Arrogance

June 20, 2010 at 9:22 am 17 comments

The topic of humility versus arrogance has been – for the longest time – a major blocker in my own thinking as I am sure it has been for others. I remember wrestling with this issue for years as far back as when I was thirteen or fourteen. At that time I would hear others talk about it and try to sort out what it means and how to achieve it.

As I remember, the struggle went something like this. I had been told multiple things about humility – and as with all Christian doctrine – I noticed through recurring headaches that there were strong contradictions in what I was taught.

One of those major contradictions was the impossibility of pursuing ones ability to be humble if a humble person does not think about their humility. A lot of people told me not to think about being humble, but I knew I was commanded to be humble. This, naturally, made me introspect to figure out whether I was. Then I would remember that a person who is humble cannot know it. But how am I supposed to pursue humility if I cannot think about it?

Naturally I wanted to resolve this contradiction. I mean, if it hurt my head that much surely resolving it would help others, right?

But there was a problem. The Bible. The Bible was the problem. First of all, the Bible never said that a humble person does not recognize his humility. In some places it implies the opposite. If you believe Moses wrote Deuteronomy, then you have to believe that a humble man can honestly – and in humility – write that he is the most humble man on earth. Noticing this, I began to garner a general distrust for Christian memes, since it seemed like people were ultimately pulling their end ideas out of their ass and these normally contradicted the Bible in some way.

This pursuit of humility exhibited itself in the most bizarre behavior. You soon find out that the most humble people are the people who do not really care about their humility. And even these people got accused of arrogance! The more arrogant people (like me, in my estimation), however, were the ones who cared about being humble and perfect. Tying into my previous post, I guess it seems like we were so focused and insecure about our shortcomings to be humble that we ended up focusing on ourselves all the time and always bemoaning our shortcomings until we thought we were humble and then feeling rather ecstatic that we had arrived. Then, of course, upon the realization that we were excited about reaching our goal we would hound ourselves into feeling crappy again so we did not take pride in our achievement.

After a while, you begin to feel like everyone is chasing a snipe. Sanctification, I think they called it.

Remember Jesus’ parable? He compared two people. One man was declaring his righteousness to God. The other was bemoaning his shortcomings and calling himself unworthy. We were taught to be like the latter.

But in my opinion, they were both wrong. I don’t think people should bemoan their shortcomings or glory in their achievements. If all you are doing is bemoaning your shortcomings and calling yourself unworthy, you’ll never learn anything and move ahead. I can’t believe I spent so many years trying to avoid the one douche and trying desperately to be the other.

So then, what is humility? Consider the two examples in Jesus’ parable and recognize for a moment that he was giving a somewhat false dichotomy. There is a third option: just don’t care. Don’t try to please anyone who is impossible to please and you will never have to resort to wallowing in self-deprecation or glorying in the impossibly rare achievement. Humility seems to stem from lacking any need to prove yourself better than your peers. So then, a large part of  humility begins by rejecting the notion of a “be holy as I am holy” God. After all, if it’s impossible to be holy like God then if you get excited about the least bit of progress you are being arrogant, right? But if you cannot get excited about any achievement without risking a twinge of arrogance, then you end up wallowing in your depression at your incapacity to ever do anything that is up to par!

But even then after giving it years of thought I think that ultimately humility is relative. In the end no matter how humble one person calls you there will always be another person there to declare you arrogant. After all, a great way to gain power over someone else is to find a goal they wish to achieve and tell them the reason they do not deserve X or the reason you do not like them is because they are not nearly close to their goal. So then, calling someone “arrogant”  in the church is a fantastic weapon of control to get others to submit.

In conclusion it is really nice to not have to worry about how close I am to achieving the perfection God wants from me. I no longer have to worry about getting excited about being close and then getting depressed at suddenly becoming arrogant about it.

And at the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with a little arrogance anyway. Sometimes all it takes to achieve something is a meek person who is willing to take charge in a fit of what may at first appear to be arrogance.

Thoughts, anyone?

- Josh

Entry filed under: Josh. Tags: .

Self-Deprecation Suppression

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. DSimon  |  June 24, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I agree; as Christianity typically uses the word, “humlity” is more about playing a part and less about the purpose of humbleness: honestly recognizing your own capabilities and those of others.

    Far better to spend time doing what you can about the things you think need to be done than bemoaning a totally unavoidable inability to be perfect.

