47 Days: Learning Humility

Dear Rabbi:

I have a problem. It’s my ego.

I have been duly chiding myself and ever reminding myself that my accomplishments are only possible by G‑d’s good grace, so I should not feel any more accomplished than the guy next door.

But then I start wondering: am I never allowed to feel good about myself? How can you accomplish anything in this world if you never take credit for anything you do?


You are not alone in this struggle. This balance between letting go of ego and maintaining a healthy sense of self-confidence is an issue for all of us, simply because we are human.

We have G‑d given talents for a reason: So we can refine them, develop them and use them in our daily lives to serve our Maker. G‑d gives us the tools, but utilizing them to their full potential is up to us.

So we should be thankful and happy that G‑d has given us our unique talents, for it means that He thinks we can develop them and do good things with them. He believes in us. And as we develop an understanding about G‑d and who He is, we can deepen our appreciation for His belief in us.

G‑d’s belief in us is even more apparent when we look at our weaknesses, for that’s where the real challenge lies. G‑d gave us these major challenges because He knows we have the ability to overcome them and succeed. Contemplating this fact will certainly result in a happy and self-confident attitude about oneself.

-Rabbi Avi Davis
“Without Ego, How Can I Feel Good About Myself?”
from “Questions and Answers”

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)

All this sounds a lot like what I wrote about yesterday in relation to God’s sovereignty vs. our own over the world. Humanity went from being taken care of in creation to be the caretakers of creation because we desired it. We desired it more than we desired obeying God. Now, on the other side of the equation, we (well, those of us who are aware of God and His nature) realize that we really do need God and that the world is often too big for us to manage alone.

Well, anyway that’s how I feel. The world is too big for me to manage alone. Heck, even my life sometimes is to big and too messy for me to manage on my own. When don’t I plead to God to lend a hand (or two or five) in sustaining me and my family?

And yet amazingly, there are those, even in the community of faith, who don’t seem (at least in public) to have any concerns about their personal abilities whatsoever.

Even if the entire world considers you a tzaddik (pious and righteous), you should nevertheless think of yourself as if you were sinful.

-Niddah 30b

In 1965, I visited the Steipler Gaon, a sage whom people often consulted for medical advice. Since he had heard that I was a psychiatrist, he wanted to find out new developments in medications for mental illnesses. I related to the Gaon whatever I knew about the most recent advances.

“Is anything available that can cure someone from delusions?” he asked. I told the Gaon that delusions were very resistant to treatment, and that while antipsychotic medications could subdue overt psychotic behavior, the delusional thinking itself was difficult to eradicate.

“But what if someone has the delusion that he is the greatest tzaddik in the generation?” the Gaon asked. I could not restrain myself and laughingly replied, “No medication can cure that.”

The Gaon shook his head sadly. “Too bad,” he said. “That malady is so widespread.”

Delusions of any kind are a sign of mental illness. How sick a person must be to consider oneself a tzaddik, and how wise the Talmud was to caution us against developing such delusions!

Today I shall…

try to be honest with myself, and even if my behavior is such that people may think I am a tzaddik, I must not allow myself to be deluded.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 28”

This is certainly one delusion I don’t harbor within myself. I have great admiration for the tzaddikim who I encounter in both the Jewish and Christian communities (although I suppose truly righteous Christians would be referred to as “saints”). And yet there are some people, who are fortunately few in number in my corner of the blogosphere (at least since I’ve decided to respond to them differently) who seem to behave as if they were the most righteous people in our generation, apart from anything resembling humility.

There’s an irony here. I have found that those who have achieved great things and who are truly righteous before God are often quite humble. We see in Rabbi Twerski’s story that a man who may well have been one of the most righteous in his generation, did not desire to experience that awareness (I suspect he was speaking of himself and not others) and wanted to be “cured” of his “delusion.” Even Moses, the greatest of the Prophets, who lead millions of people through the wilderness for forty years and spoke “face-to-face” with God, was called the most humble man on the earth (Numbers 12:3).

