This is the first of a multi-part series.
Some months ago, I was invited to speak on campus to a student fellowship on a topic related to integrity. I cannot now remember the exact theme upon which I was asked to declaim, but I do remember that I used words from the Ghanaian national anthem as a departure point for my remarks. The first stanza of the anthem is a prayer – God bless our homeland Ghana – inviting God to strengthen the nation, and embolden its citizens to resist oppression. The two lines in the song I used in my sermon – Fill our hearts with true humility, Make us cherish fearless honesty – have continued to echo in my consciousness as I consider the challenges confronting Ghanaian Christianity. I offer the following as my own observation and reflection on these, but in light of the theme, I offer them in humility, fully aware that I speak as an outsider to the culture. I therefore cannot presume to speak authoritatively or comprehensively, yet as a fellow Christian, I speak confidently (contrary to what many people think, confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive – more on that below), knowing that my position as an outsider affords me a perspective that those inside may not have.
True vs. False Humility
Humility is a value that is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of Ghanaian society. Generally speaking, and certainly in comparison to what passes for the norm in other cultural contexts, Ghanaians are unfailingly polite and relatively deferential, especially to those deemed to be their superiors by age, education, or social station. Conversation is littered with ‘please’, ‘I beg you’, and ‘thank you so much’ and so on – words designed to smooth social interaction and leave a favourable impression on the hearers. No one wants to be thought of as proud, forward, or demanding. Obedience and deference to those who are your seniors, to those in authority, and to the elderly, are all (supposedly) highly valued. Aside these conversational conventions, one also notices the infrequency of people simply saying ‘thank you’ in response to compliments or congratulations. ‘It is the Lord, I’m just his servant,’ or ‘it is just the grace of God …’ or something else very spiritual is what is likely to be heard in response. Public ceremonies, whether of a religious or secular nature, often reference God as the source, his grace being the reason that this or that thing was accomplished. This evinces a clear and admirable desire to deflect attention away from oneself towards others, or to God.
On the other hand, people who are a bit straightforward or outspoken are not infrequently criticised for being complainers, ‘too known’, or proud. I find it telling that the incoming President of Ghana, Nana Akuffo-Addo, was previously criticised not for his policies, but because he came across as proud and arrogant. His election is perhaps evidence that he learned his needed lessons in humility. The East Asian proverb, the nail that sticks up is the one that is hammered down, comes to mind. A person seen to be making too much of a fuss about an issue (or about themselves) is considered to be somewhat prideful. After all, why should he or she be the one to speak up? Who is he or she to complain or raise an issue?
Perhaps most revealing of all is the comparative scarcity of, ‘I was wrong. I apologise. Forgive me.’ Oh, to be sure there are apologies. Plenty of them – just that they are usually delivered by the junior to the senior, by the ‘small boy’ to the ‘big man’. It became headline news when the wife of the then Vice-President apologised publicly for her intemperate remarks – newsworthy because of the comparative rarity of such an utterance. Big men do not apologise, they explain, they lecture, they receive apologies from others. And when apologies are issued, it is often because what was spoken has offended someone, irrespective of whether it was true or not – as in the case when a prominent scientist was called to apologise for offending the dignity of Parliament, not necessarily because of the untruthfulness of his assertions (and I don’t recall the argument being made that his statements were false), but because it made the Parliament of Ghana look bad.
Not too long ago in a conversation with a much younger person, I had cause to apologise to him for something. He responded that it was one thing he really appreciated about me – that I apologise, even though I am a ‘big man’. And I replied, ‘First of all, I’m not a big man. And secondly, am I God that I can never make a mistake? Why shouldn’t I apologise?’ He was surprised, but why should he have been? I am not God, and I do make mistakes. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes because I don’t realise how I come across more harshly than I intended, but far more often because I am being thoughtless, or selfish, or greedy – or any of a number of other sins that I struggle with. What does his age or my status have to do with it?
Yet all too often, it does.
The result of all this? A pandemic of false humility and a culture of pretence. Boastfulness is concealed under layers of euphemistic language designed to make one seem humble even whilst bragging. Apologies become occasion for ingratiating oneself with one’s superiors rather than genuine admissions of fault and harm, and the big men never apologise because they are not small boys.
None of this is Christian.
True humility, however, regards oneself with what the Bible terms ‘sober judgment’ – that is it has no need of trying to puff oneself up to cover one’s flaws, nor does it boast of one’s strengths. It doesn’t apologise for them either. It simply accepts the reality that we all are a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, that we’re good at some things, and poor at others. It receives a compliment with ‘Thank you’ and a wrong committed with ‘I’m sorry’. True humility speaks with simplicity and straightforwardly without the need to artificially degrade others, or inflate oneself. True humility makes it easy to serve others and even to be served by others, because it doesn’t regard service as something lesser, or beneath – it is just a thing done by one person to or for another. Just as when Jesus served his disciples by washing their feet. It didn’t diminish him, nor did it embarrass him (though it did seem to embarrass Peter). And no one thought less of him for doing so. I’m sure Jesus apologised when he made mistakes, maybe inadvertently jostling someone in the market place, or forgetting to bring the milk in (he was sinless, not flawless – and those are not the same).
True humility is marked by a sober, settled confidence that is neither apologetic, nor is it boastful. True humility is confident and true confidence is humble because it recognises the limitations that we all have and is consequently willing to learn from anyone, without forgetting that you also have a valid contribution to make. This is the humility I believe we should strive for.