True Humility and the Difference It Makes

“Knowledge of fact may inspire pride and arrogance; wisdom makes for understanding and humility.” Howard Thurman




I read a story from Howard Thurman recently that has stuck with me. Thurman was a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and many others. I wonder what we could learn from him?

In his book, The Inward Journey, Thurman shared a story from his younger years as a student in geometry class. He was having trouble with the class so he studied hard and sought guidance from anyone willing to help. Slowly he got a little better at it until one day the unimaginable happened. The entire class was “stumped” by a math problem, but Thurman figured it out! He raised his hand triumphantly, nearly jumping out of his chair to be called on. For some reason, his teacher did not immediately acknowledge him. He felt he deserved to be called on, even congratulated and celebrated. He says, “After all, none of the others knew the answer and I did.” Finally, the teacher called on him. Thurman shares. “I recited with a flourish. It was obvious to everyone but me that I was beside myself with arrogance.”

Upon sharing the correct answer, the teacher simply asked him to stop by his desk after class. Thurman waited with great anticipation to hear what the teacher would say. After all the other students cleared out of the room, the teacher spoke: “Howard, you must always do your own thinking but remember, Wisdom is not born with you. That is all.”

Thurman writes, “In these nineteen words there was held before me a mirror. What I saw I have never forgotten…knowledge of fact may inspire pride and arrogance; wisdom makes for understanding and humility.”

We don’t need a mirror held before us to know that today, truth is often understood to be born with us. Individuals choose their own truth and determine that some truths are more true than others. Depending on where you are and who you are with, it can be hard to know if it’s safe to share what you know to be true. It can be easy to confuse belief and truth. Just because I believe something is true does not make it so.

I remember a story someone told about a plant.* It was an amazing plant. It’s owner only watered it once a week and it looked beautiful. She was telling someone about it one day, sharing she had bought another just like it because it was so amazing. It just so happened that her husband was in the room as she was sharing the story. “Do you mean that plant?” he asked. “I water that all the time.” She believed that she had discovered an amazing plant that hardly needed any care but the truth was her husband was faithfully taking care of it all along. Just because we believe something does not necessarily make it so.

At some point we all have a mirror held up before us and we realize we don’t know it all and we can’t do it all. There is always someone smarter, more talented, more capable, more pleasing to the eye than you and the realization of this brings humility. There is someone who has been watering the plant and holding everything together and it is not you.

In a world where truth can seem more like shifting sand than a shield meant to protect us, (Eph 6) we need humility more than arrogance. We need a posture, a way to approach life and others that leads to understanding. When we are gathered around a table and the truth of the day begins to draw dividing lines between us, it is not the time to raise our hands and recite our truth with a flourish. It is time to humble ourselves. It is time to step into the shoes of another. It is time to listen and learn from each other.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less,” wrote C.S. Lewis. The humble person is free from the burden of thinking too little or too much of themselves. The humble person is always ready to learn from others. It takes courage to learn and have a teachable spirit. It takes courage to risk being wrong and be willing to work at coming to a new understanding.

A humble person is both courageous and gentle. There are actually several passages in the Bible that link gentleness and humility. Jesus tells us he is gentle and humble of heart. Paul tells us to clothe ourselves with humility and gentleness and to conduct ourselves with humility and gentleness. (Col 3:12, Eph 4:2) What is interesting is that in each case the word translated gentleness is praus in Greek. In an ancient Greek context, this word was used to describe a tamed wild animal: an animal that was strong yet submissive to a rider. There is power in the kind of gentleness referred to here. It is like the leader who has the power to condemn you, yet washes your feet. It is like the lion who has the power to overcome you yet is gentle as a lamb.

To be humble is to be brave enough to know and admit that you do not know it all and that you cannot do it all but there is one who can. The humble person does not feel entitled but rather sees everything as a gift. The humble person knows there is one greater who is holding everything together, offering life and living water to all who will receive it. He is truth. He is gentle and humble of heart. Wisdom is born of Him.



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* Emily P. Freeman shared this story.