I had a Sunday school teacher in middle school who used to say, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” It turns out that downplaying our gifts does not equate to being humble.
Comedian Brian Regan has a bit in which he dissects popular culture’s criteria for crowning someone with title of “hero.” After an individual performs an act of bravery, the potential hero-in-question must also pass an oral exam: they must be asked whether or not they feel like a hero. In order to actually receive the coveted title of hero, the candidate must dramatically and pensively look off into the distance and say something to the effect of, “No… I’m not a hero, I was just doing my job.” Then, and only then, will society deem them truly worthy of the title.
Following that train of thought, it is fascinating how difficult it is for us to accept praise. It’s awkward for some of us because, while we appreciate the gesture, we often do not know how to respond. We almost don’t want to agree with the compliment because that could be perceived as arrogant.
Someone tells us, “You delivered a great speech!”
And unless we downplay it, we feel like we might as well have responded, “Oh, I know. I’ve been lauded far and wide for my rhetorical abilities. We study the Greek poets, but the poets wish they could have studied me.”
If you are anything like me, sometimes a simple, grateful, and unqualified “thank you” can be difficult to muster. Instead, taking our hypothetical speech situation as an example, I want to point out all the ways my speech was insufficient, “Thank you… but I feel like a stuttered a few times and said ‘uhh’ too much.”
While at first glance this deflection might appear to be humble, based on my Sunday school teacher’s definition, it is actually rather arrogant. Someone has offered me a gift, and I have taken it, criticized it, and then turned my attention to myself.
Since coming to Beeson, I have gained a new appreciation for Genesis 1. In verse thirty-one, God surveys what he has made and gives it an unadulterated stamp of approval. Creation is indeed “very good.” And this declaration has never been undermined by humankind's Fall presented in Genesis 3. The advent of evil cannot squelch the beauty that God has created. While sin has marred and mangled creation, it has not snuffed out the imprint of God.
Therefore, when we receive a compliment, we are really hearing an affirmation of the goodness of creation as described in Genesis 1:31. The person paying you a compliment is recognizing God-given talent and beauty; they are acknowledging that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).
Now don’t misunderstand me, this can certainly be taken too far and lead to us thinking much more highly of ourselves than we ought. However, those of us who struggle to believe there can be any truth behind sincere compliments need to recognize that inappropriately downplaying our gifts can also be a form of pride! We are telling God that he is wrong: his creation is not good. We are both thinking less of ourselves than is true and also thinking about ourselves much more than we should be.
Instead, we need to know that it is ok to believe someone’s praise. It’s ok to just smile and say “thank you.” You are fearfully and wonderfully made.