Today Dan Kent joined us to talk a little bit about his book, “Confident Humility: How to Become Your Full Self without Becoming Full Of Yourself”, and how some of its principles can help us remain centered on Jesus, put people before politics, and create peace during these divisive times.
We all agree we are steeped in politics everywhere we turn, and we especially agree that what we need is more humility when it comes to politics. But somehow nobody is able to actually do it. Why is that? We are sincere in wanting it, but something happens to sabotage our humility.
There are two things that Dan thinks is causing our inability to translate our desire for humility into actual difference.
1) We put the wrong thing at the center of our self-assessment
We can think of humility as the foundation of our assessment of ourselves and others. And so the first thing that is sabotaging our idea of humility is that we tend to put the wrong thing at the center of our self-assessment.
The church where Dan first became a Christian believed that people in general were fundamentally bad, sinful, and unworthy of God’s love. Because of sin, they said, we are absolutely depraved and there is absolutely nothing good in us. Even when you do something good, they believed there was a selfish intent behind it.
But this view contradicted some of the other messages he got from those same people, such as the love of God they preached, and the dignity with which they treated him. They certainly didn’t treat him or each other like he was a “stain on God’s creation.” So he had a hard time accepting this view of the self as depraved.
The other reason he had trouble with this view was that this was the early 90s, at the height of the self-esteem movement. Everywhere he went at school he was surrounded by messages of “you are special” “you are great just the way you are.” (Of course, he didn’t full accept this “you are great” message either since it seemed a little vacuous and arbitrary.)
He calls these two opposing views the Ditch of Smallness and the Ditch of Bigness. The Ditch of Smallness says humans are fundamentally bad and should think of ourselves as soberly as possible, and the enemy to be wary of is pride, or thinking too highly of ourselves. By contrast the Ditch of Bigness says just the opposite, they teach that people are fundamentally good and the primary enemy that prevents us from being effective is shame.
Interestingly, each perspective creates the very thing the opposite ditch warns against. The Ditch of Smallness creates (and more or less idealizes) shame, whereas the messages of the Ditch of Bigness can lead to arrogance. And when both opposing sides are right in their criticism of the other, then you know that they both must be wrong!
Some years later when he was in college, he was assigned to write a paper on the topic of humility. And indeed most people he researched said humility is the opposite of pride. And this seems right to most of us, it’s the way we are used to thinking of it, because you can’t imaging a person being humble and proud at the same time. But if they are opposites, and pride is being big and pro-self, then that means humility must mean being small and anti-self. So the more humble I get, the smaller I become, and it leads to a downward spiral of going lower and lower in your assessment of the self. This is the ditch of smallness.
But then, in his research on humility, he came across Matthew 23, and his heart roared. This was it! Let’s look at it together….
To set this up, in this passage Jesus is just about to launch into what is known as the “Seven Woes” to the Pharisees. But during the verses we are looking at, he is still talking to the crowds that had gathered.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
There are many takeaways from these verses (Dan wrote a whole book about it!) but one thing we can say from looking at this is that humility cannot be the opposite of pride like the Ditch of Smallness says.
Jesus says you are not to be called Rabbi. It’s not that the titles are bad, since he uses these all the time with no problem. It’s the exultation that people take from the title that is the issue. Don’t be above other people, he says. But then he says that the opposite is also bad — don’t call anyone else father/teacher/etc – don’t put anyone below you OR above you! We don’t often hear humility being defined as elevating the lowly, but it makes perfect sense that our God who defends the lowly and the poor would indeed mean it this way.
So Jesus’ view of humility here is the opposite of BOTH shame and pride. Just like with pacifism, you could say that pacifism is the opposite of winning a war, and you could also say it is the opposite of losing a war. But you would not say that pacifism is a balance of winning and losing a war. Rather it stands against war itself. In the same way, humility is the opposite of shame, AND pride, because it is the opposite of whatever force creates shame and pride.
