The “Arrogance” of Humility
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
24th April 2009
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Winston Churchill was a master of the one line witty put down. He described his political opponent Clem Attlee as “a modest man who has much to be modest about” and “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”.
But are these really insulting? Is it not good to be known for modesty and genuine humility? Is not ‘arrogance’ the real insult of today?
Within our society tolerance is valued excessively. It is hard to imagine how tolerance could be ‘excessive’. To speak against tolerance in any form or fashion seems to be heresy itself.
Yet tolerance, traditionally understood, meant ‘bearing pain’. It was the choice to take no action against people of whose opinions or behaviour you disapprove.
In recent years tolerance has become ‘the acceptance of all views as equally valid’. And so tolerance is valued excessively. For the move to accept all views as equally valid is to rename ‘relativism’ as ‘tolerance’. It changes tolerance from ‘a way to get on with our neighbours’ to ‘a way to think’. It is the move from political freedom to political correctness. And this move turns all knowledge and certainty into arrogance and all ignorance and confusion into humility.
Christianity preaches humility yet, in the eyes of many, it practices arrogance.
Arrogance is the pride of self-importance. It is thinking of yourself as more important or more able than you are. It is often accompanied by showing contempt or disregard for others.
God commands each of us “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Romans 12:3).
He tells us not to be “haughty but “to associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16) and to walk “with all humility and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:2).
The ancient Greeks and the Romans viewed humility as weakness and servile inadequacy. It was Christianity that taught the world the virtuous nature of humility. Christians follow the God who humbled himself in becoming human and even more in becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:3-8).
It is strange therefore to have the world claiming humility while accusing Christians of arrogance.
But in the eyes of the world we are arrogant because we preach what cannot be known. We preach that Jesus died for the sins of the world, that Jesus rose from the dead, that Jesus is the judge of all humanity, that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life - the only way to the Father. We preach of the certainty of heaven and that we are assured of our eternity.
When Christians have the temerity to say that other religions are wrong - we confirm the worst held suspicion that we are profoundly arrogant. For as many think “Surely there is truth in every religion and all are but different roads up the same mountain.”
In the eyes of the world all preaching is arrogant. To claim knowledge and try to preach it to others is the very definition of arrogance. Repeatedly you will hear people saying “but I do not preach”, “I am not preaching”. We can ‘engage’, ‘converse’, ‘interact’, ‘share’ ‘impart’ even ‘teach’ but we must not ‘preach’. It is the modern western taboo. Preaching by definition is claiming an authority that is beyond any human to hold. It is to claim a certainty of knowledge that is impossible. It is to place yourself in authority above others. It is by definition arrogant. “Fancy telling others what they should believe - what a nerve - what a cheek!”
Christianity is founded on the Word of God proclaimed to the world. So if preaching is arrogant and the gospel is arrogant, Christianity itself cannot help but be seen as fundamentally arrogant.
Undoubtedly, some Christians are arrogant. Some of us think more highly of ourselves than we should. Some of us are more confident of our knowledge than is warranted. Some of us fail to respect other people and their opinions. Christianity teaches the universality of sinfulness and demonstrates it in its members. An arrogant Christian is one more demonstration of the truth that all are sinful. It is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. Unlike others we do not believe tolerance is the ultimate virtue - there are some things that should not be tolerated - our own arrogance is one of them.
However, to live by faith is to be genuinely humble while worldliness is fundamental arrogance. True humility submits to God’s rule rather than rebels against Him. It takes God at his word rather than making up our own way to live.
True humility accepts God’s way of salvation rather than insisting that God conforms to our way of doing things. It trusts God for salvation through His Son’s death rather than insisting that our good works are enough to deserve God’s favour. It bases our assurance of eternal life on God’s provision of His risen Son rather than on the wishful thinking of our own self-esteem.
True humility bows before the facts of reality rather than elevating the power of human interpretation. True humility accepts God’s teaching that being made in his image we are not like the beasts, which perish without understanding. True humility embraces what we do know without needing to know everything. True humility accepts what is plainly known about God because He has shown us, rather than suppressing the truth and foolishly creating false gods.
It is not humility but arrogance to say “all religions are different roads up the same mountain”. It is to sit above all the mountain roads in the only place of true perspective. From that giddy height, by denying what others believe and rejecting all logic that contradictory ideas cannot both be right, it holds in contempt those who think their path is the only one. Worse it holds God and his Son in contempt.
Christians must not be surprised or dismayed when attacked as arrogant. There was no man in the Old Testament more humble than Moses, and nobody in all creation more humble than Jesus. Yet both Moses and Jesus were repeatedly attacked for being ‘arrogant’. There is nothing new in arrogance dressed up in false humility nor in true humility attacked as arrogance.