In L.A. Story, Steve Martin quipped that showing off is the idiot’s version of being interesting. In R.P. Story, self-deprecation is the idiot’s version of being humble.
I picked up this habit in high school, as a way of calling out what I perceived to be the elephant in the room – me. I saw myself as a nerdy, chubby, obnoxious dufus with bad hair, and if I pointed out these shortcomings before anyone else did, I’d steal the thunder of my high school’s provincial champion Teasing Team and they’d be left without ammunition they could use on me.
Now that I’m a grownup (chronologically, at least), I no longer see the need to point out my shortcomings before anyone else does, but I still slip into self-deprecation far too often. The motivation is different now, though: I hate arrogance and bragging, and I aim to be humble and modest – for earthly reasons as much as spiritual ones. And sometimes when I begin to feel prideful, I catch myself and rush to stamp it out. Clumsy self-deprecation is often the product of this haste.
That happened to me the other night at my Bible study group meeting. A member of the group was talking about how hard it is to find time to work on developing her faith, in light of all the other commitments she has in her life. I knew I had something relevant to say, and before the thought fully formed in my mind, I opened my mouth and I talked.
‘Maybe faith shouldn’t be one of the balls we try to juggle in our daily life, maybe it should be the glasses we wear to help us juggle the balls properly,’ said the chubby, bald dufus in the sweat-stained shirt. (Was that self-deprecating, or merely accurate?)
The members of the group were impressed with this notion, and so was I, frankly. I knew I had something when I started talking, but I figured I’d lose my train of thought or mix my metaphors or ramble before I got finished. Instead, for a change, I spoke clearly and succinctly and quit when I was ahead.
I knew that this wisdom didn’t originate in me – I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by others using different metaphors in the past, for one thing. (Albert Einstein says the key to originality is to know how to hide your sources effectively.) But more importantly, I knew it wasn’t really me who said it – that for once, I was able to give my lungs and larynx to Jesus and He spoke through me.
I was therefore a bit uncomfortable with the credit I was being given for this piece of wisdom, and I wanted to deflect it. So far, so good. But rather than saying ‘I don’t think that came from me; I think God just spoke through me,’ I said, ‘Yeah, don’t get too excited; I probably read it on a Hallmark card someplace.’
Self deprecation and false modesty are a very poor substitute for humility. Giving credit where it’s due is good, but I don’t need to kick my own butt in the process. If in doubt, since God made everything, giving credit to God for every good thing we have and do is always appropriate.
I’ll try to do better from now on, Lord. But be patient with me, I’m quite a dufus. (Oops, there I go again.)
* * *
So what should true humility look like for a follower of Jesus? I don’t know. But my good friend Monty Python has some thoughts on what it shouldn’t look like.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) is going about his business, when all of a sudden, God appears to him in all his heavenly glory (or at least twisted animator Terry Gilliam’s idea of what that might look like):
GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! (Arthur drops to his knees in fear and subservience.) Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.
ARTHUR: Sorry …
GOD: And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I’m not worthy.’ … What are you doing now?
ARTHUR: I’m averting my eyes, O Lord.
GOD: Well, don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms; they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!
OK, OK, I’ll stop there. There’s a fine line between satire and sacrilege, it seems. (If you can’t see the line, Baldy, it’s probably because you’ve crossed it and it’s behind you.)
I’m not sure what God’s idea of proper humility really looks like, but I do think it’s safe to say that all of our earthly versions of it fall short. And if we’re not careful, we can be so busy dwelling on our own inadequacies that we fail to hear what God is saying – or forget to revel in the incredible wonder of being in His presence, or being used for His purposes.
The trouble with Arthur’s approach is that he’s so focused on his own unworthiness, he’s depriving himself of fully experiencing God’s worthiness. He forgets to celebrate the fact that he’s in the presence of Almighty God!
Similarly, one of the problems with my self deprecation tendencies is that, when I indulge them, I’m not focusing on God, I’m focusing on myself – and that ain’t the path to true humbility.
Peace be with you.