That first year out of seminary was the worst. I thought I knew it all. I had mastered divinity—who thought that was a good name for a degree?—and now I was unleashed on the church convinced I would help them reconcile faith and science. So I pontificated about quantum mechanics from the pulpit and mixed Ian Barbour with a little St. Augustine in Sunday school.
Most of what I got back was blank looks or the most unaffirming of all affirmations, “Well, that was . . . interesting.”
Humility is something all church leaders need—and by humility, I mean something more than just a humiliating experience. It should be a frame of mind, an approach to the world that opens us up to learn what the Spirit has to teach us. This, I think, is closer to the meaning of Micah as we all seek to “walk humbly with our God.” And science is beginning to understand the benefits of this quiet virtue.
The Science of Humility
While it’s easy to be humbled—some of us are better at it than others—it’s much harder to measure humility. Self-report surveys, a common tool in studying many humans, simply don’t work very well for humility. After all, 95% of Americans believe they are above average drivers.
Furthermore, “humility” means different things to different scholars. For some, it is mainly intellectual; for others, it applies to a particular kind of discourse, be it political or religious. Still others consider it in terms of personal conviction or a quest for self-improvement.
So what are the benefits of increased humility? The benefits are most clear in terms of learning, so much so that one charter school in California centers on intellectual virtues like humility. The benefits also include more effective leadership and overall likeability, including those seeking romance. There are also some health benefits, as humility correlates with more joy and less anxiety as well as better relationships and self-worth.
For justice-oriented ministries, humility also correlates with increased tolerance and decreased prejudice. Humble individuals are more likely to appreciate and be receptive to those who are different and to show compassion to those in need.
How do we cultivate humility? The work is less developed here, but it seems that empathy training and the promotion of generosity and acts of service may increase humility. Exposure to new ideas and building intercultural competence may also give your humility a boost.
The leading measurements for humility are less than a decade old, so all of this work is nascent. Until more research is done, everything above is subject to revision. Interestingly, the research strongly shows links between humility and virtues like honesty, gratitude, forgiveness, and awe. So it’s not entirely clear if the current research is measuring the benefits of humility or of these other virtues.
In any case, it appears humility is beneficial. And because of its connection to a suite of virtues, it may be more than just a sermon topic, but an issue that could inform a more intentional program using virtues—like humility—to form Christian disciples. That is, after all, central to the work of ministry.
- Start with Peter Hill’s summary of the research on the “quiet virtue.”
- “The Benefits of Admitting When You Don’t Know”—how humility helps learning.
- A leading funder of research on intellectual humility summarizes its benefits.
- The Greater Good Science Center compiles a lot of research on humility.
- In an ironic twist, pride—supposedly humility’s opposite—may also be beneficial.
- Christianity Today offers reflection on humility and the one who “humbled himself.”
- The Biola Center for Christian Thought hosts a treasure trove of humility resources.
- Perhaps humility can be helpful in relationship counseling?
A More Humble Approach
Humility shows up throughout Scripture, not just Micah 6. I leave it to pastors and scholars to parse out its many meanings, but I encourage you in your teaching and efforts to form disciples to connect the dots with some of the science summarized above. We need more humility in so many areas of life.
Humility is especially needed to overcome the conflict narratives of religion and science and to recast our ministry to the unchurched, many of whom accept science as a guiding authority. For example, origins often divides Christians and damages our witness especially to those in the sciences. Pastor Todd Wilson offers helpful advice:
“Christians should be well grounded in the Bible’s teaching on creation but always hold their views with humility, respecting the convictions of others and not aggressively advocating for positions on which evangelicals disagree.”
A posture of humility would do so much both for our unity as the body of Christ and our public witness.
And, if these musings start sounding like the work of a newly minted M. Div., please feel free to humble me—graciously. I can use all the help I can get to walk humbly both with my Lord and with those of you kind enough to read each week.