I have a problem: I’m terribly prideful. When I sit down to consider my life, I’m filled with a sort of warm, complacent glow at the thought that I’m such a brilliant, lovely person, with such a brilliant, lovely future ahead of me. And this self-satisfaction often distresses me, because I know that I ought to be humble, and meek, and not so proud of things that (after all) I’m not completely responsible for—but whenever I sternly tell myself that I ought to have more humility, I feel a whole new level of satisfaction at being such a moral person. I expect that this is a problem that I do not face alone. Everyone has some area of life, whether it is their looks or their intellect or their sense of humor, that fills them with the smug assurance that they are better in some way than a good handful of the rest of their fellow human beings, and everyone who thinks that this inordinate pride is a problem has seen the difficulty of wrestling themselves into humility through their own moral effort. So, what are we to do?
Well, what doesn’t work is telling people that our accomplishments aren’t really that impressive, that getting that research grant or learning how to ride a unicycle on a tightrope really didn’t take all that much effort. I’m not saying that we should boast; personal modesty is invaluable for the proper working of a peaceful society. Without taking self-denigration to a ridiculous extent, we should be reasonably discrete about our accomplishments in order to be pleasant people to be around. However, this does nothing to help with our inward problem of pride. Even if we are able to convince the people around us that we believe our accomplishments are not terribly important, we will always harbor in ourselves all the agreeable knowledge of how hard we have worked and how wonderful our accomplishments are.
Even if we could somehow convince ourselves that we aren’t very extraordinary people, that wouldn’t take care of pride itself—and would introduce other problems. Humility isn’t lying to yourself about your attributes and accomplishments; if you have the prettiest hair in a three-county area, it’s silly to pretend to yourself that it’s actually rather ugly. It’s a lie, and (perhaps more importantly) does nothing to inculcate true humility. We have to move beyond seeing humility as simply a lack of a vice; it is a virtue in its own right, one that ought to be encouraged as an integral part of our character rather than as just a way to take care of an uncomfortable problem. Humility is that delight we take in giving up our claim to have made ourselves who we are, that delight we take in proclaiming that all the good things that we have done come, in the end, from God’s power to use us as instruments and fellow-workers in his designs. If we try to convince ourselves that we are really very shoddy workers, we cannot take joy in the thought that God has decided to include us as integral parts of his plans. When we feel inordinate, smug pride, we should not try to wrestle our recalcitrant emotions into submission; we should remind ourselves that all the good things that we are and that we do come as gifts from the Father of all goodness.