefied existence, but this act of humility brings them back down to earth, and raises their profile immensely for me.
Prince William seems to be one of the most popular members of the royal family. While it may be his good looks, I think it’s because he doesn’t exist in a proverbial ivory tower. He seems to be more in touch with ordinary people. In 2009, William spent a night on the streets, living as a homeless person would, in order to experience first-hand, how indigent people live. In 2000 during a charity expedition to Chile, the prince was treated like everyone else in his group, which meant physical labour and even cleaning toilets.
Tom Hanks was a guest on The Tonight Show a few years ago, and told Jay Leno about a particularly enjoyable Friday night – he and his wife stayed in and watched movies. This A-list celebrity explained this very ordinary evening in great detail. He and his wife love to drink root beer while watching movies; they like to drink it out of large glass mugs (like the ones used at A&W) and they always put the mugs in the freezer first so that they are frosted. While many celebrities enjoy showing off their ostentation lifestyle, Tom Hanks brings himself down to the lifestyle of his audience by describing something completely ordinary and easily attainable.
Facebook has two classes of user accounts: Standard and Public Figure. You can follow a public figure and see their posts on your news feed, but you can’t send them a friend request or (in most cases) send them a private message or post anything on their wall. Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer and former Ontario Premier Bob Rae are two people who impress me with their humility. Both are very well-known in their field, have illustrious careers and are most certainly public figures, yet they each have standard Facebook accounts. If you look at their Facebook home pages, you’ll see a green “Add Friend” button. I like this, because it demonstrates that they don’t feel above anyone else, despite their fame and success. Of course, this might also be because people called Robert (or Bob) are just naturally humble, decent and down-to-earth… :o)
A few years ago, I decided to follow the Dalai Lama’s Twitter account. A few minutes after I did, the following e-mail appeared in my Inbox “The Dalai Lama is now following you on Twitter!”. This is one of my favourite e-mail messages, and I still can’t bring myself to delete it. Yes, I know that it was probably sent by an automated script, and I doubt that his Holiness is actually reading my tweets, but the sentiment is significant: if I am interested in what the Dalai Lama has to say, then he is willing to return the favour and listen to me. Years later, I still remember this humble gesture.
You’re probably thinking “These examples are fine if you’re a famous person, but I’m just an ordinary guy (or gal). What could I possibly do to demonstrate humility?”
Be respectful toward others. Politeness and common courtesy are really acts of humility. I’m sure that you, while driving, have often encountered kids and teenagers on skateboards who simply roll through intersections without any consideration for the other vehicles. This also applies to cyclists who seem to think that stop signs don’t apply to them; there are even pedestrians who simply walk right across a busy four-way intersection without breaking their stride. As a pedestrian, I watch the other cars carefully and always wait my turn before crossing the road. However, what I’ve often noticed is that drivers will often wave me through, even if I’ve arrived at the intersection a couple of seconds before they did. Even if I’m not waved through, the other drivers often give me “the wave” as they make their turn or drive across the intersection. When I show respect for the driver by waiting to cross, I am often rewarded by that driver who either gives a wave of appreciation, or often allows me to cross first.
In my blog post Keep Looking Up, I suggested that we should all start associating with people who are smarter than we are. We will initially feel a sense of humility or even inadequacy, but we will eventually be rewarded with an abundance of new ideas, points of view, information, knowledge and wisdom that we wouldn’t otherwise have acquired from our current circle of friends.
Men – help out around the house. Offer to do less-than-glamourous chores, such as cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes, vacuuming, or the laundry. You may think that these are thankless tasks, but on more than one occasion, I’ve read Facebook posts by several women who said that the sexiest thing their husband or boyfriend can do is wash the dishes.
If you’re a programmer, then embrace your bugs and compiler errors. Yes, they are frustrating, time-consuming and often confounding, but they force us to dig deeper into the code and do additional research. Personally, I learn a great deal when I am faced with an error or some unexpected behaviour in my programs. At first I’m a little disappointed that my programming skills weren’t what I thought, but as I work through the code, I learn much more about the language, and the idiosyncrasies of the operating system and the computer than I did before. My humility makes me a (slightly) better programmer.
There you have it – be modest and unassuming now, and enjoy the adulation immediately. If you don’t expect to be exalted until “the time of visitation”, then it is more likely that you won’t notice or appreciate the way people are treating you right now, in their reactions to your humble behaviour.