So what is that force that creates shame and pride? It’s the delusion we all live in that some people are better than others.
Whereas the Ditch of Smallness places sin at the center of their theology, and the ditch of bigness puts a good and ideal self at the center of their belief system, Jesus’ teaching on humility places God’s unsurpassable love at the center.
God loves us all with an unsurpassable love. Unsurpassable meaning that it is maximal and that it cannot be made more. It is supremely equal, falling on all like the rain and the sun, and made the ultimate payment he could have made for us, and he did it while we were still sinners.
You are not fundamentally good or bad — you are fundamentally loved.
Shame and pride are socially indexed. They both make you feel superior or inferior to others. But God’s love for us is equal; you are brothers and sisters. His unsurpassable love speaks to the reality of our unsurpassably equal worth.
If equality is reality, then inequality is a delusion and a lie. But we are so steeped in it we don’t see it as such. Deep down, we believe that some people are better than others. And this causes us to behave in strange ways.
Dan’s “day job” is in mental health and he has seen almost everything. One woman was brought in because she was going around taking an axe to every garage door she saw. Another kid stopped talking, and would just sit there opening and closing his mouth. Another patient literally wore the stereotypical tinfoil hat.
We think these are irrational behaviors, but actually when you understand the delusion behind them, they are actually VERY rational. The woman with the axe believed that someone was molesting her daughters in one of those garages. The kid believed he was a fish, and the guy with the tinfoil hat believed the government was trying to control his thoughts via satellite, so he was trying to block the radio waves. So within these delusions, their “strange” behavior actually made perfect sense.
We do the same thing within our delusion that some people are better than others. As soon as we think that some people are better than others, we immediately ask where we fit in within the hierarchy. We play games wondering how we can move up the ladder. This is strange behavior given that we are all equal! But because we are ALL sharing in this delusion of inequality, we don’t see it as the tinfoil hat that that it really is.
But Jesus recognizes it and calls it out for what it is. You are all bothers and sisters. Nothing that we do can increase or decrease our worth. You are not good or bad; not better or worse than anyone else. You are loved.
Dan shared three tips that we can use to try and fight against the delusion:
1) Stop reinforcing false hierarchies.
Don’t affirm your or other people’s smallness or greatness. Instead, do what the apostle Paul tells us to do: build people up. This is not the same as puffing people up — building people up reminds them of their profound worth from God’s love.
2) Start living from the Inside-Out.
All politics are outside-in endeavors. Whether it’s government politics, or within the workplace, all politics come down to controlling and managing people from the outside-in, but through discipleship we are working to transform ourselves from the inside-out into the kinds of people that don’t need to be managed. In politics, everything is a means to an end. But in discipleship the means — how we treat one another — is the entire show. It doesn’t matter if you get the results you want if you don’t treat people right on the way there. All inequality tends to be measured by outside characteristics such as wealth, popularity or good looks. Living from the inside-out ignores such arbitrary measures of worth and focuses on what matters, the person on the inside.
3) Put people over politics/beliefs.
We tend to look at beliefs first and then only secondarily establish relationships with the person. We are pressured to place ourselves in a group and say “I am a ____” (democrat, vegan, Vikings fan, what have you). But when we identify with God’s love and see ALL people regardless of belief or social group as our brothers and sisters, we are free to associate with anyone without thinking about how it affects our status. You can hang out with low-lifes (as long as you are safe and observe good boundaries of course) without worrying that they will bring you down. You can have friends of any social status without thinking about who will help you get ahead. You don’t have to try and be right; instead you can simply treat people right.
You are all brothers and sisters. You are not fundamentally good or bad. You are fundamentally loved.
This might be the most freeing Good News we can hear.
If you found this subject useful and want to learn more, you can find out more about Dan’s book here:
Hide Extended Summary
Confident Humility: Becoming Your Full Self without Becoming Full of Yourself