Humility has always been a popular topic in Christian circles. Maybe it’s so popular to write about because once the p-word is mentioned, you have begun to meddle in the heart of every person, especially those who are uninterested.
There’s a well-worn quote from C.S. Lewis in which he details the man who thinks less about himself. He calls the humble man not the “greasy, smarmy person” you might cringingly expect, not the guy we all know who readily rants of his daily hobble toward humility. Instead, all you would think of this man is that he’s a “cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.” If you didn’t like this cheerfully humble man, it would be because there was something enviable about how much this man enjoyed life and others. This is a man who has stepped out of the cage of self and begun to drink deeply of life.
It’s annoying for the proud, but humble people are happy people
We’ve beat well the drums of cheerfulness and others-focus as the marks of a humble man, and rightly so. But it’s interesting to note that a defining mark of humility, at least in the mind of Lewis (which seems more often right than wrong), is intelligence—a helpful curiosity and intrigue that is not stunted by self-interest. There is something in this humble man, this man who spends less brain waves per day focused upon himself and his interests, that enables him to be more thoughtful and insightful, but not in an attempt to elevate self, but as an act of love for others.
What is the link between humility and intelligence?
Humility liberates you to look stupid and learn.
In the book of Proverbs, Solomon pleads with his son to “get wisdom; get insight” (Prov. 4:5). The reason any father has to urge his son to do anything is because he knows there is something in the son that might pull him to do the opposite. But why wouldn’t Solomon’s son be eager to get wisdom and insight? Because there is a close biblical connection between humility and teachability, and it is a rare young man who is ready to admit that he just might not know everything he needs to. As a young man myself, this is one thing I know to be true.
And this is precisely the point of Peter to those who were young in his church, “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Here again, the young needed to be urged on to learn from others. And the reason why they needed a nudge follows immediately—their tendency was not to clothe themselves with humility.
But pride comes in many shapes and subtleties. We all know the feeling of standing in front of a crowd and not knowing if we should put our hands in our pockets or not. And then suddenly we realize that words are not coming from our mouths. Or maybe this feeling happens to us when we talk to anyone that is not our mom, dad, or dog. We, as a people, are all too familiar with the struggle of self-consciousness. And sadly, this sweaty-palmed struggle is all too often entangled with a subtle form of pride.
Pride does not always domineer, sometimes it cowers
The popular journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell discusses this exact dilemma in the university system. He followed a batch of high school graduates with varying performances on the SAT exam, and he was interested in their performance in college. He compared students with identical SAT scores who either went to ivy-league schools or lesser-known institutions. Amazingly, those who went to smaller, second-rate schools out-performed their ivy-league peers. And the ivy-league students (again, with exactly the same SAT scores), at a much higher rate switched to easier majors or transferred to even lower schools.
Because the smart students at the second-rate schools were big fish in small ponds. What does that mean? It means they weren’t afraid to raise their hands and ask a question. Meanwhile, those in the ivy-league school were often too self-conscious to raise their hand and ask for help in classes full of the intellectually elite. In other words, they were too proud to look dumb. And as a result, they actually were less smart, or at least they performed like it.
But thoughtful readers may pause and wonder, some of the smartest people in the world seem to be the most proud people in the world. Doesn’t the link between humility and intelligence break down?
The distinction I want to create is this—it seems to me that humble people aren’t just intelligent (although most are), they are helpfully intelligent. They are often marked by curiosity and intrigue, and they don’t let a sense of pride at being perceived as less than intelligent inhibit their curiosity. They think well to love well. They read to serve others. They write to edify. They don’t do research to build their name.
And note this, the humble are less afraid to be corrected. They invite it, for “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1).
Humility structures your worldview.
The psalmist writes that “the fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). And the truth is, Paul tells us in Romans that this man knows somewhere seared deep within that this cowardly claim is a lie. This man is a fool, for every day he sits upon his own deteriorating throne and detests the God who crafted him and his very ability to think and reason.
And yet, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Wisdom has the biblical notion of being used to build and construct things, whether that be a temple or a God-honoring manner of life.
And when God is feared, man is then increasingly able to live constructively—to make sense of math, of beauty, of relationships, and even of his own identity
Here’s another helpful principle, sin makes us stupid. Sin almost brings about a drunken stupor. James helpfully asks in his letter to the exiled believers, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” His answer: “your pleasures wage war in your members. You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1). And James concludes with this, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (4:10). While the fear of the Lord lays the foundation for thoughtfulness and creativity and excellence, a consumed selfishness ruins any sense of reason and results in grown men throwing punches like 3-year-olds. Sin makes men act like they belong in nursery, no matter their IQ.
Pride stunts your initiatives to learn and love.
I have seen in my own life that pride has the tendency to halt initiatives to learn and to love. It forces us to wait for others to take initiatives of love. It hesitates to love whole-heartedly in fear of rejection. Pride makes us squirm out of exerting our full, God-given mental capacity into learning, because what if we really try, and really fail?
Consider Paul. Paul was by no means a people-pleaser. And because he was not afraid of people, he had the liberty to love them. He didn’t fumble with the truth in order to make others like him, and thus he could boldly give commands like, “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone,” because this was the cadence of his own life. His command to them was not how they were to treat him, but how they were to treat others. There is a quote by Ed Welch that instructs believers to care less about what others think of you, and instead to care more for them. Why? Because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The fear of man begins to diminish (at least it has in my own life) when you start to love the actual people around you. Only people-lovers are able to confront others and shape them, and not be locked up by the perception of others.
Humility encourages a selfless intelligence.
In conclusion, are humble people truly more intelligent? If nothing else, they are at least more helpful. They are less “greasy and smarmy” and more social and interested and curious. And someone who is truly interested in the world around him, is innately more interesting.
So let us all read widely, but for the sake of others. Let us write precisely, for the encouragement of other people. And let us love whole-heartedly those God has placed around us. And may we all, in time, be the more humble for it.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated.]