In trying to be humble, do you feel like you only ever end up putting yourself down? Where do we draw the line between humility and low self-esteem, and how can we replace pride with truly humble confidence?
Self-centredness is not a popular personality trait. The world is quick to tear down celebrities with ego, ridicule leaders who think too highly of themselves or even mock people who express intense pride in their work. We may be in the middle of a self-love movement, where we are encouraged to celebrate ourselves, take me-time and prioritise our own goals, but that is only so long as we don’t develop a big head along the way.
While the world expects us to walk this tightrope between high self-esteem and narcissism, what does God want?
Throughout the Bible, we are encouraged to stay humble—in James 4:6, it reads, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble’. However, in our attempts to shed our pride, do we accidentally fall down the rabbit hole of low self-esteem? In trying to think less of ourselves, do we risk thinking very little of ourselves at all?
A Christian Take on Humility
It is important to recognise the difference between humility and low self-esteem.
Low self-esteem is dangerous. Someone with low self-esteem is in a rhythm of downplaying themselves to the extent that they have taught themselves they have little or no value. They require constant reassurance and cannot help but compare themselves with their peers. Low self-esteem can lead to anxiety, stress or loneliness. It increases the likelihood of depression or drug and alcohol abuse, causes relationship problems and can make a person insecure in their academic or working life.
In comparison, a humble person sees the value in their words and impact, but they don’t boast, nor do they deflect praise with false humility. As Christians, we believe God created us in his own image. We are special, not because of anything we did, but because our abilities are gifts from God. As it says in 1 Corinthians 1:31, ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’. Rather than dwelling on what we are not, true humility takes heart in what God has given us and recognises him for it.
Pride rears its head when we have an opinion of ourselves which is either too high or too low, and we consider that opinion to have more weight than God’s view of us. For that reason, even though it might seem contradictory, it is possible to have a problem with pride when you are struggling with low self-esteem. Internally, if we are putting ourselves down rather than lifting God up, low self-esteem prevents us from recognising our worth and the potential of who he made us to be.
Humility is not about devaluing yourself—it means you know and value yourself accurately. You don’t consider yourself to be the most important person in the room, but neither do you consider yourself the least important person or feel insecure about whether you deserve to be in the room at all.
Flipping Humility on its Head
Worship leader and singer Brooke Ligertwood (nee Fraser) once spoke about her approach to remaining humble, despite having achieved great success in the music industry (including a Grammy!) with reference to a book called 40 Days of Decrease by Alicia Britt Chole.
‘[Chole] talks about what to do with praise as a person,’ Brooke explained, ‘and she says every time somebody gives you a compliment, she says don’t deflect it with false humility, but take it and collect it like a little flower and tuck it in your pocket and then she says at the end of the day with that bouquet, get on your knees and give the bouquet to God.’
‘We were made to give glory, never to take it, and only you can know when that’s happening. That’s an internal stewardship thing. You can go through life and people will think you’re humble and amazing, but inside you know that you’re ferreting some of that glory away for yourself and it is slowly poisoning you.’
Just like there is a difference between low self-esteem and humility, there is a difference between pride and confidence. They cannot coexist, because pride overestimates your abilities. It constantly requires you to justify yourself. Yet when your confidence is rooted in faith rather than in yourself, you value God’s creation and the worth he sees in you.
Consider how Jesus lived on earth. He made bold claims with great confidence, but never to make himself seem greater. His actions put God first—be that by washing his disciples’ feet, praying in private (rather than showing off his devotion in public) or coming to earth in the first place. He died on a cross for something he didn’t do, the ultimate act of humility, demonstrating sacrificial love for the world.
Being humble is not a one-time action or a behaviour we can switch on and off. It is an attribute which influences how we live. It cannot help but stamp out low self-esteem, along with prideful behaviours like entitlement, rebelliousness, blaming others or holding grudges. When we go through the motions of acting modest without the right heart, that is false humility. True humility sees us sacrifice our ego rather than our sense of self-worth.
In Romans 12:3–6a, it reads:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.
God has created every one of us with a unique purpose as part of a much larger plan. Humility recognises that you have great strength in that purpose. We don’t disregard our role or worry that it has greater or lesser importance than someone else’s—we are content in our identity as being loved by God.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. - Philippians 2:3
Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. - This Was Your Life! Preparing to Meet God Face to Face by Rich Howard & Jamie Lash
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. - Micah 6:8