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No Need to Downplay Your Leadership

God calls us to both humility and confidence.

You've heard these phrases. Maybe you've said them:

  • It's not me—it's all God.
  • I'm nothing. Any talent I have comes right from God.
  • Oh thank you, but to God be all the glory!

They sound good, humble, even biblical. But are they?

And why do Christian women, in particular, tend to dismiss commendation and demean their own competence? Why can't we simply accept a good compliment, let alone praise, for leadership? There has to be useful, liberating ground between “It's all God” and “It's all me,” but we're not sure how to sink our roots there. There are three main reasons women struggle with this:

We think (false) humility is biblical.

Scripture warns us against pride and self-determination. When Jesus says that without being attached to the vine (him) we can do nothing, he means nothing. The word is an absolute negative.

We know that every breath comes from God. We’re fully aware that “In him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28). On a basic level, indeed, we can do nothing apart from God. But does he leave us utterly helpless on a daily basis? Or does he equip us to move and do and minister out of who we are with the talents he has granted us?

In Matthew 25, servants are given talents that they’re instructed to multiply. What they receive they must invest, grow, and strengthen. When accountability time comes, God says to the first two, “Well done! You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!”

We can imagine what our response might be: “Aw shucks, God, it was all yours anyway. I didn't do anything at all.” But this isn’t how the servants responded. While we don’t know their exact words, we know they must have answered with a willingness to step into more responsibility and a confidence that they could.

On the other hand, the one who does not multiply his gifts loses them.

How often do we women act like the third servant? We hide what we've been given. We shroud it in false humility, and we protest that we've done nothing. In the end, people around us believe what we've said, and looking for real leaders, they turn elsewhere. After all, if we've truly done nothing, why would anyone offer us more leadership?

Jesus instructs, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The motivation is glory to God—but the operation is fearless light shining.

As Michael Hyatt succinctly puts it, “To bury your talent in the yard is not good stewardship.”

We're conditioned to minimize our accomplishments.

This is what nice girls do. In a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review, Deborah Tannen writes,

The research of sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists observing American children at play has shown that … girls learn to downplay ways in which one is better than the others and to emphasize ways in which they are all the same. Most girls learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers. A group of girls will ostracize a girl who calls attention to her own superiority and criticize her. Women are less likely than men to have learned to blow their own horn. And they are more likely than men to believe that if they do so, they won’t be liked.

Christian women have an added reality in that so much of Christian culture tells them (and not their male peers) to be “good.” By which we mean be submissive, sweet, gentle, and modest. While it’s true that Peter said to women, “Clothe yourselves with the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,” (1 Peter 3:4), it’s equally true that Jesus told everyone that the gentle would be blessed (Matthew 5:5). Jesus calls himself gentle (Matthew 11:29), and Paul and Peter caution both men and women to be gentle always (1 Peter 3:5, Titus 3:2, Galatians 6:1). It appears to be a quality to aspire to regardless of gender, as it means having a spirit that relies on God alone for defense and accepts his decisions.

And yet many women accept the false idea that gentleness is a female quality. We also accept the notion that gentleness and ensuring we’re heard are mutually exclusive goals. As nice girls, we backpedal our own abilities, keeping quiet unless asked, and even then, push aside our qualifications with, “Well, it's not that big a deal.”

I do this myself. If someone asks about a current writing project, my most likely response is to mumble a few summary sentences in a voice that tells the listener he or she couldn't possibly be interested. Minimizing my excitement over a project, however, does no one any favors.

We're afraid of failure—and success.

These are both perfectionist tendencies. For many women, relationships are at the root of these fears. We're afraid we won't be liked if we act too confident and achieve our dreams. We fear we'll let others down if we can't sustain what we achieve—that if we fail, someone might be hurt. On the other hand, if we succeed, we might lose people who mean something to us. We even fear losing people who don't mean anything to us!

So we guard ourselves by shooting ourselves in the foot with self-deprecating “humility” because it's safer than taking those risks. But if we don't try, we won't fail or succeed. Instead, we’ll remain frustrated where we are—but at least the relationships are comfortable.

How to Stop Downplaying Your Leadership

To dismiss both false humility and misplaced pride when using our talents in ministry, we will need to be bold in four ways:

Acknowledge our strengths.

We all have strengths, gifts, and talents. God hands them out with radical liberality. Then he gives us the means to develop them in ways that will glorify him. It's not prideful to be aware of what we do well, and it’s okay to share these strengths with others. It's simply making yourself available and ready to multiply what he's given. Pride comes when we insist on establishing our superiority, not our capability. Pride exists when we take those gifts and use them for our agenda and glory.

It is completely glorifying to God to acknowledge, “Yes, God gave me particular gifts. I have honed them well for kingdom work.” It is, in fact, not glorifying to God at all to demur and drop our eyes at the world and mutter, “Oh, I am just a little vessel for God. I’m nothing special.” We are all redeemed, restored, and sent out to be the kingdom we want to see. Debasing our gifts is essentially telling God he chose wrong in gifting us at all.

Rearrange our beliefs.

We have no trouble believing all our friends on Facebook will be interested in our vacation photos. So why do we need to be convinced that people will be interested in our aspirations and observations about ministry?

Humility is not downplaying our contributions and capabilities—it's making sure we and everyone else understand that the fruit of those contributions is God's. Without me, Jesus says, you will not bear fruit. It's not that we have no abilities; it's that any results of ministry are from the hand of God. We can, and do, get hyper-focused on results and convince ourselves that we manufactured them. But this lurking pride monster does not come from a realistic appreciation for our own gifts.

Pray about our motivation.

When I feel either false humility or pride sneaking in, I know I have to check my prayers. I need to fall before God and beg his intervention in my motivation. I know anything I write, preach, or do will be nothing if it comes from a heart that wants my own glory instead of God’s. I will beg God to make me want to write words that help others and glorify him. I dare not rise from that posture until I feel assured that whatever I do with the talent he has given me to craft words will be focused on blessing God and other people.

Take a risk.

The only way to overcome this is to get out there and take the risks God is calling you to. Fail. Fall on your face. And realize the world did not end. Succeed. Look at a new horizon with terrifying claims on your time and abilities. And dive into it. The world still will not end. As Tim Keller has said, "The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time.”

Jill M. Richardson is a writer, speaker, and pastor. Her mission is to empower the next generation of Christ followers, working together to unleash their calling to transform God’s kingdom.

January04, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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