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, ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

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: