Service and humility are often used in the same sentence. Associated with Christianity. And the world’s other great religions.

Humility is the opposite of pride. Self-effacing service that expects nothing in return. Not even recognition of sacrifices made on behalf of others.

Modesty is a word often cited as a synonym for humility. Modest people do not work for recognition or praise. They offer their service as a personal gift to fellow human beings.

While I understand the differences between pride and humility, the issue has often confused me. For example, how can someone who is known as an ambitious politician morph over time into a respected and revered statesman?

Consider Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln started as an ambitious railroad lawyer who found ways to rise in government. To weave through the pre-Civil War political minefield astutely enough to be noticed. Then nominated by a new Republican Party as a presidential candidate who opposed the expansion of slavery.

Lincoln was smart and courageous. He made controversial decisions and pushed them through. It was after his election that humility emerged, brought about by authentic anguish and suffering. The scope of the problem he inherited almost overwhelmed him. But he persevered through depression and anxiety. Rose to the occasion, thereby preserving the union he cherished.

Myths are generated to convince later generations that paragons of virtue, self-deprecating and unpretentious, always emerge from human ordinariness to lead. But even Christ did not do that. He was noticed not because of his humility but through the demonstration of his extraordinary gifts, bestowed on him by God, his father.

I enjoy reading about Winston Churchill. He was anything but humble and did not apologize for it. His literary and oratory barbs on the subject are legendary. Churchill once quipped, “My political opponent is a modest man with much to be modest about.”

What made Churchill so amazing was his ability to see things as they really were. Then he had the courage to act in accordance with needs of the time. In so doing, Churchill made some horrible mistakes. But he also saved his nation from Nazi conquest. Through stubborn self-confidence and risk-taking convictions, with humility nowhere in sight.

But humility existed in Churchill’s psyche. He expressed guilt for asking the people of Great Britain to accept extreme hardships—to save themselves from conquest. From the kind of despotic rule that would ruin centuries of democratic growth.

Saint Francis of Assisi is often cited as the Christian example of humility. But he was not just an invisible monk doing the Lord’s work in isolation. In fact, he started life as a wealthy and vain young man. His subsequent experiences converted him into the self-sacrificing ways he ultimately accepted. And vigorously advocated.

Sanit Francis used skills from his earlier days to create an influential order known as the Franciscans. What makes Franciscans effective is their leadership initiative. Never meant to gain wealth for themselves, but to better serve others.

Richard Rohr is a famous Christian author, speaker, and Franciscan priest. Rohr is a strong spiritual leader, not because of a presumed humility. But because he powerfully advocates better ways of becoming and living. 

His writing and speaking come from a kind of boldness much like the Hebrew word, “chutzpah.” Rohr is sometimes criticized for his beliefs, particularly associated with the meaning of the Trinity. But he persistently hammers home the points he advocates.

He is anything but meek and lowly—two other words often associated with humility and modesty. As taken from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

The most common interpretation is that we should all avoid furthering our own agendas. Rather, trust in God to direct the outcome of events. To obey God’s will.

But the word obey should not mean utter submissiveness and timidity. That interpretation of ”obey” can be comforting to some who follow God’s commandments. But it can also be used to allow a few human beings to dominate others. To advance their own ambitions. Not God’s. 

Human beings who wish us to obey want us to be loyal. Loyal to their vision as to who we should be, and what we should do. A few of them suggest that loyalty to them is tantamount to being loyal to God.

Some politicians use that same rationale about patriotism, that being loyal to them is truly patriotic.

That is despotism, which has been used to destroy much of the world. And is now being used in Russia. It has nothing whatever to do with God’s will.

Compliance is another word for submissiveness. Usually applied as a legalism in the military or business world. With implications associated with servitude. To do what one is told.

Another blog I have written, soon to be a book, addresses how top-down directives have ruined American schools. Check out: I suggest ways courageous local educators can cease being compliant civil servants in ways that diminish and even distort real student learning.


Service to our world is sustained by courage. Jesus Christ demonstrated the ultimate kind of courage. He was crucified because he would not comply with erroneous directives coming from authority figures, or even the societal norms in which he lived. He was loyal only to God, his father. His humility was found in an advocacy that was not self-serving. But sacrificial.

Service based on true devotion to God has nothing to do with subservience. Or merely obeying God’s wishes as interpreted by those who profess to know them.

Service is dynamic and relational. It is based on continuing study and interacting with others. With the role of humility connected to careful listening and contemplation.

That is the essence of learning. Ongoing learning is the foundation for providing effective service. With humility associated with the acceptance of not knowing. And the need to seek greater wisdom every day.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved


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