Negative Definition

We welcome as a guest P. Anderson, more commonly known throughout the bloggernacle as Starfoxy.

In the grand tradition of Safeway, Vons, and and grocery stores the world over, I’ve been hired here at BCC as temporary holiday help. I’ll be providing two weeks worth of the blog equivalent to a inexperienced cashier at the the register with the slowest line waiting for the manager to come void the transaction, or something like that.

Some of the most awkward uncomfortable lessons that I’ve ever sat through- the ones where the teacher can never find the right words, and the class has little or nothing to contribute, and everyone talks in cirlces- are the ones about [insert dramatic pause] humility. Humility is unique among desirable qualities because it is most often defined negatively, we find it easier to say what humility is not rather than what humility is. Humility is most often defined as the absence of pride, and pride is most often thought of as shameless egotism. Pride, as many of us are well aware, is practically the theme of the Book of Mormon. The phrase “lifted themselves up in the pride of their own hearts” (or some variation) is repeated over and over and over again throughout the whole book. We are told repeatedly to avoid the sin of pride, and that pride is the most common and dangerous sin one can commit.I’m sure many of us have had the pleasure, at some point in our youth, of being told how to accept a compliment. We are told to acknowledge compliments gracefully, without protest, qualifiers, or self-degradation, and the best default way to do this is to say “Thank you,” and nothing more. This is a lesson some people never really learn, and they continue to argue down any compliment they are given. Looking back on my education in the fine art of accepting compliments I wondered where people get the idea that it is a good idea to argue with someone who has a something good to say about you. One would think, with pride being such an easy sin to commit, that we would need to be teaching our youth the etiquette of accept compliments without letting it go to your head. So why do we have the near pathological urge to refute anything positive anyone has to say about us? I think, in our culture at least, it may have some basis in the idea that ‘lifting yourself up in pride’ is a bad idea. We avoid it by doing what we think is the opposite- we put ourselves down.

There are two things arguing over compliments can do, it can force the compliment giver to insist on their compliment, and heap more praise upon the compliment receiver, or it can communicate that compliment receivers holds themselves in low-esteem, which is to say they are not proud. Both ways of refuting compliments are bad ideas, but it is the second way which brings out the danger of negative definitions. Just as not all rectangles are squares, not all absences of pride are humility. To quote C.S. Lewis:

By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense they cannot succeed in believing it. The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 14.

Even if we all manage to agree that putting yourself down isn’t the road to humility, we still have yet to come up with a definition of humility that is positive, concrete, and useful. The best I can come up with is this- in John 8:29 Jesus says:

And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone for I do always those things that please him.

in other words, the key to humility is to defer to the Father. In practice I’d think that the best way to do this is to cultivate gratitude towards God for whatever talents or blessing you may enjoy. This is probably best done privately because few people can pull off responding to a compliment with praise to God without sounding weird.


  1. I’ve heard humility defined as not being anxious to have the satisfaction of being praised by others. I think that’s a good definition.

  2. I like to think of humility as having an accurate perception of one’s own abilities and worth–striving to see one’s self as God would.

  3. Whole cultures are able to say “Glory be to God” and “Praise God”. I wish there was an acceptable phrase in our LDS culture that allowed credit to God for compliment-worthy moments. I do believe humility lies in knowing our true powerlessness before God and we need a way to communicate that more often.

  4. I wrote a piece about our nothingness a few weeks ago that might tie into this. It can be found here.

  5. A person’s response to a compliment has little to do with humility and much to do with politeness rituals and strategies.

    Since there is no uniform, universal standard of politeness — it is culturally defined and has a context — there often arise situations where it is apparent that not everyone is on the same page regarding the proper response. While an “impolite” response to a well-intentioned compliment may reveal cultural norms or expectations on either side, there isn’t much in the way of humility that can be concluded from such an exchange.

  6. Starfoxy:

    You always have such great things to say! I have always enjoyed your posts and think you were a fine choice as a guest blogger here. Well done. Again.

  7. Great post.

    I’ve always defined humility as being teachable.

  8. I think there is something to be said for healthy self deprecation but Mormon culture has gone overboard. If I hear one more talk beggining with the speakers inadequacy, I’m going to walk out.

  9. I take great pride in my humility.

  10. P. Anderson says:

    Carol F. (#3) That is an excellent point. It really would be nice to be able to give God credit in a socially acceptable way. It is unfortunate that any attempt at a dialogue that does this always comes off as sorta nutty, or just plain pretentious.

    Peter (5) I think the giving and accepting of compliments is pertinent to the discussion of humility. You are right that one cannot determine anything about another individual’s level of humility from an exchange of compliments. However one can determine a society’s definition of humility from a collection of responses to compliments. That we feel the need to correct the common response to compliments shows that the way we teach humility through example doesn’t match with our professed ideal.

  11. Starfo– I mean, P Diddy–I mean, P Anderson: thanks for this post and I’m looking forward to more.

    When people tell me I did a good job on my GD lesson, I respond, “Thank you. That’s very encouraging.” It’s honest and I mean it. If circumstances permit, I ask, “What did you like?”, because I want to know what they found helpful so that I can continue doing it.

