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Cheap Humility

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

lebronLeBron James has been named the NBA’s 2008-09 Most Valuable Player.  The Cleveland Cavaliers forward had an outstanding season, leading his team to an NBA and franchise-best 66-16 (.805) record. He averaged 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.69 steals and a career-best 1.15 blocks in 37.7 minutes per game.

Upon receiving the reward, James responded with a well-worn cliche: “I’m humbled.”

Humbled?  He was just named Most Valuable Player!  Cameras are flashing in his face.  Coaches and sports journalists are slapping him on the back.  How is this teaching him humility?  I know James was just trying to be modest, but I am weary of celebrated multi-millionaires looking into cameras and broadcasting their humility to the world.  When LeBron James was awarded the MVP, he was exalted. If he wants a taste of humility, I would suggest that he take the ACT.

Jesus taught us to aim for humility, but he meant for us to do more than mouth the word.  One of his most familiar axioms reads, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt. 23:11).  He wasn’t talking about waiting until you are exalted and then saying you are humbled.  Far from it.  His point was that the accolades of men really do not matter.  True exaltation comes from God, who respects the quality of humility.  Humble yourself through service, and God will lift you up.  “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:5-6).

During Jesus’ trials and crucifixion, he was stripped naked no less than four times.  First, he was stripped for scourging.  After they scourged him, they clothed him again, only to strip him a second time to clothe him in a scarlet robe so they could mock him.  They stripped him a third time, so they could put his own garments back on him, and stripped him a fourth time for the crucifixion.  This time, he would not get his clothes back; the soldiers cast lots for them at the foot of the cross.  If violence were all there was to Roman crucifixion, that would be enough.  But it was more than violence.  The victim was made a public spectacle.  His accusers would gather around him to laugh.  After death occurred, the body was customarily left on the cross as food for the crows.  Thankfully, Joseph of Aramathea spared Jesus this last humiliation by burying him in his own tomb.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to receive an award.  I just have a problem with cheapening the concept of humility by attaching it to glory.  The Bible teaches us to “give honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:17; cf. 1 Pet. 2:17).  But we are also taught to humble ourselves by serving one another (Mt. 20:26-28; Gal. 5:13).  Only then will we receive the greatest reward in heaven.

Update (5-26-09): Judge Sonya Sotomayor after Barack Obama announced her as his pick for the Supreme Court: “Thank you, Mr. President, for the most humbling honor of my life.”  Sports stars are not the only ones confused about the meaning of humility.