Most of the time, truly accomplished individuals don’t have to go around telling everyone they are truly accomplished individuals, at least if they are secure in who they are (and secure in God). As we saw from the “Ask the Rabbi” question I quoted at the beginning of this missive, most of us (I include myself in this group) struggle to achieve a balance between humility and a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. And whenever one is in danger of becoming a little too arrogant as a tzaddik, as we see in Paul’s example, God provides a “thorn” or other reminder that he is (and we are) constantly dependent on the Providence of Hashem.

When we are aware of God and we become aware that we have a definite part in His plans for the world around us, sometimes there’s a temptation to take pride in that. It’s difficult for most of us to separate what God is doing through us and what we are doing ourselves. How are we to take pride and boast of God while not boasting of our own achievements?

For a true tzaddik, this doesn’t present much of a problem because they have reached such a spiritual level that their eyes are constantly on God and they can see it is His power and His will that is working in the world. The tzaddik is the instrument of that will, and it is the tzaddik’s job to take the talents God has provided him and refine them in the world for the sake of Heaven.

For the rest of us, we continually strive to realize what the tzaddik has learned. We must bend our will, submit to God, and refine our gifts without succumbing to self-pity, or out of a sense of victimhood, depression, because we feel we aren’t good enough as just who we are. On some occasions, it is exactly those individuals who have succumbed to their identity of “victimization” who appear, on the surface, to be the most arrogant and confident in who they are. In reality, they struggle a great deal (but in a futile way) to achieve a type of signficance from external situations which can only truly be achieved internally, between the person and God. Like Paul, we can only achieve significance in humility.

I have found a new sense of humility in my recent return to church and the challenges it has presented. I am in no sense the conductor of my own destiny within the church’s walls or within its community of souls. I am the recipient of acts of kindness and friendliness among hundreds of strangers who are also my brothers and sisters in Christ.

And yet, I haven’t “talked Christian” as such in many years, so each encounter is like visiting a foreign country for three hours a week and wondering how I can accomplish the “immigration” process to become a “citizen,” not of the Kingdom of Heaven, but of this particular body of believers.

In writing these words, I realize that one of the reasons God has put me where I am right now is to learn this very lesson. Whenever you encounter feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, isolation, and even embarrassment, stop for a minute or two and look at where you are and why you are there. Maybe it isn’t just a tough social situation or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maybe you are in the right place in God’s time. For me, I believe, at least for now, church is where God put me to listen, not just to Him, but to everyone else.

We learn humility and even some modicum of righteousness like we learn anything else…by the doing.

3 thoughts on “47 Days: Learning Humility”

  1. Great post, James.

    Walking the line between self confidence and humility can be such a struggle. Being in the world, but not of the world can be quite the conundrum.

    Lately, I have been working myself out of an ego funk (I guess you could call it that?) that I somehow fell into a few weeks back. It kind of sneaks up on you, and if you don’t take the care to stridently remain humble, the ego can inflate at an astounding rate.

    It’s funny though, because (at least for me), I can sense when I am not being true to myself as a follower of Messiah. It’s not an explicit, audible voice of course, but I can feel the Holy Spirit ever working on my conscience.

    When I start to fall away from following the Lord as best I can, I feel “off.”

    It’s hard to explain in words, but I just flat out, don’t feel right.

    It’s like a spiritual bone has been dislocated.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your mention of the righteous man who remains a humble sinner at heart. In all of my experience (23 years…) the most genuine, most admirable, most exemplary people, are the lowly, the meek; those who are great, are those who are least.

    As Messiah said, “those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first.”

    A scripture to keep in mind, always.

    Peace to you, James, and thank you for this one; I guess I needed it 😉


  2. Thanks, Nate. We both need it. I think so do a lot of people to see this and read it but who will never talk about it.

    But what’s really important is to do it; do righteousness, do compassion, do mercy. The rest will take care of itself.

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