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Remembering Who You Are

Let’s play a word game.

Without putting too much thought into it, which does our society value more: pride or humility? confidence or insecurity? assertiveness or deference? arrogance or modesty? boasting or self-deprecation? 

Depending on your background, as well as the multiple connotations of some of these words, you might have come up with mixed results. For example, we tend to view confidence positively but arrogance negatively. But overall, you probably leaned toward more traditional preferences for the humbler side of this spectrum. Self-centeredness is kind of annoying.

Now imagine that an alien landed on our planet and had to take the same test based purely on what he/she/it sees in media and other communications. From public discourse alone — in politics, business, sports, entertainment, etc. — would our visitor think our society placed more value on pride or humility?

Who tends to get the biggest salaries in our high-profile fields? Who gets the most media attention? Who do we fixate on the most? The meek or the mouthy?

Different answer, right? 

That creates quite a conundrum for many of us — for example, hypothetically, a reserved author who has to promote his own work. Or a truly humble person who has to position herself for a higher salary. Or a small-network introvert who has to look for open doors in a vocally assertive world.

We hear ridiculous defenses for cockiness. “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Really? Who made that a rule? You can be great at something and still completely stuck up about it. 

Or, “He’s just trying to get what’s due to him.” Really? Market aside, are hundreds of millions of dollars actually anyone's due? 

And false humility, the other side of the coin, is a whole different issue. 

We’re swimming in a pool of mixed cultural values, a society in which many advantages are given to the brash even while we laud the humility and modesty of the selfless. We love nice guys, but they really do often finish last.

This dilemma goes back a long way.

Ancient Romans valued pride. It was a virtue, a strength, a sign that the bearer was competent and reliable. Humility, on the other hand, was considered a weakness — a pointless, unhelpful attitude that consigned the bearer to the margins of political and social influence.

So like us, Paul also found himself stuck between cultural values, having to appeal to ideals of humility among Jews and Christians in a larger society that listened only to the bold. How do you get your ideas across in such a world?

Paul came up with a brilliant solution. He boasted. 

But he didn’t boast in himself, at least not directly. He boasted in his weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:1-6) because it gave occasion for God’s power. He boasted in growing believers (2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 9:2-3) because they were demonstrating the power of the truth. He boasted in Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:31; Galatians 6:14) because, well, that’s kind of the whole point. 

See what he did there? He boasted like a good Roman. But he deflected his boasting away from himself like a good Christian and Jew. He met a lot of rhetorical goals by recognizing where true value really lies. 

We see a lot of efforts like this today — in the athlete who acknowledges God after a good game, for example (though critics immediately jump on him for claiming that God takes sides, which is not what he has claimed at all).

Or in the award winner who thanks God for his or her gifts and opportunities in an acceptance speech (same caveat). 

Or in the business owner who credits God for a successful year. 

Sometimes these nods to God are genuine, sometimes not so much. But these are efforts to strike a balance in a world that says it honors humility but usually gives it very little attention.

Remember that balance as you negotiate your way through the values of this world. Know who you are — you're far more valuable than you can imagine. But also know where your loyalties lie. Trust the biblical premise that God loves the humble and will author their success and prominence on his own timetable (1 Peter 5:6).

Feel free to demonstrate extreme confidence in who you are and the gifts God has given you. You should. But never forget where you and your gifts came from.