As an exercise, I recently made a list of the people who have most influenced me, whose qualities I want to emulate. I stared at the list for some time before realizing that all have in common the surprising trait of humility.

For a time I did not appreciate humility, which I saw as an expression of negative self-image. Humble Christians seemed to grovel, parrying all compliments with "It's not me, it's the Lord." And as a nerdy, mathematical friend of mine once expressed it, the humble are a self-swallowing set: when you become conscious of belonging, you're immediately excluded.

Yet I now see that neither complaint applies to the people I most admire. A great scientist, a splendid poet, a theologian who works with the poor—none has a negative self-image. All excelled in school, won awards, and have little reason to doubt their gifts and abilities. Humility is, for them, an ongoing choice to credit God, not themselves, for their natural gifts and then to use those gifts in God's service.

According to many historians, pagan thinkers had never honored humility. Whereas worldly philosophers admired the virtues of accomplishment and self-reliance, Christians saw a grave temptation in anything that makes one feel superior to another. They encouraged, instead, an honest self-appraisal and open dependence on God.

Jesus talked freely about his most stressful moments: How else would we read in the New Testament about the lonely temptation in the wilderness, or the struggle in Gethsemane as his friends slept? The apostle Peter looks worst in Mark, the Gospel that apparently relies on his eyewitness details. (And John Mark may cryptically include himself as a naked character running away from the scene of Jesus' arrest.) John and Peter, heroes to the church, earn the strongest rebukes in all four Gospels. Paul continues the trend, learning through his "thorn in the flesh" to boast only about his weakness, the occasion for God's strength.

Humility has many dimensions. My first employer showed it in the kind and patient way he treated me, a writer still wet behind the ears. He never made an editorial change without painstakingly convincing me that the change would actually improve my piece. He saw his mission as not just to improve articles but to improve writers.

Other heroes of mine exercise humility by finding a group overlooked and undeserved. I think of Dr. Paul Brand, a promising young physician who volunteered in India as the first orthopedic surgeon to work with leprosy patients. Or of Henri Nouwen, professor at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, who ended up among people having a fraction of those students' IQs: the mentally handicapped at L'Arche homes in France and Toronto. Both of these men demonstrated to me that downward mobility can lead to the success that matters most.

All of America watched how President Jimmy Carter handled the humiliation of losing an election, and the subsequent shunning by his own party. Once the most powerful person in the world, he quietly decided against golf and the talk-show circuit and instead took up a hammer to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Later presidents came to rely on him as an honorable peacemaker who had earned the world's respect.

"If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all," Jesus told his disciples. Paul later expanded that principle in a remarkable extended metaphor:

those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it (1 Cor. 12:22–24, NIV).
Article continues below

I have never heard a preacher dare pinpoint the "unpresentable parts" that we treat with special modesty. I would vote for colon and kidney cells, those hidden parts that perform the body's janitorial functions. We pay far more attention to more visible parts such as eyes and hair. Yet as blind and bald people prove, a person can live a rich and rewarding life without functioning eyes and hair follicles. One whose kidneys or colon stop working has, without medical intervention, only hours to live.

For most of his life Albert Einstein had the portraits of two scientists, Newton and Maxwell, hanging on his wall as role models to inspire him. Toward the end of life, however, he took them down and replaced them with portraits of Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi. He needed new role models, he said—not of success, but of humble service.

Related Elsewhere

See also a 1769 letter written by John Newton (author of "Amazing Grace") on Christian humility, St. Benedict's rule on humility and quotations from the Desert Fathers on the topic.

Read about Henri Nouwen's life and death.

Nouwen authored more than 50 books. Here's a list.

Read more about L'Arche communities and their original charter "to create communities which welcome people with a mental handicap, to respond to the distress of those who are too often rejected, and to give them a valid place in society."

Read Brand's devotional about spiritual growth, which ends with a short biography.

Order tapes of Brand's speeches, such as "We are the Image of God."

Brand and Yancey's Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pain: the Gift Nobody Wants, and In His Image are available from Amazon.com.

Previous Christianity Today articles about humility include:

The Gift of Humility | Christianity has made a difference by surrounding the use of power with humility (Dec. 17, 1999)

Reflections | Quotes on Christian virtues (Aug. 22, 2000)

Christianity Today recently ran "Living with Furious Opposites," from Yancey's latest book, Reaching for the Invisible God.

Yancey's columns for Christianity Today include:

Getting a Life (Oct. 16, 2000)

To Rise, It Stoops (Aug. 29, 2000)

Lessons from Rock Bottom (July 10, 2000)

Chess Master (May 15, 2000)

Would Jesus Worship Here? (Feb.7, 2000)

Doctor's Orders (Dec. 2, 1999)

Getting to Know Me (Oct. 25,1999)

The Encyclopedia of Theological Ignorance (Sept. 6, 1999)

Writing the Trinity (July 12, 1999)

Can Good Come Out of This Evil? (June 14, 1999)

The Last Deist (Apr. 5, 1999)

Why I Can Feel Your Pain (Feb. 8, 1999)

What The Prince of Egypt Won't Tell You (Dec. 7, 1998)

What's a Heaven For? (Oct. 26, 1998)

The Fox and the Writer (Sept. 7, 1998)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
Previous Philip Yancey Columns:

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Issue: