When Ben Franklin was in his late twenties, he embarked on a plan to acquire moral perfection. Franklin rebelled against the Presbyterianism of his youth and decided to show he could become virtuous through the unaided power of reason and effort.
Franklin began by listing out twelve virtues he wanted to perfect, including temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness and chastity. As David Brooks has noted, most of these virtues were practical, not particularly spiritual. They were also mostly inwardly, not outwardly-focused.
When Franklin proudly showed his list to a Quaker friend, the friend told him he had left off the most important one, humility. Franklin was shocked to learn that many in Philadelphia considered him prideful, “overbearing and rather insolent.”
Franklin found acquiring humility was really hard. Yet, over time, he moderated his tone in debate and started working harder to persuade others. Franklin eventually credited his fifty-year effort to attain humility as a significant reason he enjoyed influence in the young American country.
Yet Franklin admits he never really mastered humility. As he writes in his Autobiography, You will see pride, “perhaps, often in this history, for even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
The acquisition of humility is hard. Perhaps this is why Jesus insists that it’s the poor, the marginalized and those who think little of themselves who are blessed. It’s the meek who will inherit the earth (Matt 5.5). To James, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4.6).
We often forget just how remarkable it is that the Christian ethic of humility became prized. The Greeks and Romans thought pride was a virtue, not a vice. Yet, many of our founding fathers had read Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and were particularly concerned to avoid the “immoderate greatness” which Gibbon concluded had caused the downfall of Rome. America has been greatest when it has embraced humility as a virtue.
Yet, these days, America is not known for its humility, but its arrogance and brashness. Today, humility seems prized rhetorically, but rarely lived out practically. Even in the Church, humility is often praised in abstract terms, but then not practiced. Can you think of many examples of Christian leaders being disciplined for pride?
What the Bible teaches is humility is not weakness, but strength. Humility means having a healthy view of oneself in relation to others. This means humility is not self-abasement (which is usually masks pride). Rather, the humble view others as having inherent dignity and as being more important than themselves. Thus humility is a key aspect of imitating Christ.
Perhaps we need a change of perspective. This week, pay particular attention to those who serve you, those who wait on you and those who pick up after you. Maybe the greatest lessons on what faith is all about reside with those our culture derides and ignores.