Humility in practice

Starting back in 1974, Garrison Keillor hosted an immensely popular public radio program called A Prairie Home Companion, in which he would tell stories of the people in the fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon. The stories were humorous and gently satirical, affectionately poking fun at the townspeople’s Norwegian Lutheran heritage. The segment would always end with the tagline, “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Can you spot the above-average drivers? Neither can I.

That tagline gives rise to what some social psychologists call “the Lake Wobegon effect.” Ask people (especially, apparently, Americans) to compare themselves to others on some skill, and they will tend to rate themselves as above average. In one study, 93% of Americans who were asked to rate their skill as drivers put themselves in the top 50%. That, of course, is a statistical impossibility. But this and other similar studies speak to a built-in bias in the way we think of ourselves in relation to others.

Why do drivers think this way? It’s not sheer egotism. After all, what stands out in our minds when we think of other drivers? We don’t think at all about the people who are driving responsibly and staying in their lanes. Though they number in the thousands, they’re largely invisible to us. We only notice when someone cuts us off, or swerves across the line because they’re texting, or darts in and out of traffic. Compared to them, we’re aces.

This kind of cognitive bias, I think, can help us understand what Paul teaches the Philippians — and us — about humility. Here again are his words:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4, NRSVUE)

Paul is not saying, “I want all of you to learn this fact: everyone else is better than you.” That would be something like an upside-down version of the Lake Wobegon effect and for that reason nonsensical. Moreover, such an interpretation would flatly contradict what he teaches elsewhere about the church. In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, for example, Paul teaches that the church is one body in Christ, a body with many members who all possess gifts for the edification of the whole. The passage in 1 Corinthians seems especially written to combat the attitudes of “I’m special because I have this gift,” and “I’m nobody because I don’t.” By God’s gracious design, every member of the body is important; every member is to be valued.

Nor is Paul saying, “Your needs don’t matter.” The translation above leaves out what to me is a key word: “also.” The New American Standard, for example, translates verse 4 this way: “do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (emphasis added). It is assumed that people will attend to their own concerns, and this is not condemned. But humility means recognizing that you’re not the only driver on the freeway. You might be in a hurry to get somewhere, but so is everyone else. Humble yourself and let them have that space in front of you.

I think here of Euodia and Syntyche, the two women in Philippi who seem to have been at loggerheads. If you like, think of any two people in an argument. Paul doesn’t say that one person is wrong and the other is right. He doesn’t say that one person counts and the other doesn’t. Rather, he wants both to stop having the mercenary me-first attitude, to give up having to win, and to take a humble stance toward each other. In a pragmatic sense, he wants them to think, I’m not the only one here. I’m not the only one with needs, wants, opinions, feelings. I’m going to set my own desires to the side for a moment, so I can prioritize hearing and understanding what the other person needs.

Imagine what that could do for the unity of a marriage, a family, a congregation.

We do this to show that we understand what Jesus did for us. But here we run into a delicate question: is there a limit to prioritizing what others need? What of people who make persistent and unreasonable demands, who perhaps even refuse to take responsibility for themselves? There are no simple answers here, but let’s explore such questions in the next post.

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