    But I will confess that my humility is limited by my lack of patience. I do not know if impatience is the most telling sign of pride, or if it is the most bitter enemy of humility; What are your thoughts on that?

  12. I think this works:

    Complimenter: “[compliment]”

    Complimented: “That’s kind of you to say. About [something else]…”

  13. Woo hoo! the P.And is at BCC. They have such good taste around here lately!

  14. If the P starts getting between you and your fans, you can always just be Anderson.

  15. P. Anderson says:

    Oh no. No no no no. Jennifer Lopez came out with her J.Lo nonsense when I was 17 and every single stinking kid in my school started doing that with their names too. I will not tolerate my name being run through hip-hop-ifiers with reckless abandon.

  16. How about –humility is having an accurate knowledge of your standing in the universe. Where you fit in, in the big picture.

  17. In the same vein, I’ve always thought that the true antithesis of pride is not humility, but charity.

  18. CJ (#8),

    Thanks for the laugh! That one gets to me also. There are probably few who are professional public speakers so we will assume “you” (meaning the speaker) are amateur like the rest of us.

    Brian (#11),

    I’m hoping that people who are saying that they like your “GD” lesson, mean Gospel Doctrine.

    One thought I had on humility, is having the answer, knowing you have the answer, but not always having to tell others you have the answer.

  19. But what if you _don’t_ have the right answer? If you’re going around thinking you’ve got the right answer, you’re not being teachable/humble.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    One of my favorite lines about pride is from Emma Thompson’s screenplay adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It reminds that pride is not unambiguously a vice:

    He: I have a proposal that may allow him to marry Miss Steele immediately. As he is a friend to your family, perhaps you’d mention it to him.

    She: I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear it from your own lips.

    He: I think not. His behaviour has proved him proud–in the best sense. I feel certain this is the right course.

  21. Susan, (#19)

    Your point is well taken and I certainly don’t always think I have the right answer. I guess I was proposing that allowing others the chance to express their feelings instead of thinking that what you have to say is the most important, shows deference. Quite honestly, in the church settings that the original post is describing, there are (IMHO) (I Hope) very infrequently, definitive “right” answers. Most comments expressed are opinions and interpretations based on personal experience. Quietly listening from time to time, MAY be a fertile ground for humility. It is of course subjective to the attitudes we have about the teacher, the subject and the participants.

    There have been times where I had come to me an answer which could be used as a solution. Hearing that same answer from someone else and then seeing the glee in their countenance when it proves to be a real solution. That made me feel better for them than I would have for myself, had I expressed the thought.

  22. Sorry for the sentence fragmentation.

  23. I do not want to make you hip, I’m just very lazy and a terrible speller. And people round here tend to get all huffy when I misspell their names (STEVEE)

  24. I wish I could say I said this statement first but, nevertheless, it’s one of my favorites. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

  25. I had an awkward compliment moment recently in Primary. A 5 year old told me he loved my body. It took me a minute to figure out what to say, but it came to me that I love my body too. It is so neat! It was one of those rare occasions when praising God was appropriate. So we did, we talked about how wonderful it was that God created our bodies. I wonder how often we could turn discussions heavenward, if we started looking for opportunities. ( I have a strong suspicion that it would happen more often with children than other adults, but I’m going to give it a try.) Who’s up for the challenge?

  26. Jothegrill, that is such a wonderful thought. I will start immediately.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    An etymological note: humble and humility derive ultimately from Latin humilis “lowly [lit. on the ground],” from Latin humus “earth.”

    The expression “to eat humble pie” (1830) is a word play and refers to pie made from umbles, the edible inner parts of an animal (esp. deer), considered a low-class food. The h- in humble was not pronounced at this time, so the similar sense of such similar sounding words led to the pun.

  28. StarFoxy,

    Thanks for this posting, this is a subject I’ve been caused to learn about over the past years. I hope to add something later.

    For now — to see how far out of the mainstream is this discussion, go to the self-help/improvement section in Borders or Barnes & Noble and ask to be shown the books on HUMILITY.

  29. One of my professors at the BYU defined humility as “Confidence in the presence of God” I’m not sure where he got it from, but I’ve always thought of it in those terms since then. . .

  30. 29. Miggy, I believe your professor borrowed that phrase from a scriptural passage that means much to me:

    “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.” (D&C 121:45)

    It’s amazing to me that charity — losing one’s self (humility) in love for others — can lead to having confidence in one of the events people commonly fear: standing before God. This fits with what I’ve come to believe; that the Celestial Kingdom/God’s presence will be populated only by souls who love and hold no grudges (humility) — hence Christ’s two great commandments to love God and to love each other.

    This verse comes right after the well-known part of Section 121 that says humility is required to use the priesthood,

    “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—” (vv. 41-42)

    The concept of humility as a key to receiving God’s gift of peace is well developed in a book that’s helped me, “Confronting the Myth of Self Esteem” by sister Ester Rasband (available used for a few $ on Amazon). When talking about the need to drop self-esteem, which is a modern euphemism for pride, she says, “When your light flickers, blow it out” to become free to walk by God’s greater light.

  31. Ah yes. . . the scriptures. I knew it sounded familiar. :)

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