Protests on college campuses in the ’60s and ’70s catalyzed resistance to United States military involvement in the Vietnam War.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network, began in the dorm room of one of America’s oldest institutions, Harvard.
Why did these seismic movements begin with college students and young adults?
We often enter into our twenties and post college life with enough confidence to believe we can change the world. Passion and enthusiasm, mixed with intolerance for the status quo, fuel a drive to make our mark on the world. These qualities are invaluable when shifting culture and introducing change.
However, confidence can easily become hubris and arrogance. Overwhelmed and in over our heads, we often choose to “fake it until we make it.” Out of insecurity and fear, we communicate that we know more than we do. We want to impress others and confidence morphs into overconfidence. The confidence we once faked becomes the arrogance we really possess, impeding our learning and growth. We give off a vibe that pushes other people away, including older, wiser, and seasoned men and women who could be great mentors. Passing on their wisdom in a season when we could go further, faster because of their investment in us, we are slowed and stunted instead.
During my final year of seminary I was required to establish a meeting of volunteers I led in the church. These people were asked to give me feedback on my leadership. After a couple of meetings with this diverse group, one team member pulled me aside. He had a difficult piece of feedback and did not want to embarrass me with it. He said, “You are not very teachable. Especially when you interact with older people, your posture is closed, like you have nothing to gain from them.” He challenged me to meet with several older men in our church, to buy them coffee or a meal and ask them questions about their story and life experience.
Over the next couple of months I met with five men in our church, all over the age of sixty. I learned several important lessons. First, my friend was right. I had been closed off to this group of people. Second, they had some very different life experiences from mine. They grew up in a world that was far friendlier to Christianity than the one I inhabit as a young pastor. While their world had been shaped by world wars and a huge period of American prosperity, I was becoming an adult in a world shaped by 9/11, the Great Recession, globalization, and rapid technological development. Third, our divergent perspectives did not prohibit me from learning from them. I left each conversation with at least one nugget to consider. I look back on that difficult feedback as an invaluable gift that changed my life.
What if we could move beyond arrogance to true humility? The apostle Peter wrote, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
So how do we move beyond arrogance to humility? I would like to unpack several steps to build humility based on the apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians.
1. Decide other people are more important than you.
In verse 3, Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” When we decide to make other people more important than ourselves, we open ourselves to new friends, lessons, and experiences.
2. Think about how something impacts others before you consider how it impacts you.
Paul challenged the Philippian believers (and us today) when he said, “Value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Humility changes our perspective, enabling us to see an issue, problem, or circumstance from someone else’s point of view. Considering how something impacts others will make us better friends, leaders, and followers of Jesus. Considering how something only impacts us leads to loneliness, isolation, and meaninglessness.
3. Choose to serve rather than to be served.
Jesus becomes Paul’s shining example of humility when he describes Jesus’ attitude. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Many of us remain comfortable discussing serving others until someone treats us like a servant. In those moments, this choice becomes terribly painful. Many of us never transition from talking about serving to becoming a servant. The pain to our ego is simply too great.
I can promise you that you will feel a lack of confidence in the near future. Fear will tempt you to fake it, to appear confident in the eyes of others. In that moment, you can change everything by choosing to humble yourself. When we humble ourselves, we discover teachers who surround us with gifts and insights to help us grow exponentially.
The member of that feedback meeting who identified my lack of teachability recently left our church staff. We got together one final time before he transitioned, and I thanked him for giving me a gift. He had forgotten about that conversation, but I had not. Humility is a gift we can all cultivate if we shift from focusing on ourselves to focusing on others. Confidence and success can coexist with humility. In the words of nineteenth-century Jesuit priest Father Strickland, “A man may do an immense deal of good if he does not care who gets credit for it.”