Roger Severino


Winston Churchill described political rival, Clement Attlee, as “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.” No one mistook that for a compliment. He also said Attlee was a “sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Again, “an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was open, Attlee got out.” Is modesty proof of a weak leader? Is humility a virtue even to be desired? Do these qualities undermine the resolve, strength, and assertiveness needed for effective leadership?

Several years ago Jim Collins’ book “From Good to Great” shocked the business world when he claimed that his research proved that the best leaders – the Level 5 Leader – demonstrated humility as a necessary quality. Level 4 Leaders (where most top leaders fall) were able to galvanize a department or organization to meet performance objectives and achieve a vision. A Level 5 Leader possessed all these qualities but added a unique blend of humility and will to achieve true greatness. So, it seems that resolve, strength, and assertiveness can co-exist with humility.

Maybe this biblical virtue is not dead yet, at least in value if not practice.

A helpful adage that gets thrown around a lot recently in my circles is this: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but it’s thinking of yourself less.” Depending on your research, this quote may be attributed to C. S. Lewis or Rick Warren (some say Warren adapted the Lewis quote). Either way, I believe it is a useful understanding of an important virtue in Scripture that is not always believed in or appreciated in the “real world.” Self-deprecation is still focused on self. Humility has a certain freedom from ego because it realizes that we are not the center of the universe; Someone Else is.

The Gospel of John introduces John the Baptist as a surprising example of humility, demonstrating that a fiery preacher can also be genuinely humble. Here are some of my take-aways from the accounts described in John 1:19-39 and 3:22-30.

  1. Genuine humility requires that you be secure in who you are, and who you are not (John 1:19-28).
    When the religious leadership asked John about his credentials for baptizing, he said he was not Elijah, the Prophet, or the Messiah, but merely the forerunner to the Messiah. He knew his role, embraced it, and didn’t try to be someone else. It’s taken me most of my adult life to be comfortable in my own skin and not envy others’ callings or gifts, and I’m still a work in progress. My best shot at genuine humility is when I see myself rightly, that is without an over-inflated or under-inflated ego. Learn to embrace your identity as a beloved child of God and rejoice in the unique gifts and calling He has given you.
  2. Genuine humility means being less concerned about my agenda, and more concerned about God’s agenda (John 1:29-27; 3:22-26).
    The problem with this principle is that we can so easily justify ourselves and, of course, claim that we are so concerned about our agenda precisely because IT IS God’s agenda! John the Baptist kept pointing people to Jesus. Though he had his own disciples, he encouraged them to follow the Messiah. When one of his disciples showed concern that Jesus was starting to baptize and all were flocking to him instead of John, the Baptizer did not panic about losing market share or popularity. A good (and hard!) question to ask ourselves is: “Would I be willing to give up my agenda if I believed that God would be more greatly honored by someone else’s efforts and success?”
  3. Genuine humility recognizes that all we have and possess are gifts from God (John 3:27-28).
    John the Baptist recognized that the ministry, position, and authority he possessed were not his own, but derived from God. If his influence diminished to achieve God’s purposes, he was OK with that. Can we say the same? Paul asks the believers in Corinth: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” If everything I have is gift, then why do I boast or feel the need to protect or promote my little kingdom.
  4. Genuine humility is revealed when we joyfully turn the spotlight away from ourselves to something greater (John 3:29-30).
    John compares himself to the best man at a wedding. One thing we know for sure. The wedding celebration is not about the best man! It’s about the Bride and Groom (though some may argue, more about the bride). Assuming your best friend marries an amazing woman that is an incredible match for him, hopefully you will be rejoicing at the wedding! I recently had the opportunity to walk my daughter down the aisle to marry a great man. I was smiling and rejoicing. Like one of the groomsmen (or even a father of the bride), the celebration is about someone else. How distasteful would it be to try to steal the spotlight on this great day? Do we rejoice, like John, in turning the spotlight on Jesus rather than ourselves?

How do we pursue humility? That’s a tough one. The minute you think you have it, you probably just lost it. Nevertheless, here is a start. Be secure in who God has made you. Be more concerned about God’s agenda than your own. Recognize that all you have are gifts from God, so give Him the praise. And joyfully turn the spotlight away from you so people will admire the One who is of supreme worth.

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