Many of our neighbors are dubious about truth claims, and tend to react negatively to anyone claiming that their beliefs are absolutely true and should be accepted by everyone. To their ears this sounds arrogant which makes the truth claims seem implausible, even if the beliefs asserted happen to be true. Confidently proclaiming what I am certain is true can be bracing when talking with like-minded friends, but such rhetoric doesn’t establish a safe place where doubters and seekers feel invited to raise their questions. This doesn’t mean—as is often assumed—that no believer can believe confidently, but rather that our confidence as believers must be tempered with humility.
“Humility is not to doubt the truth of one’s own beliefs,” Timo Keller observes, “but to recognize the limits of what we can prove to others.” Although my beliefs may be true, he goes on, “there is no way to prove them to all rational persons. And that should humble you.”
Indeed, it should.
It should also humble us to realize that even if what we believe happens to be true, our apprehension of that truth remains imperfect and incomplete. “We don’t yet see things clearly,” St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12. “We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.” The apostle did not doubt the truth of the gospel of Christ or the fact that we can know it; he was remarking on our limitations in fully comprehending that truth as fallen creatures. That will change in the future, he says, but that time is not yet and we need to live in this moment, now, not act like we are already in the place of clarity that is yet to come. And that should humble us.
We also do not know how the truth will become alive and real for our neighbor. There is a mysterious relationship between seeking the truth and being open to it. For all sorts of reasons I may not be ready to hear what I need to hear and what I will someday love hearing—but not now, or here, or from you. For the Christian this mystery is animated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who moves like the breeze, always beyond our seeing and yet always present and at work. Accepting truth requires not impeccable arguments but divine grace. You may be ready to tell me what I need to hear before the Spirit prepares my heart to receive it. Thus the need for humility in recognition that dependence on God in prayer and patient waiting is essential if the truth is to be shared and believed. Insisting that things proceed at my preferred pace and in my timing is unkind even when motivated by a desire to be kind. “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). I need to count you as more significant than myself even when you resist the truth I am sharing. And I need to count the Spirit as most significant of all, trusting that his working and timing makes all the difference.
This is why Jesus emphasized humility for his followers. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he insisted, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This does not describe a weak soul, wavering, tentative and uncertain but someone who realizes that truth is not an achievement but a gift, best shared in the kind of love that is robust enough to welcome sacrifice.
Humility does not undermine confidence or contradict it, but underscores and enhances it. “In a very real sense,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own.”
And that should make us humble.