Augustine, speaking of godliness, said, “In that way the first part is humility; the second, humility; the third, humility” (Augustine, Letters, 118). He was not wrong. The Bible is chock full of commands and exhortations to be humble, for example, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). To be humble is to have a glimpse of the greatness and goodness of God, and in turn to see ourselves as we really are in our sin. John Flavel captures this dynamic, “They that know God will be humble. And they that know themselves cannot be proud.”
True humility embraces one’s own sinfulness. In James 4:4, James addresses his readers with these stinging words, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). James is not necessarily saying that they are literal adulteresses, but rather he is saying they are guilty of covenant infidelity against God. This is supported by the following statement regarding friendship with the world. But here is the point, the language is hard, it is stinging, but the one who is humble sees it is true of himself. He does not make excuses. She doesn’t shrink back from the tough words. He owns his sin without qualification. There is no “yes, but….” There is a simple, “Yes, that is me.”
Real humility then runs to God, not away from God. Real humility repents. Real humility is broken over one’s sin. Notice all these elements are in James 4. “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:7-10).
True humility is running to the only One who can help, forgive, and restore. But it also manifests itself horizontally. The humble will not speak against their brethren (a form of blame shifting or gossip). They will not judge their brethren. This is how James follows up on the humility he describes. “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12). True humility finds it hard to be at war with other brothers or sisters, speaking against them and judging them, when one is broken over one’s own sin.
Can there be fake humility? The answer is yes. One of the most common forms of fake humility is self-pity. Self-pity can look like humility because it is self-deprecating. But self-pity is not humility because it is focused on and preoccupied with self. The person consumed with self-pity feels sorry for himself in his sin. The misery caused by sin makes one feel as if they are the victim, not the villain. The person given to self-pity wants people to look at them and feel sorry for them. The person given to self-pity only wants interaction with the non-confrontational sympathizer, who won’t say anything about their sin. The self-pitying person will go on the attack against anyone who dares confront them. Gossip and slander are tools to divert attention away from the sin and create even more pity.
Self-pity is not only self-centered, but it is insolent pride. Self-pity responds to suffering or sin with pride that is made to sound like self-sacrifice. John Piper notes, “The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be so needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego. It doesn’t come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized worthiness. It is the response of applauded pride.”
Self-pity is also manipulative. The self-pitying person has often mastered the art of blame shifting and the art of emotional blackmail. John Piper says this of emotional blackmail:
Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, “If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.” There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question. This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.
Worst of all, the self-pitying person often mistakes their own self-pity for true humility. This is self-deception at its worst. The self-pity is justified and recast in the mold of fake humility. In the end, self-pity is pride because it is focused on self, rather than God. It is pride because it refuses to completely own one’s sinfulness, without excuse. It is pride that seeks attention from others, the pity of others, the sympathy of others. It is pride that easily attacks others who are not in sync with the demanded sympathy. Self-pity is not humility, and it will keep one from true repentance and from seeking God alone. True humility is the only pathway to grace (James 4:6), May God give us grace to crucify the pride of self-pity and have the true virtue of genuine humility.