  • 2. Joshua  |  June 24, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I remember distinctly coming to that same conclusion about humility. During a discussion once we were talking about it and I mentioned that I had come to the conclusion that humility was “believing the truth about yourself”. A girl got irately and irrationally mad at me and I still don’t know why.

    But I think there is this pecking war in churches that often occurs where as soon as a person starts to accept that they are actually good at something, a lot of people start to knock them for it.

    I still remember how accusations of arrogance would fly around left and right in churches. The confident preachers would call those who did not accept their powerful preaching arrogant for not accepting the direct and clear Word of the Lord (this seems like an attitude Dan might have). Then those who were a little skeptical would call those preachers arrogant because they appeared to think they had it all figured out!

    Oh well, I guess you lose the humility battle no matter how hard you try. It is an impossible task because the perception of who is humble and who is not is completely relative. One’s mans unabashed confidence is another man’s arrogance.

    I mean, heck. I think the Jesus recorded in the Bible said some pretty arrogant things. And 2 Corinthians was basically a diatribe of Paul reveling in his arrogance – in my opinion.

    But Christians will say that Jesus and Paul were both very humble men.

    It’s quite relative.

  • 3. Ubi Dubium  |  June 24, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Wow does this ever tie into your “self-esteem” post! If you have low self-esteem, you are humble, but if you try at least to feel good about being humble, then you are arrogant. And if you don’t have low self-esteem, then you are arrogant. Either way, they are going to browbeat you into feeling miserable about your arrogance. Only if you are both humble and miserable can you avoid the label of “arrogant”. What a lose-lose proposition.

  • 4. Joshua  |  June 24, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Wow Ubi, you picked that up damn fast.

    I honestly think that that mental battle lead to a *lot* of my depression in high school. I distinctly remember the first time I felt awful about being complimented on my skills – it was shortly after I felt guilty for feeling good about it.

    The irony, of course, was that lots of people would tell me “don’t let this get to your head”. WTF? How am I not supposed to let something get to my head when you honestly think the compliment is significant enough that it might?

    Ugh, just imagine the mental knots that may exist in the minds of some believers that we have never encountered. This one was awful and I still feel conflicted about it sometimes. I’m doing better though.

  • 5. Sarah  |  June 24, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    I relate to this, but not just in church. School was more censoring against achievement. Some of the boys would gloat about their marks and achievements, but the minute I mentioned I thought I maybe was possibly good at something… wham, social punishment. It was the cardinal sin of schooldom. (Although those boys could get away with it.)

    I quickly learned only to tell my marks if they were worse than someone else’s. Self deprecation was rewarded with sympathy at least.

    At our church, arrogance was derided as well as false humility- defined as feeling miserable about not being humble enough. The ideal was to not think about yourself at all. Which is nearly impossible.

    I found it amusing that after a message against false humility, those who were the most harsh on themselves would begin berating themselves for being that way.

    However, beating yourself up for not being humble in the right way was still preferable.

    For us, the worst form of arrogance was intellectual arrogance- thinking that you knew better than the leaders. It was preferable to stay focused on the misery than to question the foundation (of prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists)

    Thank-you for articulating your thoughts, Josh. It is helping me work through things.

    Rosita- are you a therapist?
    Ubi- how went the TV appearance?

  • 6. Sarah  |  June 24, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    I’ve decided I need to find my inner American and learn to be a little more arrogant ;)

  • 7. 4riozs  |  June 24, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    I still like the idea of humility. I was never really taught about it the way you describe it Josh. I do notice though that “Christians” are extremly arrogant- that is my opinion and it does vary by denomination. Some denominations have a theology that make “Christians” turn into arrogant tyrants. My way of dealing with humility was not to think so much of being humble, because I guess that would lead to self loathing. I just try not to be arrogant. Sometimes we are really right about something and it’s not arrogant to express that. But humility is demonstrated by being flexible and open minded even when we think we know everything. I think flexability in general is humility.

  • 8. Ubi Dubium  |  June 25, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Rosita’s a therapist, I’m pretty sure, and the TV appearance is not until July 4th. (Available on most PBS stations in the US)

    Talking about xians berating each other for arrogance is to me, pretty ironic. Because I see it as the height of arrogance to proclaim “I have all the answers to everything, and anybody who disagrees with me is going straight to hell” and “We are god’s special people, this whole universe was created for our benefit, and we are better than you because we are True Christians.” And these same people then beat each other down if any of them dare to feel good about a personal accomplishment. Ooogh.

