The Discipline of Humility

I’d like to suggest a simple discipline that would really help all of us in the midst of the events of the past few months (discussions of race and police brutality, debates over the 2020 Presidential Election, the January 6 events in Washington, D.C., etc).

It’s a habit formed and strengthened over thousands of purposeful moments of mental sobriety.

I’m referring to the simple moment of checking ourselves as we engage in the impulse to explain, assess, and conclude things about people and events. We see an image, and we can’t help but make judgments. We read a snippet of a speech, and we can’t help but make judgments. We’re talking to someone, she says something, and we make judgments about what she meant. We almost cannot help it. Unless we check ourselves with a very simple question:

How do I know that?

I think if we work at it, we can temper and tame the insidious habit of concluding all sorts of confident explanations for people’s behavior and motives. We can develop a robust humility that withholds judgment until we’ve done the work necessary to make conclusions. Especially about the very complicated entities we call “human beings” and the very complicated phenomena we call “events” or “social occurences.” We need this discipline of humility. Do I know? Can I know? What can I really conclude from this piece of evidence?

There’s a related small action that functions like a helper or handmaiden to the disipline of humility: benefit of the doubt. Benefit of the doubt is like a leaning of the heart. We hear something someone said or did, or we see a picture. Do we lean into a disposition of attributing evil or idiocy to that person? Do we put the action in the worst possible light? Or do we lean into a disposition of attributing to that person the same sort of thoughts and intentions and feelings we ourselves believe ourselves to have? Are we charitable towards that person as we would want people to be charitable with us?

To be sure, these twin virtues of humility and benefit of the doubt can lead us astray if we go too far with them. We can sometimes err in giving someone the benefit of the doubt who has clearly wronged someone. Or, we can sometimes err in saying “I don’t know” when we have enough facts and good reasons to say we do know.

To be sure, there is the tempation lurking behind these virtues to be weak-kneed or cowardly when the facts are clear and something properly called human evil or naiveté or recklessness or carelessness or stupidity or idiocy is on clear display.

But I’ve read a lot of news coverage and commentary from many sides of the spectrum over the past few months, and I’ve seen very little if any “erring on the side of being humble and giving the benefit of the doubt.” What I’ve seen on brazen display in almost every place I’ve looked are hasty judgments from scanty evidence and explanations that cannot possibly be known to be true. The people and the social phenomena people create are far too complex. They do not lend themselves to simple explanations.

I encourage you to print out the Ambassador’s Creed from Greg Koukl and Stand to Reason. Post it in somewhere you will be likely to read it often as a reminder.

Note what is says about the virtue of humility:

An Ambassador is provisional in his claims, knowing that his understanding of truth is fallible. He will not press a point beyond what the evidence allows.

Let that last statement about humility sink in for a moment. “He will not press a point…”

To add to this, note what the Creed says about honesty:

An Ambassador is careful with the facts and will not misrepresent another’s view, overstate his own case, or understate the demands of the Gospel.

“Will not misrepresent…” That’s almost impossible if we feel the need to always explain and pontificate. Even if we make no public posts anywhere about anything, we also need to be careful in our own minds: do we inadvertently misrepresent another’s view to ourselves by being hasty to explain or conclude? Again, we build these virtues by many thousands of successive moments of mental sobriety, asking ourselves the necessary question, “What can I know and what can I not know from this snippet of information?”

If the value of these virtues is not immediately apparent to you, I could offer anecdotes of hundreds of conversations with people who vehemently disagree with me, about whom I’ve made hasty conclusions which turned out to be false. I am not here intending, though, to make the case for humility and benefit of the doubt, so if you feel or think that I haven’t made the case, you’re right. I’m writing this post as a reminder to those for whom the values of these virtues is readily apparent. And I hope it may be food for thought if you need more evidence. Please comment below if that describes you, and I will try to give more support for what I’m saying here.

For reference, here’s the entire “Ambassador’s Creed.” Please take a moment to click on the link at the end and check out STR’s wonderful website and social media.

Ready
An Ambassador is alert for chances to represent Christ and will not back away from a challenge or an opportunity.
Tactical
An Ambassador adapts to each unique person and situation, maneuvering with wisdom to challenge bad thinking, presenting the truth in an understandable and compelling way.
Honest
An Ambassador is careful with the facts and will not misrepresent another’s view, overstate his own case, or understate the demands of the Gospel.
Dependent
An Ambassador knows that effectiveness requires joining his best efforts with God’s power.
Reasonable
An Ambassador has informed convictions (not just feelings), gives reasons, asks questions, seeks answers, and will not be stumped by the same challenge twice.
Clear
An Ambassador is careful with language and will not rely on Christian lingo, nor gain unfair advantage by resorting to empty rhetoric.
Humble
An Ambassador is provisional in his claims, knowing that his understanding of truth is fallible. He will not press a point beyond what the evidence allows.
Patient
An Ambassador won’t quarrel, but will listen in order to understand, then with gentleness seek to respectfully engage those who disagree.
Fair
An Ambassador is sympathetic and understanding towards others and will acknowledge the merits of contrary views.
Attractive
An Ambassador will act with grace, kindness, and good manners. He will not dishonor Christ in his conduct.

Stand to Reason, Ambassador’s Creed

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