Humility, as we all know, is a Christian virtue and one which we should try continually to develop. Even Jesus described himself as “meek and humble of heart”.
But I wonder whether it is overrated. If we pull ourselves away from Scripture and look at our experience, we may find that estimating ourselves too lowly leads to poorer performance. When I had charge of the training of a very large and successful sales force (many years ago) I discovered that the best sales branches were those which had the highest opinion of themselves. That high opinion may have been bolstered by success, but that success depended in its turn on the high opinion.
So I developed my theory of LIPS. The mnemonic stood for Limited Image Performance Syndrome. Its meaning was simple: we behave in line with the way in which we assess ourselves. It works both ways because it enables us to raise our game in line with our opinion and, on the other hand it inhibits us from performing above our opinion.
The most successful sales managers were those skilled in raising the LIPS of the sales force. They did this in several ways: for example, by publicising individual success, or by giving visible privileges for achievement. Although the sales people received financial rewards related to performance, the privilege of being given a special tie appeared to be the higher motivation. Throughout my management career I had the habit of writing a handwritten note to any of my staff who had carried out a function with particular success. I only discovered the importance of this when I forgot to do so on one occasion: I quickly learnt how highly this tiny gesture was valued.
If I apply LIPS in a Christian context, I have to distinguish between Protestant and Catholic (including Orthodox). Classical Protestantism holds that we are corrupted by the Fall, and remain so. We are saved only by the merits of Christ – which we receive through our faith. It is, so to speak, a kind of whitewash which covers our corruption. Catholicism teaches that, although our virtues are acquired through grace, we really become holier persons. Our sanctity (such as it is) is not a cloak, it is a fundamental change of heart which relates us to Christ. Thus, while we deplore our vices, we should notice, and rejoice in, our virtues – they are a stepping stone to the next challenge.
How do we square this with Christ’s claim to humility? The key to that lies in the passage with precedes his claim. (Matthew 11) he tells us that everything he has comes from his father. The claim: “I and the Father are one” does not suggest a low LIPS level to me. So the essence of humility does not lie in bad-mouthing ourselves but in acknowledging the source of such goodness as we find in ourselves, and rejoicing in it.