Humility, Not Hubris, Leads to Greatness
“If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.” Bono, U2
When many Christians go to work, they enter an arena of constant striving—for more pay, more power, more Twitter followers.
Now that I work in a corporate bureaucracy, this striving is systematized: every person’s title shows his or her rank. Each higher rank brings significantly higher pay—and sometimes a secretary too. So just about everyone is plotting how to get their next promotion. Or, among those of us who do work for the CEO, there are frequent squabbles over who gets to be in a meeting with him, who gets to send him the next email update.
It's ridiculous, of course. Everyone in the company is paid enough to live comfortably. And face time with the CEO is, as a form of prestige, perhaps the most fleeting of all. But I confess it’s hard not to get caught up in this culture of striving—feeling elated when I sense I’m moving up this corporate ladder and feeling down when my own power and position are threatened or diminished. The former swells my pride and vanity. The latter shrinks it.
This past year has seen more shrinking than swelling—which has been a good thing spiritually. It has made me more aware of the pride and vanity that creeps into my heart, even in small ways. How these seemingly little sins can create big gaps between my own heart and Christ’s.
It’s also been a good reminder that the world has things exactly backward. Augustine of Hippo, in his sermons, repeatedly urged his followers to see humility, not hubris, as the gateway to greatness.
“Let us not seek greatness directly,” Augustine said in his Sermon 117. “Let us devote ourselves to little things, and we will be great. Do you want to reach God in his sublime heights? Begin by practicing the humility of God. … Confess your weakness and wait patiently at the door for the physician. When you have learned humility from him, rise up with him.”
And in Sermon 353, Augustine said this: “For of such is the kingdom of heaven, namely, of the humble. That is to say, those who are little ones in spirit. Don’t despise it, don’t shrink from it. This littleness is proper to great souls. Pride, on the other hand, is the misleading greatness of the weak.”
I’ve found I can embrace humility through little disciplines that often seem inconsequential—spending an early morning reviewing memory verses, rather than reading an “important” book. Reading a Psalm and praying before eating lunch at my desk, rather than accomplishing another task. And yes, letting others send the email to the CEO.
Of course, Augustine’s insight is not only that we embrace humility, but also that we redefine greatness. Greatness is not a synonym for career advancement. Greatness, for Augustine, means nearness to God. It’s a synonym for salvation and sanctification. We cannot achieve either by our own striving, but only by humbly acknowledging our sin and our need for “the physician.”
Jesus Christ, of course, became our great savior only through humility. As Paul wrote of Jesus in Philippians 2, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This humility isn’t just an antidote to our pride. It is also a form of love Jesus uses to serve others. Jesus’ example of “uttermost” love was to wash the feet of His 12 disciples—an act in ancient Near East culture of humiliating servitude. He said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
Loving service toward others is what we’re all supposed to be doing—in the church, first, but also at work. Serving customers. Serving our bosses and helping them be successful. Those are the reasons our jobs exist in the first place.
It takes prayer, but I’ve found that when I focus on those goals, bosses tend to notice. Better opportunities open up, and my career advances.
Even when it doesn’t—when my efforts are overlooked or underappreciated—I can trust that God is using my work—humble as it may be—to advance His kingdom. And there’s nothing greater than that.