Near the end of the 19th century, renowned physicist Henry Augustus Rowland was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, "What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?" Rowland answered, "I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion." Later, when a friend expressed surprise at the professor’s answer, Rowland replied, "Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath."
Like the gunslinger who drawls "It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it," Rowland’s claim is not necessarily the result of pride. Pride, and its opposite, humility, are often misunderstood, and the consequence is almost always the corruption of relationships.
Pride is defined as self-exaltation in contempt of God. Traditionally, it is regarded as the first of the seven deadly Sins. The Latin word is hubris or superbia (literally, "to fall upwards"). By contrast, humility is self-forgetfulness that glorifies God. It shares the same root word as humus, earth. In both pride and humility, there is the risk of error.
We often regard pride as a positive thing: We are proud of our country, our jobs, and our families; we take pride in our work and our appearance, or are seen as lacking something if we do not. But pride becomes sinful when we convince ourselves that our greatness is some achievement of our own, rather than a blessing from God. Pride becomes arrogance when it is wielded at the expense of others. It insists on its own way, and rejoices in finding fault in others. The arrogant are full of self-importance; all others are lesser facsimiles, mere cardboard cutouts. They demand respect without returning it to others.
Healthy humility begins with an orientation to God. We operate with the profound realization that God is God, and we are not. But we also realize that being human is pretty special. Real humility is not a denigrating conviction that one is unworthy of anything good. This is self-deprecation, the sin of rejecting God’s gifts and denying God’s esteem for us. Instead, humility recognizes that God made us "a little lower than the angels," and thought us worthy of stewardship of the world, worthy, in fact, of the greatest sacrifice God could make.
Luke 18:9-14 is instructive here. Jesus contrasts two men who approach God with pride and humility. The Pharisee says, "I thank you, God, that I am not like other people." The tax collector says, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Both men were probably accurate in their assessment. Likely, the Pharisee was more righteous in practice than most, the tax collector more sinful. But the Pharisee was comparing himself to other people, while the tax collector compared himself to God. For the right attitude, the right orientation is everything.
The best antidote to arrogance and self-deprication is the realization that God put us on this earth to achieve great things. Our greatness does not come from us, but goes through us, imparted to us by the one who is infinitely great. We connect with our earthiness, accepting that we are from dust. We also accept the special status that God has assigned to us. Eventually, we learn to see ourselves as equal to others, especially in relation to God. Our gifts do not make us better than others, nor do our flaws make us worse.
Professor Rowland, it turns out, was a modest man who was humbled to realize he was the world’s foremost expert on diffraction gratings. He was grateful for his giftedness, and did what he could to improve the world for others. In the words of B.W. Grant, true humility is characterized by "a constant awareness of the infinite mystery and greatness of God and the immensity of God’s creation, within which one shares with many others a finite though honored place… The greatest humility is to remember always that while one is not the king, one is a prince or a princess, the child of the Great King."
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.