The story goes: There were two men working on an asphalt paving crew in the South in the summer. It is hot in the South in the summer, but the hot asphalt makes it worse. One man says, “The heat is about to get me. It’s way too hot.” He takes out his bandana, wipes the sweat from his brow, and then wrings out the excess moisture. His friend replies, “It ain’t the heat that’s what’s gets you. It’s the humility.”
Okay, I apologize for the old joke.
I had a boss talk to me about a co-worker once. He said that my co-worker was a strange combination of an arrogant jerk and a guy with a profound inferiority complex. When he said that about my co-worker, I thought of him and myself as well. To do what we had to do (at the time), we had to portray ourselves as being the expert. Our confidence couldn’t waiver if we were the ‘expert.’ Yet, if we were honest with ourselves, we could look toward the future and find someone who would ask us a question that we had never anticipated. As an instructor, they always asked questions.
For the last twenty years of my working career, I was the Training Manager for an engineering company that designed industrial furnaces. One of their ‘feathers in the cap’ was a special furnace for the steel industry that they had invented. My very first job as an instructor was for one of those special furnaces. One of the trainees asked me the very first day of class, “How many of these furnaces have you seen?” Well, I had seen theirs and two others, and working on none of them. I was representing the company as a whole, so my answer was, “Most of them.” As the company representative, the answer was correct since the company had built most of them around the world (other companies stealing the design by espionage or reverse engineering). My answer, a lie from my own perspective, was given so that the class would have confidence in what I was saying. I wanted them to succeed in proper, safe operation of their new furnace. For the training to accomplish that, they had to see me as the expert.
Years later, the lead engineer at another steel mill said to me, “How can you walk in here for a week of observation and then two months later know more about how this equipment works than I do?” He was the engineer responsible for the equipment operation and maintenance. I told him that he was selling himself short. He knew details that I would never know.
Yet, each time I stood, alone, in front of groups of 10 or groups of 300, I was confident in my subject matter, but in fear of the little guy in the corner who could destroy my credibility with that really hard question. For the first year at my last job, I had a couple of old hands that answered the tough questions as they groomed me. After that and for nineteen more years, I was the old hand. It was hard juggling confidence as a ‘world-renown expert’ and humble at the same time. Fear helped. Who was it that said the trick was to not let them see you sweat? Mary Kennedy, I think.
Then I think of the words of the Apostle Paul, who said (Romans 12:3:NIV), “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Or I think of the words of James 4:10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Moses admonished Pharaoh to humble himself before God in Exodus 10:3. In 2 Kings 22, King Josiah is rewarded for humbling himself.
We have to be confident in our abilities, and humble at the same time. That isn’t easy. C. S. Lewis wrote to his American pen pal, “We should mind humiliation less if we were humbler.”
When I was growing up, I memorized scripture in Sunday school and youth groups and such, but the verse that my parents kept beating into me, verbally and otherwise, was Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The inferiority complex that my boss mentioned in my case stems from the constant barrage in my youth about everything that I did wrong. I learned John Calvin’s total depravity early in life. I am an Eagle Scout, but at the Court of Honor where I received the badge, my mother berated me in front of my scoutmaster and many others. I had earned the award in record time for that particular scout troop, four months more than the minimum time. When it was mentioned to her by the scoutmaster, she turned red in the face. With a vicious rage and spit coming out with each word, she asked, “What happened to those four months?” She ensured that every accomplishment in my life was met with ridicule, and never praise. She thought I needed to be toughened. When I was commissioned as an Army officer, she didn’t say anything, thankfully. What I felt inside was an intense resentment and great personal pride, but a feeling of brokenness. I couldn’t fix what was wrong between me and my mother. She was the paragon of virtue with everyone else. No one would understand.
Yet, the Bible doesn’t tell us to beat down those that might get the big head or those who aren’t tough. It says for us to humble ourselves. Jesus said that we must become a servant of all, not just a few and not just occasionally.
When I look at my life, there are others with more money, better looks, bigger muscles, and more possessions. Some have the bumper stickers. Okay, you win. All of those, I can’t brag about. My problem is my intelligence. The gift that keeps giving, the good and the bad.
In Economics class in high school, the teacher went off script. He told the class that someone in the class had the highest IQ that they had ever seen in the school (“off the charts” was hyperbole, I’m sure), but he doesn’t make straight “A’s”. Then he turned to me and said, “Because he’s lazy!” I wasn’t lazy. Because of my high IQ, I found it easy to learn. That is essentially what a high IQ means. As a result, I never learned how to study. As it was, I was fourth in my graduating class with never studying before a test. (I was not listed in the top ten due to school rules. I didn’t have all four years at that school. Fourth was listed on the transcript.) Instead of studying, I felt a good night’s sleep was more important than cramming for the test. My poor study habits caused some trouble in college, but I was still number one in my graduating class among those with my major.
My parents, teachers, and other authority figures kept saying, “You’ve got a tremendous brain on your shoulders. Use it.” I’ve found that ‘using it’ is what has gotten me into the most trouble. In 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks God for wisdom. In 1 Kings 11, Solomon has decided on his own to screw up his life with marrying 700 wives of noble birth (in other words, in order to gain favor politically) and they led him astray. I’m not saying women lead men astray, just saying how 1 Kings 11 starts. What led Solomon astray was people in his household worshipping other gods and having an influence on Solomon’s decisions. I didn’t worship other gods, but I did as I was told, to “trust that big brain of mine.” I should have trusted God more and listened for His voice more.
These days in my retirement, I hate thinking. Yes, a lot of thought goes into this blog, but the writing seems to flow without thinking at times. The thinking comes during editing. (Please avoid the temptation of saying, “From the reader’s point of view, it shows that you weren’t thinking.” I know, I kind of threw an Eephus pitch there.) What I mean is that I sometimes have an agenda when I start, and what I have when I finish writing is often different. Occasionally the opposite. God had other ideas. My mind thought the words. My fingers did the typing. God did the guidance.
You see, when you have too much confidence and not enough faith, God has a hard time getting through to you. He protected me through the years when I prayed without listening. When I said, “You and me, Lord, all the way” and then did what I had planned, God still saw me and my family through. And we wouldn’t be keeping our noses above the water level now if I hadn’t put a lot of hard earned dollars into Social Security. But could I have done better? Absolutely.
Whatever we think is our greatest gift to society, our greatest strength, may be our greatest weakness. What did C. S. Lewis say again? “We should mind humiliation less if we were humbler.”
What is your greatest gift? Rather than thinking of how you can use that gift to glorify God, ask how you can live without that gift. Yes, Jesus said that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off (Matthew 5:30). You may not have to cut anything off. Humble yourself before the Lord as one who no longer has that gift. Then, in that humility, give the greatest gift that God gave you in the first place back to God, wholly, completely, and without reservation.
Praise the Lord.