Readers Write: Humble

December 16, 2019

We asked readers to submit brief reflections on words associated with Advent. Below is a response on the word “humble.”

by Jennifer L. Sanborn

A work superior once suggested I cultivate greater humility—that I would accomplish more by letting others discover my gifts than by presenting them. He delivered the advice ahead of an anticipated job interview, and his words irked me. Occupationally, he had reached the pinnacle of our shared field, a position from which many leaders can securely cloak themselves in humility. I was still striving for opportunities to use my gifts, a reality requiring that I speak assuredly of my talents and experiences.

I swallowed my surprise in the moment and only later reminded him that humility is a tricky posture for women to adopt. We might cater to others’ comfort by downplaying our confidence, but there’s a significant cost to becoming smaller for others’ ease. For me, this is what it meant to be humble: to make myself less—lowly—as some translations of the “Mary’s Song of Praise” in Luke describe her.

Rereading Mary’s words in Luke, I see a marked contrast between how she describes herself and how the angel Gabriel refers to her. Gabriel calls her favored, one with whom the Lord is near, chosen to bring to birth a child who will establish a kingdom that will have no end, a ready and able recipient of the Holy Spirit’s full power.

In a culture of binary thinking, it’s easy to read a set of either/or realities in Mary’s song—we’re humble or we’re proud (and in need of being brought low); we’re hungry or we’re rich (and deserving of the emptiness God will bring); we’re deserving of mercy and being drawn into God’s circle or we’re among those to be scattered. Listening with this ear, the suggestion that I cultivate humility felt like a thinly veiled accusation of pride—and who wants that?

The annunciation invites a both/and reading, however. Mary is at once submitting to a power beyond herself, and she’s claiming a kingdom-incubation role. Her “low” place in society is an individual state of being, and it is also a social condition God intends to use to overturn the accepted order. She is the younger, inexperienced relative to the older, wiser Elizabeth, and Elizabeth reveres her as uniquely blessed among all women.

In a both/and realm, my colleague’s words suggest some truth (hiring supervisors do enjoy feeling as if they have discovered the “just-right” person), and they were also incomplete. What if, instead, he had said, “I love your confidence—what are some ways you can convey in the interview your desire to continue learning and growing?” or “I have always appreciated how you shine a light on your accomplishments. Are there additional ways you want to honor the contributions of others in your story?”

If you, too, have received the “humility talk,” I see you—the light and life in me leaps when I see light and life in you. Be humble, yes, and be confident, too. God needs your fullness in this world.

Jennifer L. Sanborn is program director of In Support of Excellence—American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ financial-literacy program for clergy and lay leaders.

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