    I think of real humility, at least humility that’s worthwhile, is never deliberately building yourself up by putting another person down. Let your talents shine, have confidence in what you are good at, appreciate the thanks you get, and appreciate everybody else for their talents. And be sure to tell them that you appreciate their talents. (But that doesn’t mean you have to take any crap from anybody either.)

  • 9. Joshua  |  June 25, 2010 at 11:38 am

    I think of real humility, at least humility that’s worthwhile, is never deliberately building yourself up by putting another person down.

    I like that a lot.

    Sarah, really glad I can be of help – I really am. I figure I’m not the only one trying to deal with stuff like this :)

  • 10. SnugglyBuffalo  |  June 25, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Rather than try to be humble, I just try not to be a dick. I don’t see anything wrong with having pride in my accomplishments, but when I present those accomplishments to others I shouldn’t do so in a way that makes them feel inferior.

  • 11. BigHouse  |  June 25, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Snuggly has it right.

    As per usual with Christian sentiments, they construe Arrogance and Humilty as a black and white issue, rather than the sliding scale it actually resides on. In the middle are reasonable confidence in ones ability and reasonable dampening of one’s confidence for proper social context.

  • 12. Sarah  |  June 25, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Of course it seems obvious when you look at it from the outside, but from the inside it isn’t so clear at all.
    Those who simply try not to be a dick and have a reasonable assessment of their abilities are looked down on from those inside the circle.
    And ultimately, isn’t Christianity about having the ‘right’ kind of arrogance?

  • 13. Richard  |  July 3, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Josh – there s actuall an entire school of psychotherapy that emphasizes the toxicity of just these sorts of “verbal rules”, as it calls them, and the way they tie us into knots trying to follow them. I.e., you’re not supposed to think aboyt humility, but that rule cannot be followed, b/c the rule itself contains the word “humility”: so you cant follow the rule without bringing it to mind. Like “whatever you do, dont think of a polar bear.”

    The way it manifested for me was that to truly live a Christian life, you must submit your will to God: “empty” yourself of your own will & let God will fill you. But how can you “empty” yourself of your will without choosing to: i.e., by act of will. So you must assert your will in order to deny it. Drove me absolutely batshit.

    The larger issue for me is, any guide to life that insists you feel something in particular, or not feel something in particular, is setting you up for devestatiing and utter failure. Our feelings are not under voluntary control, and we only make ourselves miserable failyres trying to do so. I think that is part of how the Christian meme breaks you, and keeps you: it gives you impossible tasks that are nonetheless taught to be critical for living a good Christian life. You cant succeed, but its vital to your life that you do succeed. Its a trap.

  • 14. Dave  |  July 11, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Hm, i never thought of humility like that, or really got caught up in the things you describe. I think the ‘will of God’ thing just overdid it mentally for me. Humility now to me is “I’m not God nor am I expected to be, I just live me life and if I navigate off course, I will know.’ Didn’t have to go searching through my life and pry everything apart in an attempt to fix myself. Plenty of people have tried to make me do that and I bought into it for too long.

  • 15. notabarbie  |  August 4, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Josh wrote: “…it is really nice to not have to worry about how close I am to achieving the perfection God wants from me. I no longer have to worry about getting excited about being close and then getting depressed at suddenly becoming arrogant about it.”

    Been there, done that. Yes, it feels so mentally healthy not to have to grapple with that bull sh*t any more. Great post. All the comments were great too. Thanks!

  • 16. Ken Browning  |  September 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    In post-Christian life I focus on skepticism rather than humility. I want to closely approximate reality. The battle for personal honesty is where the value of skepticism (and healthy humility) is best found.

  • 17. phyllis  |  November 21, 2010 at 12:38 am

    hmm, arrogance, humility, good, evil black and white. I hate to sound Zen, but it is what it is. We assign value and meaning to things that are primarily abstract. It’s like the Buddhism concept of desire; desire causes suffering, or I think more accurately attachment to desire causes suffering. Yet Buddhists desire enlightenment, we desire peace. Is that bad in and out of itself? No, it’s when we are blinded by our desires or like I said attached to our desire, or the outcome that we try to cling to.
    We all our arrogant and we all are humble, sometimes at the same time. Should we obsess about it? Or just recognize it and then move on.
    I also think there is a difference between Humility and low self-esteem, like there is a difference between healthy self-esteem and arrogance. Humility is not bragging about accomplishments but still acknowledging them as yours.It’s being down to Earth about who you are. With arrogance those accomplishes lifts you above everyone else, allowing a false sense of self one will try to impress on others and themselves.

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