Humility from weakness

I am a professional.  But please don’t hold it against me.

The word “professional” has come a long way from its origins in the profession of religious vows.  We take it in a more modernist sense: it describes a person with specialized knowledge and expertise, who performs with reliable competence and adheres to responsible codes of conduct.

People have certain expectations of those they perceive to be professionals, and with the expectations come stereotypes.  I once had a conversation at church with an acquaintance who didn’t actually know what I did for a living.  He asked, and I told him.  His eyes widened with surprise.  “You have a PhD?” he blurted out, incredulous.  “You don’t act like a PhD!”

Umm…thank you? I thought.  I don’t remember if I asked how a PhD was supposed to act.  I’m guessing he had had a bad experience or two, concluding that people with PhDs were arrogant ivory-tower intellectuals bereft of people skills.  A real Joe with a doctorate?  Well, who woulda thunk it.

Early in my career, I worked hard at living up to the expectations people had for me.  I was supposed to be the expert, but looked like a kid.  (Now I have the opposite problem: it’s easier to look like an expert than a kid.)  On the one hand, I liked having people respect me for what I knew.  On the other hand, I lived with the burdensome fear of being judged for what I didn’t know.  I’d end up like the guest at the wedding banquet who was found improperly dressed and cast into the outer darkness (Matt 22:1-14), where there would be weeping, gnashing of teeth, and no chance of tenure.

But even now, with decades of so-called professional experience, I still have plenty of opportunities to be reminded of my humble state.  Some are relatively innocuous, even humorous.

Last year, I was assisting with a training event for bilingual marriage educators working in the Hispanic community.  The author of the curriculum and I were taking turns teaching.  Having finished my stint at being the brilliant and entertaining lecturer for the moment, I sat down next to one of the participants.  Without speaking, he picked up a paper napkin from the table and handed it to me, making an ambiguous gesture with his head.  He obviously wanted me to do something with the napkin, but what?

It didn’t take long to find out that I had been teaching with something rather unappealing hanging out of my nose.

I have found life to be full of such humbling moments.  The more humorous ones are easier to take in stride.  But some aren’t funny: I know what it means to feel a deep sense of failure, to be in a ministry situation in which you’re supposed to be the spiritually mature and helpful one, and yet to say or do something you immediately regret.  These are the moments that puncture the illusions, that make you stop believing too much in your own professional competence and send you on your knees to God.

Humility.  It’s not just about having a self-effacing attitude, pushing away compliments, or avoiding the limelight.  Sometimes, it’s less about being humble than being humbled, knocked down, laid low.  This, I think, is what Jesus means by the “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) who are nevertheless blessed–not because of any merit on their part, but because a gracious God is near to the humble and oppressed (Prov 3:34; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5).

We will never be done with experiences that remind us of our weakness.  But that’s not all there is to humility.  Jesus himself had to endure the worst form of public humiliation possible–but in doing so, he demonstrated not the humility of powerlessness, but a humility that comes from strength.  More on that later; the next post will mark the beginning of Advent.